Friday, September 2, 2011

Am I obliged to correct my brother who sins?

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)


Anonymous said...

Though I can see it not being of obligation, I think it is very kind and charitable to give fraternal correction of venial sins or even non-sinful faults, if the individual is at a point in the spiritual life when he can deal with such things. This is especially true if the person is blindly falling into the offense in a habitual way. I certainly would want to be corrected, at least.

It brings up another point, too -- how receptive we think the other person will be to the correction. My priest gave a sermon on fraternal correction once and as I recall he said that we are not bound to give correction unless we think it will make a positive difference. If we have reason to think the person will just become angry and argue and also won't change or re-evaluate his behavior at all, then we don't need to say anything.

Thanks for the post, Father.


Chatto said...


can you explain what the terms 'precept' and 'counsel' mean in this case? Not being familiar with these technical terms, I think I'm missing some of the meaning.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Great question, thanks for drawing my attention to this point!

A counsel will lead to perfection but is not strictly obligatory -- i.e. for most, a counsel does not bind as a matter of sin (unless we make a vow and bind ourselves, as do religious vocations).

A precept is strictly obligatory according to the intention of the lawgiver. We all must follow the precepts.

Consider the "precepts of the Church" -- things like going to Mass every Sunday.
Compared to the "evangelical counsel" -- poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Hope that is more clear now! +

Anonymous said...

Isn't it if we keep silent seeing and knowing that our brother has transgressed seriously(or even not as serviously), we become an accesssory to his transgression. This I believe is found in the nine ways of being an accessory to sin.


Anonymous said...

"For as S. Jerome says, “If he lose shame and modesty, he will remain in sin.”"

That explains the present condition of this country. There is no longer any shame whatsoever and modesty is equated with the Amish. How well do I remember when there was a sense of shame - in women especially. That is long gone and not much interest is there in getting it back as people are not conducive to correction or good example.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Pax (Anon 9:34am),
Correct, there are certainly times when we must speak out.

Recall, however, that it is in relation to "our brother" ... hence, we refer principally to our equals or lessers ... in other words, it is not always good (and can even be sinful) for the inferior to publicly correct the superior.
Hence, for example, the many lay persons who are extremely critical of priests and bishops are really on questionable ground. [just as are priests who greatly criticize the bishops or the pope]

Hope that helps! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, you have a good point for sure!

Recall especially the importance of correcting with prudence and with charity -- I think that what your priest said fits very well in with this notion.

Peace to you! +

Anonymous said...

I am sorry you did not answer my question. I have nothing against the Saint, but I had never heard him referred simply as "The Founder" before, as Aristotle is the Philosopher or Saint Paul is the Apostle. It is not as if there are no other great founders with relevant writings, from St. Francis to St. Ignatius and St. Teresa to so many others... So, unless one is in the Prelature, calling him "the Founder" is pure affectation.

Best regards, Fr.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Anon (10:51am),
You leave an anonymous comment (though I have asked many times and have a clearly stated policy that you must at least use a pseudonym), mocking the fact that I call St. Josemaria Escriva the Founder ... adding nothing at all to this discussion ... simply trying to "one-up" me and look intelligent yourself ... and, after all that, you have the nerve to leave another ANONYMOUS comment to the same effect (after I did not publish the first, since it was anonymous).

If you have any charity at all, leave your name or a pseudonym, claim your previous two comments, and state your question in charity.
When you do this, I will be happy to answer.

[and you should receive this comment as an act of fraternal correction: You have been terribly rude and you owe me and my readers an apology.]

Best regards to you.

Michelangelo said...

Hi Father Ryan,

Excellent post! This is the scripture I fear the most will get me sent to hell. And along with the one where it says, If you see your brother sin and don't correct him and he's damned, you are too! Yikes! I see murder and mayhem every day! (Well okay, not every day) But being a volunteer fireman and all, ugh!

What about the baptized non-Catholic friends and associates? Generally these days, they just don't like somebody even charitably and privately advising them of actions that are mortally sinful. Of course I don't open with that line, I try to come from their perspective and talk about the deleterious effects of such and such a sinful act (it's all the rage to be getting a vasectomy...).

So after a while, I get frustrated and don't say anything when I'm the unwilling witness of some awful thing. I'm going to hell, Fadda! Help! How do I confess this sin of ommission, and how do I do better? God bless, Father.

Oh, and for all the anonymouses out there, if you're old like me, and not so computer savvy, the thing I figured out to do is to click on "Name/URL" and type in your moniker. It seems to work pretty well. If there's a better way, let me know.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It is a difficult question ... remember that prudence and charity are also necessary.

It's not enough to simply speak the truth, we must do it in love (which requires prudence as well).
So, remember that "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!"

Still, most of us could be far more bold than we are -- especially, in the modern day when complacency with sin has led to so many falls!

Pray the good Lord to provide opportunities to speak the truth, and remember that your personal witness to holiness can go further than words (but words are also sometimes necessary).

Hopefully, you have a good confessor who can give more practical and specific advise.
I will say a few prayers too! +

Anonymous said...


I would caution you against the incorrect idea of laymen and priests being respectively inferior and superior to each other. This approach is partly to blame for the mess we're in. Too many priests have an air of superiority, and believe that their words carry the weight of divine inspiration. We must never presume that a priest is intellectually or morally superior to a layperson. This presumption led many to look the other way while Father [insert name] behaved inappropriately and sometimes egregiously. It would serve us well to note that saintly priests lived as servants of those who serve GOD [ex. St John Vianey, St. Vincent DePaul, St. Max Kolbe, St. Damien of Molokai, et al]

GOD Bless.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I understand your point and I am quite sure that we are in agreement.

Still, to be clear, the priest is the "suprerior" of the lay person ... it is a simple fact that God will hold the parish priest accountable for his flock, but lay people will not necessarily be held accountable for their parish priest.

So, yes, there are certainly times when the inferior should correct the superior -- I believe you are hinting at one of the time when this correction is morally (and legally) obligatory.

Still, "fraternal correction" is (by definition) either between equals or from superior to inferior.
Hence, just both lay persons and priests need to be very careful about publicly rebuking bishops (for example).
[btw, all the priests you listed had a very strong sense of the role of the priest as shepherd and guardian over the laity -- hence, a strong sense of superior protecting and serving the inferior ... if we are all equals, then the priest has no greater obligation to service]

Peace and blessings to you. +

Mac Rojo said...

Let's us remember how this ties into the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.

Also, prudence and charity have their place and limits do they not? When Jesus made a whip and chased the money changers out of the temple how charitable and prudent was that. Moreover, when Jesus called the scribes and pharisees a brood of vipers was that not factual honesty applied in a higher mode of charity? .... Just food for thought.

RE: correcting our equal brothers ..... For example, a layman correcting a priest .... If we see a priest committing liturgical abuse are we to remain silent or write a letter to a bishop who takes no corrective action in the spirit of being pastoral? Or do we cite the fact that the code of cannon law says we laymen have the right to abuse free liturgy?

Sacrosanctum Concilium says a priest on his own may not change a word of the liturgy .... How many ignore this and create their own liturgy thinking they can improve the liturgy of the Church? And if the Church IS the body of Christ ... Does not liturgical abuse bruise and batter the body of Christ? Is not a priest a servant of the liturgy, not a creator or fabricator?

Where are our champions who obey, defend, and love true Church teaching ... and correct their brothers at ALL levels? I believe we call most of them Saints ... Who had zeal for souls and were not afraid to plainly tell all that sin leads to hell. Jesus Himself was not timid about this.

I am a simple layman who loves Jesus, his Church, and the authority he gave his Church.

Remember, authority given and not used is no authority at
all ... As a former combat Marine I knew this well.

Mac Rojo

Ann said...

This is a "sticky wicket" when it comes to family members who are married out of the Faith, or have not been to Mass in ages, or are living with someone without benefit of marriage, or plainly say they do not believe in God any more. Worse yet, one practices a combination of New Age and Christianity. There are grandchildren who are being raised without any religion or belief. To suggest in any way that they need to give more thought to these matters is to insult (in their view) or to judge. We would have few contacts with most of our children, in-laws, brother and sisters, and cousins if we were to suggest any turning back to the Lord. At this point we can only pray fervently that they will be led back to the Faith in God's "time" and in "His way." I do thank and praise God that my baby brother came back to the Faith through the intercession of Bl. JPII and his discovering the Latin Mass in his diocese-this after nearly 40 years away.

wpr said...

Maybe I am reading it wrong, but doesn't St. Thomas Aquinas say we are bound to correct our superiors in certain circumstances:

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, agreed, as I said above: There are certainly times when an inferior should correct the superior.
Still, this is only fraternal correction after a certain analogy and not strictly speaking ... excepting insofar as all the baptized share a common brotherhood.
[for this reason, St. Thomas emphasizes that the inferior must correct the superior in a becoming manner, with gentleness and respect]

Peace. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Mac Rojo,
No, prudence and (especially) charity do not have any limits. They are virtues which should be exercised always and with the greatest zeal.
[again, this especially applies to charity ... the very idea of "limiting" or "moderating" charity is a very serious mistake]

Regarding correcting priests for liturgical abuses ... yes, certainly there are times for this ... but do not forget that prayer does more: "There are no bad priests, only priests for whom there has not been enough prayer" (ascribed to St. John Vianney).
Remember, that even St. John Vianney did not criticize the decadence of the other priests of his diocese, and when they attacked him he bore it in humility and charity.

Yes the liturgical abuses are bad, very very bad ... still, we need to be prudent and charitable as well ... and sometimes we have to bear patiently the sins of others.

Let us pray that all our priests would experience a profound conversion to the Lord! +

Sue said...

For almost 20 years I have written what I would consider 'love letters' to my sister that has been making one bad decision after another. We live 500 miles apart. I lovingly tell her that what she is doing is wrong and a serious sin, and why, and I always encourage her to call me and discuss it. Most recently, her 10 yr. old son (born out of wedlock)told me that he and his mom were living with "Bill". She stopped him from speaking any further (so he definitely has a sense of it being wrong). She has been chasing this man for 2 years, son in tow. I'm saddened for my nephew and the roller coaster ride he has to be on because of her choices in life. She didn't respond to my recent love letter. I doubt I will hear from her anymore. It's never been easy sending her those letters, but I did it out of love and with love. To not do anything would have appeared to be condoning her actions.

Anonymous said...

"Again, from the Founder:"

I really didn't like your tone when you put that reader in his place over 'the founder'. The way you used it did cause confusion because you had only just mentioned Escriva once specifically, while you mentioned Fr Cornelius more often. In fact I was not sure whom you were referring to.
One other point: Are you a member of the Opus Dei Prelature because only then can you refer to Escria as the founder. So who is your founder?

peppin the short

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I haven't taken this very seriously in the past. Pray that God will give me the grace to correct in a charitable way that will be well-received.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I'm sorry you "didn't like [my] tone" ... but that reader had twice refused to leave a pseudonym, and was being very rude.

Regarding, "the Founder" ... why didn't anybody object when I referred to St. Dominic as "our holy father St. Dominic" (a few weeks back, on the post "Let St. Dominic teach you how to pray a holy hour")?

You don't have to be a member of the prelature in order to call Escriva the founder ... just as I can speak of Berlusconi in one breath and then, a second later say "The Prime Minister" ... even though I am not Italian.

It's one thing to ask me to be more clear in naming my sources, it's quite another to accuse me of vain affectation.
Also, I don't need to tell you anything about my spiritual life -- so I don't think I'll answer your question about whether I am in the prelature.

joecupertino said...

I think this is a good sermon on fraternal correction (by an anonymous priest).

Catharine said...

Excellent article--you take on a very difficult topic which all of us must deal with from time to time. Personally, I believe we simply must take what Jesus tells us in the Gospel at face value (i.e., matters contained within direct quotes, as being the words of Jesus Christ Himself, to be given the highest priotity level). Your building upon the Gospel teaching, using further explications from well-known teachers of the Catholic faith, is likewise to be highly commended.

@ Sue: You are doing the right thing; at this point, just keep praying for your sister and her little boy. Your situation reminds me most painfully of my own sister and her little boy--she went through 3 marriages; dragged him along into all kinds of situations, all the while "flirting" with returning to the Catholic faith, but falling back out every single time. The outcome was, that little boy grew up and rejected her completely, moved to another state and no one has any idea where he is to be found nowadays. Keep praying for her and her son, as you never know when the grace of repentance (or, quite possibly, final repentance) will come into play. All of your prayers for her intention will definitely have some beneficial impact.

Also, Father, it would appear that you have some real "trolls" whose only intent is to lob anonymous insults, stir up discord, all the while lurking in dark corners. I think that out of an over-abundance of charity you take them too seriously. Personally, I think you should not post any of these trolls, and if they do get into a thread, that you should delete them as soon as they are detected.

God bless!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thank you for the very good comment!

It seems to me that you have offered a perfect example of good and charitable "correction"/encouragement ... from now own I will follow your advice and simply avoid posting comments from the "trolls", this will also certainly help me to maintain charity in my own comments!

Peace and blessings to you! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

While I have not listened to that particular homily on audiosancto, I can certainly attest to the overall quality of the sermons on that website.
Thank you for the link! +

Mrs. Scott said...

Very good article, thank you for writing and explaining it. I teach a small class that has made their Confirmation. Young adults to be--and this year our subject is Morality. Your comments will be discussed in our class if you don't mind.

Mrs. Scott

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Mrs. Scott,
Yes do feel free to make use of this article or any others! What a joy it is to instruct young ones in the Faith ... blessings to you! +

Michelangelo said...

Hi Father Ryan,

Thank you for your kind response. I second Catharine's wise advice. Sorry you have to read them, even if we don't, but I hope that depriving them of the "air" of "being published" will make them lose interest and go away (or better yet, convert!)

The conversion, of course, is to the realization that it's a rough world out there, and when such a fine, well informed priest, with all the responsibilities he has, would take the time to grace us with his counsel, we need to be at the very least respectful, and at best truly thankful. I certainly am. Happy Labor Day! God bless, Father.

Father Canu said...

... when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong. ... ... I said to Cephas in front of all, “If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”(Galatians 2:11,14)
Father Canu

Michelangelo said...

Father Ryan,

Might I also add, and this would be the other side of the argument for admitting the trolls: I admire your manly ability to stand up, toe to toe, to those who happen to be impolite in their discourse. I'm sure you do it face to face when you have to. Maybe it's the cowboy in you, I don't know, but it is something we all need to learn how to do as gentlemen. Just slinking away and complaining about them (ahem, like I do...) is not manly, and you give sophs like me a lesson in just how to conduct oneself as a Catholic man in the various situations one finds oneself in... God bless, Father.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Fr. Canu,
Thanks for the points from St. Thomas!

Also, it is good to remember that we cannot possibly give an accurate presentation of St. Thomas' thought by simply offering a "yes" or "no" answer.
Still, it is helpful to see the basic answer ... then we need to to look at each article more carefully.

Notice, especially, his qualifications to article (4), on how a subject is to correct a superior; also consider article (5) in which he does say that a sinner may offer some correction to another [even though his basic answer was "no"].

Peace to you, and thanks for the links! +

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity and desiring truth, why did you call him the Founder? And whose Founder at that?
I ak this respectfully too.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Please use a pseudonym in the future.

I call St. Escriva "the Founder" because he founded the prelature "Opus Dei" and is affectionately called "the Founder" by those who follow his spirituality.

Truly, I do not know of any others who are commonly called "the Founder" ... Sts Dominic and Francis are both called "our Father" (though Francis was only a deacon) ... Escriva himself seems to have preferred "the Father" and this is what is written on his tomb.

Still, Escriva is very commonly called "the Founder" (i.e. the Founder of Opus Dei) and I refer to him by this common title, because I love him and his movement very much.

Peace to you! +

Seraphim said...


Whenever I am in a situation like this my gut feeling, which I trust as the arbiter of my conscience, usually tells me that it would in fact be inappropriate to correct your brother if the individual in question is a stranger. It really seems like it's none of your business, and correcting a complete stranger on his personal (sexual) lifestyle is very socially inappropriate and appears judgmental and intrusive.

Part of the problem is that in contemporary America the qualifier as to whether someone is "in the Church" is ambiguous. Not everyone is a practicing Catholic, and even some that are are so secularized that their attachment to the Church may be only sentimental or cultural in character. I would say, a bit more cautiously, that one has this duty of correction only with a friend, closer acquaintance, or family member.

JQP said...


Sometimes it's prudent to hold off correction to a stranger that is a fellow Christian, but I don't think it's prudent to avoid it all together unless you know the person.

Ezekiel didn't know the people he was sent to personally though he might have known some after living with them for a while while proclaiming the Word of God.

Its right to help a brother then to leave them in sin, but to do it with charity and in humility.

In the situation of someone being only culturally Catholic and they are stubbornly in sin and dissident to the Faith. Then I can see times when prudence and charity can say to talk to them. There are plenty of these situations where what you say won't make them go further in sin. They are already there. Mortal is mortal =(.

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