Bright Maidens topic: To Admonish the Sinner
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I am always amused at one of the last scenes in Guys and Dolls, when the gambler Sky Masterson has managed to force a dozen or so of his fellow gamblers to attend a prayer meeting at the local save-a-soul mission by winning their souls in a dice game. The leader of the mission looks out at the riff-raff gathered in her mission and announces in delight, “I have rarely attended a meeting in any of our branches which could boast of so many evil-looking sinners.” She might just as easily have been addressing a college fraternity, Las Vegas, or the United States Congress.
Admonishing the sinner is never easy and it is a duty that many shy away from. We do not want the sneers, the accusations of intolerance, narrow-mindedness, judgmental behavior or other assaults that come our way. Even the Catholic Church herself often seems to try to avoid this duty, when she hesitates to invoke Canon 915, which bans public figures from the Holy Eucharist, who profess themselves Catholic even when they live in a state of fornication or who publicly advocate abortion. And, of course, when was the last time any of us saw a good excommunication?
There are several reasons why admonishing the sinner is difficult, and a couple that it is downright dangerous. First, it is hard to tell a person that they are sinning when they do not believe in sin. If one asked an average college student, for instance, if they believed in objective morality, that student would almost certainly reply that objective morality does not exist because different cultures and people have thought different things. Passing the disastrous lapse in logic by—obviously that a person does not believe in a thing is not evidence that it does not exist—the consequence of this is that such a person can hardly believe in sin. How can it be wrong to break a law if one does not exist? If there are no rules, then one cannot violate the rules.
Second, people do not like being told that they are sinners. I am the same way. When my wife complains about my driving, my first reaction is to say, “I know,” or “Yes dear, I did indeed see that enormous truck about to plow into us, I was just making sure that you did.” Many people are too convinced of their own unique specialness; many in our generation and later generations have been told that they are ever so special from youth. This hardly invites a person to consider their own sinfulness.
Third, many today do not believe in the devil. Believing in sin is much easier when one believes in a father (by way of imitation not creation) of sin. Today, however, we hear little about the devil even from the pulpit. And a presidential candidate can be dismissed by the popular media as unfit for office because he believes that the devil is attacking America.
Next, admonishing the sinner can be downright dangerous. A person could become angry. One could forever ruin a relationship with a family member by refusing to attend her re-marriage ceremony to a divorced man. It can be dangerous for other reasons, including to our own spiritual welfare; this is perhaps the greatest danger. In admonishing the sinner, a person might forget that he is one himself. He might find himself the sort of hypocrite of whom Our Lord said “many will say to me “Lord, Lord,” who will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Or else, “remove the splinter first from your own eye...” To this I suggest the following caution, that the only person who is a good Catholic, is the one who knows that he is a bad Catholic.
Nonetheless, to admonish the sinner is our moral duty, to God and to the sinner himself. We are all responsible for each other’s salvation. “Go and make disciples of all nations...” To shy back from this duty is like the woman who refuses to confront her husband’s alcoholism because of the fear of the immediate inconvenience to her, or immediate discomfort to her husband. Yet, there is no alternative. Admonish the sinner and while doing so, “remember man that thou art dust,” and “go and sin no more.”