Finding the right reaction to different sins

One great fear that can seize people is the mistaken notion that the command to forgive is a command to be passive — as though forgiveness means sitting on your hands while somebody gets away with fleecing you blind or beating you up because to oppose them would be “judgmental.” In fact, however, the New Testament knew as well as we do that sometimes sins require action: 

With matters of civil law, we should turn to our justice system. Thinkstock photo

“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 a Gentile or a tax collector” (Mt 18:15-17). 

Clearly, what Jesus has in view here is the twofold reality that sins and conflicts are going to arise within the Church and that his disciples need to find a way to deal with them effectively. For much of our day-to-day life, these problems are the equivalent of pinpricks and paper cuts in the body of Christ. Somebody sins. You show them their fault with mercy and charity. They repent. All’s forgiven. You don’t call your pastor because your husband left the toilet seat up. The bishop is not on speed dial to adjudicate how the monies from the parish bake sale will be distributed. Subsidiarity means that the people closest to the problem will, nine times out of 10, be competent to deal with the problem. 

When to get help

However, sometimes a bit more is required. So you call in a second opinion when your son is blowing off his schoolwork, making you and your spouse the united front who forbid the hike or the video games until the sin is remedied. Other times, the two or three witnesses may point out that there is blame to go around on all sides. On occasion, it may be necessary to bring a conflict to a pastor, such as with marriage issues, parenting issues or some sort of struggle with how the school or the finance committee are doing. A huge amount of our daily life never goes further than these levels of conflict and arbitration because most of us do not live epic lives of conflict that rocks the Church. 

That said, of course, there are moments when some sin is so grave that ecclesial and even civil authority must be called in. A good rule of thumb is that ecclesial authority is necessary for ecclesial issues and civil authority should be contacted for issues in which the common good is threatened. So, if your parish or Catholic educational institution is, for instance, fomenting rank heresy or open contempt for the Faith, it may be time to contact the bishop. The trick, of course, is that very often the people most eager to make such calls are the people least qualified to do so. Every diocese has its wannabe inquisitors who contact the chancery on a weekly or daily basis to complain that their parish sings hymns they don’t like, or the priest does not elevate the Host as high as the inquisitor thinks proper or women are not wearing veils as they should or what have you.  

Bishops have a lot on their minds, so ask whether the thing you think of such burning importance seems to be of burning importance to other good and holy folk you know in the diocese. If they do not think it worth going to the mat for, say, having to sing the umpteenth chorus of “Anthem” at the family Mass, probably this is not the battle that needs to be fought right now. On the other hand, if there are really serious theological and liturgical abuses, the bishop needs to know.

Bringing in civil authority

With matters of civil law such as theft, sexual abuse and such like, the proper place to go is to the cops. As Paul said, 

“Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. Therefore; whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear to good conduct, but to evil. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it, for it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer” (Rom 13:1-4). 

So, for instance, to draw from the very stark and disastrous example of the priest abuse scandal, if a layperson has evidence that a priest has been harming a child, this is not a matter for internal discipline in the diocese. This is a criminal matter and the police should be contacted. It is not “unforgiving” to do so. It is an act of justice to the victim, an act of charity and protection for potential victims, and a work of mercy to the Body of Christ.

All have sinned

One temptation that faces us when a member of the Church sins against us is to conclude that the sinner is “not really a Christian” or that the whole thing — Church, Jesus, God — is a sham. As to the question of whether somebody who sins is “really a Christian,” C.S. Lewis gives us a good perspective via his demonic Uncle Screwtape, who advises his nephew, the junior tempter Wormwood, on how to help sow the seeds of bitterness and pride in his human “patient” when he discovers his fellow Christians are quite capable of sin: 

“All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?’ You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favorable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these ‘smug,’ commonplace neighbors at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.” 

Mark Shea writes from Washington state.