23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 18:15-20
Jesus said to his disciples: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”
In this Sunday’s Gospel, according to the lectionary of the forma ordinaria, our Savior indicates the three escalating levels of fraternal correction. First, we are to correct the sinner privately. Then, if he refuses to listen, we bring one or two others. Finally, if necessary, the sinner must be brought to the Church. If he refuses even the correction of the Church, and if the matter is serious, he is to be excommunicated – for this is what our Lord means when he tells us, And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican (Matthew 18:17).
Are all the faithful bound to correct sinners? Is it a matter of precept or only a counsel that I should correct my brother who sins? Does my own salvation rely upon correcting the faults of others?
We are bound to correct the sinner who is both a member of the Church and either our equal or inferior
Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide reasons well in teaching that all the faithful are bound to correct those sinners who are also members of the household of the faith – i.e. Christians are bound by precept to correct other Christians. However, he points out also that we are bound to correct only our equals and inferiors, for these only are rightly called thy brother. Indeed, it would often be inappropriate for a child to correct a parent; or for a layman to correct a priest; or for a priest to correct a bishop – though, there are certainly occasions when even this form of correction (from an inferior to a superior) is necessary.
“The correction which is here enjoined by Christ is not merely of counsel, but of precept, and is binding upon all the faithful. For although Christ says in express words only that those who have sinned against us are to be corrected, yet by parity of reasoning He intended it to be extended to all sinners. So the interpreters and scholastics, with S. Thomas, passim (2. 2. quæst. 33). This is plain from the expression, thy brother. For brother denotes any Christian believer, and an equal rather than a superior. For although unbelievers are at times to be corrected, yet Christ is here speaking only of the faithful as belonging to Himself and subject to His Church. For infidels cannot be punished and excommunicated by the Church, inasmuch as they do not belong to it.
“The reason is à priori, because this precept of correction is, both as regards its substance, as well as its method and order, not so much a positive command; and, according to the jus divinum, as of the jus naturæ, belonging naturally to charity and grace. For charity requires that we should bring back our neighbour when he sins into the way of salvation by correcting him; and that we should have regard to his shame as well as his good name. For as S. Jerome says, “If he lose shame and modesty, he will remain in sin.” For it is not public and judicial correction which is here treated of, which deals with the just punishment of offences committed against the commonwealth, but that private correction which tends to the salvation of our neighbour when he sins. This reason is urged by S. Augustine (Serm. 16, de Verb. Apost.). ‘Rebuke thy neighbour,’ he says, ‘between thee and him alone, for the sake of the correction, and sparing his shame. For perchance he may, through shame, begin to defend his sin; and thus him, whom thou wishest to become better, thou makest worse.’ And again, ‘Forget thine own injury, not thy brother’s fall, nor suffer him to perish through thy silence. If thou alone knowest his fault, and reprovest it before others, thou art not a corrector, but a betrayer.’”
We are generally bound to fraternal correction only in the case of grave sins
Fr. Cornelius: “In the last place, ordinarily, brotherly correction is only of obligation when the sin is mortal. Although indeed Cajetan, Valentia and D. Soto [notably, the teacher of the newest Doctor of the Church, St. John of Avila], think we are under an obligation to correct when the sin is venial. But this does not seem to be generally true, nor is it usual in practice, unless grave loss or scandal follow from the venial sin. For otherwise the burden of correcting every single trifling fault and, being corrected for them, would be equally intolerable both to the corrector and the corrected: Indeed it would be morally impossible. (See Suarez 2. 2. tract. de charitate, disp. 8. sect. 2).”
How to make fraternal correction work: Prudence and charity
Hear again our dear Jesuit scholar: “Wherefore, in order that this correction, which of itself is an odious thing, may be fruitful and efficacious, two principal things are needed; namely, charity and prudence, or discretion. Charity; that he who sins may feel that the correction proceeds not from hatred, or pride, but from love and compassion. Prudence, that it may be done modestly and gently, and with such circumstances of time and place and manner, as that he who has sinned may receive it gratefully, and may amend, according to the Apostle’s words, Instruct in the spirit of meekness, &c. (Gal. vi. 1.) As S. Leo says (Epist. 84.), ‘Let there be benevolence rather than severity uppermost in the corrector; let there be more of exhortation than of fussiness; more of love than of power.’”
Learn to receive fraternal correction
Consider the words of St. Josemaría Escrivá:
“A friend of yours, loyally and charitably, points out to you, on your own, certain things which tend to mar your behavior. You are convinced that he is mistaken: he does not understand you. If that false conviction, born of your pride, remains, you will never change. I pity you: you lack the decision to seek holiness.” (Furrow 707)
What is harder, learn to give fraternal correction
Again, from the Founder:
“To practice fraternal correction – which is so deeply rooted in the Gospel – is a proof of supernatural trust and affection. Be thankful for it when you receive it, and don’t neglect to pract it with those you live with.
“When you correct someone – because it has to be done and you want to do your duty – you must expect to hurt others and to get hurt yourself. But you should never let this fact be an excuse for holding back.” (The Forge 566-567)