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
GO TO CONFESSION!