“If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, 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. Again, [amen,] I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” — Matthew 18:15-20
Today, faithful Catholics more and more frequently face difficult decisions about whether to speak-up when family members, friends, co-workers, and others turn away from their Catholic faith in various ways, such as attempting marriage outside of the Church, espousing views that are opposed to Catholic moral teaching, or simply giving-up the practice of the faith.
At the same time, in recent years, a heavy emphasis has been placed on the importance of affirming other people.
Authority figures are supposed to be especially affirming, according to this way of thinking. To take a few examples: parents today are much more careful to affirm their children’s goodness; employers have come to recognize that affirmation can serve as a strong motivational tool, helping their employees achieve greater results in the workplace; and in my years of playing and coaching different sports, I’ve seen trophies grow—to the point that a third-place sixth-grade basketball tournament trophy can now rival the NBA Championship trophy!
As is so often the case, this trend towards relentless affirmation has in it some good and some bad. There are ways in which we could say that it fits well with our Catholic faith. We know that when God created Adam and Eve, He said that these particular creatures were not only “good” but “very good” (Gen 1:31). And we know that we are made better than very good in Baptism. Baptism makes us members of God’s family, the Church. We become His adopted children. Baptism gives us not merely natural but supernatural life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1227) tells us, “The baptized “have ‘put on Christ’ (see Galatians 3:37). Through the Holy Spirit, Baptism is a bath that purifies, justifies, and sanctifies.”
And when you add to all of this the good individual qualities any person certainly has, there is certainly a lot to affirm. But when we think in any depth about the human condition, we also see that this is not the whole story. In the world-at-large, and even among the baptized, there is still the problem of sin. Many people have not received the gift of Baptism, and all of us who are baptized think, speak, and act against the dignity God has given us in various ways. Some of these ways we act against our God-given dignity are very gravely evil.
There is a lot we could say about our own sins, and we all know how much we need to rely upon God’s mercy and forgiveness, especially in the Sacrament of Penance, or confession. But the Gospel teaches that we also need to think about other people, and to help them live according to their own God-given dignity.
Being mostly human, and part-chicken, I have to admit that I find Jesus’ teaching about what is often called “fraternal correction” very challenging. It can be incredibly difficult to confront another person when we need to tell him that he’s on the wrong track somehow, doing something that is hurting himself and others. But it’s clear that this is part of the Christian life. And when we think carefully about what God has revealed to us concerning fraternal correction, the reasons for its necessity become a lot clearer.
The Scriptures make it clear that we are not only called to be holy ourselves, and we’re not only called to help others to become holy through our positive words and example, but we are also called at times to challenge other people when we see them heading down the wrong path. It’s easy to have a gut reaction against this teaching, but we have to begin at least by admitting it is there, in plain English.
Jesus goes into some detail about how to challenge others in this way, in the Gospel passage cited above. And in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (3:17-19) the Lord makes it clear to Ezekiel that fraternal correction is necessary and can even be a matter of life or death:
“You, son of man, 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 and dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.”
These are obviously strong words! And it makes sense to say that Ezekiel had a special responsibility in this area as God’s prophet. But that doesn’t mean ordinary Catholics are without responsibility for their brothers and sisters. On the contrary, Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”
This kind of conversation is one of the most difficult we can have with another person, especially because it often involves people we love. Most of us have a number of family members and friends who in significant ways are not living out their Catholic faith. And we cannot simply shrug our shoulders as they drift (or run) away from the Church.
We believe that the spiritual life is the most important part of our human life. And so we should at least logically recognize that as often as we would warn someone about other dangers, we should feel all the more urgency about warning people when they are in spiritual danger because of sin.
Perhaps now it’s best to cut right to some practical considerations about how we go about correcting the sinner:
First, we must act in love. St. Paul tells us in his Letter to the Ephesians that we need to speak the truth in love, and this is absolutely essential. And he writes in the Letter to the Romans (13:8, 10), “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another…love does no evil to the neighbor.” Without love, our challenging of others will only make things worse. Love needs to be the motivation of our words and the defining quality of the way we in which express ourselves. It’s tempting to think fraternal correction is something harsh, because we have been conditioned to some extent by a “live and let live” society. But our absolute need to put love first should show us that this kind of correction is not supposed to be harsh, even when it is clear and challenging.
Second, we need to “choose our battles.” This is not an excuse for neglecting our responsibilities, but not every problem people are having requires our intervention. We need to avoid two extremes: being too laid-back about other people’s lives and being too uptight and quick to pounce.
Third, we should consider our role in the life of the person with whom we are thinking of speaking. A closely related consideration here is whether or not our silence could be taken as consent. So, if my nephew Bobby has just joined a gang, I need to consider how close I am to him. I need to think, “Who else (if anyone) would be likely to correct him? What is likely to be the impact of adding my voice against this decision? Is my speaking up likely to steer him towards a better path? If I said nothing, would he take that as encouragement to continue? Is my speaking up in one way as opposed to another way likely to make things significantly better or worse?”
Fourth, timing counts. Correcting someone publicly is far less often called for than correcting someone privately. When we need to speak up in front of other people—let’s say, for example, when a group of people at work is viciously gossiping about another coworker—I should be clear but more gentle, and if I need to say something further I should try to speak privately to the gossipers. Timing is also important for other reasons, such as when someone needs to cool down. If my Uncle Larry really lets Aunt Sally have it at Thanksgiving dinner, it is probably best not to go correct Uncle Larry when he is still glowing with fury. On the other hand, I can’t be so wimpy that I neglect to say anything to him before Christmas dinner!
Fifth, know yourself. Know your strengths and weaknesses, and how you handle—or are prone to mishandle—different situations (e.g. writing, phone, face-to-face). Each person has his or her own strengths and weaknesses.
Sixth, we should take into consideration the seriousness of the sin. This affects both whether and how we speak to someone. If a friend likes gambling a little bit more than he can afford to lose, that’s one thing. If he is putting his livelihood or family in serious financial danger, that’s a much more serious matter and is more likely to require prompt, clear intervention.
Seventh, and finally, we need to correct others with humility and without judgment of the people involved. This is the difference between watching out for others and “watching others like a hawk.” It’s the difference between saying, “Look out!” and “Gotcha!” When I challenge someone, I am a sinner trying to warn and to help another sinner. I can recognize an action as sinful, but I have no right to judge the intentions of someone’s heart. This, like our need to be loving, is a non-negotiable.
It is important for all Catholics to pray in advance for the grace, courage, and love to speak up for the good of others when they see their family members, friends, fellow parishioners, neighbors, and coworkers turn away from God. This is one of those crosses Jesus calls His disciples to pick up and carry, but like all crosses it leads us to new and glorious life, for those who call others to conversion and for those they lovingly call back to Christ and His Church.
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