Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
Our readings today speak to us on the theme of fraternal correction. Fraternal correction is a term that generally means to admonish one’s neighbor, ultimately with the purpose of reforming that person, by correcting that person from a sinful path and possibly preventing that person from further sinful indulgence.
Briefly, I’d like to mention three aspects to this: firstly, why we engage in fraternal correction; secondly, what empowers a well-done fraternal correction; and finally, a word as to how we go about correcting another.
Regarding the why of fraternal correction, the why is very simple: we do it for their sake. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him,” (John 3:16 – 17).
“No servant is greater than his master,” says the Lord. For our sake and for our salvation, our Lord came down from heaven; we say that in our Creed. As servants of our Lord, we’re called to do the same: for others’ sake, we come down from our place of comfort and engage with another person in their sin. And if this is any sign [gesturing to the crucifix], we make ourselves vulnerable in the process.
We do this for another’s sake, but it’s for our sake, as well, as it’s a responsibility for which we will be held accountable. From the prophet Ezekiel today, we hear, Thus says the Lord: … You, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel… If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death…”
Secondly, our fraternal correction must be filled with power. And that power is cultivated through love and conviction.
Imagine a child playing on a street, unaware of a car that is quickly approaching. From a distance, a mother sees the car, and believes beyond doubt that her child’s life is in danger. She cries out for her child’s sake, not for her own. She loves her child, which fills her voice with an unmistakable concern and insistence that cannot be ignored. And her absolute conviction about the imminent and life-threatening danger fills her words with a power that must be obeyed. Again, love and conviction empower fraternal correction.
Conviction also comes from being a credible witness to the truth. To quote Pope Saint Gregory the Great, “Doctrine loses credibility when conscience tethers the tongue.”
When we fail to live up to the demands of our faith, it’s extraordinarily difficult to correct others their shortcomings, which ultimately endangers them. If I can’t keep from J-walking or being careless in crossing a street, I’m not a credible witness regarding pedestrian safety. The same is true in regard to any moral failings.
We gain credibility by doing our best to live according to the truths we proclaim, and by repenting quickly and trying again in the event that we fail. "What’s right is right, even if no one’s right, and what’s wrong is wrong even if everyone is wrong," but to the best of our ability, we ought to be more than parrots that simply repeat words. We strive to live morally so that we can be of assistance to others, by being able to speak from a place of credibility and conviction.
Otherwise, we’re no better than the scribes and Pharisees whom our Lord rebuked for their hypocrisy. “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye”, says the Lord.
Finally, a brief word on how we might offer a fraternal correction. Our Lord says to us:
“If your brother sins against you..." Firstly, we're talking about sin here; an offense against God, ultimately, through an offense against you or me. We're not talking about hurt feelings, opinions or preferences.
"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone… If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you… If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church…”
These increasing circles of correction are for the sake of objective truth, because if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that my own subjective perceptions, intuitions, reasonings, and feelings could very well be wrong. My opinions might not be shared by others. My underlying worldview itself could be flawed, giving birth to an entire system that is disordered. My experience could be quite irrelevant to the living situation of others.
But when I recruit others into a fraternal correction, then I do as our Lord says, “…so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses’.” Facts are of first importance. Again, we're orienting ourselves around objective truth.
And if two or three witnesses isn’t enough, ultimately the entire Church can be recruited into a correction. I can be deceived, but three people might be enough to correct me. Three people can be deceived, and so, a larger consensus may be necessary. An entire nation can be deceived—think of Nazi Germany, or any rogue nation—but a league of nations might be able to right the course. An entire era of history can be deceived, but the Church that Christ established, which exists beyond any one time period and any one nation, cannot be deceived; because Christ has given his Church the Spirit of Truth which cannot be wrong in matters relating to faith and morals. The Church has been, and will continue to be at pivotal moments in history, that counter-cultural and corrective voice that speaks out against sin in every age.
For the sake of others, with conviction, and with increasing circles of approach; these are elements that must be honored when making any good fraternal correction. God bless you.
Christ Pantocrator, c. 6th century, St. Catherine's Monastery at Sinai [Public Domain]