Fraternal correction is so important to the health of individuals, the family, the Church, and even nations, that some further reflection following Sunday’s Gospel is in order. The correction of a sinner is complex and difficult to accomplish well. Many avoid it entirely, especially due to these hypersensitive times, when some people base their very identity on their sins. Many take correction very personally, even labeling it “hate speech.” Those who dare to correct are often shamed for doing so and accused of “judging.”
Distinguishing between what God teaches to be good and what He teaches to be sin is a judgment that is required of us; our own judgment in the matter must conform to God’s revealed judgment. All moral exhortation in the Scripture aims to conform our understanding and judgment to God’s truth, revealed in Scripture and Natural Law. While we cannot judge a person’s ultimate state before God, we can and must judge; we must distinguish good from evil, virtue from sin.
Thus, difficult though it is, fraternal correction is required of us by God in a general way. However, this raises many questions: Is correction always required? Are we required to correct everyone? Does our obligation to correct vary and if so, how?
St. Thomas Aquinas sets forth some answers for us, both in terms of the basis of our obligation and its limits.
St. Thomas places the roots our obligation to correct one another in both charity and justice:
Now a man’s sin may be considered in two ways, first as being harmful to the sinner, secondly as conducing to the harm of others, by hurting or scandalizing them, or by being detrimental to the common good, the justice of which is disturbed by that man’s sin. … Now to do away with anyone’s evil is the same as to procure his good; and to procure a person’s good is an act of charity, whereby we wish and do our friend well. … Therefore, fraternal correction is an act of charity …. There is another correction which applies a remedy to the sin of the wrongdoer, considered as hurtful to others, and especially to the common good. This correction is an act of justice, whose concern it is to safeguard the rectitude of justice between one man and another (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 33, art. 1, Respondeo).
So, fraternal correction is required of us as a precept or command. However, there are prudential aspects of when and how to correct. This is because the command to correct is not one that forbids us from doing something (in which case we should never do it), but rather one that requires something of us under various circumstances. Although the precept to correct describes what we are to do as a general practice, it cannot possibly address every particular set of circumstances. St. Thomas says,
Fraternal correction is a matter of precept. [W]hile the negative precepts of the Law forbid sinful acts, the positive precepts inculcate acts of virtue. … [N]egative precepts bind always and for all times. On the other hand, acts of virtue must [be done] by observing the due circumstances, which are requisite in order that an act be virtuous; namely, that it be done where, when, and how it ought to be done. … [F]raternal correction is directed to a brother’s amendment: so that it is a matter of precept, in so far as it is necessary for that end, but not so as we have to correct our erring brother at all places and times (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 33, art. 2, Respondeo).
Thus, the particular circumstances will determine whom I must correct and how. As a general rule, parents are obligated to correct their children. Those in authority are more obligated to correct their subordinates. Elders are more obligated to correct those significantly younger. Family ties increase the obligation to correct; we are less obligated to correct strangers. Those with special training or standing such as teachers, pastors, bishops, and theologians are obligated to correct error and sin. However, their sphere of influence helps to focus their obligation. For example, a pastor’s greatest obligation is to instruct and correct his own parishioners; a bishop, his own flock; a teacher, his or her own students.
Generally, then, obligations to correct are lessened when the relationship is more distant or when one is in an inferior position.
However, just because an obligation is not as strong does not mean that there is never an obligation. For example, there are times when an inferior still ought to correct his superior. St. Thomas teaches this, but with an important distinction:
[C]orrection is twofold. One is an act of charity, which seeks in a special way the recovery of an erring brother by means of a simple warning: such like correction belongs to anyone who has charity, be he subject or prelate.
But there is another correction which is an act of justice purposing the common good, which is procured not only by warning one’s brother, but also, sometimes, by punishing him, that others may, through fear, desist from sin. Such a correction belongs only to prelates, whose business it is not only to admonish, but also to correct by means of punishments (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 33, art. 3, Respondeo).
St. Thomas adds,
A subject is not competent to administer to his prelate the correction which is an act of justice through the coercive nature of punishment: but the fraternal correction which is an act of charity is within the competency of everyone in respect of any person towards whom he is bound by charity, provided there be something in that person which requires correction.
… it follows that when a subject corrects his prelate, he ought to do so in a becoming manner, not with impudence and harshness, but with gentleness and respect. Hence the Apostle says (1 Timothy 5:1): “An ancient man rebuke not, but entreat him as a father” (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 33, art 4, Respondeo).
There is an additional consideration in administering fraternal correction publicly. As a general norm, the first approach should be to correct privately, but there are exceptions, which St. Thomas treats here:
With regard to the public denunciation of sins it is necessary to make a distinction: because sins may be either public or secret. On the case of public sins, a remedy is required not only for the sinner, that he may become better, but also for others, who know of his sin, lest they be scandalized. Wherefore such like sins should be denounced in public, according to the saying of the Apostle (1 Timothy 5:20): “Them that sin reprove before all, that the rest also may have fear,” which is to be understood as referring to public sins, as Augustine states (De Verb. Dom. xvi, 7).
On the other hand, in the case of secret sins, the words of Our Lord seem to apply (Matthew 18:15): “If thy brother shall offend against thee tell him his sin, but between you and him alone,” etc. …[So] there are … sins which injure none but the sinner, and the person sinned against, either because he alone is hurt by the sinner, or at least because he alone knows about his sin, and then our one purpose should be to help our sinning brother [privately] … Secondly, we ought to safeguard our sinning brother’s good name, both because the dishonor of one leads to the dishonor of others … and also because when one man’s sin is made public others are incited to sin likewise (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 33, art. 7, Respondeo).
… When the secret admonition has been given once or several times, as long as there is probable hope of his amendment, we must continue to admonish him in private, but as soon as we are able to judge with any probability that the secret admonition is of no avail, we must take further steps … (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 33, art. 8, Reply to obj. 1).
Both St. Thomas’ and our Lord’s words thus indicate that private admonition does not always work. At such times (if the matter is serious), others can and should be brought in. (The even rarer remedy of excommunication should be applied only after repeated entreaties.) St. Thomas says,
Since, however, one’s conscience should be preferred to a good name, Our Lord wished that we should publicly denounce our brother and so deliver his conscience from sin, even though he should forfeit his good name. Therefore, it is evident that the precept requires a secret admonition to precede public denunciation (Summa Theologica, II, IIae, q. 33, art 7, Respondeo).
St. Thomas also addresses the case in which Church prelates must be corrected by those subject to them in some way. Clearly the matter must be serious and other more discreet methods should first be exhausted. St. Thomas teaches as follows regarding the public correction of Church prelates:
To withstand anyone in public exceeds the mode of fraternal correction, and so Paul would not have withstood Peter then, unless he were in some way his equal as regards the defense of the faith. But one who is not an equal can reprove privately and respectfully. Hence the Apostle in writing to the Colossians (4:17) tells them to admonish their prelate: “Say to Archippus: Fulfil thy ministry [Vulgate: ‘Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it.’ Cf. 2 Timothy 4:5.” It must be observed, however, that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly. Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith, and, as the gloss of Augustine says on Galatians 2:11, “Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects” (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 33, art. 4, Reply to obj. 2).
Note that although St. Thomas gives a general opinion in this regard based on solid principles, Canon Law and other standing practices should be considered if a specific instance arises in which a prelate needs to be reproved by his subjects. Angry denunciations and mere insubordination are out of place. As St. Paul says, An ancient man rebuke not, but entreat him as a father (1 Tim 5:1).
Conclusion: Fraternal correction is central to healthy families, a healthy church, and a healthy culture. In recent times we have done very poorly with this on every level. Our lack of charitable and clear correction goes a long way in explaining the moral confusion and darkness of our time. All of us, clergy and laity alike, need to recover a healthy respect for this act of charity toward the sinner and justice toward the wider community. In addition, all of us need to be more open to correction ourselves. Let us pray for courage, zeal, and charity in this regard.