Fraternal Correction: the Forgotten Virtue

In these times one of the most forgotten virtues and obligations we have is the duty to correct the sinner. It is listed among the Spiritual Works of Mercy. St. Thomas Aquinas lists it in the Summa as a work of Charity:  [F]raternal correction properly so called, is directed to the amendment of the sinner. 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. (II, IIae, 33.1)

The World and the Devil have largely succeeded in shaming Christians from this essential work. We are said to be “judging” someone when we call attention to their sin or wrongdoing. In a culture where tolerance is one of the only virtues left, to “judge” is a capital offense. “How dare we do such a thing!”  The world protests, “Who are you to judge someone else!”

Now to be sure, there are some judgements that are forbidden us. For example we cannot assess that we are better or worse than someone else before God. Neither can we always understand and ultimate culpability or inner intentions of another person as though we were God. Scripture says regarding judgments such as these: Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart (1 Sam 16:7). Further we are instructed that we cannot make the judgment of condemnation. That is to say, we do not have the power or knowledge to condemn someone to Hell. God alone is judge in this sense. The same scriptures also caution us against being uncessesarily harsh or punitive. And so we read, Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven…. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you (Luke 6:36-38).  So in this text “to judge” means to condemn or to be unmerciful, to be unreasonably harsh.

Another text that is often used by the world to forbid making “judgments” is Matt 7:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matt 7:1-5)

But pay careful attention to what this text is actually saying. First as we have already seen the Luke version the word “judge” here is understood to mean an unnecessarily harsh and punitive condemnation. The second verse makes this clear. To paraphrase verse two would be to say, If you lower the boom on others, you will have the boom lowered on you. If you throw the book at others, it will also be thrown at you.” Further, the parable that follows does NOT say not to correct sinners. If says, get right with God yourself and then you will see clearly enough to properly correct your brother.

The fact is that over and over again Scripture tells us to correct the sinner. Far from forbidding fraternal correction, the Scriptures command and commend it.  I would like to share some of those texts here and add a little commentary of my own in Red.

  1. Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt 18:15-18) Jesus instructs us to speak to a sinning brother or sister and summon them to repentance. If private rebuke does not work and, assuming the matter is serious, others who are trustworthy should be summoned to the task. Finally the Church should be informed. If they will not listen even to the Church then they should be excommunicated (treated as a tax collector or Gentile). Hence in serious matters excommunication should be considered as a kind of medicine that will inform the sinner of how serious the matter is. Sadly this “medicine” is seldom used today even though Jesus clearly prescribes it (at least in more serious matters).
  2. 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. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened….I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; 10not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 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. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you. So the Holy Spirit speaking through Paul commands that we “judge”  the evil doer. Now again in this case the matter is very serious (incest). Notice how the text says he should be excommunicated (handed over to Satan). Here too the purpose is medicinal. It is to be hoped that Satan will beat him up enough that he will come to his senses and repent before the day of judgment. It is also medicinal in the sense that the community is protected from bad example, scandal and the presence of evil. The text also requires us to be able to size people up. There ARE immoral and unrepentant people with whom it is harmful for us to associate. We are instructed to discern this and not keep friendly company with people who can mislead us or tempt us to sin. This requires a judgment on our part. Some judgements ARE required of us.
  3. 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 fulfil the law of Christ. (Gal 6:1-2) Notice we are called to note when a person has been overtaken in sin and to correct him. Note too that the text cautions us to do so in a spirit of gentleness. Otherwise we may sin in the very process of correcting the sinner. Perhaps we are prideful or unnecessarily harsh in our words of correction. This is no way to correct. Gentle and humble but clear, seems to be the instruction here. It also seems that patience is called for since we must bear the burden’s of one another’s sin. We bear this in two ways. First we accept the fact that others have imperfections and faults that trouble us. Secondly we bear the obligation of helping others know their sin and of helping them to repent.
  4. My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19) The text is ambiguous as to whose soul is actually saved but that is good since it seems both the corrected and the corrector are beneficiaries of fraternal correction well executed.
  5. You shall not hate your brother in your heart: You shall in any case rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him. (Lev 19:17) The text instructs us that to refuse to correct a sinning neighbor is a form of hatred. Instead we are instructed to love our neighbors by not wanting sin to overtake them.
  6. 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  2 Thess 3:14  Notice again the medicine of rebuke even to the point of refusing fellowship in more serious matters is commanded. But note too that even a sinner does not lose his dignity, he is still to be regarded as a brother, not an enemy. A similar text from 2 Thess 3:6 says  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.
  7.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom Col 3:16 To admonish means to warn. Hence, if the word of Christ is rich within us we will warn when that becomes necessary. A similar text from 2 Tim 3:16 says:  All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. Reproof and correction is thus part of what is necessary to equip us for every good work.
  8. And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all 1 Thess 5:14. Here fraternal correction is described as admonishing, encouraging and helping. We are also exhorted to patience is these works.

Well there are more but by now you get the point. Fraternal correction, correcting the sinner it prescribed and commanded by scripture. We must resist the shame that the world tries to inflict on us by saying, simplistically, that we are “judging” people. Not all judgment is forbidden, some judgment is commanded. Correction of the sinner is both charitable and virtuous. True enough it is possible to correct poorly or even sinfully.

But if we are to have any shame about fraternal correction it should be that we have so severely failed to correct. Because of our failure in this regard the world is a much more sinful, coarse and undisciplined place. Too many people today are out of control, undisciplined, and incorrigible. Too many are locked in sin and have never been properly corrected. The world is less pleasant and charitable, less teachable. It is also more sinful and in greater bondage. To fail to correct is to fail in charity and mercy, it is to fail to be virtuous and to fail in calling others to virtue. We are all impoverished by our failure to correct the sinner. Proverbs 10:10, 17 says He who winks at a fault causes trouble; but he who frankly reproves promotes peace….A path to life is his who heeds admonition; but he who disregards reproof goes go astray.

The following video explores the reasonability and necessity of correction and the problems that emerge when correction is forgone.

19 Replies to “Fraternal Correction: the Forgotten Virtue”

  1. Monsignor: I would think there are different levels of difficulty when correcting a sinner. The first thing that comes to mind is deciding who is supposed to do it, who is responsible? I am thinking of people with high power or very public figures, the most difficult people to approach. Who can relate to them at the level necessary for fraternal correction?

    When I hear of fraternal correction, I think of my mother and how she tried to keep us her five kids together. Sadly, today it seems to me we are a divided family and looking back I can see the signs, the seeds of this disunity. When I was a child, I learned to stop calling my brother and sisters “idiots”. Only now I am learning how to bear their burdens humbly and fraternally. My point is, the family is where it all starts. Fraternal correction makes more sense to me when we learn it in the family. Then we will consider dying for the love one before amputation becomes necessary.

    The video mentions the Spirit of Christ. I think is also in Ephesians where we hear about the Christian call to grow to the full stature of Christ and maintaining the unity of the Body. This Spirit will make our efforts fruitful.

    1. Yeah, Fraternal Correction is not required in every instance. Our obligation to do it will vary based on the nature of our relationship. For example a parent has a high obligation to correct a child. We are less required to correct other people’s children, but not wholly exempt. A subordinate is seldom required to correct a superior, but a superior may have stronger obligations. A believer is more obliged to correct a fellow believer. Strangers are less obliged to correct strangers etc.

  2. Great post, Monsignor. It’s no wonder that Fraternal Correction is a forgotten virtue. It is barely mentioned in the new “sure norm” Catechism of the Catholic Church (which I revere, but sometimes find inexplicably incomplete, as in this case):

    2447 The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently.

    No mention of correction… it’s been swept under the theological rug!

    Compare that passage in the new Catechism with the treatment the topic receives in the previously-venerable Baltimore Catechism:

    Q. 812. How can we know spiritual from corporal works of mercy?

    A. We can know spiritual from corporal works of mercy, for whatever we do for the soul is a spiritual work, and whatever we do for the body is a corporal work.

    Q. 813. Which are the chief spiritual works of mercy?

    A. The chief spiritual works of mercy are seven: To admonish the sinner, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive all injuries, and to pray for the living and the dead.

    Q. 814. When are we bound to admonish the sinner?

    A. We are bound to admonish the sinner when the following conditions are fulfilled:

    When his fault is a mortal sin;
    When we have authority or influence over him, and
    When there is reason to believe that our warning will not make him worse instead of better.

    Penn Jillette likens it to warning someone standing on a railroad track that a train is coming. How much would you have to hate someone to see the train barreling down on them and not take some action to save them from death?

    Speaking of forgotten tenets of the faith, how about forgotten sins? How many otherwise-faithful Catholics realize that there is something called the sin of “detraction”:

    Being sensitive to detraction seems to me to be significantly related to Fraternal Correction. If one finds oneself in the situation of having to provide that spiritual work of mercy to a brother or sister in Christ, a charitable consideration for that person’s reputation and good name would keep us to refrain from mentioning our good deed, and the person’s fault to anyone else. Fraternal correction must be carried out both in charity and in confidence, if possible, if I understand this correctly.

    1. Thanks for this very helpful contribution. I too have been somewhat disappointed by the New Catechism from time to time. Other examples would be a treament of “envy” that (according to me) fails to distiguish it properly from jealosy. The definition of Hope also seems watery. I suspect that what happened at times with the New Catechism is that it was trying to respect too many traditions in the Church. It is a fact that Jesuits, Dominicans, Carmelites, Fransicans et al. have sometimes differing definitions and traditions. They are all Catholic but sometimes the meanings of words and concepts vary a bit. Hence, when writing the Catechism the authors tried to avoid tipping too far in one direction or another. I tend to be Thomist (Dominican) in my approach to definitions and concepts and I’ve noticed that my Thomism isn’t always perfectly reflected in the Catechsim which remains, nevertheless a wonderful work with some details I wish were better.

  3. A very good article. I constantly come across situations where I’m accused of judging, while in fact I am only trying to point out an error. People don’t want to be corrected because they don’t know the Father, and they don’t know the Father because they refuse to believe in Jesus and his forgiveness.

  4. Proper judgement is meant to correct, not belittle, wound or shame. It done from a place of love and care and should be premised that way. Otherwise, it’s hard for another to hear.

    On the other side of the conversation, I really do think gossip is something that plagues our society. It’s become a popular and profitable business, often guised as news. When I once went to my pastor regarding a personal problem, his response was, “Well, I know people have been talking about you,” to which my response was, “The Christian thing to do is to talk to me, not about me.”

  5. Has no one read the book of Titus lately? The same guy who wrote about stop judging also wrote the book of titus. moreover, people often do not make the connection that toe observe and to judge to two totally different things. to observe and correct is necessary. to judge is to condemn or to promote.

    1. yes another example is Matt 7 where in the Lord says not to judge and then two verses later says that we are not to give what is holy to dogs neither are we to cast our pearls before swine. Now this of course requires us to size people up a bit. We have to make some internal judgments about whether they can be trusted with the truth. So the don’t judge of Matt 7 cannot be understood as all judgement, but rather only certain judgments.

  6. I have found that correction is difficult at the time the fault is pointed out, but over time the person who is admonished- if they have attained some degree of humility- will come to appreciate the correction and grow in love and fondness for the person who corrected them.
    I have experienced that when I have been corrected my feelings are hurt initially, but after giving the issue some thought, I can move beyond the hurt feelings to see that my brother had my well being in mind.
    So I think any correction should be accompanied by prayers for the virtue of humility so the correction may be fruitful.

    I know that I have grown to appreciate correction because I have been doing a daily examination of conscience (talk about a humbling experience!) and I wish the Church would again srtongly encourage that practice- I have never heard it mentioned form the pulpit. It would go along way in shifting the culture of tolerance to a culture of spiritual growth.

    I heard someone say- “Those who tell you the truth love you. Those who tell you what you want to hear love themselves”- how true!

  7. Somehow my eyes deceived me. I thought I was reading an article titled “Fraternal Connection”. It’s really what I miss most from my Protestant past. I am reminded of situations from the days when I supervised a sheltered workshop. Frequently we had to call in family members and/or guardians of our clients to sit down with us and our clients and to discuss behavioral issues. It was always easy to find people who would come in and freely point out the other person’s shortcomings and to do so vehemently. But Jesus calls to be brothers and sisters – to be in love with each other. I’ve come to think that an active deep abiding love for each other is the prequiste of fraternal correction – otherwise we labor in vain. Peace, Bill Smythe

  8. Thank you for the informative and wonderful site!. I was looking for help on Fraternal Correction and I found my answer here.

    Anyone remember Jude 9:22? Angels do not take this liberty. Therefore if we are to judge angels (Cor), why shouldn’t we do the same.


    Home > Summa Theologica > Second Part of the Second Part > Question 33
    Question 33. Fraternal correction

    Is fraternal correction an act of charity?
    Is it a matter of precept?
    Does this precept bind all, or only superiors?
    Does this precept bind the subject to correct his superior?
    May a sinner correct anyone?
    Should one correct a person who becomes worse through being corrected?
    Should secret correction precede denouncement?
    Should witnesses be called before denouncement?

    many wonderful questions will / are answered if only thomas aquinas great work is , ” seeked ” GOOD LUCK – GOD BLESS.

  10. Suddenly, now, reading this, I understand what my Dad has been doing for as long as I remember. He has always offered advice or counsel on what to do, but let me make my decisions. After making decisions that did not go as planned (of which there have been many), he has never said, I told you so, but has offered more counsel, or suggested that he thought such an outcome might occur. When I was younger, we often argued (mostly about things that were unimportant). When his Dad, died (30 years ago), I remember him saying he wished they had argued less. When my Dad had his first heart attack (about 24 years ago). the next time I visited my family, I worked hard at not arguing. One way I did this was by not really discussing anything with him. After a few days, he asked if I was upset with him. I said no, I just was trying not to argue. I also said I thought that by some of the choices I had made, I might have disappointed him. He lifted many burdens from me when he said he was not disappointed; he had just had different hopes for me. About 12 years later, he called me one time when I was under a lot of stress. We got into an argument (the subject of which I don’t remember [again, it wasn’t something important]), and I hung up on him. I felt great guilt and sent him a letter apologizing for my behavior, and saying I would argue with him no more. It has been over ten years, and I have held to that, even though sometimes it has been very difficult. From reading your article today. I realize that fraternal correction is what he was doing all those years. I am blessed to have had a Dad like him. Thank you for this teaching and may God bless you and your work.

    1. Great thread Monsignor ! Just wanted to ask.How do we practice fraternal correction with a group of friends who are doing something really wrong ? The person practicing the virtue in this situation runs the risk of being ” clobbered ‘ by group opinion and even ridicule,especially when their leader sees nothing wrong in what they’re doing. In this case married men who ,on golf trips out of town indulge in activities they shouldn’t indulge in and claim it as just part of their fund raising for their Catholic school charity . Undoubtedly correction would be met by arguments of it being for a good cause anyway and a ‘guy thing ” as well. Thanks !

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