Fraternal Correction: When to Step In and When to Stay Quiet

Admonishing the sinner is one of the spiritual works of mercy, but one that is often misunderstood. It is not a license to tell everyone around you what they’re doing wrong, but rather an invitation to fraternal correction.

Recently on St. Joseph’s Workshop, Father Matthew Spencer, OSJ explained what fraternal correction is, what it isn’t, and how discerning our response to things that bother us can help us and our loved ones grow in holiness. He said:

“Unless you’re the most chill person on the planet, things bother you. Sometimes that’s OK. Sometimes things need to be corrected. It’s not OK that you lose your peace, but sometimes we should be worked up about things.

When we’re confronted by sin, if you have a well-formed conscience, then it should react upon seeing sin. Jesus had that reaction. He kept His cool, but He responded with correction and sometimes condemnation of sin. But that needs to happen prudently, patiently, and with care.

First of all, let’s discern why it is that you might feel you have to correct that person. Because if it’s only coming because it’s a pet peeve of yours, if it’s only coming because it’s something that really bothers you, that’s on you. Objectively there is not a sinful behavior happening there. If something is extraordinarily bothering you, you need to look and ask if it is coming from you, and if you need to practice more patience.

Let’s say you’ve moved past that point though. And you’ve evaluated that it’s not just you, it’s not just your certain attention to detail or particular weaknesses and pet peeves. But something is actually going wrong.

For example, let’s say someone is dressing inappropriately for Mass. Sometimes you might disagree with somebody on fashion things, but sometimes there will be a case where somebody is really dressed inappropriately for Mass. And then you’re faced with the situation of, ‘Do I have to address this? Do I have to say something?’

And that’s the next step. You have to ask, ‘Is it my responsibility, in this situation, to make a correction?’ If there are children in front of me running around like crazy, is that on me to make an observation or a correction about that? And that is a very difficult one to discern. Because, very often, our frustration or impatience will make us think that of course we need to fix the situation. Because I’m the only one here. No one else is doing anything about it, so I better do something about it. When maybe it might not be our responsibility.

Inside of the Church, many people want to be mini-pastors. We want to control, sometimes, what is happening in the parish. But we need to discern that. And if we get to the point where we discern that not only is this objectively wrong, not only are we in a position where we need to help our brother or sister to be corrected, then we have to practice something called fraternal correction.

Fraternal correction is an ancient, Christian understanding of what it means to help each other grow in holiness. It is not a reaction to injury suffered, it is not vengeance, it is not revenge, it is not a reaction because I am hurting. But instead, it happens when I am moved by love for my brother or sister. It happens when I am moved to assist my brother or sister in growth or holiness.

When I’m doing that, if I’m doing that, it is called fraternal correction. This is very difficult to do though, isn’t it? It’s very difficult. We sometimes avoid correcting people because we’re afraid of the consequences. We’re afraid that if I speak up, even in charity, I’m afraid of the ramifications of that. I’m afraid of what will happen – whether I am going to be hurt, or affected by this. We might think that people will judge us or box us in.

We look at this and we imagine, somehow, that maybe we need to hold back and be silent because of the consequences. I think that’s when we know that fraternal correction is actually going to be fruitful. When I realize that I would rather not do it, but I’m going to do it out of charity.

This is an important part of the spiritual life. To support each other, to call each other to holiness. But when we do it, we always need to be careful about it. We always need to realize that we’re doing it not because of the injury we’ve experienced, not because of the frustration or impatience that I might have. But instead, because I really want the salvation of my brother or sister. And I really want those out there to be led to eternal life, with me too.”

Listen to the full reflection below:

St. Joseph’s Workshop with Father Matthew Spencer airs weekdays at 7:00 p.m. Eastern/4:00 p.m. Pacific on Relevant Radio® and the Relevant Radio App.