Oh, brother. A Catholic primer on fraternal correction

It is funny how 15 years of marriage — a milestone my wife and I celebrated this summer — can put a fresh perspective on Scripture texts you know almost by heart you’ve heard them so often. 

A case in point is the recent Sunday readings that all seemed to center around fraternal correction. In the first reading, God warns the prophet Ezekiel he’ll be held responsible — almost as a party to the crime — if he fails to correct an evildoer. Then in the Gospel reading, Jesus gives a pretty detailed checklist for how one should correct a “brother [who] sins against you,” starting with a private meeting, then with the assistance of a few friends, then with the help of the Church, and finally, if even that fails, with what sounds like a sort of excommunication. 

Between those two readings are two others that help provide some further guidance. In the responsorial Psalm, we pray repeatedly that our hearts not be hardened when we hear God’s voice. In the second reading, we hear that the commandments can all be summed up as: Love your neighbor as yourself. “Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.” 

Pope Benedict XVI also highlighted the day’s readings during his traditional talk before the midday Angelus prayer. He dwelt on how the readings point to a “co-responsibility” in Christian life. Part of that entails fraternal correction and charity, and part of it is in common prayer, as Jesus stresses at the end of the Gospel reading (“Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”). 

Citing a sermon from St. Augustine, the pope said fraternal correction “is not a reaction to the offense I have suffered but a being moved by love for my brother.” 

Easier said than done, whether it is in the Catholic blogosphere, parish community, family or marriage. For some, it is easy to hold up a fraternal correction card while we actually are getting in a satisfying kick. For others, we excuse ourselves from fraternal correction citing a love that is really just self-interested cowardice. 

Given the complexity of human relationships and circumstances, it will sometimes be difficult to tell which is which. 

So here’s what looks like a key message hidden in today’s readings, and even in the pope’s talk: You will know when and how it is appropriate to offer fraternal correction only in the degree to which you yourself are willing to accept fraternal correction and amend your life. 

In marriage, that certainly seems to be the case. Without an attitude of humility and a willingness to seek forgiveness, all correction — however necessary — simply falls on deaf ears and may even work to harden a heart. 

I’m sure OSV readers have a treasury of experience to share regarding how fraternal correction best works in the rough-and-tumble of daily life.  

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