(I had a draft question written related to this issue. Half of it overlaps with this question. I'll cut that example out of my draft and paste it below. The other half I'll probably post as a question.)
Here is a concrete example where we have already screwed up on this, and quite badly.
There was a question, not too long ago, that involved a person of a young age who was concerned about having committed a mortal sin. While the question was handled well by the moderator who got to it (directed to a priest, account deleted, question deleted), other responses were less than ideal. This young person was Catholic, and the response in one comment read:
I encourage you to read the bible on its own and figure out what salvation is. [...] My concern for you is not ..., but no apparent understanding of the gospel. Find out how a sinner is saved by faith [...]
No further details need to be mentioned. The comment berates a worried child for not understanding the Gospel, and attempts to use a sensitive occasion as an opportunity to advance an "opposing" denominational view. This sort of response does not belong on this site. I expect that the issue was handled by the moderators in an appropriate and private way. The point here is that apparently we need to be more careful even about what sort of "directions" we give.
For example, when the person is Catholic and facing a spiritual issue, we do not direct them to read scripture (see Acts 8:30), or to a pastor (not all priests are pastors), or to a "solid believer", or to a "faith person", or to a "godly man", or to a youth leader, we simply say:
- You should speak to your priest about this matter.
- If it concerns sin:
The best advice I've heard is for you to speak to a priest about this during confession.
- If the person is young:
The best thing is to tell your parents that you would like to go to confession / reconciliation.
Do not say anything else unless you know the drill.
We do not give pastoral advice. We shut the question down, and we direct people asking for this sort of advice to their church.
- We do not direct people to our church. We direct them to their church.
- We behave nicely towards them, and especially towards people we realize are young or in some sort of distress.
- We do not try to give any form of advice at all. Not only because we don't want to set a precedent (for cults, as Caleb mentioned), but because we have no idea what the person's issue really is.
Here is another point:
- Though we may give the person consolation ("I hope everything turns out well. I will pray for you"), we avoid taking their side in a dispute, even implicitly or conditionally (so we do not say: "if what you say really is true, then that is horrible and you have been wronged!").
A recent question had another young person complaining about parental authority, about how "my dad treats me like a slave". Anyone who might have responded with "sympathetic" comments may well have been supporting this person in breaking the commandment to honour thy father and mother (secular translation: we might have been implicitly siding with the youth in a personal family dispute where the youth was entirely in the wrong).