By Bob Sullivan
Christians are all over the board on how to handle situations where a family member, friend or acquaintance believes something which contradicts the Catholic faith.
One extreme is to constantly correct them. This turns people off. The other extreme is to ignore their misunderstanding as we spend our time talking around the truth. In other words, we let them persist in their misunderstanding. After all, who wants to be a thorn in someone’s side? Yet Scripture tells us we cannot simply let everything go.
“If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.” Ezekiel 33:8-9
“My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” James 5:19-20
There are several other passages which help us see our Christian obligation to offer correction, but these two verses provide great bookends to the teaching. In Ezekiel, we see that our failure to help our brother or sister to see truth, can land both of us in Hell. This could be characterized as a curse we bring upon ourselves. In James, we see that we receive a great blessing if we help someone back to the truth. Our offer of truth “will cover a multitude of sins.”
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that all Christians are commanded to speak truth when someone is in error. This is called fraternal correction. Aquinas called it a divine precept which can also be called a law of God. The misunderstanding may be on a theological issue such as the Eucharist, Marian devotion or the divinity of Christ, or it may be on a moral matter such as when someone believes it is okay to steal money from others, or if they claim to be a Christian, yet they are pro-abortion, or they believe non-marital sex is compatible with the Catholic faith.
Aquinas wrote: “This is fraternal correction properly so called, which is directed to the amendment of the sinner. Now to do away with anyone’s evil is the same as to procure his good: and to procure a person’s good is an act of charity, whereby we wish and do our friend well.”
Aquinas does not go so far as to say we must always correct every error immediately. He recognized that there are some situations when the time is just not right. If you immediately offered correction, it would only make matters worse. In that case, we are practicing charity in waiting for a better opportunity which may be a more effective time to talk about it.
However, if we avoid offering correction because we fear being called judgmental, or because we do not want to experience the emotional discomfort which we often experience when offering correction, we are not acting with charity, but with our own self-preservation. This is devoid of love and in some cases, this could actually be very hateful.
Other great saints of the Church have also taught about fraternal correction. Five very helpful quotes come from St. Jose Maria Escriva:
“To practice fraternal correction, which is so deeply rooted in the Gospel, is a proof of supernatural trust and affection. Be thankful for it when you receive it, and don’t neglect to practice it with those you live with.”
“When you correct someone, because it has to be done and you want to do your duty, you must expect to hurt others and to get hurt yourself. But you should never let this fact be an excuse for holding back.”
“Don’t neglect the practice of fraternal correction, which is a clear sign of the supernatural virtue of charity. You may find it hard, for it’s easier to be inhibited. It’s easier to behave that way, but it’s not supernatural. And you will have to render an account to God for such omissions.”
“When you have to make a fraternal correction, do it with great kindness — great charity! — in what you say and in the way you say it, for at that moment you are God’s instrument.”
“There is a great love of comfort, and at times a great irresponsibility, hidden behind the attitude of those in authority who flee from the sorrow of correcting, making the excuse that they want to avoid the suffering of others. They may perhaps save themselves some discomfort in this life. But they are gambling with eternal happiness — the eternal happiness of others as well as their own — by these omissions of theirs. These omissions are real sins.”
Fraternal correction is a two-way street. It is important to receive it with as much charity and courtesy as we would hope to see in those to whom we offer it. We never enjoy being corrected, and receiving it with humility is very difficult. But receive it we must.
Finally, we should never revel in correcting our brother. Yet we should never shrink from offering correction out of fear that we will be called judgmental or harsh. While it is wise to consider the timing, it is potentially fatal to avoid it on a regular basis. Mother Angelica once said, “If you are not a thorn in somebody’s side, you aren’t doing Christianity right.”