Is it possible to condemn a sin in the clearest possible terms, and yet love the person who commits the sin?
As we mark the 45th anniversary of the legalization of abortion in the United States, it's crucial that we answer this question correctly.
Contemporary culture wants to tell us that we can't do both: either we accept the person and endorse their actions, or we hate the person because we don't approve their behavior.
But what contemporary culture is saying is that following Jesus is impossible.
How did Jesus approach sin and sinners? Pope Paul VI explained it quite simply: Coming not to judge the world but to save it, He was severe against sin but patient and merciful to sinners ("Humanae Vitae," 29).
Some people think this combination of severity and patience isn't possible for us. But just because something is difficult doesn't mean it's impossible.
St. Paul, for example, knew himself as a sinner and an object of God's mercy: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost. But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all His patience as an example for those who would come to believe in Him for everlasting life" (1 Timothy 1:15-16). St. Paul shows us that the more we know ourselves as sinners who have received mercy, the more we can be both frank and merciful when it comes to the sins of others.
C.S. Lewis made the point with memorable clarity in "Mere Christianity:" "For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: How could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life — namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it." Lewis showed that we know how to apply this distinction to ourselves and our sins. The trick is learning to apply it to others and their sins.
Church teaching and practice regarding abortion is a great example of how we can follow Jesus' approach to sin and sinners. On the one hand, we offer prayerful opposition to abortion; on the other hand, we offer mercy to those who have been involved in abortion. On the one hand, we support legislation that seeks to limit abortions; on the other hand, we provide financial and material assistance to help mothers take care of their children, born and unborn.
In faith, we know that following Jesus' approach to sin and sinners is possible. Today, 45 years after Roe v. Wade, we need to do more than know it. More deliberately than ever, we need to show it.