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Matthew 18:15 and Fraternal Correction

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The twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time gives us three readings for consideration. The first reading is from Ezekiel 33:7-9, about the commissioning of the prophet as the watchman of Israel. Corresponding to it is Psalm 95, an invitation to obedience to God’s Word. The response, "If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts" is set against the background narrative of the attitude of the Israelites in Massah and Meribah who contended with the Lord and continually murmurred despite the wonders He demonstrated to them.

The second reading is taken from Romans 13:8-10, which is part of Paul’s admonition to the Christian community to make love the main characteristic of their life-style. This selection from Paul immediately preceding as it does the Gospel reading actually provides a a general principle for the procedure described in Matthew 18:15-20. The first line of this selection, Matthew 18:15 is associated in Catholic minds to "fraternal correction". Seen in context, however, the verse does not speak about correcting a brother in sin but about restoring a relationship that has been marred by sin. It is immediately preceded by Jesus’ statement about taking care that the little ones are not lost by sin and by an example about a shepherd who leaves his ninety-nine sheep to look for the one that is lost. And so even the three-step procedure for reconciliation that is described is intended to be understood as a process similar to restoring the lost sheep to the flock.

The fact remains however that Matthew 18:15 is still understood as the basis for "fraternal correction". A clergy instructed in The Summa Theologica and religious who follow the Rule of St. Augustine have contributed to this understanding.

Fraternal Correction is the topic of the Summa in Secunda secundae, XXXIII in eight articles. After Thomas shows that fraternal correction is not an act of justice but an act of charity (art. 1), he demonstrates that it is a matter of precept while explaining how it may be omitted (art.2). Thomas then shows that anyone can administer fraternal correction while distinguishing two ways of correcting: that which stems from charity, and that which proceeds from justice with the common good in sight. This latter belongs to prelates and those with authority (art. 3). One can therefore correct even one’s superiors or one’s prelate out of charity (art. 4). And then comes the question that concerns a lot of people: "Whether a sinner can reprove a wrongdoer?" (art. 5) Thomas replies "No" and he adduces three reasons: (a) a man’s sin renders him unworthy to rebuke another, especially if it is a lesser sin; (b) he will be correcting not out of charity but out of ostentation and therefore the words of Matthew 7:4 becomes applicable to him; (c) the wicked man’s rebuke is the acquittal of the other (quoting from St. Augustine).

After explaining that fraternal correction as an act of justice (the duty of prelates and superiors) should not be omitted, fraternal correction as an act of charity may be omitted. Thomas writes

The other fraternal correction is directed to the amendment of the wrongdoer, whom it does not coerce, but merely admonishes. Consequently when it is deemed probable that the sinner will not take the warning, and will become worse, such fraternal correction should be foregone, because the means should be regulated according to the requirements of the end.

Articles 7 and 8 are both based on Matthew 18:15ff, on private admonition (v. 15) and on bringing along two or three witnesses (v.16) . In article 7, Thomas distinguishes between sin that is private or public. Public sins are to be denounced while secret sins are to be admonished in private, and thus the application of Matthew 18:15. In article 8, on calling forth witnesses before a public denunciation, Thomas once more cites the relevant verse from Matthew 18.

On the contrary, Our Lord said (Matthew 18:16): "Take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two," etc.

I answer that, The right way to go from one extreme to another is to pass through the middle space. Now Our Lord wished the beginning of fraternal correction to be hidden, when one brother corrects another between this one and himself alone, while He wished the end to be public, when such a one would be denounced to the Church. Consequently it is befitting that a citation of witnesses should be placed between the two extremes, so that at first the brother’s sin be indicated to a few, who will be of use without being a hindrance, and thus his sin be amended without dishonoring him before the public.

Interesting in this whole argument is the first objection in article 1 because it is the statement that removes Matthew 18:15 out of the realm of "restoring just relationships" into that of "amending" a brother’s sinfulness, and therefore to "fraternal correction".

Objection 1. It would seem that fraternal correction is not an act of charity. For a gloss on Matthew 18:15, "If thy brother shall offend against thee," says that "a man should reprove his brother out of zeal for justice." But justice is a distinct virtue from charity. Therefore fraternal correction is an act, not of charity, but of justice.

Within the context of the Summa, we know that Thomas would give the argument that is contrary to this objection. He refers here to a gloss that probably appears in the margins of the copy of Matthew that those in his monastery are used to reading: "A man should reprove his brother out zeal for justice". We don’t know where the gloss is based; we know only from Thomas that it was there. We don’t even know whether "justice" is here to be understood in the biblical sense of "being at right with God and others". We do know however that Thomas took it to mean the virtue of justice, that of rendering to the other what is due him, and that is what Thomas will argue against. Matthew 18:15 therefore is here taken in the sense of fraternal correction, not of restoring a just relationship And that is how Thomas of Aquinas and his students will be understanding it.

Thomas of Aquinas was a Dominican, a religious who lived according to the Rule of St. Augustine. And in that Rule, Matthew 18:15 is taken in the sense of fraternal correction.

If you notice in someone of your brothers this wantonness of the eye, of which I am speaking, admonish him at once so that the beginning of evil will not grow more serious but will be promptly corrected.

But if you see him doing the same thing again on some other day, even after your admonition, then whoever had occasion to discover this must report him as he would a wounded man in need of treatment. But let the offense first be pointed out to two or three so that he can be proven guilty on the testimony of these two or three and be punished with due severity. And do not charge yourselves with ill-will when you bring this offense to light. Indeed, yours in the greater blame if you allow your brothers to be lost through your silence when you are able to bring about their correction by your disclosure. If your brother, for example, were suffering a bodily wound that he wanted to hide for fear of undergoing treatment, would it not be cruel of you to remain silent and a mercy on your part to make this known? How much greater then is your obligation to make his condition known lest he continue to suffer a more deadly wound of the soul.

But if he fails to correct the fault despite this admonition, he should first be brought to the attention of the superior before the offense is made known to the others who will have to prove his guilt, in the event he denies the charge. Thus, corrected in private, his fault can perhaps be kept from the others. But should he feign ignorance, the others are to be summoned so that in the presence of all he can be proven guilty, rather than stand accused on the word of one alone. Once proven guilty, he must undergo salutary punishment according to the judgment of the superior or priest having the proper authority. If he refuses to submit to punishment, he shall be expelled from your brotherhood even if he does not withdraw of his own accord. For this too is not done out of cruelty, but from a sense of compassion so that many others may not be lost through his bad example.

And let everything I have said about not fixing one’s gaze be also observed carefully and faithfully with regard to other offenses: to find them out, to ward them off, to make them known, to prove and punish them – all out of love for man and a hatred of sin.

But if anyone should go so far in wrongdoing as to receive letters in secret from any woman, or small gifts of any kind, you ought to show mercy and pray for him if he confesses this of his own accord. But if the offense is detected and he is found guilty, he must be more severely chastised according to the judgment of the priest or superior. (Regula, IV, 7-11)

It is obvious from the italicized sections of this long quote that Augustine was working on the text of Matthew 18:15-17. Note that while in Matthew there are three steps, Augustine adds two more before the offender is — due to intrasigence — dismissed from the monastery: (a) there is private admonition, (b) he is brought before two or three, if he continues in wrong-doing; (c) if the preceding is not enough, he is brought to the superior; (d)if he denies the charge, public denunciation and trial is made and punishment is administered if proven guilty; (e)finally, if he refuses to accept the punishment, he is dismissed. From steps (a) to (c) the procedure is done in private. Steps (d) to (e) is public, that is, before the whole monastery.

The Rule was written for religious, that is for a section of the faithful who have embraced a life of chastity, poverty and obedience. The procedure that Augustine prescribes covers not only questions of chastity, but other aspects related to the life of religion.

And let everything I have said about not fixing one’s gaze be also observed carefully and faithfully with regard to other offenses: to find them out, to ward them off, to make them known, to prove and punish them – all out of love for man and a hatred of sin.

In other words, Matthew 18:15-17, a text that was intended to describe a procedure for restoring a just relationship wounded by sin has become, in the Rule of Augustine, a procedure for correcting a brother who has begun to stray from the life he has embraced. St. Thomas of Aquinas treats the passage as such when he associates it to the question of fraternal correction. And I believe, this Sunday’s preachers treated Matthew 18:15 the same way (or see this article). Not that I object to it. Nor am I saying that Thomas Aquinas or St. Augustine made a mistake here. All I did is to trace the main lines of a particular way of understanding Matthew 18:15. And for now, that is enough.

Originally posted 2011-09-04 09:28:00. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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