Accompany the Sinner, or Accommodate the Sin?

A woman asked a friend to take her to the doctor’s office. She had a stressful medical procedure planned, and she needed her friend’s support. Her friend willingly agreed, and accompanied her throughout the process. The woman was happy to have this support during this stressful time.

Her medical procedure? An abortion.

Ecclesiastical Buzzwords

The latest buzzword in Catholicism today is “accompany.” By this is meant a “journeying together” with others, especially those who are in need or in irregular situations. A recent example of the emphasis can be found in Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s letter to the priests in his Archdiocese of Washington, DC. The subject of the letter is Amoris Laetitia, but a major theme is “accompaniment.” A few examples (emphasis added):

The emphasis [of Amoris Laetitia] is on pastoral discernment and accompaniment

The second activity on which the document focuses is ACCOMPANYING, the pastoral accompaniment of families by the community of the Church. In many ways this is an extension of listening and of the synodality to which it gives rise.  The journeying together of all of the members of the Church implies this accompaniment. But it also calls for a change in pastoral style and intensity…

Amoris Laetitia is not a list of answers to each individual human issue. Nor is it directed solely to the question of the reception of the Eucharist. The apostolic exhortation calls for a compassionate pastoral approach to many people – married, single, and divorced – who are struggling to face issues in life, the teaching of the Church, and their own desire to reconcile all of this. The exhortation is a call to compassionate accompaniment in helping all to experience Christ’s love and mercy…

I’m not picking on Cardinal Wuerl in this article, but he is an excellent bellwether for how the wind is blowing among high-ranking Church leaders. And there is no question that the promotion of “accompanying” has become the latest flavor of the month for many prelates and priests. But what does “accompanying” mean in the context of Christian evangelization and ministry? Unfortunately, and as usual today, Church leaders promote such buzzwords as doctrinal certainties to be accepted by the faithful (with any questioning harshly condemned), but nebulously define them. So each is left to determine for himself what is meant by “accompanying.” As we saw in the example given at the beginning of this article, however, accompanying itself is not an objective good – it is a morally neutral activity whose goodness or evil depends on what activity is being accompanied. If accompanying involves accommodating sin, then it is no Christian virtue.

Our Lord’s Accompaniment

As always, we should look to our Lord as the model for the proper way to practice accompaniment. No matter how popular a word – such as tolerance or mercy or accompany – may become in the Church, if its practice is not based on the example of Jesus Christ, then it should be rejected and resisted. One example of the Lord accompanying another in an “irregular” situation is his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42).  Jesus and his disciples are passing through Samaria, whose inhabitants had a strained relationship with the Jews. They decide to take a break in the city of Sychar. As the disciples go off to refresh their supplies, Jesus rests next to Jacob’s well. A woman approaches the well, and Jesus asks her for a drink of water. Note first that in a sense Jesus is already accompanying her: he isn’t rejecting her as a Samaritan or a woman – he talks to her. He is, in a popular phrase used today, “coming alongside her.” As is typical for the Lord, he uses this common exchange as an opportunity to dive into deeper, spiritual issues. This is another example of accompaniment. Jesus takes a physical need of the woman’s – thirst – and uses it to launch into a more important discussion about spiritual needs, telling her,

“Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” (Jn 4:13-15)

So Jesus is using this moment of “accompanying” to lead this woman to a deeper understanding of spiritual realities. He is not content to merely walk alongside her, however. He wants to lead her to a specific destination: discipleship. What is interesting for our purposes here is the response Jesus gives the women’s inquiry, right when he has the Samaritan woman on the cusp of that discipleship.

Before looking at Christ’s response to the Samaritan woman, think of the typical response someone today is expected to give when an inquirer comes looking for spiritual answers. We will bend over backwards to welcome him, and we will do all we can to answer the questions in a way that satisfies his curiosity. In short, we will strive to do nothing that might turn the inquirer away.

This was my attitude leading inquiry meetings at my parish years ago. I did everything I could to make the inquirers feel comfortable and relaxed. I gave answers that would put the inquirer at ease, and worded them in the least offensive way possible. Never would I consider doing anything that might embarrass the inquirer or make him feel uncomfortable.

But what does Jesus say to the inquiring Samaritan woman? “Go, call your husband, and come here” (Jn 4:16). At first glance, it appears that Jesus just wants to include the woman’s whole household in this path to salvation. However, we find this wasn’t Christ’s purpose in asking this question. The woman answers, “I have no husband.” Jesus responds, ” You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly” (Jn 4:17-18).

Picture this same scenario playing out at the local parish. A priest throwing a woman’s marriage history in her face and then noting the irregular status of her current relationship! It wouldn’t surprise me if a letter was on the bishop’s desk within a day or two, and the priest dragged down to the chancery for a sharp rebuke and perhaps some “re-education.” Yet this is exactly what Jesus does: he sees the barrier that the Samaritan woman’s immoral life is to her conversion, and so he confronts it head-on. She simply couldn’t keep living like she was and become a disciple of Jesus Christ. Our Lord obviously knew that such a confrontation could lead her to reject him, but he cared enough for her soul that he had to challenge – not accommodate – her sinful lifestyle. He refused to “accompany” her in her immoral lifestyle, for that would be accommodating a path that could lead to destruction.

Choose the Path on Which to Accompany

Today the term “accompany” has too often meant “accommodate.” We need to be clear about what exactly “accompany” means. It does mean loving sinners and helping those in need. It doesn’t mean ignoring or enabling sin, or offering the Sacraments for those not eligible to receive them.

We must always keep our end-goal in mind: conversion. When we accompany another, we do so in order to lead them down a path to communion with Christ. This is the only path that leads to eternal happiness, and to accommodate another’s sin only accompanies them on the path to eternal destruction.

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