Christian Correction

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.

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Nicholas Clifford
8 years 4 months ago
This editorial appears to deal only with cases in which those in positions of authority should seek to correct the actions of those under them. But does not the duty of Christian correction apply also to those who see their superiors engaged in practices that contradict Christian teachings?
I should hate to think that the "Catholic" virtue of obedience to superiors somehow trumped Christian obligations towards our fellows (take the Philadelphia archidioceses as an example, for instance).
Paul Bradford
8 years 4 months ago
It's telling that, in both cases, the offence was related to 'reproductive behavior' and that, in both cases, only the female was punished.  Surely, neither practice (artifical insemination or in vitro fertilization) can be accomplished without the willing cooperation of a male.  In fact, both practices could be completely eliminated if males were to submit to Church teaching on the issue - even if female behavior was overlooked completely.

Just sayin' 
Alfred Chavez
8 years 4 months ago
The cases of in vitro fertilization seem odd because once the deed is done, how can a process of correction even take place?  And whether they were surprised by the firings is just as puzzling.  These weren't uneducated individuals likely to be unaware of the vigorous debate that has occurred on these issues over the past many years.  Perhaps they were ignorant of all that's been said and the stromng positions the Church has taken, but if that's true, why were they teaching at Catholic institutions?  

I also wonder about the parishoneers in Bishop Morlino's case.  Is the author here knowledgeable whether the proscribed correctional steps had been taken before the public warning?

Whatever the case, the message in this piece is a good one.  Well worth remembering on all sides. 
Anne Grady
8 years 4 months ago
"Every church disciplines its members, penalizing those whose conduct is judged unsuitable for disciples of Jesus."

Usually when one hears about "unsuitable conduct" the conduct is criminal not simply a couple trying to have a baby.  Or you see a right wing bishop chastising publically a Democrat like in the case of Senator Kerry for supporting abortion rights and birth control.

Alfred Chavez
8 years 4 months ago
PatK, isn't it possible that only the female was known in the in vitro cases?  (c.f., recent article in Time magazine on sperm donors.)  Or that the donor was dead akready?  (c.f., recent USSC decsion on whether an in vitro child of a dead man could receive SS benefits on the dead father's account)
Vincent Gaitley
8 years 4 months ago
Frankly, I'm not sure most Catholics know that various infertility treatments are proscribed.  Punishing a Catholic couple in any fashion over this issue is simply a bad strategy.  As this editiorial states care must be taken when offering correction.  Better said, choose your battles carefully.  The public punishment, especially employment discipline, over infertility makes the Church look outrageous and insensitive-doctrinally correct but morally boorish.  The Church gets no sympathy from its members on this issue.  Ask the offender to pray and repent, but how can an employee be fired for an improper fertilization while bishops remain who harmed children?  The pews empty before our eyes.  
Andrew DiLiddo
8 years 4 months ago
NO matter where I go, empty pews, empty pews in so many parishes that when the basket is passed there are no people to pass it from one to another.  Starve the beast as we are being starved. 
Andrew DiLiddo
8 years 4 months ago
A very good editorial.  Not much teaching on this subject from the magisterium in my experience although I am aware of the references to St. Augustine even though those were not covered in my 2nd grade catechism or thereafter.  There are different levels of correction described here:  Employer to employee, Church to parishioner, elder to younger, peer to peer.  As a lay person, this article has had heuristic value among those Catholics with whom I work.  We've discussed frequently in the past among our ourselves how "thin-skinned" our co-workers in the vineyard are and how very few know how to accept correction gracefully and how very few know how to deliver correction gracefully and with love.  Maybe it could be that there are few people modeling this virtue for us in the public square.  A laughable moment comes to mind from just a couple of weeks ago.  I was participating in a fund raiser for the parish with about 20 others.  We were having a big garage sale & flea market on the front lawn of the church in front of the rectory.  I noticed that our workers were wandering around aimlessly trying to look busy but nothing was actually being set out to sell under the tents or on the tables.  The chairwoman of the event is a lovely lady who had done this before and was experienced.  A friend and I went into the basement of the rectory where the merchandise was stored and being priced by the chairwoman.  We aksed her why everyone was merely wandering and nothing was getting done.  She replied:  " I don't want to say anything to anyone and hurt their feelings."  My friend, a younger woman said to her:  "Tell me what you want done, and I'll tell them!"  My friend essentially volunteered as Sargent on the spot and started spouting orders supplied to her by the chairlady, too timid to do it herself. The direction my friend supplied was welcomed by the aimless workers. It came off wonderfully with net proceeds of $1100.00.  Some of us are given a gift of EXHORTATION and we need to EXHORT
8 years 4 months ago
How can a person look to a church for moral guidance when it is so backword. I can see a corrective role related to hurting others, dishonesty, or other unchristian acts. But using modern methods for reproduction would never make my list and Ithink I am a morally sensitive person. I agree with others who point out how this kind of behavior on the part of church officials discourage catholics to continue or to come back to their church. 
Further it continues to  undermine the moral authority of a church that is already seen as an institution whose leadership cannot be trusted except on a very individual basis.
Robert Dean
8 years 4 months ago
I'm with those commenters who are saying (using different words):

"Look, fellas, I no longer feel free to leave minor children in your care for fear they'll be traumatized for the rest of their lives by one of you ... or allowed with impunity by others of you to remain in "ministry" to do yet more catastrophic harm to these most-vulnerable of those in your care ... and YOU'RE correcting ME?  Help me, fellas, to understand how the reality of my well-founded (and, as a convert to the Church thirty years ago, profoundly-reluctantly-accepted) mistrust of you doesn't overwhelmingly trump by the proverbial country mile almost every one of your minor-by-comparison 'concerns.'

"Killing a fetus is terrible.  So is killing a spirit.  Those two heinous acts really are almost identical.  I'd remind you (and my mind reels at the fact that a reminder to you people seems indicated) that post-birth children ALSO have a right to life.

"Help me understand, fellas, how you're any different from any other typical perp, who seduces and then bullies to condition vulnerable people into self-blaming submission.  (We mental-health types who try to help people pick up the pieces of their lives shattered by these perps call it 'kick and kiss.')

"The day AFTER every proven-guilty man-jack of you is out of the Church and in prison where you belong is the day I start giving a damn about your 'correction.' "
Michael Schlacter
8 years 4 months ago
As I read todays readings this thought went through my mind...why don't our Shepherds shepherd us and not flog us.  Why not just try to love us and not beat us...why not try to practice what Jesus did.  Also why don't the Shepherds get together on all topics, as the Chatechism suggest they do, before running liberal or conservative attacks from their own corner of the sheepfold to push their own agenda, further disunifying the Church, as they have done since the early days of the Church. Several weeks ago Jesus spoke of us being one. The Shepherds need to shepherd, not drive the sheep out into the wilderness to be further consumed by the world.
8 years 4 months ago
Matthew 18:35 and in vitro fertilization.  It's a beautiful day this Pentecost 2012. God is good. Somehow He is the author of all life and even died that we may have life forever and have it more abundantly. 

So a friend confides to you that his/her school-age children's birthing process was facilitated by in vitro fertilizaton.  Are those children worthy of receiving the body and blood of Jesus today and of become the epitome of human and spiritual perfection like our bishops?

NO. But neither are we nor are the bishops themselves more worthy.  God calls us all, anyway.

Thanks for the editorial. America is a sign that someone is listening to us, if not always to the "correcting" bishops, as Kent Dean notes, at least then to the angels and instruments of communication which reach out to us in our goodness and sinfulness and, especially, in our cries for hope and courage.
8 years 3 months ago
Thank you for a very balanced reflection on 'correction' and 'discipline' as it ought to be exercised in a Christian community. As I read your thoughts, I can't help thinking of the 'spirit' of Canon Law regarding 'excommunication': "the Church binds only to loose." In other words, "excommunication' is not meant to be 'the last word' but an invitation to reconsider one's position ... to reconsider it in the context of mutual dialogue where one has the right to speak as well as to listen ... a dialogue characterized by a deep sense of mutual love and respect. In our society, with all of our culture wars, I fear that some of our Church leaders have fallen into the trap, sounding more like politicians than the shepherds they claim to be.
Weldon Nisly
8 years 3 months ago
A reminder that comments without full and real names will not be posted. Thank you.
Bridget O'Brien
8 years 3 months ago
A correction: while both women taught at Catholic schools, neither is herself Catholic:
Melody Evans
8 years 3 months ago
Great article.  I loved the St Augustine quotes.

Having been raised in a Protestant church, I have heard many a sermon on the proper form of correction or "church discipline."  Only once did I hear about it getting to the public point (and just like what Paul Bradford said above, it was a woman and she was pregnant and no man was 'disciplined').  When it has been preached on it was about leadership correcting parishioners but it was also applied to personal relationships.  As I was reading the article what came to my mind though was how I interact with leadership.  A kind of bottom up correction (not sure if 'correction' would be the right word here).  I have been vocal (and public) about not liking certain decisions made by church leadership.  I have posted publicly on Facebook about what I don't like in my Archbishop's decisions.  But I have not gone to him in private to voice my strong disagreements.  I have talked with friends about the possibility of writing a letter but then scraped it.  So the above article made me feel a little convicted.

Just one more thought... when I looked up the Matthew 18 scriptures it struck me as fitting that the section on correcting a fellow believer was followed by the parable of the unforgiving debtor.  While I need to be respectful and private when dealing with disagreements or when I feel 'sinned' against, I also need to be a forgiver.
Patricia Dilgard
8 years 3 months ago
The scriptural references quoted by the editors are aimed at preventing gossip in the faith community. It is a sin to make someone's private sin public. I can find nothing about the reported facts that indicate that anyone other than Ms. Herx went public after she was fired and decided to file a lawsuit. Her complaint is not that her sin was made public since she doesn't consider it a sin. Her complaint is she lost her job. " was descriminated against."  There is nothing in scripture that says an employer cannot be fired. In the real world people are fired for violating company policy , misusing e-mail, dressing improperly, getting drunk in public, publishing nude photos of themselves. This is a simple employer-employee dispute.  The issue is a legal one-what are the limitations placed on a Catholic institution in terminating an employee who violated church policy. The editors have chosen to turn this into a moral issue, which it is not. If the school's reason for existing is to educate children in Catholic morality shouldn't they have right to demand that their teachers model Catholic behavior. Well, if I think in vitro fertilization is ok I am on the side of the plaintiff. What if her behavior was something I found reprehensible, e.g.  posting nude pictures on a dating site.? Are the editors saying that dioceses cannot fire employees ? 

Jim McCrea
8 years 3 months ago

"Every church disciplines its members, penalizing those whose conduct is judged unsuitable for disciples of Jesus."

John 8:7

Matthew 7:1

Romans 2:1

Robert Killoren
8 years 3 months ago
Ok, Tim... You pulled my comment because I wrote a comment that I think was important to say but I also wanted toro text myself from retribution from certain directions, not the least being bishops to whom I have mde an vow of obedience. Is a conscientious objector required to put himself in harm's way before what he has to say is valid? Was what gay military personnel have to say invalid because they wanted to protect their identity so they were not dishonorably discharged? Would confidentiality of a young woman who wanted or needed to share her story about getting an abortion be rejected? I know people in my home parish, not where I am now, have read some of my comments before because they talk to me about them. I was writing about the vulnerability of clergy who speak out against what some of the bishops are saying. In this politically charged environment every time we say something someone disagrees with they report us to the bishop. Maybe you could cut us some slack sometime if what we have to say we say it anonymously. Or do you expect martyrdom from all?
8 years 3 months ago

Respectfully, for most of us the episcopal caretaker of sheep and goats popularly  called  “Bishop” is the highest religious superior with the authority to issue Christian Correction, but it must  always be done  with love, compassion and insight as Jesus would do.  No one should contest that. The loving attention shown by the “sheep and goat herder,” the Bishop, should never threaten with punishment “interdict” complaints from within the flock against “traditionalist clergy” whatever that means, as sheep and goats have a sixth sense in picking up predatory threats from “hunters” (traditionalists?) who tend to devour the flock with their own self-interests. The truth is, they often   possess a mind-set that in the past produced scandal, upon scandal in the Church, a kind of “do as I say not as I do” mentality. Unfortunately I’ve seen that too often at every level of the human experience. In the long and short run they scatter the sheep and goats, sending the “sheep herder” into a panic!  Then the staff and rod come crashing down for the most part unproductively. And in heaven Jesus says, “Father, I guess I wasn’t clear enough!”

Here’s a true story about   a Religious Superior exercising his authority with near asininity who survived disaster by the sheep and goats he tried to whip into line.  This “Boss Man” was an exemplary Religious and priest, as Superior a terror, demanding perfection in observance of all the rules, hard on himself and hard on everybody else and very judgmental driven by
“purity of intention” in getting all to fall in line.  

He was what the “Big Boss” the Provincial, the Fr. General, the  Bishop , the Pope, would call a “good religious.” Then death came and as he lay dying, the “good religious” was tormented by thoughts that God would treat him severely, recalling the words of Jesus, “As you judge, so shall you be judged!” It took repeated assurances from priests and Brothers around his deathbed to finally quiet him into peaceful acceptance that the mercy of God would forgive his harsh judgmental behavior towards those who depended on him for understanding love and forgiveness. Thankfully the good but tormented Religious and priest died in peace.

That experience has been very formative for me. Our Religious Superiors at every level, indeed the whole Church should take heed and although no one may ever make righteous a wrongdoing, there is a way to do it, It’s called   GENTLE PURSUATION. And PUTTING YOURSELF IN THE SHOES OF OTHERS realizing that "except for the  the Grace of God, there  go I!” 


james keating
8 years 3 months ago
presumably correction should be accomplished in private except when the editors of America want to publicly correct their brother, the Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
Adam Krueckeberg
8 years 3 months ago

Your editorial "Christian Correction" (June 4, 2012) brought to light an important example of the incivility that seems to characterize much of our intraecclesial dialogue today.  The power relationships between the ordained clergy and members of the laity that are involved make it twice as important to engage with one another in a loving and Christ-like fashion.  While I am in complete agreement with the author's assessment of the situation, as well as with the solutions offered, I am concerned that publishing those solutions in an "America" editorial may be perceived as hypocritical. 

While couched in very pastoral language, and well supported scripturally, the editorial is, itself, offered as a "correction" to the behavior of those Church officials whose actions appear to privilege hierarchical discipline over loving relationship.  Further, this correction is made in the most public of forums - a national Catholic magazine.  It may be that the editors have already spoken 1:1 with Bishops Rhoades and Morlino, and have engaged them in small group settings, but if so no mention is made within the article. 

As a "watchdog" America Magazine has a reputation for acting with restraint and modesty.  By practicing the type of dialogical relationship espoused in the editorial, the publication's reputation and influence can only grow stronger, guided by the Spirit and for the common good of all God's Church.

8 years 3 months ago
I concur with the article, and with most of the comments, that the "corrections" were harsh and unjustified.

In both cases, the women were trying to carry out the fundamental goal of marriage: to have children.  (The arricle doesn't say whetheror not they have other children.)

It's unfortunate that similar "corrections" had not been carried out against priests known to be child molesters (that small minority of priests), rather than simply transferring them to another dioscese.

The stench of hypocracy is evident.

It might not be too long before the type of "correction" returns to the Old Days, with public flogging.

John Barbieri
8 years 2 months ago
What will it take for the church to get over its' obsession with sex?


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