Bitter Pills

Being “pastoral” is good, but it can often serve as a lazy cover for not dishing out the bitter medicine the congregant needs to swallow.

“Do you have any weapons on you?” the officer asked.

“No, officer,” I replied with assurance. We were on a side street in a residential neighborhood. On the main adjacent thoroughfare, cars edged nervously past as the lights from the squad car threw off red and blue reflections into the intersection, letting all bystanders know that the long arm of the law was flexing. 

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” 

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“I think so,” I answered tepidly. At that moment, I had less assurance of what I had done wrong, so I was morbidly curious as to what came next.

“I pulled you over because you blew through not one, not two, but four stop signs in a row.”

Ah, yes. I replayed the last few moments in my head as I hurriedly made my way home from work down a hill. Yes, that was accurate.

“Did you not see me sitting there?” he asked, incredulous.

“I thought you were a parent waiting for their kid to get off the bus. I didn’t realize…” I trailed off. 

“You are a vehicle on the road and have to obey all traffic laws just like anyone else. Just because you are on a bicycle doesn’t excuse you from that.”

I had no excuse, and I knew it. For thirty years I had been cycling—for fun, to commute, to run errands. And I think, in those thirty years, I never came to a complete stop at a stop sign. I just never really gave it a thought, and so rolling stops (or even blatantly barreling through them when no cars were around) became a habit. In thirty years, I was never pulled over for it. I knew the law—just because I was on two wheels without an engine didn’t make me exempt from the traffic laws the officer made mention of. For whatever reason (even though I know it wasn’t true), I didn’t think the law applied to me.

I didn’t try to defend myself. “You’re right, officer. I have no excuse.”

He took his sunglasses off and looked at me. I could tell he was a hard but good man who seemed to love and believe in the rule of law.

“Listen, you can’t be doing this,” he said. “I’m a cyclist myself. You’re giving all of us a bad name. I’m writing you up for one of the four stop signs. You have ten business days to get this in; however you decide to plead is up to you.”

I knew I would plead guilty, because guilty was what I was. 

As the officer finished printing my citation and sped off with a “Ten-Four” after a call came through the dispatch, I pedaled away feeling not pissed off, not annoyed at getting caught doing something wrong, but grateful

It was my wake-up call, to be honest. Whereas before I never gave a thought to it, every day since I was pulled over and have continued to bike, I now come to a complete stop at every stop sign, every red light. I can’t see into the future, but that officer doing his job may have saved my life. What if one day I did brazenly blow through a stop and plowed into someone? If not injury, then a lawsuit in which I was liable would have been easy to prove because I had no excuse; I had broken the law. Who knows?

“Dr. C is no longer with us. Dr. M will be over shortly.”

Great. A new dentist. “I know they’re going to find something,” I thought to myself as I lay in the chair. As the hygienist scraped and prodded and polished, I thought back to my past visits with Dr. C. “No issues. Beautiful teeth. See you in six months.” I was always relieved. (“Great teeth! No follow ups!”) I wondered why she was no longer with the practice. Probably not pulling in enough business!

When the new dentist comes over and takes a look in my mouth, she is gruff. 

“You have a crack in your one tooth. And decay under one of your fillings. The whole area is compromised. You’re looking at more root canals or worse if this isn’t addressed. Plus, you need a mouth guard to wear at night.” She showed me the photographs of my mouth to prove her point.

Terrific, I thought. She didn’t waste any time, did she now? Gotta move that product. 

My skeptical mind went to medicine-as-a-business, that practitioners need to always “find something” to bill for, to pay their bills and salaries. If you’re just passing people through (“Beautiful teeth!”), no one’s getting paid. 

But there was another part of me that suspected maybe my previous dentist was just…lazy? Less conservative? Was she doing me a favor, or did this laissez-faire approach cost me more in the long run because preventable issues weren’t addressed earlier? I liked her because she didn’t find things—I resented the new doctor, with her lack of bedside manners, that did. 

A seven-hundred-dollar estimated bill and a follow-up appointment for next week. I walked out again feeling strangely grateful. No one likes the dentist, and no one wants to get this kind of work done any more than getting a new transmission for your car or a new roof on your house. But what if she’s right? What if her main concern is simply my dental hygiene and taking care of my teeth and less about what I think of the situation? What if this work will take care of future issues down the road? Isn’t that the kind of doctor you want working on you rather than one that is blowing potpourri up your rear end?

I write about these two recent occurrences because they hold a related lesson to us as Christians. Our main concern should be for the salvation of souls; everything else is secondary. This is (or at least should be!) also the main concern of every priest, bishop, and the Church as a whole. To accomplish this task, we need to speak the truth—ideally in charity, but tough charity that is unapologetic and has integrity. Being “pastoral” is good, but it can often serve as a lazy cover for not dishing out the bitter medicine the congregant needs to swallow in order to have the virus of sin treated and the cancer of death excised.  Our main concern should be for the salvation of souls; everything else is secondary. This is (or at least should be!) also the main concern of every priest, bishop, and the Church as a whole.Tweet This

Lay people, too, are not exempt from this task. St. James writes, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17). That omission could include perpetuating the cycle of slavery (which is sin and concupiscence) in our brothers due to not wanting to take a beating for speaking the truth, or risking our good name or reputation, or—gasp—not being liked.

Sometimes people do need a bucket of cold water in their face when they’ve become accustomed to hitting the snooze. Does anyone like the guy who throws the water? No! But until someone does, your brother sleeps the sleep of the dead, kicking his repentance down the road ten minutes at a time, until he wakes up in Hell. 

People like the strict police officer and the gruff dentist I mentioned above are the ones doing their job. So many of us Catholics in the pew are begging—begging!—the Church to do hers. Admonish the sinner. Preach the hard truth. Refuse Communion to politicians and public figures that give scandal. Root out hypocrisy. Shine the light. Be hated by the world for the sake of the Gospel.

The OGs like John Vianney and Padre Pio and John Fisher did this. They took the public slanders and didn’t tickle people’s feet and put mints on their pillows. They were tireless spiritual surgeons who knew their job and carried it out to the best of their abilities. They put the stick in your mouth as they saw off your leg. They tie off your arm with their cassock to keep you from bleeding to death. Surgeons aren’t known for their bedside manner, which is usually people’s main complaint when it comes to their consults. If they have it, gravy. But I am not ultimately looking to rate a surgeon on how well he listened to me, or his mannerisms, but on how well he did his job in the OR

The Church in present day, under the current pontificate, has set up this false dichotomy of “Pharisaical lovers of the law” versus the merciful and pastoral “One Who Accompanies.” But what does the great King David say, “Oh how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day. Thy commandments make me wiser than mine enemies” (Psalm 119:97). And the wise King Solomon: “For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light; and reproofs of instruction are the way of life” (Proverbs 6:23-24). Those who love the law of God are pained to see it transgressed—both for themselves and others—as our Lord was moved by the Holy Spirit to overturn the money changers tables in the Temple. For “zeal for your house has consumed me” (Psalm 69:9; John 2:17). You cannot have mercy without justice. And justice necessitates the law.

Tough medicine and bitter pills are tough to swallow. But more times than not, those are the exact tonics we need to choke down, rather than cheap grace and counterfeit mercy. And we should be thankful to the ones in our lives who know what they’re doing and can be trusted to carry out their jobs regardless of how much we push back against them. 

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Rob Marco

    Rob Marco is a married father of three. He holds a MA in Theology from Villanova University. He has appeared on EWTN’s “The Journey Home” and his writing has been featured at OnePeterFive, Catholic World Report, Catholic Stand, Catholic Education Resource Center,, and other Catholic publications. Rob’s upcoming book Wisdom and Folly: Collected Essays on Faith, Life, and Everything in Between will be released in January 2024 from Cruachan Hill Press. He blogs at Pater Familias.

tagged as: Church pastoral

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