Fraternal correction is an admonition given to another to protect him from sin or to induce him to give up sin. It is called "fraternal" to distinguish it from paternal correction, which is administered by a superior in his capacity of father, and from judicial correction, which is given to a person after he has been proved guilty by a formal process of law. Fraternal correction is an act of charity and is numbered among the seven spiritual works of mercy, which are the effects of charity. Fraternal correction can sometimes be obligatory, for, just as one can at times be obliged to aid another in his bodily needs, as when he is seriously ill or wounded, so one can sometimes be bound to assist a fellow man in his spiritual needs, particularly when his soul is wounded or likely to be wounded by grave sin.
Jesus Christ explicitly commanded fraternal correction when He said: "If thy brother sin against thee, go and show him his fault between thee and him alone. If he listen to thee, thou hast won thy brother" (Mt 18.15). The phrase "against thee" might seem to limit the sin in question to a personal offense, but the common interpretation of Catholic theologians extends the meaning to every sin of another that has come to one's notice. Moreover, the phrase "against thee" does not appear in some of the earlier scriptural codices.
St. Paul also implied the duty of fraternal correction when he wrote to the Galatians: "Brethren, even if a person is caught doing something wrong, you who are spiritual instruct such a one in a spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted" (Gal 6.1).
Conditions for Fraternal Correction. Theologians generally require the fulfillment of five conditions before a person is gravely obliged to administer a fraternal correction: (1) It must be certain that a formal mortal sin has been committed or is likely to be committed by the other.(2) There must be good probability that the sinner will not amend on his own initiative or at the admonition of a third party. (3) There must be good probability that the culprit will listen to the correction and conform his conduct to it. Sometimes there is reason to fear that a correction will do more harm than good. (4) The person planning to give the correction must foresee that no serious harm will come to himself. For example, if he has reason to fear that the one corrected will calumniate him or even injure him physically as a result of his well-intended admonition, he has no obligation to attempt it; for fraternal correction is an act of charity, which does not bind a person when it is likely to involve serious inconvenience to himself. (5) The circumstances of time, place, etc., must be favorable to the administration of the correction. Thus, it would not be prudent to give an admonition to a person when he is in an angry mood.
Those who are inclined to scrupulosity sometimes worry whether or not they are bound to correct someone who is doing wrong or seems about to do something wrong. Such persons should bear in mind that it is only when all the conditions enumerated above are present that there is a grave obligation to make a correction. If they are in doubt as to the fulfillment of any of these conditions, it is better not to attempt the admonition; for in such circumstances they will probably do no good and will be denounced as busybodies. On the other hand, there are persons who, through timidity or indifference, refuse to correct an erring friend or relative when there is good reason to believe that a kindly admonition would effect much good.
Particular Points. It is commonly held by theologians that when another has committed or is about to commit a formal venial sin, there is a light obligation to correct him if the required conditions are present. There can be a grave obligation to make the correction if the venial sin is very likely to lead to mortal sin.
It is impossible to answer categorically the question of whether there is an obligation—at least a grave obligation—to enlighten one who is doing something wrong without realizing its malice. In any event, a distinction must be made between violations of human law and violations of divine law. Thus, if a Catholic sees another Catholic eating meat on Friday, evidently forgetting the day, there is no grave obligation to remind him, unless there would be scandal given to the bystanders; but if a young person is developing a habit of impurity without realizing the malice of his actions, he should be enlightened and admonished.
Normally a fraternal correction should first be adminstered privately, and then, as Christ prescribed, before two witnesses, if this be considered advisable. If the delinquent does not then amend, the matter should be brought to the attention of the proper superiors, at least if the common good is being injured. At times, it is better to omit the fraternal correction and report the case immediately to competent authority—for example, when a pupil in a school is secretly corrupting other students.
Bibliography: j. costello, Moral Obligation of Fraternal Correction (Washington 1949). h. davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology, rev. and enl. ed. by l.w. geddes (New York 1958) 1:327–330. j. aertnys and c. a. damen, Theologia moralis, 2 v. (16th ed. Turin 1950) 1:365–372. e. f. regatillo and m. zalba, Theologiae moralis summa, v.1 (Biblioteca de autores cristianos 93; Madrid 1952) 918–924. h. noldin, Summa theologiae moralis, rev. a. schmitt and g. heinzel (Innsbruck 1961–62) 2:95–98. f.j. connell, Outlines of Moral Theology (2d ed. Milwaukee 1964) 91–92.
[f. j. connell]