A Step in the Right Direction

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

When your brother does something wrong, go and correct him. If it’s your sister who’s sinning, go and correct her!

Before we rush off on a moral crusade to change the world, though, we need to listen carefully to this Gospel.An octagonal red sign with STOP written in white capitals

Jesus is teaching about “your brother”, which means a fellow-member of the Church community. If we are all committed Catholics, then we will want to live our lives according to Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is calling us to correct other people who have signed up to the same standards as we have. When he preached his challenge to correct the sinner, he was preaching to a Jewish audience who had a shared moral code. In our First Reading, Ezekiel was called to rebuke Israel – the nation which had made a special promise to follow God’s laws – and those individuals God pointed out to him.

Note also that Jesus talks about your brother ‘doing something wrong’. Often we get upset about the things that other people haven’t done… we feel hurt, let down, disappointed. But we should be slow to rush to judgment on these matters, because there could be a thousand good reasons why your sister or brother couldn’t do that thing, even if they’d made a solemn promise. In these cases, we need to keep our anger in check and gently ask the reason why.

Many moral acts depend on our personal circumstances. Nevertheless, our bishops at the Second Vatican Council, and St John Paul II, taught that there are certain human actions which are always so bad that there can never be a reason to justify them. The technical name for these things is “intrinsic evils”.

It makes sense to me that God would give us a clear way to know right and wrong in each generation, when new moral questions arise. Jesus gave St Peter the authority to teach and strengthen his brothers, and I recognise that through this, God is asking us to trust each Pope to teach us morals. This needs a big act of humility to admit that I don’t know best by my own powers of reasoning – true Christian humility!

This week, the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was asked whether he believed abortion was wrong even when a woman had been made pregnant against her will. Rarely for a politician, he gave a straight answer – yes, even in those circumstances, he said, abortion was not permissible. Because it is an intrinsic evil, it’s not possible for any of the hard cases we can come up with to make it OK. Right now, the law still recognises this in Ireland, but there’s pressure for change there too.

There are other actions the Catholic Church says are always wrong: examples include use of a weapon of mass destruction, genocide, torture, human trafficking, any sexual act outside of a true marriage between a man and a woman, and any intervention which makes a fertile sexual act deliberately infertile. These, and more, are listed by St John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (no. 80), who reminds us the idea comes from St Paul, who wrote (Rom 3:8) that we “cannot do evil so that good may come of it”.

We believe in a God who longs to forgive us, but before we can be forgiven, we must repent. And before we can repent, we must recognise that there is something wrong in our behaviour. Perhaps we’re not comfortable with some of these church teachings. At a human level, we can come up with all sorts of counter-arguments. But as Catholic followers of Jesus, the question that really matters is: “What is God’s teaching here?”

Some of us instinctively think of right and wrong in terms of rules and duties. If God says something is wrong, even though we foresee tough consequences in hard cases, we might be willing to swallow this bitter pill because it seems logical that there’s no other way around things.

Many of us will think of right and wrong in terms of consequences… we ask what decision would cause least pain to others? It’s right to want to minimise pain and maximise happiness, and when we are choosing between two possible good courses of action which may have side-effects, that’s the way we naturally make decisions. But intrinsic evils are different – we cannot choose to do evil directly so that good may come.

St Paul reminds us (Rom 8:28) that God turns all things to the good for those who love Christ Jesus. When we look at the possible consequences of a moral choice, do those consequences include God stepping in to help those who make a heroic decision to do the hard thing and follow God’s law? If we don’t believe that, what does this say about our lack of trust in God?

Meanwhile, we live in a world that doesn’t share these moral values. Sometimes members of our own family, even those who were brought up Catholic, won’t share them. And if you’ve ever tried to impose your moral values on someone else, you’ll know that’s a hiding to nothing.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to correct those who are not our brothers and sisters in the Church. He asks us to share Good News with them. The Good News is Jesus is real, and willing to forgive anything they already sense they’ve done wrong. THAT must be our starting point. Later, they will ask about Jesus’ teaching, and then we can share hard truths, when they are ready and willing to hear it. But that’s not where we should begin.

Today’s Gospel is one of the most challenging instructions that Jesus has given us. In today’s Second Reading, we heard that all commandments are summed up by “love your neighbour as yourself”. True love is tough love – if you love a fellow Christian, help them to avoid sin and become a saint. After all, isn’t that what you would want for yourself?