How to Respond to Prodigal Catholic Public Figures?

COMMENTARY: Where the sins of our prominent Catholic family members abound, as they unhappily do, our prayers must abound all the more, and far more than our criticisms, however just.

Ary Scheffer, “St. Augustine of Hippo and His Mother St. Monica of Hippo,” 1846
Ary Scheffer, “St. Augustine of Hippo and His Mother St. Monica of Hippo,” 1846 (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

How do we respond effectively as Catholics to the tragically too common circumstance of Catholics in prominent positions blatantly betraying the Catholic faith? On the intentional killing of fellow human beings, the truth about the family, the revelation about the human person made in God’s image male or female, and Christ’s personal identification with the hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, imprisoned, migrant or someone otherwise in need? 

There is of course no single, concrete, detailed answer applicable in every time and place with every person. As Catholics, truth and love must always be part of our response, since without truth we leave others enslaved and without charity we are just a noisy gong. Prudence is always required to know best what to say, when to say it, and how. The other theological and cardinal virtues — faith in God, hope that people can change, courage to say things out of season, justice with regard to the real harms done, and moderation not to go too far too soon — are always similarly helpful. There is also the indispensable guidance and assistance of the Holy Spirit and his gifts. 

Because of their prominence, it’s fair to hold Catholics in public life to a higher standard than we would ordinary family members, but the way we treat those we care about can and should indeed help to ensure that we treat others with charity. 

I’d like to share three stories that present points of practical wisdom we can learn from the analogy of wayward family members.

The first has happened often in parish life. Parents or grandparents come to see me crestfallen, frustrated and at their wits’ end, over the situation of their children or grandchildren who have stopped coming to Mass, are cohabitating with a boyfriend or girlfriend, invalidly married, or in some other serious immoral situation. 

As if that’s not a big enough concern already, they then tell me that their children or grandchildren have stopped talking to them. When I ask what happened, the pattern is almost always the same. They recount that they gave witness to the truth, let their loved ones know that they were sinning, appealed to them to convert and go to confession, expressed their fear that they would go to hell if they died, and so on. 

“How did she respond?” I gently ask. “Terribly” is the basic reply. 

“How often would you say these things to him?” I query. “Almost every time I see him!” 

It’s certainly understandable that a faithful parent or grandparent would worry, even obsess, about the situation of a loved one in danger. If the person were in an ICU in danger of death, it is natural that the elder would struggle to think about anything else. Hence it makes sense that faithful parents and grandparents would similarly be preoccupied when their loved ones’ souls were in serious danger. 

But how they handle the situation matters — especially in circumstances when their loved ones are in denial about the moral qualification of their lifestyle, or when they feel trapped, powerless or too afraid to change it, bringing it up in every conversation as if it’s the only thing that matters is counterproductive. 

Not only can it stimulate people’s defensiveness to have their whole life summarized by the expression “living in sin,” or resentment over seeming to be more judged than loved — leading the person to “dig in” and remain in the situation out of a desire not to let the parent or grandparent “win” or incentivize his or her style of attempted persuasion — but it can unintentionally deteriorate the relational bridges that the loved one may need to come back to the communion of the faith. 

“What’s the right way to do it, Father?” several have desperately asked. 

“Your loved ones need to know the truth and where you stand,” I reply. “But you don’t need to remind them every time you see them.” 

For the call to conversion to be effective, in most circumstances it must be enveloped by a thick layer of love, rather than shrouded in shame, embarrassment, fear and what may seem like judgmentalism. That’s why in such situations it’s important to focus nine parts on loving as normal, and one part on illustrating that that love likewise extends to appropriate concern for their loved one’s soul, relationship with God and eternal happiness. 

The second story has to do with a question I get every time I give adult education talks on Catholics and politics: “Why don’t the bishops excommunicate pro-abortion Catholic politicians?” It’s a fair question that is often phrased with a mix of frustration and discouragement, and occasionally with a sense that they think the prelates are weak cowards, or asleep with their rod and staff, or even secretly pro-abortion. 

I generally begin by speaking about canon law on excommunication. But then I shift to prudence, as to whether they think excommunicating offending politicians will likely lead them to conversion and remove the scandal or get the politicians to dig in and try to use it to their political advantage — and perhaps even cause other unintended stumbling blocks to the faithful. 

As part of that dialogue I ask how we generally handle the situation of pro-abortion family members or those who otherwise take positions or live in ways contrary to Catholic faith and morals. Do we generally “excommunicate” them from Thanksgiving dinner? 

In large audiences, there are always a few who say they do. I politely ask what’s been the impact of that de facto familial exile. Does it lead the offending parties to conversion? Are the other family members happier as a result or does it weigh like a pall over the gathering? 

I’m grateful for the honesty of the interlocutors who have humbly admitted that it has not brought about conversions and in fact has divided the family with regard to those who “support” the ostracized family member versus those who “oppose.” 

For the vast majority who admit they don’t excommunicate family members, I ask why they don’t. In general, they say that they don’t think it will work to bring the individuals to repentance and they fear it will only drive the family further apart. They also admit that, with respect to the bad example that might be given to younger generations, they have a greater duty to teach the faith well and maturely: that loving a wayward uncle is not incompatible with helping them see that not all of his decisions are wise and holy ones. 

In these discussions, I generally encourage people to remember that bishops are asking themselves similar questions about balancing a clear witness to the truth and a call to conversion with helping people remember that they are beloved members of the family, even when they make sinful decisions. 

Similar practical wisdom should inform the way Catholic citizens as a whole approach Catholic public figures who oppose, rather than live by and proclaim, the Gospel. 

The last story is St. Monica. For 17 years she had to deal with the various moral problems of her pagan husband Patricius and her cantankerous mother-in-law, and then for 15 additional years she had to suffer the flagrant sins of her famous son Augustine. She patiently told the truth, forgave, loved and prayed. All three eventually converted. And because of 32 years of persevering prayer for their conversions, she, too, became a saint. 

St. Monica teaches us that in response to the sins of our family members and the disappointment and worry we experience as a result, we’re not called to become the wagging fingers of the Mystical Body of Christ but the calloused knees. We’re called not to “virtue signal” the truth as take-it-or-leave-it propositions with eternal consequences, but to announce the truth in affectionate charity, reminding them by our behavior of the love of the Father of the Prodigal Son. 

Where such sins of our prominent Catholic family members abound, as they unhappily do, our prayers must abound all the more, and far more than our criticisms, however just. 

We must never lose a profound sense of family — ecclesial and national — even if made dysfunctional by sin. 

We must always remember that persevering prayer, like Monica’s, does work, as does incessant charity, and through them, God makes saints.

Pilgrims take pictures of a replica of the Our Lady of Fatima statue, from the Marian shrine, after it arrived by boat in Lisbon for the week of the World Youth Day, Monday, July 31, 2023. The international World Youth Day will be held from Aug. 1 to 6, and the presence of Pope Francis is expected to bring hundreds of thousands of young Catholic faithful to Lisbon.

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