Today’s readings remind us that Christians are obliged by charity to engage in fraternal correction in order to help others avoid sin and live a life of holiness.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
10 September 2017
Any person of deep faith who listens to the pulse of American culture soon notices a number of dangerous defects and ailments connected to religion and, especially, morality. One of those cultural ills is the “Who am I to judge?” phenomenon. I recall those same words spoken by Pope Francis in 2013 on his way back from a trip to Brazil and the media circus that ensued shortly thereafter. Although mainstream reporters and journalists made little to no effort to understand the pontiff’s words within the context of the Church’s moral teaching on homosexuality, it must be admitted that they were simply writing from a deep-seated, post-modern American perspective. The conclusions they drew from Pope Francis’ comments were not at all surprising. Many Catholics in the pews—and even some of the clergy—soon echoed those same words as if what everybody knew was at last officially confirmed: we’re not to judge anyone’s actions.
Catholics and other Christians often like to lift Matthew 7:1-2 from its larger context: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” It seems here that the Bible agrees with the “Who am I to judge?” phenomenon articulating the widespread false tolerance, moral indifference, and relativistic attitudes so common today. But does it?
First, we ought to ask if it is important to make moral judgments at all. We certainly should make them about ourselves—that is what forming one’s conscience is all about. God has created man with the power of freedom of choice: he can choose this or that, good or evil; by his choices, he determines his destiny for all eternity.
By his reason, man recognizes the voice of God which urges him to do what is good and avoid what is evil. Everyone is obliged to follow this law, which makes itself heard in conscience and is fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor. Living a moral life bears witness to the dignity of the person. (CCC 1706)
Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude. (CCC 1731)
As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach. (CCC 1732)
The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the slavery of sin. (CCC 1733)
Those who intentionally choose to reject a life of holiness lived out in harmony with God’s plan, refusing to respond to his grace, will be lost. In many passages, Scripture articulates the connection between salvation and living an authentically good moral life:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Mt 7:13-14)
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Mt 7:21)
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal 5:19-21)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also warns of the danger of mortal sin (mortal sin is defined as committing grave sin with full knowledge and consent):
Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God. (CCC 1861)
The importance of forming our conscience and making judgments about our own actions with salvation in Christ in mind is clear. In fact, the human person is a reasoning, judging being in virtue of his rational nature. As an example, consider how the cognitive process of thinking operates: we take forms into our mind, compare them and make judgments about their similarities, distinctions and differences. The human person cannot help but judge. God’s loving bestowal of the power of human freedom has made us thinking, discerning, moral agents who are responsible for our actions. But what kind of responsibility do we have toward others? Should we make some type of judgments about their actions, and, if so, why?
Today’s readings are particularly relevant to these matters. Here’s the first reading from Ezekiel:
Thus says the LORD: You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me. If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die, ” and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself. (Ez 33:7-9)
According to the Old Testament, it seems clear that God requires us to issue fraternal correction in charity by warning others of the dangers of grave sin. If we intentionally neglect to do so, God will hold us responsible for their eternal damnation.
In our gospel (Mt 18:15-20), Jesus teaches fraternal correction and gives special authority to the Church:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. (Mt 18:15-17)
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus warns his disciples of the severe dangers of sin and issues a command for fraternal correction as well as for forgiveness following repentance:
Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent,” you must forgive. (Lk 17:1-4)
When we meditate on these scriptures carefully and prayerfully, we often conclude that they are difficult. Yes, they are demanding. Living by the truth and speaking it in charity will often result in misunderstanding, persecution, and being deemed a “judgmental bigot.” However, do it anyway. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:10). Here are the pressing questions: Who or what do I really love, Christ or avoiding confrontation? Do I really love my friends and neighbors enough to take risks for the sake of their eternal well-being? Or would I rather “go along to get along,” allowing their soul to remain in danger and risking mine?
“Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (CCC 1822). The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church notes that to exercise the virtue of charity is to work for the true benefit of others:
It is not possible to love one’s neighbour as oneself and to persevere in this conduct without the firm and constant determination to work for the good of all people and of each person, because we are all really responsible for everyone. (CSDC 43)
Working for the good of all people demands moral discernment and fraternal correction for the sake of bringing others into the kingdom of Christ. Pope Benedict XVI notes the intrinsic connection between charity, defending the truth, authentic human development and the realization of God’s plan:
Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity. Love — caritas — is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace. It is a force that has its origin in God, Eternal Love and Absolute Truth. Each person finds his good by adherence to God’s plan for him, in order to realize it fully: in this plan, he finds his truth, and through adherence to this truth he becomes free (cf. Jn 8:32). To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity. Charity, in fact, rejoices in the truth. (Caritas in Veritate 1)
Of course, fraternal correction must never be defined by judgmentalism. We cannot nor must not attempt to judge the state of a person’s soul, but rather only objectively judge actions. We should not act as radical, moral extremists who nitpick every human weakness or sinful fault, but rather exercise a process of moral discernment with our neighbor’s true benefit in mind. Fraternal correction is not governed by condemnation but rather by Christian love (charity), and as such requires prudence, a proper balance, and discernment. However, the danger is found in remaining silent in the face of grave sin which has the potential, if intentionally and knowingly committed, to result in the loss of a person’s soul forever. It is thus a particularly pressing situation that must never be lightly dismissed. It is incumbent upon all Catholics and other Christians to help to free people from their sins in participation with Christ’s mission of salvation—doing so is integral to discipleship.
When we think of those grave sins so culturally commonplace, we think of disordered acts such as cohabitation (fornication), adultery (an example is Catholics who divorce and attempt to contract new, invalid unions), same-sex “marriage,” homosexual activism, artificial birth control, IVF, embryonic stem-cell experimentation, abortion, physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. There are others, of course, but these particular sins are today viewed as no sin at all, which makes speaking against them all the more necessary and urgent. Many times the people we love, such as family members, are involved in some of these sins. If we resign ourselves to say nothing, it’s not unlike watching them walk blindfolded toward the edge of a cliff.
The Compendium notes that the “first of the great challenges facing humanity today is that of the truth itself of the being who is man” (CSDC No. 16). The truth of man is that he is created in the Imago Dei, in the image and likeness of God, and is, therefore, permeated by truth ontologically. The human person seeks truth, whether he admits it or not, and must image God’s absolute truth in his life if he is to attain to his transcendent destiny of happiness in assumption into eternal communion with the Tripersonal God. It is a sad and pitiful fact that many fail to recognize the transcendent dimension of the human person, that their happiness is connected to living according to what is true and in justice, in harmony with God’s plan of love and aided by his grace. Many are somewhat blind to the beauty and goodness found in truth, and thus do not realize the immense freeing power of virtue and authentic love of God. To fail to grasp the saving and liberating power of the gospel and the surpassing beauty of a relationship of intimate communion with Christ is to utterly fail at life.
Everyone must in some way image the moral pattern of Christ’s loving obedience of will to God the Father in their own lives. For we have been restored to the image of the Son by virtue of his death on the Roman cross. By his act of radical love, Christ has put sin and death to death. We must lead others away from sin to embrace fully the freedom and salvation Christ offers that, in and through and with the incarnate Son, we all may attain to the fullness of human life God offers in the Holy Spirit. That requires judgment, moral discernment, and a process of fraternal correction in charity:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:16-17)
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.