Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fraternal Correction

Every so often, someone who has read something that I’ve written writes to me and asks advice. For the most part, my correspondents are the family members of people who have come out of the closet as gay or lesbian. Concerned mothers, husbands, sisters, fathers and so forth want to know what they should do to lead their loved ones out of homosexuality.
It raises a difficult point: how exactly does one interact with the sins of others, especially of those who are closest to us – and about whose faults we therefore have the least objectivity. The more that you love someone, the more that they have the capacity to hurt you, and the more that hurt is going to influence and colour any help that you try to provide. On the other hand, it always seems like the love that we have for those close to us places us in a special position of responsibility.
I don’t think that there are any easy answers here, but there is one consideration from St. Thomas Aquinas that I think sheds light on the problem. In his discussion of the obligation of fraternal correction, he makes the particularly valuable and interesting observation that if you have good reason to believe that your correction will only make the person who you are trying to correct worse, you shouldn’t do it. This is an obvious corollary of the virtue of prudence, but one which easily escapes notice when the sins of a family member start to get up your nose.
Generally, the first time that you bring an issue up, you’re not going to know what sort of effect your correction will have, so you ought to have the humility to observe the effects, and to evaluate them honestly. Let’s say that you read Bible passages about the sin of homosexuality to a gay relative; what effect does this have? Does it cause them to seriously reconsider their life, or does it make them more inclined to reject God out of a feeling that God has rejected them? If the latter, it’s probably not a good tack to take. Or if you present them with facts and statistics about the incidence of HIV/AIDS in gay communities, does this have a sobering effect, or does it lead to the sort of moral and personal despair that so often fuels the more compulsive (and therefore dangerous) manifestations of homosexual desire? Does pointing out the effect of their lifestyle on other family members, including yourself, bring them closer to repentance, or closer to closing the door on the family forever?
Obviously, a person decides how they are going to respond to correction, but there’s no use in saying, “Oh, well, if they had more humility/were more reasonable/would only listen, then we would be able to get somewhere.” If someone is not willing or ready to hear something, there’s no point in saying it. Often, if you insist on being heard, you will only convince the other person that you don’t respect them, that you’re priggish, and self-satisfied, and probably hypocritical. We’ve all had this experience: you’re told that something that you’re doing is wrong, and on some level you know that it’s true, but you think that there’s something unfair, unjust, or discompassionate in the way that you are told. Instead of humble self-examination and contrition, you immediately go into high-defensive gear. You start making excuses to justify the behaviour, resort to tu quoque arguments in order to disarm your accuser, and, if things get really out of hand, throw yourself all the more ardently into your sins just to spite the son-of-a-bitch who had the temerity to pass judgement on you.
This is what St. Thomas warns us against, and for good reason. It is the obligation of anyone who corrects their brother to make sure that they’re actually doing good to the other person. It’s very easy to tell ourselves that we’re in the right, and that we’re acting out of love, when in fact our motives are much murkier. Perhaps we are angry at the other person, or feel hurt by their choices. Maybe we’re embarrassed (what will the neighbours think?), or want to establish ourselves in a position of moral superiority. Often these things influence our attempts at correction without us even being aware of them, which is why it’s so important to pay attention to the other person. If you fix your eyes on the person you love, not only will you be able to correct for the sins and failings that you bring to the discussion, you will also be less likely to fall into them. You will see what does good, and what does harm, and you will be able to correct yourself, improve your methods, and, if all goes well, eventually find ways of conducting a dialogue that is genuinely fruitful and edifying.


  1. It is good to pray -- seriously pray -- for the person you are considering correcting. That will bring the Holy Spirit into the equation. The Holy Spirit will counsel and direct all hearts involved.

  2. Your comments, while interesting, take a narrow view of the issue of fraternal correction and seem to be based on the misconception that the person making the correction is more capable of rational and sensitive thought than the person being corrected. I can tell you from experience that for most of us who are the objects of the "coming out" experience, it is a terrible shock, even if we had previously suspected something. The shock, and the pain, render us unable to believe what we are hearing and incapable of acting at all, never mind rationally. As well, we are faced with a loved one who has had plenty of time to mull over how and when they will broach the subject and has perhaps been under a very different influence for a long period of time - usually to the point of being immured in a way of life and dead set against hearing any type of correction or naysaying. Our loved ones may react defensively, but we are no more capable of listening to St. Thomas Aquinas telling us to be rational than they are.The impasse, the emotional reaction, is on both sides, and it may take a long time before clarity - or charity - is reached.

    Yet the correction should be made at least once. At some point, a parent or a loved needs to be able to state unequivocally that they are opposed, and why, while at the same time expressing love and support to the fullest extent possible, so that both parties know where they stand. Of course this rarely changes anything, but often it is the beginning of a journey, particularly for the one making the correction. Ourloved ones aren't going to change because the Church says they should, or their parents, or their children. Faced with this hard fact, many parents are led into a deeper life of prayer and the beginning of an examination of their own lives and motives, as you suggest.

  3. Fraternal correction is also linked to Truth, not just to Charity. As our Holy Father says, we are to practise Charity in Truth (Caritas in Veritate).
    What the Saints say about the sin of homosexuality

    Saint Peter Damian’s Liber Gomorrhianus [Book of Gomorrha], addressed to Pope Leo IX in the year 1051, is considered the principal work against homosexuality. It reads: “Just as Saint Basil establishes that those who incur sins [against nature] … should be subjected not only to a hard penance but a public one, and Pope Siricius prohibits penitents from entering clerical orders, one can clearly deduce that he who corrupts himself with a man through the ignominious squalor of a filthy union does not deserve to exercise ecclesiastical functions, since those who were formerly given to vices … become unfit to administer the Sacraments.” (St. Peter Damian, op. cit., cols. 174f)

    St. Peter Damian also wrote:
    “This vice strives to destroy the walls of one’s heavenly motherland and rebuild those of devastated Sodom. Indeed, it violates temperance, kills purity, stifles chastity and annihilates virginity ... with the sword of a most infamous union. It infects, stains and pollutes everything; it leaves nothing pure, there is nothing but filth ... This vice expels one from the choir of the ecclesiastical host and obliges one to join the energumens and those who work in league with the devil; it separates the soul from God and links it with the demons. This most pestiferous queen of the Sodomites [which is homosexuality] makes those who obey her tyrannical laws repugnant to men and hateful to God ... It humiliates at church, condemns at court, defiles in secret, dishonors in public, gnaws at the person’s conscience like a worm and burns his flesh like fire...
    “The miserable flesh burns with the fire of lust, the cold intelligence trembles under the rancor of suspicion, and the unfortunate man’s heart is possessed by hellish chaos, and his pains of conscience are as great as the tortures in punishment he will suffer ... Indeed, this scourge destroys the foundations of faith, weakens the force of hope, dissipates the bonds of charity, annihilates justice, undermines fortitude, ... and dulls the edge of prudence.
    “What else shall I say? It expels all the forces of virtue from the temple of the human heart and, pulling the door from its hinges, introduces into it all the barbarity of vice ... In effect, the one whom ... this atrocious beast [of homosexuality] has swallowed down its bloody throat is prevented, by the weight of his chains, from practicing all good works and is precipitated into the very abysses of its uttermost wickedness. Thus, as soon as someone has fallen into this chasm of extreme perdition, he is exiled from the heavenly motherland, separated from the Body of Christ, confounded by the authority of the whole Church, condemned by the judgment of all the Holy Fathers, despised by men on earth, and reproved by the society of heavenly citizens. He creates for himself an earth of iron and a sky of bronze ... He cannot be happy while he lives nor have hope when he dies, because in life he is obliged to suffer the ignominy of men’s derision and later, the torment of eternal condemnation” (Liber Gomorrhianus, in PL 145, col. 159-178).


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