Admonishing Sinners

A reader writes:

I enjoyed reading your article on fraternal correction. However, I’m still confused about when I should or shouldn’t admonish an apparent sinner. Could you help me with a concrete situation that I am dealing with? I have a cousin who is in her late 20’s, married, and with a young son. She identifies herself as a Catholic and is a church going person. However, she supports gay marriage so I question how devoted she is to the teachings of the Magisterium. We probably see each other once every two years at a family party. We don’t exactly have that close of a relationship, but we remain friendly. I notice that on her facebook she has pictures of herself in a two piece bikini (in a non-sexual way when going to a beach). I see posting pictures of yourself in a two piece bikini to be immodest and a threat to the chastity of other men looking at the pictures. I’m considering sending her an e-mail about the pictures. However, I see it as more likely that she’ll just be embarassed and angry by my e-mail than that she’ll take the pictures down and never post pictures of herself in a bikini again. Should I send her an e-mail or not? Thanks.

Last things first (and only because you asked me), I wouldn’t send her an email about that if I were you. It would simply be a context-free bolt from the blue that would make no sense to her (particularly because you yourself acknowledge that she’s not attempting to incite lust). Same with the same sex marriage thing. Rather than initiating relationship on the basis of “You know what’s wrong with you?” it’s better to initiate relationship by trying to find out who she is, what she loves, and what she needs. If the conversation gets around to SSM, fine. Tell her what you think. But beginning there while doing nothing else to establish relationship is just about guaranteed to destroy any hope of establishing relationship while doing nothing to advance her understanding of the question, which is–after all–the real goal, not simply being confrontational.

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  • Bra. vo. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • Scott

    Wise advice. I myself admonished my cousin years ago telling her all the reasons why she needed to be more like me – The Super Catholic. It went over like a lead balloon and we have no relationship to this day.

  • Kirt Higdon

    Wise advice indeed.

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    Yes, wise advice. Also to include your cousin – and your entire family – in your daily prayers, even if you don’t mention this to her for months and months, if ever. The Holy Spirit will accomplish marvelous things in the lives of our loved ones, if we ask Him.

  • Matthew

    Regarding “fraternal correction”, it seems to me that people wish to rush to the “correction” without taking the time and hardwork necessary to first be “fraternal”.

    • Lynn

      Amen. My personal rule is that I don’t get to tell people what to do unless I am willing to put a shoulder under their cross.

  • Joannie

    I agree that we should not be confrontational with people close to us who are Catholic and doing things that go against our values. However we also need to speak the Truth In Love. and firmly, or else we may be an incitement for someone to keep sinning. Part of the problem in the Church since the Council is the idea that all we have to do is be “nice” and not have firm and clear purpose even when it comes to the moral and sexuality mostly after Pope Paul issued his 1968 Encyclical which even Tim Dolan admits the clergy did not do because “it was to hot to handle” Now we have the HHS Mandate.

    • Ted Seeber

      What got me is HV wasn’t the only thing suppressed. Pick an encyclical at random and at least 9/10 American Catholics under the age of 40 will have never heard of it. 8/10 will have never heard the word “encyclical” with respect to religion at all. 5/10 can’t even say a rosary properly.

      There is a huge educational gap between “being baptized Catholic” and “voting my informed conscience in solidarity with the Bishops and Priests” these days, and we MUST recognize that it exists and that Apostolic Authority is something many American Cradle Catholics have *never really thought about*.

      • Cantor At Large

        Spot on, Ted.
        E.g., when my husband and I were going through RCIA in 1999, he brought a copy of the (then relatively new) Catechism to class one evening. The RCIA leader and the sacramental prep folks working with her told him, “We don’t need that here.” They were quite happy to feed us pablum from their favorite ‘theologically progressive’ publishers, and honestly, in my view they did their best to form us with a gap into which the leading edge of their ideological wedge would fit: “Well, the bishops and the Magisterium say this and that, thus and so… But we _Franciscans_ are so much more kind and loving, so much more modern-thinking, pastoral and reasonable” about this or that issue. Some parishioners told us proudly that they considered themselves _American_ Catholics and not _Roman_ Catholics.

        We’ve since found another parish.

  • Matthew

    Joanie: you say “people close to us” but that is exactly my point and Lynn’s as well I think. Am I really close to the person I am seeking to correct? Mark’s original questioner stipulated that she see’s this woman only every two years or so. Is this really a “close” relationship? Your example of HV is not really on point for it is definitionally the job of the bishop to feed and correct the flock. This is not properly speaking fraternal correction. I would second Lynn’s guideline – If I am not willing to commit myself to helping this person correct the problem I have no right to seek to correct them on it.

  • Chris M

    I always felt a good rule of thumb is if I felt enthusastic about making a “fraternal correction”, I was better off shutting my pie hole for a while and pondering my motivations.

  • EBS

    So well said Mark. I have lost friends with my high and mighty Christian bluntness. And by the way, there is nothing WORSE, I repeat, WORSE than correcting others via email, SMS, voicemail etc…it’s half what’s wrong with our society. And the same goes for offering congratulations, compliments, praise to our loved ones via SMS, email, voicemail. Face to face!

    • Rachel K

      EBS, I completely agree that it’s easy to lose friends with high and mighty Christian bluntness, but I think correcting via email depends more on you and the person in question. For instance, a good friend of mine is incredibly slow at thinking on her feet. She’s a very, very bright person, but she’s one of those bright people who thinks of the correct response at 2 am. If I try to talk to her about anything of substance, I get a bunch of Jon Stewart and MSNBC talking points flung at me because she can’t think of anything original until later. If I do make a point that she can’t counter with talking points, she ends up feeling buffaloed when she thinks of a correct response five hours later because I “tricked” her into not replying by making a point Rachel Maddow hasn’t thought of. When we communicate over email, though, we have much more fruitful conversations because I’m talking to her, not Jon Stewart or whoever. She has time to think of her own responses and to chew on what I have to say. I know that for some people, the distance of email can lead to rudeness or flippancy, but for others it has the opposite effect.

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    Our pastors and bishops have a God-given duty and the obligation to exhort the faithful, generally and individually, whenever and wherever the occasion presents itself.
    Parents and teachers have a God-given duty to exhort and to correct the children under their supervision. But not other peoples’ children. (Unless to say, “Alex, there’s a car coming – get out of the street!”)
    Individual lay Catholics have a God-given duty to fix and to correct their own actions, attitudes, and habits. But excepting their own children, they do not have a duty to correct or fix anyone else’s, . . . except rarely, like, maybe three or four times over their entire lifetime. If that.
    Unless asked, “what should I do here?” or “what do you think of this?” And even then, we should be circumspect and considerate in what we say.
    And if there is anything more offensive, more infuriating than being on the receiving end of criticism from someone who has not the authority to criticize me, not being my pastor, bishop, or parent, nor having been invited or asked to give their opinion, I cannot possibly imagine what that would be.
    Extremely offending and infuriating people by doing what we have no authority to do is never a good way to serve the Lord.
    It’s always better quietly to do the right thing ourselves so as to set an example, and to pray, pray, pray.

    • This. Excellent, MM.

      • Marion (Mael Muire)

        Thank you, FCM!

    • Rebekka

      This is perfect wisdom – both for Real Life and the interwebs. So well formulated! (And true. Just reading the third-from-last paragraph had me gnashing my teeth.)

  • There are a few bloggers out there who made this a “career”, and one has no readership, so they have pseudonyms commenting and agreeing with them.

    Cuckoo stuff.

    Haven’t they figured out that winning hearts for the Lord is better than saying “I’m more Catholic than B16 and the rest of you heathens!”

  • hernan

    From St Therese of Lisieux:
    Formerly [before being designed as teacher of novices] if I saw
    a Sister acting in a way that displeased me, and was seemingly contrary
    to rule, I would think: “Ah, how glad I should be if only I could warn
    her and point out where she is wrong.” Since, however, this burden has
    been laid upon me my ideas have changed, and when I happen to see
    something not quite right, I say with a sigh of relief: “Thank God! It
    is not a novice, and I am not obliged to correct”; and at once I try to
    find excuses, and credit the doer with the good intentions she no doubt

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    I would like to modify what I wrote above (8:43 AM) because according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, what I wrote isn’t right.

    In his article on fraternal correction, Saint Thomas tells us, “It is written (Dist. xxiv, qu. 3, Can. Tam Sacerdotes): ‘Both priests and all the rest of the faithful should be most solicitous for those who perish, so that their reproof may either correct their sinful ways. or, if they be incorrigible, cut them off from the Church.'” (ST II-II 33.)

    That is, there would be times when we as laypeople are obligated to administer fraternal correction even to other adults who are not under our authority, and we owe it to them in justice to do so, even as we owe it to them to toss them a life preserver if they should fall into the water.

    Mark’s original article points out something important which Saint Thomas also mentions: I am to consider carefully before I speak whether my brother or sister is likely to be able to benefit from my correction, and, in cases in which I realize that by speaking, I am bound only to offend or alienate my brother or sister, then it is better not to speak.

    However, in cases where it may reasonably be hoped to be done fruitfully, fraternal correction, lovingly administered, is a duty even among the Christian laity.

  • Corita

    I have lost a friend who took it upon herself to write to me about what she saw as spiritual deficiencies in my child. This fell under the heading of “fraternal correction” in her mind, I am quite certain. She kept repeating that she had a duty in love to tell me these things. It was about something that her child said happened but witnesses (adults) said did not.

    The friendship ended because she refused to respond to me when I said, “It really hurts and offends me when you …” Nothing in response to that. Only more assertions. Oh, and yeah, it was over email.

    • Marion (Mael Muire)

      It sounds as if your friend said more than is necessary. Much more.

      Sometimes when people give fraternal correction, they speak as if they are under the impression God told them that they have to correct you and get a commitment from you to correct your behavior in the form of a five-page document, signed and dated, in triplicate, one copy for them, one for you, and one for the Holy Father the Pope, before they will shut up.

      Not so.

      All your friend needed to say was: “I hope you will let me share with you something that my Lucy told me your little Angela was doing. I know as a parent I would hope a friend would bring this to me. Angela was seen chucking ice balls at passing cars this morning, and actually hit a police car.”

      Angela’s Mom: “Why, Angela would never do such a thing!”

      Friend: immediately “OK! I’ve shared what I heard, and now I will leave it in your capable hands to follow up or not as you think best.”

      That’s it. So the friend shared the information; the mother rejected it; and that’s that. Move on.

      If it were true, it would be up to Mom now to cough up the money to pay the $200 ticket once the driver of the iceball-dinged fuzzmobile figures out where little Angela lives.)

      Not your problem. Now it’s her problem.

      Fraternal correction that’s well done is brief, succinct, and leaves it up to the correctee to respond or not.

      • Corita

        I agree with everything you wrote AND I also think that both scenarios (mine and your hypothetical) are not issues of fraternal correction but regular old parenting…which does include letting other parents know if there is something serious going on with their child. If she had let me know that such and such a thing had happened…without the additional commentary (along the lines of “he is without remorse and needs to go to confession”, along with various comments on parenting techniques that “we have talked about doing this!”) then it would have been all good.

        Fraternal correction ought to be a statement of clear moral truth. It seems to me that once subjective interpretation of other people’s inner disposition, or an insertion of personal opinion, come into it then it has stopped being f.c. and become something more along the lines of controlling or busy-bodying.

        • Corita

          p.s., I think that any parents who would respond to a report with “Oh, darling Child would NEVER do such a thing!” are kidding themselves.

        • Marion (Mael Muire)

          “he is without remorse and needs to go to confession”
          Oh, Corita!
          For one parent to say that to another . . . Wow.
          Just Wow!

          • Corita

            The main reason we are not friends is the audacity of that statement, and her refusal to “hear” me say anything about it to her. It was like I wasn’t even talking. It was like I was just refusing to admit my child did anything wrong (which was a whole separate issue!). Anyway, it was e3ven more than that, but that really was the clincher.

  • Corita

    And Mark, I imagine that you might have sidestepped this purposely, but I am sure you realize how unbelievably creepy and offensive it would be for a man to write to a woman about how her bikini pictures might cause him to sin. It doesn’t really matter whether that is true or not. There is no. way. for a man to write that (or say it) to your average American woman without her thinking, “What a pervy jerk.”