In an earlier post, I explained how St. Paul taught that divisions were sometimes necessary and useful for the Christian community. Denouncing gross immorality or error is an essential part of Christianity, especially for the clergy. St. Paul’s words are in startling contrast to the position of some people within the Church that subtly imply that it’s uncharitable or un-pastoral to correct another Christian who’s living in sin or dissenting from the faith.
There’s another blunt example from St. Paul that brings home a similar point of particular relevance to our bishops for the upcoming Plenary Assembly. The key takeaway is this: it’s okay for a bishop to disagree with his brothers who are in error. Even to publicly disagree. Sometimes there’s no other avenue.
In Chapter 2 of the Letter to the Galatians, Paul tells a story about how he confronted Peter in front of other disciples:
But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’ (Gal 2:11-14)
Notice that Paul didn’t hesitate to confront Peter “before them all” on a matter of great importance to the early Church. Peter was acting like a cowardly hypocrite and Paul felt the obligation to correct him. Was he being divisive or un-Christian? Quite the contrary. Admonishing the sinner has always been one of the spiritual works of mercy. Yes, admonishing the sinner is merciful.
This confrontation originally took place in front of a group of Christians at Antioch. But Paul didn’t stop there. He subsequently went public by telling the Galatians about it. The Holy Spirit then stepped it up a notch by including this epistle in the Canon of the Bible, thus ensuring that billions of Christians throughout history would know about Paul’s rebuke of Peter.
Why? Couldn’t this compromise the people’s faith in the first Pope? Wasn’t this scandalous?
In Catholicism, “scandal” refers to an external action, word or omission that is evil in itself and that leads someone else astray or causes them to sin. It is considered a grave matter to cause another to fall, as Christ taught:
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’ (Luke 17:1-4)
Did Paul’s words constitute scandal? Absolutely not! It was Peter who caused scandal by his hypocrisy. Paul tells us that many Jews in Antioch and even Barnabas were led astray by Peter. What a disaster. Paul did a great service to Peter and to the community by “rebuking the offender”. Peter caused scandal. Paul stopped it.
Since Peter’s actions were done in public and were leading others astray, Paul had to use some public means to correct the situation so that Barnabas and the other disciples could be corrected too. It would have been almost useless to just pull Peter aside and correct him in private. That alone would have done nothing to save Barnabas and the others.
Why did Paul bother telling this story to the Galatians? Probably because they had heard of Peter’s misbehaviour and were in danger of being misled by Peter’s example. In fact, as we read the Letter to the Galatians, it seems as though some of them were acting like Peter and were also in need of correction (read chapter 3). Peter’s scandal had spread. Do you see how a bad example can be so damaging? Thus the urgency to put out the fire ASAP.
May this serve as an inspiration for our bishops when they are confronted with gross dissent and disobedience. When such dissent is broadcast by the national media and reaches potentially millions of Christians, as in the case of Fr. Gravel, it becomes urgent that the rebuke be broadcast just as widely so that anybody who may have heard the false teaching can potentially be reached with the correct teaching. It would be of little use to pull Fr. Gravel aside in private to admonish him, without disseminating the correct teaching to the masses who’ve been misled.
Cardinal Ouellet understood this. Will others follow his example?