Wednesday, November 18, 2020 –
The Spiritual Works of Mercy tend to confuse people because half of society think the first half of the works are telling them to beat people over the head with truth (in a loving manner, of course), and the other half of society thinks that the second half of the works are telling them to hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Spoiler alert: both halves are wrong about everything!
Anyhoo, rolling right along into our first of the seven Spiritual Works of Mercy: to admonish the sinner.
Let’s start where we normally do by picking up our copy of My Catholic Faith. Fair warning, Bishop Morrow gets a little…um…flourish-y with his wording:
Which are the chief spiritual works of mercy?—The chief spiritual works of mercy are seven:
1. To admonish the sinner.—Whenever we think our words may have a good effect, we should not hesitate to admonish the erring prudently. Those in authority, such as parents and teachers, are bound to admonish those under them of their faults, even if in doing so they bring trouble upon themselves. Good example is another way of admonition.
In admonishing sinners, we must do so with gentleness and charity. Otherwise we might only produce results the opposite of what we wish. It would be wrong, if with a little trouble we could save a sinner from sin, did we not speak to save him; it would, moreover, be a loss of great grace for ourselves. “He who causes a sinner to be brought back from his misguided way, will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). (Bishop Morrow, My Catholic Faith, p. 181)
Okay, so right off the bat we see that he tells us that we must act PRUDENTLY. This means we must act wisely, cautiously, sagacious (showing good judgement), and discreet. Boiling this down even further, we mean to say: don’t beat someone over the head with their sins. Take a breath, find an appropriate moment to speak with them (i.e. not shouting in the grocery store), and calm, rational conversation with them addressing the fault in question.
Next, Bishop Morrow tells us that those in authority are bound to correct errors. He gives the examples of teachers and parents. Can you imagine a world where parents let their kids run amok and teachers failed to actually teach…oh wait. When you shake your head and whisper, “kids today!” remember THIS Spiritual Work of Mercy. Le sigh!
He also tells us that leading by good example is also a way to admonish the sinner. Every little good thing you do is a witness to Christ. Each tiny choice you make to do good and turn away from sin is a shining example to your fellow man that he too ought to do good. You might be surprised how impactful all those tiny things can be for someone else.
Bishop Morrow’s final paragraph on the subject gets a little fuzzy with a few extra commas, but what he is trying to say is: DON’T BEAT PEOPLE OVER THE HEAD WITH THEIR SINS! Rather, approach them in gentleness and charity. You should be motivated for love of your fellow man and wanting to save them from everlasting damnation. You should NOT be motivated by “I’m right; you’re wrong. Neener neener!”
You see, we are all supposed to help each other get to heaven. I sometimes may try to drag my beloved husband along kicking and seeming, but that is not the “correct” way to admonish the sinner.
In a good twist, we can also crack open our Baltimore Catechims #3 and see what it has to say on this matter:
Q. 814. When are we bound to admonish the sinner?
A. We are bound to admonish the sinner when the following conditions are fulfilled:
1. When his fault is a mortal sin;
2. When we have authority or influence over him, and
3. When there is reason to believe that our warning will not make him worse instead of better.
I like clearly delineated lists, don’t you!? Keep in mind that this specifically says “bound” to act if you meet this criteria. However, you can (and should) act, albeit prudently and gently, even if you do not meet said criteria.
For example, let’s say a small c “catholic” politician has not actually been elected into office, but thinks he can jump the electoral college gun. He has an abysmal record on all things Catholic, like abortion, gay “marriage, etc. You probably do not have a sniff of influence over him, but you can definitely write to him and rationally explain what the Church teaches and how he has run afoul of said teaching. I seriously doubt your well-written letter would ever make him worse. It might not make him any better, but…ya know…if you see something, say something.
Sancte Petre, ora pro nobis!