Dear friends, in the four Gospels, Jesus, the Master, teaches His disciples about the virtues of being faithful children of God. On the one hand, He teaches them that their first and greatest virtue is the primacy of their love for God. Indeed, He calls them to love God above everyone and everything. For Jesus, this means using their full human nature, including their mind, their will, their passions, their body and their soul, and also the grace of God, to love God fully as their First and Highest Good. In doing so, they honor God rightly.
On the other hand, Jesus also teaches His disciples that their second greatest virtue as God’s children is to love their neighbor. As human beings, the disciples, of course, would be readily inclined and prepared to love their neighbor in good circumstances, in circumstances that would be easy. As desirable as that would be for the disciples, for all people, that is not what Jesus is calling them to do in today’s Gospel reading. Here He is not telling them to love their neighbor in good and easy circumstances. On the contrary, He is calling them to love their neighbor in bad circumstances, in circumstances that are difficult. The question is: What are those bad circumstances that Jesus is referring to in today’s Gospel? What are those circumstances in which His disciples would have a difficult time loving their neighbor?
First of all, in today’s Gospel, Jesus is not calling His disciples to love just any neighbor. He is not telling them to love a Gentile or Pagan, or some other non-believer, who does not belong to their group of disciples. On the contrary, in today’s Gospel, He is calling His disciples to love their brother in the faith, their spiritual brother, a member of their group of disciples, who has sinned against them. As human beings, the disciples of Jesus, would naturally have a greater difficulty loving such a neighbor, a brother disciple, who has sinned against them, sinned against their brotherhood. They certainly would love their brother in their hearts, but would still have a difficult time loving him in their moral actions, considering that he sinned against their brotherhood. In this sense, for the disciples of Jesus, for all people, in general, the closer the relationship to the sinner, the greater the love they have for the sinner in their hearts, the greater their suffering. Consequently, in this suffering, they would have a more difficult time loving someone close to them, morally, such as their brother, who has sinned against them, than they would someone else who has done the same to them. As such, the difficulty for the disciples, for anyone, would be, first and foremost, learning to love their brother, morally, in their actions, after he has sinned against them, against their brotherhood.
In today’s Gospel, the particular form of love that Jesus calls His disciples to offer their brother in the faith is called fraternal correction. Indeed, He calls them to correct their brother in the faith, who has sinned against them. In doing so, they offer their brother a remedy for removing his moral evil, his sin, from himself. As such, for the disciples of Jesus, correcting their brother’s sin means procuring their brother’s spiritual good. In this sense, as an act of love, fraternal correction is directed to the amendment of the sinner that he may repent, reform his life, and prepare himself for eternity.
In the teaching of St. Thomas, as he comments on the subject of today’s Gospel, fraternal correction, in 8 articles of question 33 of the Secunda Secundae Partis of the Summa Theologiae, he offers some guidelines to the Roman Catholic for correcting a brother virtuously as an act of love. According to him, as I read him, before offering fraternal correction to a brother in the faith, there are various questions for the Roman Catholic to consider first. These questions will help guide him that he may act rightly in addressing the sin of his brother. Here I offer you my reading of the mainlines of the teaching of St. Thomas on the subject of fraternal correction as an act of charity.
For St. Thomas, the first question that a Roman Catholic will have to consider concerns himself, not the brother who has sinned against him. As such, the question is this: As a Roman Catholic, can he form the right judgments about his brother to offer him fraternal correction virtuously? In other words, does he have the proper formation or education, intellectually, in Catholic faith and morals to judge rightly here? Unfortunately, many times Catholics falsely believe that a Catholic may not judge anyone. They base this fallacy on a misreading of Jesus in the Gospel. Yes, Jesus does say “do not judge”, but that Gospel verse has to be read in light of the rest of the passage and also in light of all His teachings in the Gospel. For instance, for Jesus, no disciple, no Roman Catholic, may judge the heart of his brother, nor may he judge that his brother is condemned by God in this life, nor may he form a judgment that his deceased brother is in Hell in the afterlife. All of these judgments by a Roman Catholic would be sinful, for they would be presumptuous about his brother. Indeed, they would contravene the natural and supernatural limits of a Roman Catholic’s natural reason, his Cardinal Virtue of Prudence, and his Theological Virtue of Faith.
On the other hand, for St. Thomas, Christ calls the Catholic to form right judgments, prudential judgments, about the object of the moral action of his brother. He may rightly judge, on the basis of this object, that his brother has sinned. The object here is the physical or material action. This is the first moral determinant of the act, the matter of the act. According to St. Thomas, Christ calls the Roman Catholic to use his natural reason to properly judge the material object of his brother’s act as reasonable or not. If it is reasonable, meaning good materially, it would be ordainable to God, morally. This would perfect his brother as moral agent. Conversely, if it is unreasonable, evil materially, it would be harmful to him. As a consequence, it would not be morally ordainable to God, for it would be intrinsically evil, evil by nature. In this sense, for St. Thomas, a properly formed Roman Catholic is called by Christ to rightly judge the matter of his brother’s act, the first moral determinant, as either good or evil. For instance, he would rightly judge that his brother’s material act of profanity is evil, materially. Similarly, he would also form the proper judgment that his brother’s material act of adultery is evil, materially. Finally, a properly formed Catholic would also rightly judge his brother’s material act of child abuse as materially evil. In doing so, he forms the right judgment that such actions would be morally evil, for they would be evil by nature, materially. This means that they would be sinful. In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls His disciples to correct their brother for his sin, but such a correction presupposes and requires a right judgment about their brother’s sin, about what their brother did materially. On this basis, the first question the Roman Catholic has to consider is this: Can he form the right judgments to correct his brother’s sin properly?
According to St. Thomas, the second question that the Roman Catholic has to consider is this: Is his brother in the faith, the Roman Catholic who has sinned against him, ready to receive the fraternal correction? In this sense, does the sinner have the proper maturity to receive the correction fruitfully? He may or may not have this maturity. If he does not, he would not have the capacity to receive the correction properly as desired. After all, as St. Thomas teaches, a person can only receive what he is prepared to receive; he cannot receive what he is not ready to receive. For this reason, the Roman Catholic first has to consider the maturity or readiness of the sinner, before offering any correction. If the sinner is not ready or mature enough, the Catholic would have to delay or defer the correction for another time, for the right time. For St. Thomas, the consequence of correcting the sinner prematurely before he is ready or mature enough to receive the correction fruitfully, is that he would be harmed spiritually, mentally and emotionally. If the sinner is not ready, the Catholic would just pray for him, offer penance for him and be a model of virtue for him. In doing so, he would plant the seeds of God’s Word in the sinner’s heart that would help prepare him to fully amend himself someday by the grace of God. On the other hand, if the sinner has the proper maturity to receive the correction fruitfully, then the Catholic would correct him.
The third question a Roman Catholic has to consider before offering any correction to his brother is this: Who is the right person to offer the correction to the sinner? Is he the right person, or is someone else? Yes, his brother has sinned against him, but he may not be the right person to correct him. Consider this: What if he also sinned against this brother in the past? What if his brother has never forgiven him? What if he is still angry at him or hates him? In these circumstances, he would not be right person to offer correction to his brother. His brother would certainly not be open to receive any correction from him. For this reason, if he did correct him, he would only harm him and cause a greater problem. On this basis, if the Catholic is not the right person to offer the correction to his brother, he would then have to form a proper judgment about who that person would be. The person could be his brother’s grandmother, uncle, or friend.
Fourthly, a Roman Catholic also has to consider this question: Why does he want to offer the correction to his brother? Is it for the right reason? For St. Thomas, there is only one reason to correct a brother. The Catholic corrects his brother to help him amend himself by removing the moral evil from his life that he may prepare himself to become a saint in Heaven someday. In doing so, he helps him procure his spiritual good.
Finally, if the Roman Catholic judges that he is the right person to correct his brother for the right reason, for his spiritual good, he would also have to form a right judgment about the proper means to correct him prudently and charitably. This would certainly involve correcting him privately in a friendly demeanor and tone.
I hope, dear friends, that you will love your brother virtuously by first considering the aforementioned questions before offering him any fraternal correction. If you judge that either you or another Catholic is the right person to correct your brother, I pray that you will do it for the right reason, at the right time, and in the right manner for his salvation. May God bless you.
In Christ with Blessed Mary,
Friar Mariano D. Veliz, O.P.