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Fraternal Correction

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Fraternal correction is here taken to mean the admonishing of one's neighbor by a private individual with the purpose of reforming him or, if possible, preventing his sinful indulgence. This is clearly distinguishable from an official disciplining, whose mouthpiece is a judge or other like superior, whose object is the punishment of one found to be guilty, and whose motive is not so directly the individual advantage of the offender as the furtherance of the common good. That there is, upon occasion and with due regard to circumstances, an obligation to administer fraternal correction there can be no doubt. This is a conclusion not only deducible from the natural law binding us to love and to assist one another, but also explicitly contained in positive precept such as the inculcation of Christ: "If thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother" ( Matthew 18:15 ). Given a sufficiently grave condition of spiritual distress calling for succour in this way, this commandment may exact fulfilment under pain of mortal sin. This is reckoned to be so only when

  • the delinquency to be corrected or prevented is a grievous one;
  • there is no good reason to believe that the sinner will adequately provide for himself;
  • there is a well-founded expectation that the admonition will be heeded;
  • there is no one else just as well fitted for this work of Christian charity and likely to undertake it;
  • there is no special trouble or disadvantage accruing to the reformer as a result of his zeal.
Practically, however, individuals without any official capacity are seldom impeachable as having seriously transgressed the law in this matter because it is but rarely one finds the coalition of circumstances just enumerated.

Of course the reproof is to be administered privately, i.e. directly to the delinquent and not in the presence of others. This is plainly the method appointed by Christ in the words just cited and only as a remedy for obduracy is any other contemplated by Him. Still there are occasions upon which one might lawfully proceed in a different way. For instance

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  • when the offence is a public one;
  • when it makes for the prejudice of a third party or perhaps even the entire community;
  • when it can only be condignly dealt with by the authority of a superior paternally exercised;
  • when a public rebuke is necessary to preclude scandal : witness the withstanding of Peter by Paul mentioned in the Epistle to the Galatians (2:11-14);
  • when the offender has already in advance relinquished whatever right he possessed to have his good name safeguarded, as is the custom in some religious bodies.
The obligation of fraternal correction, so far as private persons go, does not obtain, generally speaking, for the case of one who violates a law through invincible ignorance. The obvious reason is that there is then no immunity for it is their duty to instruct their subordinates. Every one, however, whether having an official competency or not, is bound to give the admonition when the sin, committed though it be from ignorance, is hurtful to the offender or a third party or is the occasion of scandal.


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