We live in times when there is a widespread notion that to correct sinners is to “judge” them. Never mind that it is sin we judge, not the sinner.  Never mind that in accusing us of “judging” the worldly minded are themselves doing the very “judging” they condemn. Never mind any of that, the point of charge that we are judging is to seek to compel our silence through shame. And despite the fact that Scripture consistently directs us to correct the sinner, many Catholics have bought into the notion that correcting the sinner is “judging” them. In this, the devil who orchestrates the “correcting is judging” campaign rejoices, for if he can keep us from correcting one another, sin can and does flourish.

Today’s Gospel is an important reminder and instruction on why and how we should correct the sinner and be open to correction ourselves. Let’s look at in four steps.

I. PRESCRIPTION – The text says, Jesus said to his disciples: “If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him” – I place “against you” in parentheses since many ancient manuscripts do not contain this phrase, others do. While some may want to limit this gospel to commanding correction only when someone sins “against you,” none of the other texts we will review contain this restriction and so the phrase seems superfluous. For the purpose of this reflection, I will favor those manuscripts that do not include the phrase “against you.”

Now therefore observe the brief but clear advice that when we see someone in sin, we ought to talk with them about it. Many prefer, probably due to sloth, to say, “It’s none of my business what other people do.” But Jesus clearly teaches otherwise.

In teaching this way, Jesus is obviously speaking to the general situation. Some distinctions are helpful and admissible in specific situations. For example, one is generally more obliged to correct people in serious matters than in less serious ones. One is more obliged to correct those who are younger and less obliged to correct those who are older than they are. One is more obligated to correct subordinates, and less obligated to correct superiors. Parents are strongly obligated to correct their own children, children are seldom obligated to correct parents, and so on. But the general rule remains, other things being equal, there is an obligation to engage in Christian correction. Jesus says, “If your brother sins, talk to him about it.”

There are many other scriptures that also advise and even oblige us to correct the sinner. Some of the texts also speak to way we should correct:

  1. James 5:19 My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
  2. Gal 6:1 Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any sin, you who are spiritual should recall him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ
  3. Col 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom
  4. 1 Thess 5:14 And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.
  5. Lev 19:17 Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him.
  6. Ez 3:17 “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand.

Hence, we have an obligation in charity to correct some one who has gone over into sin. In correcting we ought to be gentle, but clear. Further, we ought to correct with humility and not fall into the temptation of “all superior” and such. Our goal is limit sin’s effects and apply necessary medicine to the problem of sin.

We will see more “correction texts” in a moment. But for now, let the first point be repeated: If your brother sins, talk with him about it.

II. PURPOSE – If he listens to you, you have won over your brother – Here let us just briefly note that the point of this correction is to win a brother or sister back to the Lord. The point is not to win an argument or show superiority. The point is to contend with Satan, by God’s grace” and win the person, who is in Satan’s grasp, back for God.

III. PROCESS – The Lord next sets forth a process for fraternal correction. It would seem that the process here is for more serious matters, generally, and that all these steps might not be necessary to the end for lesser matters. But speaking to the general situation where a brother or sister is in state of more serious and unrepented sin, the following process is set forth:

A. Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. – This first stage is often omitted in our fallen, gossip prone, human condition. If one is in sin, it is too frequently the case that we will talk to everyone except the actual sinner. This is usually not helpful, and, in fact, merely multiplies sin. The sinner goes uncorrected and sin multiplies through gossip. Satan gets a high return on investment, often netting dozens of sinners for the price of one.

Jesus is clear, to to sinner himself, FIRST. There may be situations where we need to seek advice from someone we trust about how best to approach the sinner. Sometimes we may need to check a few facts, but in the end, such lateral discussions ought to be few and only with trusted individuals. The Lord is clear, step one is to go first to the sinner himself.

B. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses. – This sort of option may seem rarer today, in large cosmopolitan settings, but such things do occur in the right settings. Often these sorts of team efforts are called “interventions” and they are often done in the cases where an addict is resisting any treatment. Sometimes too they are used when a certain family member is engaging in hurtful practices such as severe anger, or the refusal to forgive, or causing division within a family. These interventions are usually conducted by several family members that the person trusts and they often receive training of some sort. Depending on the gravity of the matter, such interventions are both necessary and counseled by the Lord as part of a method to end destructive and sinful behaviors.

C. If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church. – Here too, note the presupposition that the Church is experienced in a personal way and that the individual is somehow connected to a body of believers in their life who matter to them in some way. The presumption is that these are people they know, (pastors, parish leaders et al). This is not always the case in modern parishes which can be large and impersonal and where many can attend and belong only on the fringes. Rather than simply dismissing this step of Jesus as unrealistic in most cases today, we ought to see it as setting forth an ideal of what parishes ought to be. I hope to work with this vision later this week in a post.

Nevertheless, for those who have some relationship to the Church, this step needs to be considered in sins which are serious. As a pastor, I have sometimes been asked to speak to a family member in serious sin. Presuming other measures ave been taken, I often do speak to them to warn about such things as fornication, shacking up, abortion, drug use, anger issues, utter disrespect for parents and so forth.

But to be honest, unless the individual has more than a passing membership in the parish, such talks are limited in effectiveness. Further, “Church” here should net be seen merely as clergy. Sometimes there are others in the church who ought to be engaged, leaders of organizations to which the person belongs, older men and women speaking to younger men and women, and so forth. I have often engaged a team to speak, especially to younger people.

D. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector - and here we come to a matter of some controversy: that of excommunication. Treating some one as tax collector or Gentile is a Jewish way of saying, have nothing more to do with such a one, let them be expelled from the community.

Some today object to excommunication ever being used and often suggest, with some superiority, that “Jesus would never do such a thing.” Yet Jesus himself is teaching us here to do this very thing. As we shall again remark, excommunication is not engaged upon someone simply to be rid of them, but as a medicine to bring forth repentance from them. As we can see too, excommunication is at the end of a process and is not something that that Church rushes to do. But it IS taught here and elsewhere in scripture. Consider some of the following examples:

  1. 2 Thess 3:6 We instruct you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us.
  2. 2 Thess 3:14 If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
  3. 1 Cor 5:1 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife.And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
  4. 1 Cor 15:33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Come to your right mind, and sin no more. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.
  5. 1 Cor 5:11 But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber — not even to eat with such a one. Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?

So a fairly strong and clear biblical mandate exists from both Jesus and St. Paul that excommunication may at times have to be used. It would seem, from the texts that we have surveyed that the purpose of excommunication is two-fold: to protect the community from the influence of serious sinners, and to be a medicine to urge the wayward Christian unto saving repentance.

And if any doubt the seriousness of excommunication or thinks nothing of the Church’s solemn declaration of it note that Jesus indicates that he will in fact recognize the Church’s authoritative declaration. For he says: Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Thus, let no one make light of the Church’s solemn declaration in such matters.

In our times there is increasing demand for the bishops to use this measure more often, especially for those who openly support and help fund abortion. It seems clear from the Scriptures we have surveyed that such a measure can and, at times, should be used at the end of a process like Jesus describes. If one directly procures abortion, either by having one, performing one, or paying directly for one, or directly assisting someone to have one, they are automatically (self) excommunicated.

What of “Catholic” politicians and jurists who advance abortions availability and vote funding for it?

Most bishops (not all) have made a prudential decision not to make use of this measure for “Catholic” politicians who support abortion. Most of them say they have concerns that the matter would be perceived as a partisan political act rather than a moral shepherding of these wayward souls. And since it would be misread and falsely portrayed by the media, they consider it unwise in these circumstances to excommunicate.

Bare minimum – It is not my role as a priest to critique bishops whether they choose to excommunicate or not. There are prudential judgments bishops have to make. But at bare minimum, I would surely hope that every Catholic (politician or not) who even comes close to procuring abortion or advancing its availability, has been privately instructed and warned by his pastor and bishop (in prominent cases), that, if he does not change, and dies unrepentant, he will almost certainly go to Hell.

It is simply too serious to leave a sinner of this magnitude uninstructed, unrebuked, or in any way unclear as to how serious this matter is. They should be instructed, yes warned vividly, to repent at once and to refrain from Holy Communion, until confession can be celebrated following true repentance.

IV. POWER – It is clear that Jesus expects us to correct the sinner and to thereby experience the power of this loving action. In stages we are undertake this act of charity because we love, not because we hate. In effect, the Lord is asking us to love others enough and to care enough about their eternal well-being to undertake the risk, and the hard work of drawing them to soul-saving repentance. And, even in cases where sin has not yet become mortal, we still have obligations, especially toward the young, to correct in such a way as to help stave off serious sin.

The work is “risky” because we often have to suffer being rebuffed by those who do not “appreciate” our loving correction. The work is hard, because it is so much easier to sit at home and say, “None of my business” when even close relatives remain in serious sin by skipping Mass, living in illicit sexual unions, being unforgiving, divisive and doing self destructive and other destructive things.

Can we really say we love others if we are unwilling to take the risk to correct them? And what would this world be like today if Christians would really agree to undertake this important and loving work which is numbered among the spiritual works of mercy?

Satan surely rejoices at our fearful silence and our self congratulatory euphemisms like,  “It’s none of my business”, “I’m a non-judgmental person”, etc. Consider the moral ruin of these times as ponder how different it would be if we were more devoted to this act of mercy.

Jesus simply concludes as to the power of Collective and Compassionate Christian Correction: Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. Yes, what would happen if we all agreed to work harder on this critical function of a Christian?

Photo Credit: From Willowtree Gifts

This song says, It’s a Highway to Heaven, None can walk up there but the pure in heart, Walkin’ up the King’s Highway….If you’re not walking, start while I’m talking.

20 Responses

  1. Nguyen Thuong Minh says:

    Epistle 248
    My some thoughts about “the homily” of Msgr. Charles Pope are here below:
    Firstly, in the homily, Msgr. Charles Pope preached Gospel according to Matthew 18:15-20.
    In Vietnam, gist of the Gospel is in the sentence 15: “If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone…”
    That means “If your brother sins, you ought to make a suggestion with him alone”.
    Secondly, now permit me to discuss some matters to relate the homily hereafter:
    I may make a suggestion with Msgr. Charles Pope alone on some matters here below:
    I always think that Father’s Blog and New Testament which are as like as two peas.
    Father is as like as Matthew. Father’s homilies which are as like as Gospel of Matthew.
    And I am as like as Paul the Apostle. My comments are as like as 14 Epistles of Paul the Apostle.
    Furthermore, I want co-authors of the blog such as Father Scott Hurd, Dr. Susan Timoney, Deacon Curtis Turner will be as like as Mark, Luke and John the Apostle.
    And all commentators of the blog will be Paul the Apostle.
    Finally, all readers of the blog are Catholics and all people want to follow the Catholic Church./.

  2. Taylor says:

    III.C. states: “…This is not always the case in modern parishes which can be large and impersonal and where many can attend and belong only on the fringes. Rather than simply dismissing this step of Jesus as unrealistic in most cases today, we ought to see it as setting forth an ideal of what parishes ought to be…”

    I agree – I agree – I agree. We all need to cultivate fraternal intimacy within the Church, even though it is large. Those who are inspired can lead others through a kind gesture at every passing instead of a closed-in refusal to communicate upon passing. Too many times we walk to the door of the Church without lifting an eye to see our neighbor and smile and say or think, “Hello. How are you? May you find peace and love here.”

    We need to do a better job of cultivating relationships in a spirit of charity. I think that this would lead to more healing and friendships within the Church.

    • I agree with your agreement! I usually find in parishes where I’ve served that about 20-30% of the parish do coalesce into smaller groups that can provide the fraternal/sorrel experience. But most of the rest come for about an hour on Sunday and that’s basically it. Very few people realize the need to be in accountable relationships.

  3. Kim says:

    What I’d like to know most is how this applies to marriage. That’s not a relationship you can just walk away from.

    • Yes, the model at work here is a general model not intended to address every specific situation. I can say however, that spouses need to talk and hold each other accountable. Further, in very problematic situations (addiction, anger abuse etc). family interventions are necessary. Further, in rare situations medicinal separations may be necessary until the harmful and abusive behavior ceases. As with all “excommunications” mentioned in the Gospel text, these are to be rare and only used after the other processes have been exhausted.

  4. teomatteo says:

    Msgr. Pope, your opening paragraph took me 53 years of being a Catholic to finally read! Yikes. I’m thinking that you should develop that paragraph into a book. You can write it in your spare time ; )
    Seriously, thank you for this post. I thought I’d die before someone one in the Church preached the correction of correction, judgement, revealing truth for the betterment of our Society.

  5. Dismas says:

    A. Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.

    Comboxes on the internet make this nearly an impossibility, what is one to do?

  6. TeaPot562 says:

    @Kim:
    Married couples in the Church pray together, and pray for each other. Only the Lord knows how many men with weaknesses of one sort or another have been saved by God’s response to the prayers of their wives. At daily mass, far more women than men are typically present.
    In determining what practices fit within our Catholic religion, my wife (of > 50 years) is far more likely than I to be instinctively correct (that is, before looking up something in the Catechism)
    In regard to your question, my recollection is that in one of Paul’s letters, he discusses the case where one party is Christian, the other is not. Hazy recall: If the non-Christian party is willing to live in peace with the Christian, stay with the marriage. If not, the “Pauline privilege” (sp.?) applies.
    I’m not willing to take the time to research that text at the moment. If you married someone, knowing that person was not a believer, and nothing has changed, you have no grounds to leave (or not live in peace with) that partner.
    Does the above discussion seem prudent?
    Teapot562

  7. Jane says:

    I would also like comments /advice on how to fraternally correct a spouse or adult children. Often resentment builds up and even loving admonishment appears as criticism. If a loved one is resistant and is in serious moral danger, what suggestions can someone offer on this blog?

    • Re children, resentment is part of the picture. Children do not like being corrected. Only later do they develop gratitude. The parent/child relationship will always have tensions, this is the nature of such a relationship. Anger and resentment by the child does not per se indicate failure. Balancing correction with praise is essential. Further, it would seem good to avoid insisting on things that are not necessary. Giving children some legitimate freedom in matters of taste can help balance the restrictions that are in fact necessary.

      As regards the correcting of the spouse, this will vary based on personalities etc. But the basic advice is to not give up. Combine correction with prayer and even fasting. Balance concerns with praise, use a little humor if possible: e.g. “The earth would spin backward, if you came to Church with me tomorrow!” Speak of your concern for your spouse’s salvation, “Missing Mass is a mortal sin and I don’t want you to be lost” remember too, you are planting seeds and prior to harvest there is need for patience, watering, waiting and feeding. Keep at it, ask for advice. Don’t be manipulative, just forthright, persistent and with loving concern.

  8. marie says:

    Yet, it seems that Jesus ate with publicans, and gentiles and pagans. He called to them and loved them. It seems as though Jesus is saying when in conflict, Go to them and speak your mind; if that doesn’t work, bring someone with you and speak the truth again; if that doesn’t work, love them anyway.

    • Well, your thoughts are not wrong, but we need to be careful not to make Jesus be in conflict with himself. Excommunication is not a sign of a lack of love. And the fact that Jesus patiently dealt with sinners in likely in sync with what stage one of the process: talk to your brother. But Jesus would later lay down for them the requirements for discipleship (e.g. take up cross, show mercy, feed the poor, love of enemy, etc) and they are not exempt from these. Hence one cannot go on being a disciple or consider themselves as such if they do not meet certain requirements. This does not mean God does not love them, only that they define themselves apart from the kingdom. But God is not going to change the kingdom.

  9. Kathleen says:

    And one must also always remember to take the teleephone pole out of his own eye before trying to remove the speck in his bother’s eye. . . ;)
    A comment on marriage,
    I am now civilly divorced from my husband of 30+ years. We are still married in the eyes of God. When I speak this way to brothers and sisters in the church they look at me as though I am out of my mind . . . , move on, get over it, etc. I feel so alone in my family and in my Church family because my belief, that my marriage is still valid before God, is openly criticized by them. There has been no pain of being “excommunicated” from my family. My family really would probably have been the only voice of influence in this situation They have still welcomed him into family gatherings. In fact there have been times when I have been shunned. There was no one to “correct” either of us as while we were separated after he hit me. I did not tell every brother and sister that he had hit me. I regret that. I made the move out of the home, he would not. Now he just points at me and says “She is the one who left, moved out, not me”. Not one family member ever spoke of his hitting me as the catalyst. Not one family member spoke with him to say something along the lines of “We were there when you promised before God and your wife that you would love, honor and cherish . . . for the rest of your life, so long as you both shall live.” No one spoke to me either. I am and always have been willing to face myself and shoulder my responsibilty for difficulties in our relationship. Some would say “too willing” so willing that my husband never had to look at his part. He could easily point at me and say, “She’s the one with the problem, not me.”
    My husband is now in an adulterous relationship with a woman he reconnected with at his HS reunion 2 years ago. He actually said to me that “God brought her into my life”. We have 2 young adult children (25 + 27) witnessing their father’s adulterous relationship. He invites them into his woman friend’s family gatherings . . . one big happy family. How should I handle these situations? Should I? This seems to come across as sour grapes . . . Our family is a mess. And, I know that God is still working in all these relationships to bring about good from these difficulties. I know and I believe that God can bring healing and restoration out of this mess.

  10. Dominic Jenkinson says:

    Dear Msgr. Pope, thanks for another enlightening and instructive article. It seems the more we progress in knowledge of the faith the greater our responsibility for this duty of compassionate Christian correction to our brethren. At times this causes me anguish, mainly due to my pride and worldliness which baulks at the idea of the reaction I will receive from those whom I am obliged to correct. I gotta pick up that cross! Pray for me please.

    Please could you offer your thoughts on an issue which I believe to be very serious and which your article has brought to my attention once again. There is convincing evidence that many common forms of birth control products have abortifacient mechanisms. I would suspect that many people are unaware of this but all of the following products can cause the death of an embryo if their primary task of contraception fails: Combined oral contraceptives, Progestin-only pills, Combined injectable contraceptives, Intra-uterine devices (IUDs), Progestin-only injectable contraceptives Implants, RU486 (also marketed as Mifepristone), Transdermal contraceptive patches, Injectable levonorgestrel, Inducer of missed period, Contraceptive vaccines, Anti-hCG, Trophoblastic antigen. See the following paper for an introduction to this topic, http://www.spuc.org.uk/documents/papers/BirthControlBooklet.pdf

    As you rightly say “If one directly procures abortion, either by having one, performing one, or paying directly for one, or directly assisting someone to have one, they are automatically (self) excommunicated.” and also “I would surely hope that every Catholic (politician or not) who even comes close to procuring abortion or advancing its availability, has been privately instructed and warned by his pastor and bishop (in prominent cases), that, if he does not change, and dies unrepentant, he will almost certainly go to Hell.”

    My point is this. How many Catholic couples are not only persisting in gravely sinful acts of contraception but are also at times destroying their newly conceived children due to the abortifacient mechanisms of products such as the pill thus incurring the penalties you have outlined? I believe this is a topic which needs to be brought into the light and preached, many souls are at stake. Thank you for your time.

  11. Bill says:

    So if a Bishop does not excommunicate an abortion supporting politician it is prudential judgement he is exercising.

    Is it also prudential judgement to allow an abortion supporting politician to receive communion?

    With this line of reasoning is it hard to understand how the laity have such a poor understanding of sin.

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