Though the duty of Christians to correct one another goes back to the New Testament (Mt 18:35), for those charged with offering correction it has never been an easy task. St. Augustine wrestled with the issue of whether and how to correct sinners and heretics. “It is a deep and difficult matter to estimate what each one can endure,” he wrote. “And I doubt that many have become better because of impending punishment.... If you punish people, you may ruin them. If you leave them unpunished, you may ruin others. I admit that I make mistakes.... What trembling, what darkness” (Letter 95.3). Every church disciplines its members, penalizing those whose conduct is judged unsuitable for disciples of Jesus. For Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians, as well as Catholics, discipline is the hard edge of discipleship.
In recent weeks two Catholic women and members of a Midwestern parish were surprised by the penalties threatened or inflicted upon them. In April, Emily Herx, a Catholic teacher in Fort Wayne, Ind., was fired from her school after it was revealed that she had received in vitro fertilization treatments. Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend explained the firing, saying that priests must offer “correction” to parishioners. Earlier, Christa Dias, who worked at two Catholic schools in Cincinnati, was fired for using artificial insemination. And at Saint Mary’s Parish in Platteville, Wis., Bishop Robert Morlino reportedly threatened parishioners who had been critical of pastoral decisions made by their traditionalist clergy with interdict.
Both those rebuked and their fellow parishioners expressed surprise. “For two years my supervisor has known about it and said she was praying for us,” said Emily Herx, “so there was no warning.” Christa Dias echoed this. “I’ve always wanted to have a baby,” she said. “I didn’t think it would be a problem.” The head of the church finance council at St. Mary’s said, “There’s almost shock and awe.” News of these and other incidents lead us to reflect on the pastoral practice of discipline in the Christian community, especially at a time when charging others with unorthodox opinions or with leading an insufficiently Christian life has so often become enmeshed in the culture wars.
Professed Christians endeavor to lead a Christ-like life, and correction is in order when a person’s behavior fails in an egregious way to conform to that Christic pattern. Because the aim of correction, moreover, is reform of life, it should endeavor above all to educate those in question in a loving way. Educating parishioners and employees of Catholic institutions on the cost of discipleship, moreover, is always in order. The New Testament recommends a graduated process of correction, where the shock of public rebuke is avoided. Public correction, where necessary, is signaled in advance by earlier private efforts. First fellow Christians encounter each other one on one. If personal encounter fails, the next step is what we would today call a small-group intervention. Only when more private efforts fail is communal or public reprimand appropriate (Mt 18:15-17).
Furthermore, the Western Christian tradition of pastoral care is clear about how Christians should correct one another. Correction, even by those in authority, should be done with modesty (2 Tm 2:25; 2 Thes 3:15) and a due sense of one’s own sinfulness (Mt 7:5), understanding that judgment belongs to God alone (1 Cor 4:5; Mt 13:29). These pastoral cautions need to be applied especially in responding to self-appointed watchdog groups eager to condemn others. They should be strongly reminded that the tradition holds that where possible, correction should be done privately, not in public. That seems a pertinent and wise counsel, especially when the offenders are ignorant of church teaching. Those applying the discipline, moreover, should take into account how a public penalty for unwitting disobedience to church teaching may be as scandalous to many of the faithful in its way as the offense itself is to others.
In our contemporary situation, moreover, where impugning the character of others has become a habitual tactic in the culture wars, the traditional practice of private correction should be encouraged, especially among overzealous clerics and laypeople who seem to forget that correction is a duty of a charity that demands delicacy in its application. Solicitous of the good of all, including the accused, Augustine counseled that in the process of correction “nobody [should] render to someone evil for evil.” Critics should, therefore, try to avoid making a private offense public and refrain from forcing an issue into the public arena or tying a bishop’s hands, as is often the case. On being alerted to allegations, moreover, those in authority would do well to be wary of taking action until they have met face to face with the persons concerned.