Accompanying Those Innocently in Error

Cardinals, bishops, and priests who promote the “New Morality” believe that pastoral accompaniment requires accepting the behavior of anyone whose conscience is firmly, yet innocently, mistaken (for example, regarding sexuality).

In reality, this approach withholds the grace-filled truth Jesus brings to correct both guilty and innocent consciences, so that we can live freely and abundantly. Rather than give rein to error, the Good Shepherd sent the Church to teach the world “to observe all that I have commanded.”

To appreciate the true scope and purpose of pastoral accompaniment, we must recognize that Christ isn’t solely focused on sin and pardon. Were His concerns that narrow, we could, like the supporters of the New Morality, leave people to languish in innocent error. But He has an infinitely greater goal: our sharing in His life and saving work.

By uniting us to Himself in the transforming, ongoing conversion of metanoia lived in fidelity to Him and His Gospel, Jesus frees us from both sin and error. He thereby reorders our identity and life so that as children of God we can become whole and help heal others through our witness and prayer.

To rightly accompany people mistaken about their identity and the purpose of life, Church ministers and lay members must avoid two extremes. We can’t treat them as wicked when they innocently act wrongly and we can’t leave them ignorant of Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life.

Such an approach requires taking seriously the damage caused by innocent errors. The sincerity of a mistake excludes culpability – but not consequences. Accidently poisoning someone still kills him. Teaching that sexual activity outside marriage is natural or beneficial doesn’t prevent the physical, psychological, and spiritual harm that can be done to a person, and overflows to partners, families, and communities.

Compassionately dispelling errors thus promotes a better life for everyone. And indicating that someone is wrong helps free them. This type of correction is a service, not a condemnation.

The practitioners of the New Morality insist instead that it’s unrealistic and wrong to announce the truth to those sincerely and steadfastly in error. They claim people with a clear conscience must be “welcomed” and “affirmed” as fully integrated members of the Church, including being admitted to Holy Communion.

Note the radical implication: the Church must cease publicly addressing errors to avoid causing offense. Proclaiming that any specific belief or behavior (for instance, ethnic prejudice or unmarried sexual activity) violates the love of God and neighbor could result in some sincere person feeling judged.

The logic goes further. Compassion for those in error isn’t enough: we must accept the mistaken aspects of their identity and behavior as good. After all, it wouldn’t be very “affirming” if we merely “tolerated” those aspects because we considered the person ignorant of the truth or incapable of living it.


These misguided suppositions are evident, for example, in the New Moralists’ troubling approach to homosexual partnerships. They loudly invoke the teaching on sincere conscience to affirm such unions, but hide that the teaching also holds homosexual activity sinful for anyone who correctly understands sexuality and acts freely. The movement’s leaders now propose to overcome that inconsistency by declaring such bad behavior morally good.

But if the Church can’t publicly proclaim the truth about human life and Christians can engage in any conscience-approved behavior, what becomes of her unified, faithful witness to Christ and His liberating, life-giving Good News? The New Morality doesn’t enhance the Church’s mission; it stifles the Gospel and human flourishing.

Pastoral accompaniment of those who are mistaken must be rooted in Jesus. He didn’t hide the truth or exempt those innocently in error from needing to change their hearts and minds. He called everyone to undertake the metanoia of laying aside both sin and error in order to live freer and richer lives in Him.

Christ proclaimed the truth compassionately and hopefully, promising to be with us and to make fidelity possible regardless of circumstance. He knew many listeners would feel confused or judged and that some would leave, but He insisted there’s no other path to life.

The Church, then, properly accompanies those in error only by consistently bringing them Jesus – His truth, and love. That requires disciplining members of His body who, innocently or not, depart from the Gospel. Otherwise, the Church would cease aiding the wounded and fostering a communal witness.

That witness is a participation in Christ and His work through which the Church and her members make present the transforming life He offers. This “living Gospel” draws others, unites them to Jesus, and empowers them to live as God’s children. It helps them discover their true identity and the eternal meaning of their joys and sorrows. Most importantly, it schools them in a love capable of sacrificing to observe Christ’s commands in every situation, even surrendering family or life, because He first sacrificed Himself for them.

If some people find they can’t, in conscience, live this way, they’re not abandoned. Jesus offers His grace outside the sacraments. The Church’s witness, compassion, and prayer continue to embrace them.

The reason they can’t share completely in ecclesial life isn’t sin; it’s their false witness. They innocently deny some truth about Jesus, His Gospel, and authentic human life. Ensnared in that harmful error, they reject the Church’s witness and correction. Hence, they obviously aren’t willing or able to join entirely in her life and mission.

Accompanying such people with the living Gospel can enlighten and free them. If they eventually accept Christ’s commands (and the struggle to live accordingly), they’re welcome to fully participate in the Church as we together seek God’s gifts of forgiveness and faithfulness.

What none of us is allowed to do – Cardinals, bishops, priests, or laity – is to substitute conscience for the Gospel lived, proclaimed, and handed down by Christ in His Church. Jesus, not our sincere judgment, is the authentic source and measure of every person’s identity and life. No other accompaniment can heal and save us.


*Image: Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1618 [Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia]. “Certain of the justice and morality of his position, Christ, and his disciples as they take in the words of their teacher, stand against the Pharisees, on whose faces we can read lack of comprehension, annoyance, and even anger.”

Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek, STD has been a priest of the Diocese of Austin since 1985 and is currently pastor of Assumption parish in the city of West. His studies were in Dogmatics with a focus on Ecclesiology, Apostolic Ministry, Newman, and Ecumenism. His new book is As I Have Loved You: Rediscovering Our Salvation in Christ (Emmaus Road Publishing). Click here to watch Scott Hahn interview Fr. Vaverek about about the book.