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Moral Authority

I had an interesting discussion with a friend last week about the concept of hypocrisy and the injunction of Our Lord to take the beam out of our own eye that we may see better to take the mote out of our brother's eye. The question that arose was this: Suppose that Person A is secretly committing some sin. Does this mean that he "has no right" to tell Person B that that activity is a sin?

It's a tougher question than you might think. Let's say that the thing definitely is a sin, let's say even a serious sin, and that Person A knows this quite well even though he is secretly committing it. We can hardly say, if the issue comes up in conversation between him and Person B, that he should not tell the truth or that he should condone the same sin in Person B. So it seems, on the one hand, that he does have a right to say that the action is a sin.

On the other hand, we have not only Our Lord's injunction about removing the beam but also a pretty strong intuition that there is something unpleasant and hypocritical about A's telling B that this is a sin while secretly committing it himself.

How do we accommodate both of these intuitions?

I have no great answers to this and would be interested in reader thoughts. My scattered thoughts on it include these:

--If Person A is in a position of great authority, especially Christian leadership, he should resign that position until this grave sin is not only repented but is a thing of the past in his life. He should not continue living a double life. A Christian leader should be exemplary in the purity of his life. St. Paul makes this clear repeatedly.

--If Person A has not confronted the fact that he must stop this sin, his conversation with B in which the subject comes up should serve as a wake-up call. The very sense of discomfort that he should feel while solemnly telling B that this activity is wrong should show him that he absolutely must get his own house in order, must confess this sin and put it behind him.

--Our sense that A "has no right" to speak out against this sin may arise from a sense that perhaps A is not being honest, that he must not really believe that this is a sin if he continues doing it.

--Perhaps A should refrain from anything other than personal conversations about the wrongness of the sin--should refrain from writing or giving speeches about it, for example. On this one I'm more shaky, and I don't have a strong rationale for the advice.

Readers, what do you think?

Comments (18)

In my experience, if person A has made peace with his secret sin, he is not going to be able to effectively address it in anyone else' life. The log is actually blinding him.

Perhaps a rephrasing:
If person A is sinning, and person B asks if an activity is sin, should person A lie and say that it is not a sin? Should one spread a falsehood that a sin one is weak to is not really a sin?

Argue that a sin they've committed isn't really a sin?*

Pretty clearly, no, they shouldn't add to their moral burden.

The story about the mote in one's eye is instructive, but I think it's being misapplied-- it's clearly about excusing your own big failings, and attacking a lesser (but maybe similar?) failing in others. That is, actual being hypocritical, rather than a fallen sinner.

On a practical level, A should probably avoid making themselves a target and (irrational, but human) weakening the case against the activity by secretly falling to the sin while publicly talking about how bad it is. Sort of a case by case thing-- the best case is to BEAT the sin and then talk about it, but it seems like a bad idea to refuse to publicly fight a wrong just because you have personal knowledge of how wrong it is.

*amazing how many things can come back to the abortion debate's topics, eh?

If person A is in a position of authority, he needs to teach with authority no matter his own failings. And it's better for the truth to be taught than for one in authority to resign and the truth be neglected.

There is, of course, a difference between leadership and authority. Prots have leadership, Catholics have authority. :-) Leaders should probably resign. But when it comes to authority, the most helpful analogy is that of the family. Parents, who have authority, must teach their children the truth and don't have the luxury of resigning due to secret sins.

Another question that might shift the bar: is A struggling with the sin, or is A defiant about his or her *own* commission of the sin, even while recognizing that it's wrong in B? Seems to me that if A is struggling with the sin, there's a lot less hypocrisy involved in pointing out that same sin in somebody else.

Ideally, A could be reasonably upfront about his struggles with the sin (at least with B, and avoiding TMI), in which case the accusation of hypocrisy carries a lot less weight. But that's a fine line to walk.


The third spiritual work of mercy is "admonish the sinner." It doesn't say anything about "admonish the sinner, but only right after having gone to confession." The instruction, is, furthermore, an imperative and an obligation.

The admonition about beams and splinters cautions against harping, public displays, and real hypocrisy. The last, of course, entails making a claim that one does not actually believe, not merely observing that some act is sinful despite one's own human frailty.

Hmm, the last post ate my link about the obligation to admonish the sinner. It's here: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10198d.htm

Jeff C., it's my impression that Catholic priests _are_ often removed from specific positions of importance (whether you call them "positions of leadership" or of "authority") precisely because of sin in their lives, even sometimes _past_ sins. They may be removed from parish work or from the leadership of a religious order or something. Not to stir up a hornet's nest, but think of that fellow who turned out to have mistresses and children on the side after founding this whole order. The Holy See removed him from his position in his last years because apparently they had some inkling of the situation, and then after his death it all came out. Priests accused of pedophilia are commonly removed from parish work. And so forth. "Once a priest always a priest" is a sacramental doctrine in Catholicism but says nothing about whether the priest should go on actively holding some specific office in which he is responsible for some specific set of souls--a parish, a monastic house, an order, etc.

Very true, Lydia, but clerics are not removed because they are in a state of mortal sin: they are removed because somehow their ministry is fatally compromised, or in extreme cases, because they are wicked or dangerous.

I concede that this is close to what you are saying. If I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that having a secret, serious sin in one's life fatally compromises one's ministry. That's true in some cases, but certainly not in every case, depending on lots of things. All by itself the presence of a secret sin, even mortal sin, in the life of a Catholic cleric - whom we may presume makes frequent use of the sacraments - does not disqualify him from ministry.

Not to stir up a hornet's nest, but think of that fellow who turned out to have mistresses and children on the side after founding this whole order. The Holy See removed him from his position in his last years because apparently they had some inkling of the situation, and then after his death it all came out.

That was an amazingly awful, tragic case. The priest in question had, in turns out, been totally living a double life, and in the end refused the last sacraments, stating that he "did not believe in God's pardon."


Kyrie eleison!

I think it is important to remember here that the Lord's words about taking the beam out of our own eye first, occur in the context of a Sermon that seems to have been preached with the purpose of stripping people of confidence in their own personal righteousness. At the beginning of the Sermon there are a number of "The Law says, but I say" passages in which He tells His audience that the righteousness required by God is considerably higher than that found in a strictly literal outward reading of the commandments.

The purpose of this would seem to be to produce humility, repentance, and a sense of sin so that people would not trust in their own righteousness but in His "manifold and great mercies". It is reasonable, therefore, to read His injunction against judging at the end of the Sermon in the same light. It is not a matter of calling sin, sin that He is concerned about, so much as an arrogant attitude of personal moral superiority towards others.

Does He mean that if we have lust in our hearts we cannot say "lust is a sin"? No. He is saying that we should not look upon others who are lusting and think or say "Oh, look at how terrible those people are, they are sinning!" Nor should we engage in the "humbler" version of this "Oh you poor dear, you have fallen, let me (who has not) help you up".

We miss the Lord's point completely if we think we have ever arrived at the place where we have removed the beam from our own eye and can therefore help our brother with his speck.

That does not mean that we can never identify what the Lord calls sin as sin. When doing so, however, we should do so upon His authority not our own. God is the one Who gave the commandments identifying sin as sin. We simply point to what He has said and say "thus saith the Lord", hopefully with the attitude that we ourselves are sinful, fallen people who are trusting in the fact that He is "the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy".

Those are all good points, Gerry, and I think they definitely address the issue of balancing Jesus' words with at least private conversations in which one identifies sin as sin. How would you relate them to the issue of public ministry? Take preaching, for example, and being a pastor of a congregation. Suppose that a pastor has a problem with pornography and, despite confessing and asking God for help to stop, continues returning to the sin. How does this relate to a) writing and preaching sermons that mention this as a sin, b) continuing in his ministry?

That is where it gets difficult, Lydia. On the one hand, the New Testament makes it quite clear that church authorities are to be held accountable to higher standards. St. Paul told Timothy that a bishop must be "blameless". On the other hand, you have the example of all the Apostles, already commissioned and sent out into the ministry by Christ, deserting Him at Gethsemane and later being restored and forgiven. The story of St. Peter in particular is important in this regards. Which is a worse sin, looking at pornography, or denying the Lord Himself? I suspect that we would all agree that the latter is by far worse. Yet Christ forgave Peter and told him to "feed My sheep".

This was an important reason why the Church took the position it did in the Donatist controversy. The Donatists held that traditores, who had surrendered the Scriptures to the Romans during the persecution of Diocletian, could not thereafter be restored to their ecclesiastical positions, and that sacraments administered by them were therefore invalid. Against the Donatists, the Church followed St. Augustine in arguing that just as in St. Peter's case forgiveness and restoration must be available, and that the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the character of the person administering them.

The principle, then, is that there should be a process of restoration available for erring clergymen who repent. The difficulty comes in knowing how to apply this to a sin like pornography, which is habit building and addictive. We do not want the system to be such that it encourages clergy to cover-up their sins and lie about them. On the other hand we do not want the Church to just turn a blind eye to habitual sin on the part of its leadership either.

In the case of a clergyman who is struggling with an addictive sin like pornography, if the ecclesiastical authorities allow him to continue in the ministry, then one would expect that if he addresses this sin in a sermon, that he would do so in a very humble manner indeed.

Yet Christ forgave Peter and told him to "feed My sheep".

Right, but as you point out, that's rather different from denying Christ over and over again as a habitual matter.

Actually, I can definitely be on board with someone's staying in ministry who has had, say, an affair in the past which he has put behind him completely and repented.

Mortal sin destroys supernatural charity, not faith. It is by faith that one knows the sinfulness of an action, therefore, someone who is in sin may still be able to correctly assess the actions of another, however, because the will is weakened, the person who is in sin may not have the strength to correct the other person. There might also be elements of shame. In any case, one is still obligated, even if one is in sin, to help another. If one does not, one sins, additionally.

What Jesus condemns, as Gerry points out, above is the notion of hypocracy - the work, hypocrite, comes from the Greek word for actor. A hypocrite is someone who acts as someone else. An actor is a liar and so is a hypocrite.

This does not mean, however, that one must be morally clean before pointing out the sin in another IF one is doing it as an act of charity. If one is doing it as a matter of a lying superiority, then it is a double sin: bearing false witness and pride.

The Chicken

Forgot to add:

The last part you mention would be more of a different subject, that I've always heard called "causing scandal."

I think there are also practical aspects to consider when contemplating admonishing sinners. *How* should you admonish someone? What is your relationship to them, and how will that change their likely reception of your words? Do you know them well enough to know what will work, and what may only harden their hearts and make them more recalcitrant? Do you know how they themselves see their sins -- are they genuinely confused or ignorant, or constructing some kind of excuse or exemption for themselves, or simply flat out self-deceptive or hypcritical? And so on.

I'm reminded of a Little Orphan Annie strip I once read where Annie remarked, "Tellin' somebody they shouldn't be doin' what they already *know* they shouldn't be doin' don't accomplish much... 'cept they start to run when they see you comin'!" Or C.S. Lewis's wry remark: "She's the sort of woman who lives for others -- you can always tell the others by their hunted expressions."

This comes under the auspices of fraternal correction. The 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia has this to say: (note to editors: remove if in copyright violation)

Fraternal correction is here taken to mean the admonishing of one's neighbor by a private individual with the purpose of reforming him or, if possible, preventing his sinful indulgence. This is clearly distinguishable from an official disciplining, whose mouthpiece is a judge or other like superior, whose object is the punishment of one found to be guilty, and whose motive is not so directly the individual advantage of the offender as the furtherance of the common good. That there is, upon occasion and with due regard to circumstances, an obligation to administer fraternal correction there can be no doubt. This is a conclusion not only deducible from the natural law binding us to love and to assist one another, but also explicitly contained in positive precept such as the inculcation of Christ: "If thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother" (Matthew 18:15). Given a sufficiently grave condition of spiritual distress calling for succour in this way, this commandment may exact fulfilment under pain of mortal sin. This is reckoned to be so only when

the delinquency to be corrected or prevented is a grievous one;
there is no good reason to believe that the sinner will adequately provide for himself;
there is a well-founded expectation that the admonition will be heeded;
there is no one else just as well fitted for this work of Christian charity and likely to undertake it;
there is no special trouble or disadvantage accruing to the reformer as a result of his zeal.
Practically, however, individuals without any official capacity are seldom impeachable as having seriously transgressed the law in this matter because it is but rarely one finds the coalition of circumstances just enumerated.
Of course the reproof is to be administered privately, i.e. directly to the delinquent and not in the presence of others. This is plainly the method appointed by Christ in the words just cited and only as a remedy for obduracy is any other contemplated by Him. Still there are occasions upon which one might lawfully proceed in a different way. For instance

when the offence is a public one;
when it makes for the prejudice of a third party or perhaps even the entire community;
when it can only be condignly dealt with by the authority of a superior paternally exercised;
when a public rebuke is necessary to preclude scandal: witness the withstanding of Peter by Paul mentioned in the Epistle to the Galatians (2:11-14);
when the offender has already in advance relinquished whatever right he possessed to have his good name safeguarded, as is the custom in some religious bodies.

The obligation of fraternal correction, so far as private persons go, does not obtain, generally speaking, for the case of one who violates a law through invincible ignorance. The obvious reason is that there is then no immunity for it is their duty to instruct their subordinates. Every one, however, whether having an official competency or not, is bound to give the admonition when the sin, committed though it be from ignorance, is hurtful to the offender or a third party or is the occasion of scandal.

The Chicken

Chicken- it's not under copywrite; it's been put online by folks straight copying articles. (Usually updating, too, and putting in links.)

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