What do we do when someone wrongs us? Sometimes, we react harshly. Sometimes we withdraw and brood over what the person has done. Sometimes, we talk about the person with others in a negative way.

Jesus seeks to bring healing not only in our relationships with God but also with our neighbors. In today’s Gospel, Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus offers a way to resolve the difficulties that arise among His followers.

Jesus teaches us to approach the other person and speak about the issue directly. If our brother or sister doesn’t listen, we should try again, bringing one or two others with us. If the brother or sister still refuses to listen, we should bring the matter to the community.

St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae deals with many theological and philosophical issues on a very speculative level so many would be surprised to see that Thomas gives attention to “fraternal correction.” Thomas considers living in a virtuous way in what is called the second part of the second part of his Summa Theologiae, question 33 (2a2ae. 33).

For Thomas, fraternal correction is “an act of charity” that is closer to the nature of charity than even healing a bodily illness or helping with an external bodily need (2a2ae. 33, 1).[1]

We might assume that putting up with each other enough. Paul tells us: “Bear one another’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law” (Gal 6:2).

Thomas understands that raising an issue with another person is an aspect of bearing with each other: “For a man bears with a sinner, in so far as he is not disturbed against him, and retains his goodwill towards him, the result is that he strives to make him to be better” (2a2ae. 33, 1, ad 3).

Augustine believes that such correction is our duty: “You become worse than the sinner if you fail to correct him.”[2] Yet, according to Thomas, we aren’t necessarily bound to correct everything.

At times, God’s commands are put in a negative way, “don’t do this.” At times, they are put in a positive way, “do this.” Thomas maintains that negative commands always bind because they command us to avoid sin. Evil actions are not good in any time or place because their very purpose is evil. For this reason, Jesus’ teachings or precepts that are negative commands always bind us.

However, the positive acts of virtue that Jesus teaches us require the right circumstances in order to be virtuous.

This means we need to discern when a virtuous act should be done, where it should be done and how it should be done. Thomas refers to Aristotle who said that, if we don’t have the situation exactly right, our action could still be virtuous. If the situation is clearly not right, the action definitely is not virtuous (Ethics 2, 9).

A good act must be done for the good of virtue. If the circumstances are not conducive, an action is not virtuous. We are obliged to correct our brother but not at all times or all places (2a2ae. 33, 2).

We always need God’s help to make our interventions effective but we also have to do what we are able, as Thomas insists, “In all good deeds, our action is not efficacious without the Divine assistance: and yet we must do what is in our power” (2a2ae. 33, 2).

Sometimes, we assume that we are wasting our time correcting a person but Thomas says we should try to help every person, as Augustine says, “Charity should so guide our feelings that we wish all to be saved.”[3]

For Thomas, a correction is not a criticism but kindness, based on the conviction that God will bring good results: “We should do everyone the kindness of correcting them, hoping in God’s help (2a2ae. 33, 2, ad 1).

We might wait for a better time for fear that the person might become worse if we corrected him or her. At times, a person might need to be instructed in living virtuously before being corrected (2a2ae. 33, 2, ad 2).

A person sins if he knows that he might pull someone back from sin but doesn’t correct him or her because of fear. However, some people prefer to bear with a situation and practice fraternal charity, omitting to correct another (2a2ae. 33, 2, ad 3).

We aren’t obliged to look for occasions to correct others. We are bound to pay our debts, even to seek out the person to whom we owe something, materially or spiritually, without waiting for the person to come to us. However, we aren’t bound to look for the sins of others in order to correct them, lest, as Thomas observes, “We should become spies on the lives of others” (2a2ae. 33, 2, ad 4). Augustine tells us to correct what we see. [4]

Correction is a simple act that can be done by anyone, as Thomas explains: “This is an act of charity, which seeks in a special way the recovery of an erring brother by means of a simple warning: this type of correction belongs to everyone who has charity” (2a2ae. 33, 3).

Bishops and superiors are especially obliged to correct faults, even punishing them if the faults concern justice, when necessary, with a mind to the common good (2a2ae. 33, 3). Priests are also bound to give fraternal correction (2a2ae. 33, 3, ad 1).

Thomas affirms that those who are able to give material help are well-respected. Likewise, those who are able to make sound judgements so as to correct wrong-doing are respected (2a2ae. 33, 3, ad 2). A person who has a “sane judgment” can correct another (2a2ae. 33, 3, ad 3).

Thomas raises the possibility of a subject correcting a superior or a bishop: “Fraternal correction which is an act of charity is within the competency of everyone in respect to any person towards whom he is bound by charity, provided there is something in that person which requires correction” (2a2ae. 33, 4).

Although we may be accurate in what we say, we should also speak in an appropriate way. Thomas reminds us that “Since a virtuous act needs to be moderated by due circumstances, it follows that when a subject corrects his bishop, he ought to do so in a becoming manner not with impudence and harshness, but with gentleness and respect … The Apostle says: ‘An old man rebuke not, but entreat him as a father’ (1 Tim 5:1)” (2a2ae. 33, 4).

Thomas compares those who upbraid a superior inordinately or speak badly of him, as being like those whom God condemned when they drew too close to Mount Sinai or those who touched the ark of the covenant (2a2ae. 33, 4, ad 1).

Thomas does not think that we should dispute with another in public unless it is with equals: “But one who is not an equal can reprove privately and respectfully.” However, if the faith is endangered, one must rebuke even a bishop in public (2a2ae. 33, 4, ad 2).

In the Letter to the Galatians, Paul describes an incident in which he corrected Peter. Augustine thinks that Peter did well in letting Paul correct him (Gal 2:11): “Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should           not disdain to be reproved by their subjects” (Augustine Letter LXXXII ) (2a2ae. 33, 4, ad 3).

Thomas maintains that correcting a bishop does not mean that a person thinks himself better than the bishop but “merely that he offers his help” Thomas recalls the Rule of St. Augustine, which states: "Show mercy not only to yourselves, but also to him who, being in the higher position among you, is therefore in greater danger.”[5]

For Thomas, “Fraternal correction is a work of mercy. Therefore even bishops ought to be corrected.”

Thomas wonders whether a sinner is able to give correction. He concludes that correction is related to human judgement: “To correct a wrongdoer belongs to a man, in so far as his reason is gifted with right judgment… sin does not destroy the good of nature so as to deprive the sinner’s reason of all right judgement”

However, Thomas realizes that a person might correct another out of pride: “A man thinks lightly of his own sins, and, in his own heart, sets himself above his neighbor, judging the latter's sins with harsh severity, as though he himself were a just man” (2a2ae. 33, 5).

Augustine reminds us that when we are about to correct our brother’s sins, we should ask whether we have ever done the same sin and realize “that we ourselves are all weak, in order that our reproof may be the outcome, not of hatred, but of pity. But if we find that we are guilty of the same sin, we must not rebuke him, but groan with him, and invite him to repent with us” (Homily on the Sermon on the Mount, II, 19).

Thomas thinks that correcting for the common good should not be omitted so that the order of justice is observed and others are deterred from such behavior by the example of the correction. When it is possible that fraternal correction might lead to the amendment of an individual, one should admonish. If it is probable that the offending person is not likely to take the warning, one may refrain from fraternal correction (2a2ae. 33, 6)..

Fraternal correction, as a precept, is an act of virtue but a virtue needs to be proportionate to the end. If correction will not help the person but only make him worse, it is no longer useful (2a2ae. 33, 6, ad 2). When fraternal correction hinders the end, which is the amendment of the brother, it is no longer good and may be omitted (2a2ae. 33, 6, ad 3).

The second reading today, from Paul’s Letter to the Romans 13:8-10, connects well with the Gospel. Paul writes: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another. For he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (Rm 13:8).

Aristotle says that some debts are so great that they can never be repaid. These are the honor due to God and our parents. Thomas reflects: “We owe love to our neighbor on account of God, whom we can never recompense sufficiently. For it is said, ‘This commandment we have from Him, that he who loves God should love his brother also’ (1 John 4:2)” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Romans, 1047).

Thomas continues: “The cause of love always remains, namely being alike in nature and in grace … Love does not diminish but grows by loving: ‘It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more’ (Phil. 1:9)… He says, ‘except to love one another,’ because the debt of love is paid in such a way that it always remains under the debt of a precept: ‘This is My commandment, that you love one another’ (Jn 15:12) ”(Commentary on Romans, 1047).

Paul declares: “And if there is any other commandment, it is comprised in this word: you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Rm 13:9).

Thomas reflects: “The reason why we cannot expect to free ourselves from the debt of love, as we do from other debts, is that ‘he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law, i.e., the whole fulfillment of the law depends on love of neighbor” (Commentary on Romans, 1048).

Thomas explains that the love of neighbor which Paul is talking about is love for God’s sake: “Love of neighbor pertains to love and fulfills the law, when it is a love by which the neighbor is loved for God” (Commentary on Romans, 1049).

Augustine points out that the neighbor is the one to whom we show mercy: “Which of these three, do you think proved neighbor to the man who fell among robbers? He said, the one who showed mercy to him” (Luke 10:36). Thomas notes: “The consequence is that even a person shown mercy by another is said to be his neighbor… We should show mercy and receive it from them, when necessary” (Commentary on Romans, 1056).

Thomas recognizes that we can’t exactly love our neighbors as ourselves since we are obliged to take care of our own salvation: “We love ourselves and our neighbor for the love of God … Just as a person loves himself by willing good for himself, so he should love his neighbor by willing good things for him… The effect of love is that we relieve the need of our neighbor, as he relieves his own” (Commentary on Romans, 1058).

“Love is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rm 13:10). Thomas comments: “The law is fulfilled and made perfect by love… ‘Above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony’ (Col 3:14)” (Commentary on Romans, 1059).

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

References to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on Romans were taken from the translation begun by Fr. Fabian R. Larcher, O.P. and edited by J. Mortensen and E. Alarcón. The translation was published by the Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, Lander, Wyoming, in 2012.

 

[1] References to the Summa Theologiae, give the part of the Summa, followed by the question and then the article. If it is a response to an objection which is found in the beginning of the article, the reference states “ad,” meaning “to” and the number of the objection.

               [2] Augustine, Serm. ad Popul. LXXXII.

               [3] Augustine, De Correctione et Gratia, 15.

               [4] Augustine, De Verb. Dom. Serm. ad Popul LXXXII.

               [5] Augustine, Epist. CCXI.