A woman I’ll call Marcia, an acquaintance of mine who was raised a Catholic, recently got married and quit her job as head nurse at an abortion clinic. She has had no obvious conversion experience, and is quite vocal in opposing the Church’s teaching on abortion. Both Marcia and her husband, also raised Catholic, were married before. She knew this man had been sterilized, but shortly after they married she began to want a baby. He said he would support whatever she wished to do. A physician who is a friend of hers injected her with frozen semen from a donor she does not know; she became pregnant, and now has a lovely baby girl.
While Marcia makes me uncomfortable, she keeps seeking my friendship. She likes me because, she says, I’m “such a good Catholic, so conservative.” I am not sure I want her friendship or that associating with these people would be good for my husband and children. Still, despite everything, she is a sweet person. I have not had the courage either to voice my disapproval of her choices (though, of course, she knows my views) or avoid her altogether.
May I—should I—carry on a friendly relationship with Marcia, hating the sin but loving the sinner? If I do accept her as a friend, how should I deal with the huge gap between what I know is right and the things she has done, and very likely will go on doing?
The question is whether one should befriend a person who appears to be an unrepentant, grave sinner. If one is morally free to befriend such a person, one should do so as a work of mercy. But duties to oneself, others, or both may require that one not befriend such a person. The questioner’s duty to bear witness to the wrongness of abortion and maintain solidarity with its victims argues against entering into a real friendship with Marcia, but does not preclude treating her with a friendliness appropriate to the relationship in which they have become acquainted.
As a basis for discussing your question about carrying on a friendly relationship with Marcia, who seems to be living a gravely sinful life, I distinguish between those judgments we cannot and must not make and those we can and ought to make. Only God knows to what extent Marcia is morally guilty—that is, clear about relevant moral norms and freely acting contrary to them. That no doubt is one reason why Jesus warns us against passing judgment on others (see Mt 7.1; LCL, 227–28). Still, abstracting from her guilt or innocence, you can judge the objective rightness or wrongness of what she has done and is doing. This judgment is important, because even when subjective factors reduce a person’s responsibility for objectively wrongful choices and behavior, they harm both that person and those affected by what he or she does.93 Moreover, not judging Marcia does not mean judging her innocent. Perhaps she is self-enslaved by sin and, more than anything else, needs help to acknowledge that fact, but instead is seeking some sort of affirmation (“moral support”) for continuing to live in sin.
Still, for someone of poor character, friendship with an upright person can be a saving grace. To save us, God befriended us in Jesus while we were still sinners, and we ought to imitate him by reaching out to others, not with arrogance, but with humble awareness that what we have received, by no merit of our own, is not given us solely for our own benefit. Marcia’s Catholic upbringing and the small voice of her conscience may be haunting her. In seeking your friendship, Marcia could be attracted by the grace God gave you when he drew you into friendship with himself, and she may be sensing the weight of her sins holding her back from his friendship. Therefore, if no morally compelling reason excludes a friendly relationship with her, you might carry it on in the hope that doing so will provide for her a channel of the grace she needs to repent and amend her life.
However, sometimes one should not carry on a friendly relationship with a person who seems to be living a gravely sinful life. The relationship may be too risky to oneself or someone else (for example, one’s children); it may mislead others by suggesting that gravely wrongful behavior is acceptable or of little importance; it may only facilitate the person’s wrongdoing and delay conversion; it may be unfair to an individual or group suffering due to the person’s wrongdoing, which ought to be opposed by good people. In particular, two things in your question suggest it might well be wrong for you to carry on a friendship with Marcia.
First, it is strange and mysterious for someone who acts as she does, despite having been raised a Catholic, to say she likes you because you are “such a good Catholic, so conservative.” This remark—especially when considered in conjunction with her vocal opposition to Catholic teaching on abortion and her openness about having been artificially inseminated—perhaps reveals Marcia’s very questionable motive for seeking your friendship. She may want it so as to reassure herself that she is not, after all, so bad a Catholic and so sinful a person as she suspects she is.
Second, while there are certain important differences between the present worldwide destruction of unborn children and the Nazis’ destruction of millions of Jews and other people before and during World War II, there also are important similarities between the two mass murders. Not the least is that both surely call for unambiguous witness to the truth about the right to life of the innocent and the evil of killing them. In such cases, anyone who perceives the injustice should stand up for its victims and avoid doing anything to condone what is being done to them. The other things Marcia has done might not preclude friendship with her, but it is hard to see how you could tolerate her open rejection of the Church’s teaching on abortion and ignore her past involvement in it, without undermining the clear witness you ought to give to the sanctity of life of unborn children. Moreover, everyone who regards abortion as the unjust killing of unborn babies—the slaughter of innocent people—should stand firmly in solidarity with its past and future victims. Do you think that, even while clearly perceiving the evil of ongoing Nazi genocide, a faithful and devout Christian could and should have carried on a friendship with someone who not only had participated actively in it but seemed unrepentant and continued to reject the Church’s teaching forbidding such killing?
In deciding whether to accept Marcia’s friendship, meditate on and imitate Jesus. He showed how to love the sinner while hating the sin. He associated with sinners, but he told them very clearly what he thought about their lives. Then, too, straightforward communication about mutual concerns is absolutely essential for friendship. Marcia wishes to be your friend and you are considering her proposal, but you have yet to talk with her about your profound disapproval of her choices and your consequent hesitation to carry on a friendship with her. So, if you do speak frankly with her about your hesitation to carry on a closer relationship with her, you certainly ought to explore her motivation and make it clear that you cannot in any way affirm her in choices you consider seriously wrong. Failing to talk frankly with Marcia while allowing your relationship with her to develop would be inconsistent both with Jesus’ practice and the serious sharing essential to true friendship.
Your acquaintance with Marcia probably is based on some ongoing relationship—for example, as co-workers, neighbors, or parties to business transactions. If so, a decision not to respond to her quest for friendship need not preclude your being friendly toward her in ways appropriate in that relationship. Nor need you try to minimize your contacts with her.
Finally, even if you judge that you should not carry on a friendship with Marcia, you nevertheless should tell her frankly what you think about her opinions and actions, especially with regard to abortion, and make it clear to her that these have led you to decide to keep your distance. This message, conveyed calmly and with regret, could lead her to reflect and repent, probably not immediately but perhaps eventually. For this you ought also to pray, in the hope that one day—in heaven, at least—you will be able to share with her the friendship you forgo for now.
93. John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, 51, AAS 85 (1993) 1175, OR, 6 Oct. 1993, viii: When “they disregard the law, or even are merely ignorant of it, whether culpably or not, our acts damage the communion of persons, to the detriment of each.”