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Correcting Fallen Away Catholics

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Should One Correct / Rebuke a Fallen Away Catholic?

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"My brothers, if anyone among you should stray from the truth and someone bring him back, he should know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins." (Jms. 5:19-20)

  


To Rebuke or Not to Rebuke?

Some today seem to think that the correction of a sinner is contrary to charity. However, our Catholic faith tells us that:

* Fraternal correction is a 'spiritual almsdeed'

* Fraternal correction is an act of charity

* "Fraternal correction is a matter of precept, in so far as it is an act of virtue" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church)

* Silence is a way of being an accessory to another's sin  

Holy Scripture says: 

"Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him." (Our Lord Jesus Christ, Lk. 17:3)

[Jesus said,] "If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that 'every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector." (Mt. 18:15-17)

"Brothers, even if a person is caught in some transgression, you who are spiritual should correct that one in a gentle spirit, looking to yourself, so that you also may not be tempted." (St. Paul, Gal. 6:1)

"A slave of the Lord should not quarrel, but should be gentle with everyone, able to teach, tolerant, correcting opponents with kindness. It may be that God will grant them repentance that leads to knowledge of the truth, and that they may return to their senses out of the devil's snare, where they are entrapped by him, for his will." (St. Paul, 2 Tm. 2:24)

"I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching." (St. Paul, 2 Tm. 4:1-2)

"If anyone does not obey our word as expressed in this letter, take note of this person not to associate with him, that he may be put to shame. Do not regard him as an enemy but admonish him as a brother." (St. Paul, 2 Thes. 3:14-15)

Note that in some cases, Scripture even advises certain persons to publicly reprimand sinners (see 1 Tm. 5:50).

Others have said: 

"It is a sin leading to death when sinners remain uncorrected" (Second Council of Nicaea)

"Beseech, accuse, correct, rebuke and fear not: for ill-judged silence leaves in their error those who could be taught, and this is most harmful both to them and to you who should have dispelled the error." (Pope Pius VI, "Inscrutabile", 1775 A.D.)

"Those who take notice of what is evil in their neighbors, and yet refrain their tongue in silence, withdraw, as it were, the aid of medicine from observed sores, and became the causers of death, in that they would not cure the venom which they could have cured. The tongue, therefore, should be discreetly curbed, not tied up fast." (Pope St. Gregory the Great, Doctor of the Church)

"Our predecessor Felix III in this regard[:] 'An error which is not resisted is approved; a truth which is not defended is suppressed... He who does not oppose an evident crime is open to the suspicion of secret complicity.'" (Pope Leo XIII, "Inimica Vis", 1892 A.D.)

"[T]he benefit of correction must not be refused to any man so long as he lives here below" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church and "greatest theologian in the history of the Church")

"But they are our brethren, and we should not be quietly resigned to see them lose their souls. Let us hope against hope. Did our Lord, who knew with certainty that obstinate sinners would be lost, hesitate, on that account, to shed all His Blood for them?" (Liturgical Year)

"Also when we visit a brother sick either in faith or in good works, with doctrine, reproof, or comfort, we visit Christ Himself." [Origen ("the greatest scholar of Christian antiquity" - although he would eventually be excommunicated and be regarded as a heretic), 3rd century A.D.]

"Is it possible that we can see a soul in danger of being lost, and remain indifferent? Have we forgotten the divine promise, told us by the apostle: 'He that causeth a sinner to be converted from the error of his way, shall save his soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of his own sins'?" (Gueranger)

"If, assuredly, the alms with which we relieve the needs of the poor are highly praised by the Lord, how much more precious in His eyes, then, will be the zeal and labor expended in teaching and admonishing, by which we provide not for the passing needs of the body but for the eternal profit of the soul! Nothing, surely, is more desirable, nothing more acceptable to Jesus Christ, the Savior of souls, Who testifies of Himself through Isaias: 'To bring good news to the poor he has sent me.'" (Pope St. Pius X, "Acerbo Nimis", 1905 A.D.)

"No sooner has one forgotten that the eternal salvation of our neighbor has to be our main concern for him, than the real love of neighbor becomes impossible. No sooner does one cease to understand that love of neighbor does not seek fulfillment of all his wishes, than this love becomes a weakness and a way of giving in. No sooner does one forget the words of St. Augustine, 'Interficere errorem, diligere errantem' ('kill the error, love him who errs'), than one loses all understanding for real love of neighbor. Love of neighbor can only be rightly understood when we realize that we live in a situation in which we are bound to reject all moral mistakes and even many non-moral disvalues, in which we have to struggle against error and evil - struggle against them with all our might - but in which love of neighbor extends even to him who errs, who is evil, even to him who is the enemy of God." (Von Hildebrand)

Therefore, it is clearly charitable to correct/rebuke a sinner. However, the difficulty comes in when determining when, how, and whether or not to offer this correction in any given case.

Determining if One Should Rebuke

Not all correction is beneficial. In fact, one of the biggest difficulties regarding fraternal correction is determining whether or not one should rebuke in any given case. In some cases, one may have a grave duty to correct, whereas in other cases it is more appropriate to refrain from rebuke. Some considerations include:

* Degree of relationship with the other person (e.g. family vs. stranger, teacher vs. student, etc.) 

Note: St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that we are not bound to "seek out" strangers for correction, but "it suffices that we bestow them [correction] when the [appropriate] opportunity occur".

* Whether correction of the other person is likely to make them worse or better

"Therefore one ought to forego fraternal correction, when we fear lest we may make a man worse." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church and "greatest theologian in the history of the Church")

"Fraternal correction is a matter of precept, in so far as it is an act of virtue, and it will be a virtuous act in so far as it is proportionate to the end. Consequently whenever it is a hindrance to the end, for instance when a man becomes worse through it, it is longer a vital truth, nor is it a matter precept." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church and "greatest theologian in the history of the Church")

"[T]he correction of the wrongdoer is twofold. One, which belongs to prelates, and is directed to the common good, has coercive force. Such correction should not be omitted lest the person corrected be disturbed, both because if he is unwilling to amend his ways of his own accord, he should be made to cease sinning by being punished, and because, if he be incorrigible, the common good is safeguarded in this way, since the order of justice is observed, and others are deterred by one being made an example of. Hence a judge does not desist from pronouncing sentence of condemnation against a sinner, for fear of disturbing him or his friends. 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." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church and "greatest theologian in the history of the Church")

* Whether the timing is appropriate

"An admonition can be inopportune, and a man may be wise to hold his peace." (Sirach 20:1)

"Now fraternal correction is directed to a brother's amendment: so that it is a matter of precept, in so far as it is necessary for that end, but not so as we have to correct our erring brother at all places and times." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church and "greatest theologian in the history of the Church")

* How the other person might react to correction

"Augustine says (De Verbis Domini, Sermone 16,4) on the words, 'Rebuke him between thee and him alone' (Matthew 18:15): 'Aiming at his amendment, while avoiding his disgrace: since perhaps from shame he might begin to defend his sin; and him whom you thought to make a better man, you make worse.' Now we are bound by the precept of charity to beware lest our brother become worse." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church and "greatest theologian in the history of the Church")

"[T]he correction of the wrongdoer is twofold. One, which belongs to prelates, and is directed to the common good, has coercive force. Such correction should not be omitted lest the person corrected be disturbed, both because if he is unwilling to amend his ways of his own accord, he should be made to cease sinning by being punished, and because, if he be incorrigible, the common good is safeguarded in this way, since the order of justice is observed, and others are deterred by one being made an example of. Hence a judge does not desist from pronouncing sentence of condemnation against a sinner, for fear of disturbing him or his friends. 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." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church and "greatest theologian in the history of the Church")

* Whether the person offering correction is guilty of the same (or worse) offenses

"When we have to find fault with anyone, we should think whether we were never guilty of his sin; and then we must remember that we are men, and might have been guilty of it; or that we once had it on our conscience, but have it no longer: and then we should bethink ourselves that we 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." (St. Augustine, Doctor of the Church)

"And it is to be noted, that whenever He intends to denounce any great sin, He begins with an epithet of reproach, as below, You wicked servant, I forgave you all that debt; and so here, You hypocrite, cast out first. For each one knows better the things of himself than the things of others, and sees more the things that be great, than the things that be lesser, and loves himself more than his neighbor. Therefore He bids him who is chargeable with many sins, not to be a harsh judge of another's faults, especially if they be small. Herein not forbidding to arraign and correct but forbidding to make light of our own sins, and magnify those of others. For it is necessary that you first diligently [examine] how great may be your own sins, and then try those of your neighbor; whence it follows, and then shall you see clearly, to cast the sliver out of your brother's eye." (St. John Chrysostom, Doctor of the Church)

"[T]o correct a wrongdoer belongs to a man, in so far as his reason is gifted with right judgment. Now sin...does not destroy the good of nature so as to deprive the sinner's reason of all right judgment, and in this respect he may be competent to find fault with others for committing sin. Nevertheless a previous sin proves somewhat of a hindrance to this correction, for three reasons. First because this previous sin renders a man unworthy to rebuke another; and especially is he unworthy to correct another for a lesser sin, if he himself has committed a greater... Secondly, such like correction becomes unseemly, on account of the scandal which ensues therefrom, if the corrector's sin be well known, because it would seem that he corrects, not out of charity, but more for the sake of ostentation... Thirdly, on account of the rebuker's pride; when, for instance, 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 just man." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church and "greatest theologian in the history of the Church")

* One's motive for correction

Are we correcting out of pride? Are we truly concerned about his spiritual welfare? 

* Whether the sin is well ingrained in the person

"... we prefer to withstand the very beginnings rather than to administer the medicine after the disease has grown inveterate." (Pope Pius XII, "Humani Generis", 1950 A.D.)    

* Whether the other person's behavior affects them only or others as well

* Whether one has an obligation to correct a particular person 

Is the person your child? Your subject? 

"[C]orrection is twofold. One is an act of charity, which seeks in a special way the recovery of an erring brother by means of a simple warning: such like correction belongs to anyone who has charity, be he subject or prelate. But there is another correction which is an act of justice purposing the common good, which is procured not only by warning one's brother, but also, sometimes, by punishing him, that others may, through fear, desist from sin. Such a correction belongs only to prelates, whose business it is not only to admonish, but also to correct by means of punishments." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church and "greatest theologian in the history of the Church")

* Whether the person should be corrected privately or publicly

When sins are private, we should remember that "we have a duty to safeguard our brother's good name". In some cases, Scripture tells us that certain members of the Church may engage in a public denunciation (1 Tim. 5:20). Clearly, such denunciations must be handled by the appropriate persons, and they must be done properly and in charity. 

* Whether fraternal correction can rightly be omitted

"Fraternal correction may be omitted in three ways. First, meritoriously, when out of charity one omits to correct someone. For Augustine says (De Civitate Dei i,9): 'If a man refrains from chiding and reproving wrongdoers, because he awaits a suitable time for so doing, or because he fears lest, if he does so, they may become worse, or hinder, oppress, or turn away from the faith, others who are weak and need to be instructed in a life of goodness and virtue, this does not seem to result from covetousness, but to be counseled by charity.' Secondly, fraternal correction may be omitted in such a way that one commits a mortal sin, namely, 'when' (as he says in the same passage) 'one fears what people may think, or lest one may suffer grievous pain or death; provided, however, that the mind is so dominated by such things, that it gives them the preference to fraternal charity.' This would seem to be the case when a man reckons that he might probably withdraw some wrongdoer from sin, and yet omits to do so, through fear or covetousness. Thirdly, such an omission is a venial sin, when through fear or covetousness, a man is loath to correct his brother's faults, and yet not to such a degree, that if he saw clearly that he could withdraw him from sin, he would still forbear from so doing, through fear or covetousness, because in his own mind he prefers fraternal charity to these things. It is in this way that holy men sometimes omit to correct wrongdoers." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church and "greatest theologian in the history of the Church")

* Etc.  

We should further consider that:

* One's sins offend God, endanger salvation, and scandalize others

* "Correction helps those who are in error and helps others not fall into it"

* Correction is sometimes necessary

* Correction is an act of mercy

* Correction is a kindness

* Correction may be a matter of precept - one may sin by wrongly omitting correction

* Their salvation may depend on it!

* It is not uncharitable to correct - rather "it uncharitable to confirm others in their errors"

* "One is more bound to succor a man who is in danger of everlasting death, than one who is in danger of temporal death."

* "To reprove the faults of others is the duty of good and kindly men." (St. Augustine, Doctor of the Church)

* We must worry more about the salvation of men than their feelings - "It is sometimes necessary to do what is best for him rather than what he would like most"

* "Shall we be more concerned with keeping the peace than saving his soul?" 

Although we should not offer correction indiscriminately, there are occasions when it should be offered. We must also carefully consider the appropriate time, method, and place for correction. It is also important to realize that some negative outcomes may occur when correction is employed (strained relations, bad feelings, animosity, etc.) - even including possible cases of physical harm towards the one offering correction. All such factors should be carefully analyzed in contemplating the correction of others.

"Catholic doctrine tells us that the primary duty of charity does not lie in the toleration of false ideas, however sincere they may be; nor in theoretical or practical indifference toward the errors and vices in which we see our brethren plunged, but in the zeal for their intellectual and moral improvement as well as for their material well-being. Catholic doctrine further tells us that love for our neighbor flows from our love for God, Who is Father to all, and the goal of the human family; and in Jesus Christ whose members we are, to the point that in doing good to others we are doing good to Jesus Christ Himself. Any other kind of love is sheer illusion, sterile and fleeting." (Pope St. Pius X, "Notre Charge Apostolique", 1910 A.D.)


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