Homily for the 23rd Sunday of the Year

The Scripture readings for this Sunday converge on the idea or concept of fraternal correction. Fraternal correction is the practice whereby, observing that someone is at fault in some way, we resolve to go to them to draw their attention to what they are doing wrong, and invite them to reform. Fraternal correction is distinct from the type of correction that a person in authority makes over someone for whom they have responsibility. E.g. a boss at work corrects an employee, a bishop does so to a priest, a father of a family to his children, etc. In fraternal correction, rather, you are on a level with the person you’re correcting (hence “fraternal” – brotherly) or at least you speak to them as if you were on a level. A parishioner could correct the bishop if they saw fit! – but they would be doing to so him as a “brother” and not a superior. Typically, however, we might be talking of a friend, natural brother or sister, fellow parishioner, or work colleague.

There is a large amount of material on this in the teachings of saints and theologians. This is itself cause to reflect. These days there seems to be a lot of accusation, correction and admonition to be found on the internet and especially social media. Catholics particularly need to be aware that our discernment in this area does not happen in a vacuum – there is a longstanding body of teaching on this topic which wise authors have given us to guide our consciences.

The basic “problems” with fraternal correction are that we do too much, or too little. Too much might be a person who seemed to conceive that they often or always have a responsibility to go around correcting everyone’s behaviour, whether on larger matters or small. Such a person – you could call them a busybody! – appears to think that they have a special duty to reform persons. This attitude is to err by excess. The other problem is “too little”, whereby a person could say that they would never correct anyone else’s behaviour, that they weren’t the type to intervene in the lives of others, “live and let live” perhaps being their motto, or “you’re ok, I’m ok” according to the current phrase. They rule out correcting anyone as a matter of principle and say that they will never do it. This would also be mistaken, as sometimes at least we do have the duty to make a fraternal correction. 

The basic motive of fraternal correction is the good of the other person. Sin wounds our relationship with God, and fraternal correction seeks to heal such a wound by “engaging” with someone for whose (especially) spiritual wellbeing we are concerned with a view to bringing about a change of heart. This is behind today’s first reading (from the book of Ezekiel): a good fraternal correction wins us favour with God because we will have “saved” or “rescued” our brother or sister from their sin. There are also some other secondary reasons to correct, especially the avoidance of scandal (when someone is giving a bad example to others).

This is where a problem comes in. Because there are in fact a great many other reasons why we might wish to correct someone. We might be angry with them and want to “vent” (let off steam). They might have hurt us and we’d like to get our own back. They might just be irritating us bywhat they do. Or perhaps their actions embarrass us. These are all excellent reasons not to correct someone! Or at least, to be very cautiousindeed if we think these motives or others like them might be driving us in the desire to correct, because these motives would not be good ones at all and no basis on which to act.

I will try now to review traditional Catholic teaching on fraternal correction in the form of five points.

First point. It is serious matters that require fraternal correction more than smaller ones. Today’s second reading (part of the 10 commandments) gives us some of the serious sins. That someone has bad manners or an irritating habit, on the other hand, is no necessary reason to correct them. Certainly, parents are due to correct e.g. but that’s different, as I said before. If we all corrected everyone’s small mistakes we’d be ripping each other apart all the time. If even the just man, the good man, sins seven times a day (as says the book of Proverbs 24:6 – even a good person daily commits smaller faults) he should not expect to be corrected seven times! It would be intolerable. 

Second point. Don’t correct someone if you aren’t sure they have done wrong. A Catholic example: these days on the internet you see one person accusing another of heresy – a sin against the Faith (a serious sin). Now if you are going to accuse someone of heresy, then you’d better be pretty sure they have committed it. Perhaps consult someone expert in the field, parish priest … etc. Sometimes people take it upon themselves to correct what they see as sins (of whatever type) but in fact they have judged rashly. Fraternal correction always requires careful discernment.

Third point. It should be at least probable (usually) that a person will actually heed a proposed correction or at least take it seriously. This is a condition (taught by all the Doctors of the church) that is often forgotten. If someone is doing something wrong (e.g. at work someone is stealing things) and a couple of colleagues have already mentioned it to them and they’ve reacted angrily and told them to back off, will it help if you try also? All things being equal, probably not. Sometimes, in fact, a fraternal correction can cause a person to react and actually do worse things than before. This point needs careful consideration.

Fourth point. You correct if there is no one else better placed to correct who will actually do that. Imagine a person doing something wrong but you (for some reason) have a bad or difficult relationship with them. Are they going to listen to you? Probably not. Whereas someone else may be better placed. Whereas, have many of us had this experience? – that someone is doing something wrong, and you think about it, and it gradually dawns upon you that in fact I am the one who could say something in this case. Aha – no small realisation. When making a discernment on this topic, these days, we would say, do I have (or could I have) the relationship with the person that will allow me to do this?

Fifth point, very important. There is an “order of charity” mentioned in the Gospel reading. It is usually the case that a person should be admonished privately. Don’t announce someone’s faults to the masses. Take it up with them in private. Then, if that doesn’t resolve it, if appropriate, go with another trusted person to take it up again as this can help to give more weight to the point. Only finally does one bring it out into the open, sometimes first by mentioning it to the Superior of the person.

This is the ordinary sequence. There can be reasons to do otherwise, but this order must be taken very seriously indeed. I say this because these days (social media) it seems to be normal to make all sorts of accusations against persons in public or semi-public before a person has been approached directly and individually. Here we have the great risk that all kinds of emotions are in play that can cloud our judgment – we are angry, caught up in a wave of reproach or complaint, speaking more for our own perceived benefit than the good of the person. Not so good. A person’s reputation can also be trashed before they have the ordinary private opportunity to reflect and repent.

Spiritual teachers say that (in general, in the Christian life) when one is considering a weighty matter one should usually seek counsel, from a spiritual director or confessor, or if they are not available, a trusted, reliable and wise friend or counsellor. It strikes me that this teaching is often not observed in the practice of fraternal correction. At times people conceive that they must be the one to correct but they do not seek counsel before doing so to get extra perspective and guidance and clarity. Then they sometimes regret it. Or the opposite – someone is considering making a fraternal correction, but perhaps fearful of doing so, they leave it and don’t seek the counsel of someone prudent and experienced to guide them in doing it. Then the opportunity passes and the moment is lost. That can also happen.

Sufficient. One final point, turn it round, sometimes I am the one being corrected! Not to be forgotten! Brief reflection. This is always a difficult experience but it can be of great benefit to us. Here the saints and doctors of the Church are absolutely unanimous that when this happens to uswe must try to be calm, approach the experience in a spirit of humility, and really try to take seriously what the other person is saying. We have a right to disagree, but our disagreement is easily based on a resentment that anyone might correct us! Say you will reflect on it, take it to prayer. Of course the person may be simply wrong as to a matter of fact but don’t be quick to judge. Take it as an opportunity to make an act of humility whatever merit there is in the correction. This is a counsel of perfection which can win us great graces before the throne of God.