28 June 2007

Admonish the sinner

The Seven Works of Mercy, Caravaggio

Round hole; square peg. The two sides of my family are so dissimilar in their approach to things, it's jarring to talk to members of both in the same day. To simplify, my family is of German descent on my father's side and Irish descent on my mother's. There is a lot of Irish and Scottish thrown into the German side and Swiss German mixed into my mother's Irish side, but what remains in their way of thinking, to this day, is very different. One side would admonish the sinner in a not-too-delicate way, and then never speak to them again -- they are anathema. The other side would invite them in for tea, and in the course of polite conversation, gently dance around the distasteful subject forefront in their mind, discussing tangential subjects, but never really meeting the issue head on.

Family lore has it that my, born-and-bred, German Catholic great-grandfather on my dad's side, was disowned by his parents when he did the unthinkable. It was unimaginable and unforgivable: he married a, born-and-bred, Irish Catholic. (Actually, she was Scottish, but they were all the same to my father's family since she wasn't, heaven forbid, German! It was a foregone conclusion everyone in the family would all marry other German Catholics.) Although I really have my doubts about this story, and there technically isn't a sin involved (I can hear some of my ancestors rolling in their graves), it illustrates my German ancestors' mindset and their approach to discord, disagreement and confrontation. I refer to this branch of my family as the "Cut off your nose to spite your face" side.

In my Irish Catholic family, rules were still rules, but Paddy was a good man despite his short comings. Often times, Paddy was a good man even if Paddy broke all the rules and was unrepentant. I refer to this branch of my family as the "Ostrich with its head stuck in the sand" side.

Both sides, combined, make me a bit schizophrenic on this topic.

The voice of reason
According to the Baltimore Catechism, listed first among the chief spiritual works of mercy, we are bound to admonish the sinner when the following conditions are fulfilled:

When his fault is a mortal sin;
When we have authority or influence over him, and
When there is reason to believe that our warning will not make him worse instead of better.

My German branch has no problem with the warning the sinner. It's the part about doing it with charity and discretion that they miss. They tend to get out the well-used 2x4 and take no prisoners. Venture off the straight and narrow, innocently or not, and you hear about it. Loudly. Although behavior is no longer corrected in German in this generation, when it comes to my family, sailors certainly don't have a monopoly on the colorful language market.

Sometimes it seems, people take other people's sins personally, maybe as a matter of pride or how they think it may reflect on the family. If drunk Uncle Joe causes the neighbors to peek out their curtains to see what's going on, Uncle Joe is reprimanded and banished. It's harsh and unkind. We are told to love the sinner; hate the sin. To see Jesus in everyone. This isn't to be read as, "Ah, can't we all just get along?" No, not at all. A sin is a sin. But our compassion in these situations speaks louder and does more to bring the sinner out of his sin than ostracism and banishment ever will. Judgemental actions, by Catholics and Christians, tend to cause others to view us as hypocritical and hollow.

Then we turn to me beloved Irish side. Growing up, I bristled at this branch's inability to directly tackle the subject of sin. A quote by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz (I could find no documentation on this, however), warns the faithful to be “careful that words like ‘caution’ and ‘prudence’ are not simply used as an excuse for inaction, inability, sloth, or cowardice which prevents us from sharing a truth with others.” So succinct, your Excellency, and so apropos. My impression is this branch assumes the person who should be admonished knows full well how the reluctant admonisher feels about the inappropriateness of the behavior, so why cause hard feelings by mentioning it. Someone needs to tell Uncle Joe, if he spent all day Saturday drinking, then Uncle Joe better not be going to Holy Communion on Sunday. And, if he tries to get up out of the pew to go, you better grab him by his suspenders, sit him back down, and whisper a few words in his ear. Too dramatic, but you get the point.

Standing in the middle of these two diverse approaches, I, sometimes, am able to see the benefits and pitfalls of both. I hope I get to the point where day and night balance; my reaction is measured and prudent. I need to resist my propensity to judge, act rash and say things that hurt more than help. I need to love the sinner, but realize that leaving him in his sin is not love nor charity. Even more than my family, I often get it wrong, just ask my confessor.

It is not charity to confirm someone in their sin.
Fr. John Corapi

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