ASK FATHER: Admonishing the sinner

From a reader…


A Catholic friend recently told me that if a person we know is doing something sinful but we believe they are truly ignorant of the fact that their action is a sin, then we should not tell them they are sinning as that will make them more culpable for their actions. For example, if a Catholic is using birth control pills but she truly seems to believe it’s not sinful, then we should not tell her it’s a mortal sin if we don’t believe she will stop using the birth control pills, because if we do, she will be more culpable for it which would effect the gravity of her sin. Is this really what we are to do as Catholics? Because at the same time, I hear priests talking about sins that send souls to hell. If a sin is going to send a person to hell, then shouldn’t we tell them and encourage them to go to confession and make amends? I just don’t see how on the one hand sexual sins lead souls to hell, but then on the other hand we can prevent those souls from going to hell by never telling them these things are sinful in the first place. Why would we ever talk about sin then? It would be better to leave people in the dark about it. But she tells me she learned this from a priest, so maybe she is right and I’m totally misunderstanding this teaching.

If your lovely friend was wearing a dress that made her look hideously ugly – I’m not talking sort of ugly, but downright vomit-inducing ugly – but she thought that it brought out the violet flecks in her eyes and it looked good on her, would you let your friend go out wearing that dress, or would you do everything you could – beg, plead, urge, cajole – to get her to change that dress and put on something that truly made her look good?

If you were doing something that harmed yourself, but you were ignorant of the harm it did, would you want your friends to remain silent, or to pull you aside and say, “Hey Betty, stop trying to stick that pencil in your eyeball. It’s got germs all over it!”?

If you were doing something that put your soul in danger of eternal hellfire, would you want a friend to wave a flag in your face and say, “Hey! Stop it, get back on the right track!”

We have an obligation, in justice, to admonish sinners. It’s a spiritual work of mercy. It must be done in a loving manner, not gloating or lording it over another.

We have to humbly acknowledge that we, too, are in need of correction at times.

The Apostle James tells us that someone who converts a sinner from his erroneous ways, not only saves his soul from death, but also obtains pardon for many sins. (James 5:20)

Ezechiel the Prophet makes it even clearer when he says that we have an obligation to warn our friends when they sin, and if we do not, we imperil our own souls

“If I [this is God speaking] say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give them no warning, or speak to warn the wicked from their wicked way in order to save their life, those wicked persons shall die for their iniquity; but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and they do not turn from their wickedness, or from their wicked way, they shall die for their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.” (Ezechiel 3:20)

It’s tough to confront someone who is doing something wrong.  We must always confront sinner from a position of love, and with a recognition of our own sinfulness.

Ignorance might excuse people from the full weight of judgment falling upon them, but sinful actions are not just sinful because the Church randomly decided somethings are sinful and somethings are okay. Sinful actions (and thoughts, and inactions) are declared to be sinful because they are, at the bottom line, harmful to us and to others. They prevent us from becoming the Sons and Daughters of God that we are truly called to be.

And… before admonishing the sinner, examine your own conscience thoroughly and then


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. msc says:

    The problem, as I see it, is that it is next to impossible to correct people without offending them or seeming to be meddlesome or arrogant. Some people think they have the ability, but very very few do. I don’t think I have ever been told I was doing something wrong by, for example, a keen environmentalist without thinking that the person was out of line and making me even more truculent about the issue. Yes, I know genuine sin is a different thing, but if the reaction of the sinner is to come away feeling critical of the Church, Catholics, and its teachings, it is perhaps worse to admonish than to praise good behavior and lead by example. Of course I do not mean to include here general instruction by priests, homilies, etc., or even polite correction by a priest. But lay people need to be very careful.

  2. slainewe says:

    Edifying answer, Father.

    How has the devil become so strong that he can talk Catholics (even priests!) out of applying the golden rule in something as serious as the saving of our immortal souls? “Lord, have mercy on us and give us courage to show the same mercy to others.”

  3. monknoah says:

    In Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Second Vatican Council explicitly defined this type of fraternal correction as part of the lay apostolate. All laymen and laywomen are called to this apostolate. The Council wrote, “A true apostle looks for opportunities to announce Christ by words addressed either to non-believers with a view to leading them to faith, or to the faithful with a view to instructing, strengthening, and encouraging them to a more fervent life.”

    On the one hand, we are, as a Church, pretty lousy at this sort of thing right now. I mean, we used to deny folks a funeral Mass if they crossed certain lines, and that almost never happens these days. Official sanctions have given way to soft-power notions of Church discipline. Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote recently, “For 50 years the Church has talked about the dignity and urgency of the lay Catholic vocation. And yet, as we stand on the brink of a cultural and moral eclipse in the United States, obviously very few people in my country really got the message.” We have to wonder if our post-conciliar reboot of Church discipline exclusively in terms of “the medicine of mercy” is in any way related to what Archbishop Chaput is writing about.

    On the other hand, my decidedly conservative moral theology textbook, Our Moral Life in Christ, by Peter Armenio, states, “It is important to live according to Church teaching, but it is even more important that we do so with the love described in the great commandment.” He has a point. I once visited a parish that had a strict policy against wearing jeans to Mass. One day, a visitor showed up in his Carhartts, and was publicly admonished by a zealous laywoman. Turns out this curious fellow was one of the wealthiest benefactors in the diocese. He didn’t come back.

    Discretion is the mother of all virtues.

  4. Good answer Father.
    It is really really hard to correct effectively, but unfortunately we can be lost due to ignorance. Besides, you just never know, some people are relieved to hear the Truth, even if at first its resisted and takes awhile to sink in. The Truth delivers us, frees us.

    Baruch 3:27 The Lord chose not them, neither did they find the way of knowledge: therefore did they perish.
    Isaias 5:13 Therefore is my people led away captive, because they had not knowledge, and their nobles have perished with famine, and their multitude were dried up with thirst.
    2 Corinthians 4:3 And if our gospel be also hid, it is hid to them that are lost

    That poor priest giving such advice. Yikes. If he really did say that. What would happen to the whole Gospel if nobody informed anybody. I mean, well, then why did Jesus go to all that trouble. tsk tsk.
    Jeremias (Jeremiah) 50:6 My people have been a lost flock, their shepherds have caused them to go astray, and have made them wander in the mountains: they have gone from mountain to hill, they have forgotten their resting place.

  5. Lavrans says:

    Thank God for good confessors and for men like Pope Francis and yourself, Father Z, for promoting this wonderful Sacrament. If only every Catholic in the world knew the power and peace of Confession.

  6. Giuseppe says:

    There was a good discussion a few weeks ago about ‘admonish the sinner’ and its place among the Spiritual Works of Mercy (including whether or not it is listed in the CCC). Also its presence in Aquinas: corrigere peccantem

  7. Pnkn says:

    what does wealth have to do with the value of admonishing

  8. Okay admittedly I had to look up what “Carhartts” are and I was surprised. We are talking about admonishing the sinner in what is actually, sin, not just a matter of taste. That over zealous busybody, ehem, I mean, elderly woman should have minded her own business as that was not a matter of sin. I like father Z’s analogy about the ugly dress because sin really does make you ugly if not a bit smelly too, ask St. Catherine of Sienna.

    The problem with admonishing the sinner is that I have seen too many people admonish in a spirit of preserving their own purity, their own perceived environment’s purity and admonishing with certain Pharisaical air all with Fr. so-and-so’s implied approval etc. That has got to annoy priests I’m sure but that’s another subject.

    While admonishing for the reasons I cited above are good to a certain extent since one does have to avoid the near occasion of sin, they sort of miss the mark. We have to remember we are fighting a major battle out here in this valley of tears!

    The commenter who said discretion is the mother of all virtues couldn’t be more right! Satan is just waiting for an opportunity to use a person to drive a wedge between Christ and a sinner. Just foaming at the mouth for an opportunity to ruin a true encounter with Mercy. He makes use of silly souls who do not have the honor and glory of God in mind. Who hastily correct out of a selfish frustration and judgment. Who do not look to themselves first and approach with a true spirit of brotherhood.

    It is true, discretion is the mother of all virtues which lastly is why, if you are put in a real position to have to admonish your brother, it is always best to ask the Holy Spirit to work through you and constantly invoke Him from the bottom of your heart unless you end up guilty of something worse than what you are admonishing your brother about.

    For myself, as a sinner, I can say while being admonished for the most part has been quite painful for me at times. I am and will be forever grateful for the person who had the courage to say something. A person cannot go on in their ignorance. It is simply not good for them.

  9. eulogos says:

    In his writings for priests hearing confessions St. Alphonsus Liguori does say that the priest has to consider whether a person who appears not to understand the malice (wrongness) of certain actions, is likely to cease them when admonished, in which case he should be, or whether he will not cease them and his subjective guilt just be made worse. This is exactly what the priest said to the questioner’s friend. But St. Alphonsus was giving advice to priest confessors, who may have extra help to make this sort of discernment.

    I do think the rest of us have to use discretion when considering whether to admonish. And we have to try to distinguish for ourselves between discretion and what used to be called “human respect,” meaning fearing the bad opinion of others when we shouldn’t. I also find it difficult to be motivated entirely by love in these situations. I find that sometimes I am motivated by frustration that things Catholics should know and care about, they don’t seem to. If someone who is active in her parish, whose husband works with the priest on the bazaar, complains that she can’t go to the Catholic hospital which has a nicer maternity ward, because they wont’ tie her tubes after her second C section and if she goes there she will need a second surgery at the other hospital, my feeling might be more that I want to wring her pretty self satisfied little neck, rather than love for her soul and fear of her damnation. If I speak in that spirit, I think it is unlikely to do any good. Trying to pretend I have better motivations than I do is something that people sense and resent even more.

    We are called to admonish people who might benefit from it, at a time when they might benefit from it, when we really care for their sake that they benefit from it. I don’t think most of us are called to go around doing this indiscriminately.

    Susan Peterson

  10. benedetta says:

    I think that we have to take into consideration, just as any apostle, evangelist, missionary or good teacher who ever lived, the times we are living in with respect to ignorance. I have actually heard that more than once, that the policy of a time ago was that if people were not instructed that say, the pill was a mortal sin, then, they as “ignorant” people formed their consciences according to the information available to them and the formation that was offered from Church authorities, and that thus if they chose to take artificial hormones as a method of avoiding pregnancy or spacing births then they were not culpable really, and further because their instructors had formed their consciences with, I don’t know, Hans Kung for their source that, the main thing was not that they chose the action that was objectively immoral but that they gave it some thought, investigated the matter to their personal satisfaction, and chose accordingly, or, “authentically” — this even had some cache that was played up in that the notion was being passed around that the moral schema of the Church had the weight of some sort of monolithic coercion or mass conformity effect and that therefore the one who went to unusual sources in order to inform one’s conscience were somehow even more conscientious or thoughtful or reasonable than the people who had heard some simple truth and were satisfied or pleased to embrace it or otherwise assent to it.

    Even back in the day when these sorts of intellectual acrobatics were fashionable, and even for the relatively less schooled, it was obvious that as a quite wealthy, literate, and sophisticated society the notion that the full range of sources were completely inaccessible was a little bit far fetched, and of course now where the catechism is just a few keypads away online even less so. Still I will say that it was quite clear that a lot of people took this approach so very seriously as to attempt to limit the flow of information or the appropriate delivery of the truth to who needed it the most.

    There was always the focus on the notion that people who by custom of their geographical location were taught that it was entirely fine in an exercise of conscience to be “pro choice” and a practicing Catholic in goodstanding with lots of reasons proffered could not be deemed “culpable” by others or by God for the results of these actions (i.e., huge numbers of innocents eliminated on whim or for convenience when society could have supported their existence quite easily). I am not a moral theologian so I cannot comment as to this nor do I really care to or worry about it much. I will say that as a general matter though, the truth sets people free in ways they cannot even dare to imagine, so much more so than penumbras or dissent, that a lot of the messes people get into from being defrauded of their entitlement to peruse the truth is preventable, that the pain that comes with committing sin even in “ignorance” or “feigned ignorance” or because of their locality’s catechetical “custom” is not something we should celebrate or shrug off as unimportant. It certainly does matter as a lot of people will tell you. The bottom line is that, as I have been saying for years now, a great many secular studies in fact support quite a lot of the moral choices the Church favors whether from a vantage of women’s health, family health, psychological and spiritual longevity, etc. On that point, I happened to catch an interview with the gentleman who heads the Catholic League on a new book he has authored that explores all of those facets and I am sure there are a great many that I haven’t noticed that he has.

    One cannot really say that someone has exercised their conscience if they have only been provided with the dissenting viewpoint in the end. That’s just monolithic coercion and conformity of another color.

  11. St Donatus says:

    Father Z, this very issue has bothered me since my return to the Church. In fact, there are only two things that cause me trouble, the fact that the Church doesn’t enforce it’s own teachings and the fact that ignorance is like a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card. Both of these issues are centered on this one teaching of ‘Invincible Ignorance’. I find it difficult to balance the idea that a person is only culpable to the point that they know it is a sin. With this in mind, it is very easy to priest shop for the most liberal priest so that your conscience can be soothed about sinful acts. How exactly does this work? How is it determined that someone is culpable? Jesus tells us to spread the truth, yet we know that if 98% of fertile Catholic women use birth control and in the average parish, there is never a word about birth control. Is this just by chance or do priests know something we don’t? Why did the apostles find it important to spread the good news if it meant that all those people would now be culpable for their sins.

    In my mind, the only possible answer is that WE ARE culpable for any sin that we commit that our inborn conscience is aware of. The teachings of the Church help us overcome our sinful self to avoid these sins. We may not be culpable for a sin that we are not aware of, for example that missing Mass is a mortal sin. BUT are we ignorant of these sins due to a lack of desire to serve Christ as effectively as possible? This would make us willfully ignorant. It is like some Jehovah’s Witnesses I know. They are generally very good people and are better at avoiding sin than most Catholics I know. (This is because they enforce their teachings.) Yet, they refuse to even accept historical fact that refutes their belief system. They won’t even do the research. They won’t even allow their minds to investigate the facts of Church teaching because they are told not to. Are they culpable for this? Does the Bible specify that we must do deep research in order to discover the truth?

  12. robtbrown says:

    The key word in Apostolicam Actuosam is “opportunity”, which to me means making sure the time is right. Otherwise, it’s possible to win the battle but lose the war.

  13. Brian Cannon says:

    I believe that the lion’s share of the good fruits that come from following a properly formed conscience are somewhat mysterious and only unfolded with the passing of time. The upcoming Sunday gospel about the planting and maturing of grain I think bears this out. We shouldn’t seek to control the growth that is the working of God. I think the type of manipulation of legalities that the writer is wrestling with is one of the great temptations of our times; constructing shields from responsibilities. “Helicopter parents” and the like. We have to trust that God’s way is ultimately better for a person, even if the knowledge of the truth produces some suffering. Maybe suffering, or change, is needed to facilitate the growth that God intends. The truth is best even if it stings or inconveniences.

    I could be wrong. If I am and we are supposed to manipulate legalities I have a new plan: The Church should officially canonize everyone who dies. After all, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven…” Bam, the universal salvation Christ longs for accomplished with one little policy. You’re welcome.

  14. mysticalrose says:

    This still leaves open the question of whether or not one would be responsible for turning a venial sinner into a mortal sinner . . . Since full knowledge is necessary for any mortal sin to be a mortal sin, wouldn’t telling the person make things worse for them? Or, perhaps there are some mortal sins that don’t require full knowledge to be mortal, like sins against the natural law? I have never quite understood this. To make this more concrete: are all Protestants who use birth control in a state of mortal sin, since it is a grave act against nature? Or, are only Catholics who use birth control guilty of mortal sin since they know better?

  15. robtbrown says:

    Mystical Rose,

    Great question:

    1. There is no such thing as retroactive culpability. The culpability of what was done in ignorance doesn’t increase later when knowledge is acquired.

    2. Of course, we cannot assume invincible ignorance. And so it is possible that there is grave culpability for the ignorance accompanying the act.

  16. Imrahil says:

    Dear Mystical Rose,

    every practically relevant sin, apart from missing Sunday Mass, is (at least among other things) a “sin against natural law” – not just (as you perhaps intended to say) the ones for which the actual term is “crying to Heaven for vengeance”.

    But no, there is not one sin whatsoever which is mortal outside full knowledge. The only thing there may be is sins that (our stomach-feeling tells us) are not usually even committed outside full knowledge. My own stomach-feeling, for instance, would say that people do not usually commit the greater felonies of the statute book, or adultery, or abortion without having to actively shout down their conscience.


    our reverend host gave a very good answer.

    I might add that to really consider the sins as as ugly as a vomiting ugly dress (which we might still be silent about if we don’t foresee a reaction other than putting on a yet uglier dress),

    it is (in my humble opinion) essential to have an understanding not just that the sins are sinful, but why they are. With “God demands it” and “the Church demands it” we may, when the temptation is hard, succeed in disciplining ourselves, but that’s it. St. John Henry – and that was 150 years ago – already said that in the boys in the street in his time, threatening them if sinning with hell would produce no other effect than their adding a blasphemy to their sins (I don’t want to look it up now, but he did say it). Today, that’s the state of not just the boys in the street, but almost the society as a whole.

    And even with ourselves – that thing about being saved by ignorance is fine enough; one thing, it is the truth (though, yes, not with an automatism), another thing, many may come to Heaven through just such a backdoor which is a good thing. But then, who does not know the emotional reaction, “if those who don’t know can get off of this duty – why in all the world did anybody ever tell me? why then can’t I be ignorant?” [Indeed, some have conjectured that for just such reasons, people sometimes even consciously built a state of ignorance, in the last decades.]

    The answer is of course that the prohibition of sin is not an additional burden for the Catholics, but because noone in his right mind ever would wish to commit them. (The critical point here is the “right mind” which we, in that sense, don’t altogether have.) It’s because the dress is so ugly, period – not just because it doesn’t appeal to the arbitrary likings of the bouncer (of the club where we want to go to).

    Another note: just because “not speaking when speaking would cause more harm than being silent” might on very many occasions lead to the practical equivalent of not admonishing at all, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Discretion must be. Although the duty of fraternal correction applies to laymen and clergy alike, there is a difference in practice.

    In any case, a Catholic must not, of course, lie. Not praising the bad behavior, answering “you’re Catholic aren’t you? why can’t you Catholics, etc.? and do you really take that seriously?*” piously, can, at times, be both hard enough and also telling enough.

    [*And please do not say, as much too many best-intentioned people do: “well, our morality is, in fact, impossible to act upon, but after all we can Confess again afterwards”. That would be (I do not say “consciously”, this is not an accusation!) a sort of Lutheran-Calvinist grace with the addition that it must be channeled through the Catholic sacrament. We are not bound to do the impossible, and, as traditional Protestants do, override the fact that the impossible is impossible by autosuggestion. We commit actual sins, i. e., fail to do something obligatory which is possible; and we actually repent of our sins and form, in Confession, the actual resolution not to do them anymore (a perhaps arduous, but possible thing) – and maybe, just maybe, in some little point we, with God’s grace, really succeed in it.]

  17. mysticalrose says:

    Robotbrown and Imharil: thanks.

    Imharil: no, I really meant sins against the natural law. My point is this, if full knowledge is required for a mortal sin to be mortal, who could ever be guilty of mortal sin except a Catholic? In other words, a Hindu would have a better chance of getting to heaven than a fallen Catholic . . . I know this can’t be correct, but where is the flaw in my thinking? Thoughts?

  18. Veritatis Splendor says:

    On fraternal correction, we can turn to II-II, Q.33 of the Summa Theologica. Article 1 explains how it is an act of charity and articles 2 and 3 explains how it must be done by all, not just priests and bishops. However, article 5 explains how it must not be done by someone who is in mortal sin, and article 6 explains how the precept to perform it does not apply to laymen when the person would become worse by the admonition.

    From this, I could see how a priest might think that a layman informing a friend that something they are not likely to stop doing is sinful would only cause them to become worse. There might be some precedent in refusing baptism to children who have little to no hope to be raised in the faith. The priest has no such possible escape though, since it is his job to heal souls, and sometimes a doctor must treat his patients even when they resist treatment. Still, in this particular case, Fraternal Correction (or more specifically, fraternal instruction) should be done except if the person instructing knows that the person being instructed will not desist, such as in Imrahil’s case. There might be other ways to phrase it that could elicit a more helpful response, since threatening with hellfire is not very effective anymore, due especially to a poor reading of Matthew 7, which is often used to claim immunity from Fraternal Correction using II-II, Q.33, A.5.

  19. Imrahil says:

    Dear mysticalrose,

    thanks for the answer. The thing is that to me you seemed to be speaking of a rather small and “very bad” category of sins called the sins against the natural law…

    My point is this, if full knowledge is required for a mortal sin to be mortal, who could ever be guilty of mortal sin except a Catholic? In other words, a Hindu would have a better chance of getting to heaven than a fallen Catholic . . . I know this can’t be correct, but where is the flaw in my thinking? Thoughts?

    First note: while I agree that this “can’t be correct”, it would not be logically contradictory. One could, but for the revolt of our heart, say that “of those who have been given more, more is demanded” and many other edifying [/irony] thoughts along those lines; and this many modern devotional authors actually have done.

    Now, that cannot be, though. It is a gift of God that we may be Catholic; undeserved and all, yes; but it is not a punishment. We must have it easier, not harder, than the non-Catholics.

    [It will not have escaped you that this time I am not appealing to stringent logic. I am appealing to – mine and your, and I guess most Catholics’ – emotion and postulating that thing as an axiom, more or less. I do say though, in logic, that only if this holds then our love for the unbelievers can be a motivating force in missionary work.]

    Anyway, the point is, I guess, the rather simple one that you needn’t be a Catholic to know that what you’re doing is wrong. I guess we think too much of sin as we would of error. That may occasionally be the case; yes, sins do stem from error and are still sins, and yes, errors may be sins (depends on how much vincible the thing is). But the typical case of a sin is still something adverse to both objective law and the sinner’s own conscience, and that problem, for sure, the non-Catholics have as well.

    [But if you are Catholic, it is easier not to do the sin. How many Catholics are getting themselves in line for the specific reason that they want to be in a state that allows them to Communicate? I’m certainly one of them. – It is also easier to not attach too much importance to one’s own sins, and despairing because of them.]

  20. slainewe says:

    I guess I’m missing something. When we perform our duty of admonishing the sinner, is it not the Holy Ghost Who determines the outcome? [The Holy Spirit does not violate our free will.] How can I not hope for the best outcome every time, no matter how useless my effort may appear to me? Is not the Lord powerful to save?

    It seems blasphemous to me to think Truth can damage a soul. Even worrying about such a thing seems above my pay grade. (How can I even possibly know such a thing since I can’t read souls?) My duty is clear: “Admonish the sinner!” If I don’t, then I sin. (And, since I am not a brave person, I do a lot of confessing!)

    [This all reminds me of a friend whose mother taught her that if she walks by a piece of litter without picking it up, it becomes her piece of litter.]

  21. slainewe says:

    “[The Holy Spirit does not violate our free will.]”

    Thank you, Father. Yes, I understand this. But doesn’t the Holy Spirit determine how the sinner takes the admonition; whether he sees his guilt or not?

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