Where is Fraternal Correction in Fratelli Tutti?

Pope Francis does not reference teaching on fraternal admonishment

Last Sunday’s Gospel focused on fraternal correction and the steps required for the gradual acceleration of a process to correct an errant brother. From informal conversation to discussion in front of witnesses to Church adjudication to excommunication, fraternal correction makes clear that the integrity of ecclesial teaching trumps “welcome” and, in fact, serves the good of the brother. The correction is not punitive as much as medicinal: the brother needs to be set on the right path and the community needs to be confirmed in its faith (Lk 22:32).

One should also remember that, far from being “unwelcoming,” fraternal correction has long been recognized as a spiritual work of mercy. “Admonish the sinner” and “counsel the doubtful” are both seen as acts of mercy towards the brother.

Here’s something interesting: If you search the encyclical Fratelli tutti, the phrase “fraternal correction” is not to be found. As far as “admonition” goes, the Pope is rather selective in what he cites and what he omits. Francis says his intention was not “to offer a complete teaching on fraternal love” (FT, no. 6), but that does not seem to justify how what is offered comes across as one-sided.

For example, Pope Francis lifts (no. 239) a quote from 2 Tim (2:25) to admonish our opponents “with gentleness” while he passes over the rest of the passage’s hope that through such an approach “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.” If I am being devoured by a roaring lion who is on the prowl (I Pet 5:8), please be less than “gentle” with me! (Yes, the Pope speaks of “truth” — especially FT nos. 207-09, 226-27, 273 — but I think the topic could be more explicit and explicitly integrated).

The Pope does not reference Matthew’s teaching on fraternal admonishment. The closest he comes is to lift verses from the pericope that follows that teaching, the parable of the unmerciful servant. On that basis he calls for generous forgiveness (“seventy times seven” – no. 238).

Now, no one is disputing the call for generosity in forgiveness, but forgiveness presupposes a recognition there is something to be forgiven, which is somewhat murky in this passage. Consider, for example, that the Pope could have made both these poles clear by quoting Luke 17:3 (“If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him”). That passage affirms liberality of forgiveness if there is repentance in response to fraternal correction (“rebuke him”). Was the passage omitted in the encyclical because its first half was not quite “gentle”?

Likewise, there is no reference to John 20:23 (“if you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound”), which is a direct parallel to Mt 18:18 (the fraternal correction passage), which makes clear that fraternal correction is part of the Church’s fundamental ministry of binding and loosing. One wonders how far this is connected with the Pope’s confusing remarks to seminarians last November, when he branded priests “deliquenti” (“delinquents”) who, exercising their priestly responsibility as confessors, sometimes must defer absolution. Trent makes clear (Canon 9 on the Sacrament of Penance) that the confessor performs a “judicial” act, in the sense he must judge the sincere readiness of a penitent for absolution, a role clearly grounded in John 20:23. Even the Pope is not free to leave out the “binding” when speaking of the “loosing.”

Doctrine may develop, but one cannot ask for fidelity to the “recent Magisterium” [see here] without reference to the whole of the Magisterium. Selective scriptural quotation/omission and neglect of classical moral teaching such as the spiritual works of mercy seems not to be “transfigured” as much as cherry-picked texts to reach conclusions preferred for other reasons. When one is asked to close one’s eyes to what is left out or passed over in order to adopt different “criteria” in “moral or pastoral theology,” one rightly asks of such an unprecedented methodology: what’s going on?


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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