FAUSTO GOMEZ OP
Through Christian tradition, the corporal works of mercy were generally focused on almsgiving while the spiritual works of mercy on admonishing the sinner, usually understood as fraternal correction or correction to the erring brother or sister (Mt 18:15). Fraternal correction is recommended by the Fathers of the Church and classical theologians.
Fraternal life means, “a life shared in love” (John Paul II), loving one another as brothers and sisters. Charity is undividedly love of God and love of neighbor. Loving the neighbor entails doing good to him or her, including correcting fraternally and prudently their faults. Fraternal correction is spiritual almsgiving, an external act of charity, an act of charity as love of neighbor by the path of mercy (St. Thomas Aquinas).
We speak here mainly of personal, individual fraternal correction – one on one -, which can only be made public when the fault is public and required to avoid scandal (I Tim 5:20). Beside personal fraternal correction, there is also public social correction not only from authorities and superiors, but also from subjects and citizens. Authentic public social correction is mainly an act of justice and has to do with the common good. As citizens of a country and of the world, and as believers in Jesus, at times we have to condemn and denounce publicly social evils, such as violence, injustice, human trafficking, exploitation of others, corruption.
Individual fraternal correction is ordered to repentance, to the amendment of the brother or sister who committed serious sin. Amendment – or conversion and change – is the goal or end of fraternal correction. I remember the words of Romano Guardini: “What is essential in love (in friendship) consist in this: that one wishes that the other be good and perfect.”
Generally, one does not call the attention of our neighbor to any and all moral faults or sins. Jesus tells us: “Do not judge and you will not be judged; because the judgments you give are the judgments you will get …” (This is a kind of karma) “Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the plank in your own?” (Mt 7:3).
It is difficult for humans to judge another rightly. Indeed, only God judges rightly; we, humans, “by appearance” (cf. I Sam 16:7). God our compassionate Father deals with us all as his sons and daughters, and corrects our faults: “God is treating you as his sons. Has there been any son whose father did not correct him?”(Hb 12:7; Ws 12:1-2). Imitating God our Father, we are asked by Jesus to be compassionate: “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate” (Lk 6:36). Fraternal correction is a merciful or compassionate act of love of neighbor.
Jesus also says to us: “Do not keep judging according to appearances; let your judgment be according to what is right” (Jn 7:24). Jesus made corrections. He often calls the attention of his disciples individually or collectively: of Peter, John, Joh and James, and the disciples (cf. Mk 8:32-33, 14:29-31, 9:38-40; Lk 9:51-55). He corrects them for their lack of faith and trust in God (Mt 8:26, 14:31; Lk 17:5-6) and of vigilance (Mt 16:6-8). In Revelation we read the admonitions of the Spirit to the churches (Rev 1:4 – 3:22), and his call to repentance: “I reprove and train those whom I love: so repent in real earnest” (Rev 3:19).
Jesus exhorts us to practice fraternal correction: “If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you… But if he refuses to listen to these, report it to the community …” (Mt 18:15-17). Before Jesus, the prophets – Jeremiah, Amos, Micah… – made strong admonitions to God’s people and some individual leaders. The saints and the preachers make corrections. St. Dominic de Guzman corrected the brethren when they did wrong with justice and compassion: “Brother, you have done wrong, do penance.” Pope Francis practices fraternal correction. For instance when on December 22, 2014, he accused the Roman Curia of fifteen possible “sicknesses.”
Correcting sinners is a serious responsibility of love (Lv 19:17-18; Sir 19:13-15; I Cor 11:17-22; 1 Th 5:14; 2 Th 3:13-15).” Admonishing the sinner is a precept of charity and at times it may be obligatory to practice it. When? When our neighbor commits something morally grave or seriously sinful and the circumstances warrant it. Admonishing someone who is not going to make amends is useless and not advisable. If correction to another is going to be counterproductive or make things worse, then it is not prudent to do it.
It is fashionable nowadays to be “politically correct,” that is, to say what others want to hear regardless of truth, justice and solidarity, which are with freedom the great social values. Thus, for some – or many – among us, it is not “politically correct” to admonish sinners. Why complicate our life? It is not my concern! He or she knows what to do, anyway. St. Augustine questions us: “You do not care about the wounds of your brother?” Sin really hurts! The Bishop of Hippo sentences: “By keeping silent you are worse than he is by committing sin.” Fraternal correction is a precept and obliges all, including sinners, that is, all of us! Is it proper for a sinner to admonish another sinner? The Fathers of the Church answer in the positive, but caution us to be careful and not fall into the temptation of considering ourselves “holier and wiser than thou”! Often we commit the faults we are accusing others of. In these cases, St. Thomas Aquinas advises: We do not condemn the other but together weep and help each other to repent.
How to admonish sinners properly? Benedict M. Ashley answers wisely: “To make such a fraternal correction one must have certitude of the fault, a real necessity for the correction, a suitable opportunity to speak with the person, and a real possibility of the correction having a good effect.” Christian tradition recommends a fraternal correction which is “charitable, patient, humble, prudent, discreet, and ordered” (A Royo-Marin). The correction to a brother or sister must be done in the first place in secret (Mt 18:15): he or she has a right to a good name.
Generally, the saints accuse themselves and excuse others. They tell us that ordinarily the best way to practice fraternal correction is by giving good example and praying for the sinner in question. “Great wisdom is knowing to keep quiet and not looking neither to words nor deeds nor the lives of others”; “Do not harbor suspicion against your brother, because you will lose the purity of heart” (St. John of the Cross).
Pope Francis teaches us that one cannot admonish another without love or charity. Moreover, the Argentinian Pope adds: one can help another to grow by aiding him recognize the objective evil of his or her actions, but without judging his or her responsibility and culpability (cf. EG 172).
When and how to admonish or criticize others then? There are two kinds of criticism or judgment: negative (to destroy) and immoral, and positive (to improve) or ethical. The qualities of positive criticism are: first, we usually praise others and exceptionally, criticize or admonish them; second, we do it out of fraternal love; third, our correction is rooted in humility, and fourth, our neighbor’s moral fault is true and not the result of suspicion or rumor-mongering. When we are obliged to judge others, to make corrections, we do it, then, truthfully, humbly, charitably, and exceptionally! (Martin Descalzo).
On one hand, charity as love of neighbor calls us to admonish others when it is proper. If we love others and they feel loved by us, they will accept our correction: “Nothing moves to love than to feel loved.” Moreover, as some authors underline, our humble and fraternal correction to the other may lead us to become more aware of our own faults and more committed to erase them. On the other hand, merciful charity urges us to accept proper fraternal correction from others: “Whoever rejects discipline wins poverty and scorn; for anyone who accepts correction: honor” (Pr 13:18). We will accept the corrections of our brothers and sisters because they love us, and “We listen to those who love us.”
Jesus keeps telling us: “Love one another just as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34).
(Published in O Clarim, November 4, 2016)