Rethinking Fraternal Correction

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another
— Proverbs 27:17

These words have inspired countless groups of friends to band together for the sake of accountability, to help each other grow in virtue, and to root out vice.  Speech has always played a key part in this process.  St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of this type of speech, labeling it fraternal correction.  It is the process of honing a friend through difficult conversations, pointing out their flaws/sins with the purpose of finding a solution to help them build up that weakened area, all through the lens of charity. Fraternal correction also has a reciprocal nature.  When one friends offers a correction, he is opening himself up to correction from his friend in return.  And in part through that exchange, each friend helps the other become more united to the person of Christ.  At least that’s the ideal.

But in the messy world of fallen human relationships, the best things can be twisted into occasions of sin, and our speech is an exceptional example of that.  “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:7-9).

I want to take a more serious tone with this article as I address that and offer some suggestions for how we can improve our approach to fraternal correction.  It’s a fine art.  We’ve all done it well and we’ve all done it poorly.  I’m certain that past experiences of both are running through your head as you read this, bringing a smile to you face or redness to your cheeks.

Let us turn to St. Thomas for some advice in how to offer fraternal correction. You can follow this link to read the text of the Summa on the topic.  This article is just a summary and some practical applications of his writing, given to me by a friend and spiritual director.  

First, here are some general guidelines:

  1. Phariseeism is a dangerous vice.  It comes across as well-intentioned, but deep down there is a temptation for us to look down our noses at others.  To keep this vice at bay in us lay folk St. Thomas distinguishes between two types of correction.  (1) A formal correction comes from the prelates of the Church, the bishops.  They are handed the burden of safeguarding the faith.  Think of the bishops writing letters to politicians, clarifying the faith in councils and addressing heresy.  It is an authoritarian correction from the heart of a shepherd.  (2) An informal correction or a friendly reminder (literally what he calls it, but in Latin) or a horizontal correction.  This is the correction proper to us.  We’re reminding a friend, not handing down some type of punishment.

  2. Prudence needs to dictate our conversations.  They need to be done at the right time and place so that they are well-received and fruitful.  We also need to exercise prudence in our own intentions, making sure that they are holy and worthy.  We’ve all waded into a “correction out of love” with someone that was just a veiled form of verbal abuse.  Prudence and discretion helps us avoid this.

  3. The person has to be wrong, AKA moral matter is involved.  A friend is caught in pattern of sin and we desire to pull that from the darkness out into the light.  Wits this consideration, we have to keep in mind that many people aren’t well-catechized.  Sometimes a good catechesis is needed from someone with the heart of a teacher instead of a correction.  Also, make sure that you are discerning whether someone is headed the wrong way rather than just not doing things your way.  

  4. There needs to be a reasonable chance of success.  You’re not bound to offer a correction that won’t be received well.  But we also have to vigilant that we are bold enough to offer a correction when needed and not use this piece of advice as a way out when it’s warranted.  Remember our prayers go further than our words.  Pray always for your friends and enemies, correct only when it is beneficial to do so.

  5. Don’t be a hypocrite.  If you are going to correct someone for something, it better not be something you are guilty of yourself.  Instead you can bring your own struggle to your friend, or pray that the Lord help heal you from that struggle and applies the grace of that suffering to your friend who struggles too.

  6. Always give correction gently.  It’s a friendly reminder, folks, and oftentimes your friend already knows it’s a struggle.  Verbal lashing will usually cause a recoil, which will add sin to sin and make the situation worse.  A gentle but firm tongue is vital in these crucial conversations.

Now on top of this fraternal correction we have an airing of grievances.  These are things that aren’t serious matter, but for the sake of your friendship, are worth bringing up.  It’s actually healing to tell you messy spouse or roommate that they’re a slob (in a gentle tone of course) and to invite those around you to air their grievances as weLl from time to time.  It’s all part of being in relationship. This type of conversation gets a bad wrap, but when people are elbow to elbow, up in each others’ business, it gets messy sometimes.  Let the mess out a bit.  Not all the time, but when appropriate.

Three more quick notes:

Kill the sarcasm.  Sarcasm means “tearing of flesh”.  It is a weak, hurtful form of verbal abuse when we don’t have enough charity in our hearts to be vulnerable and empathetic.  It exists to wound others when it’s employed in this type of conversation.  

Second, talk to each other rather than about each other.  We’ve all been a part of so many conversations that we have about people who aren’t present “out of love” for that person.  That’s backbiting (check out this convicting little treatise if you want to know more about that), and it is a form of murder- assassination of character and reputation.  Fr. Belet says that “[b]ackbiting is eminently destructive, for it robs a man of what is most precious to him: his reputation.”  “A good name is more desirable than riches” (Prov 22:1).  Never say anything about anyone that you haven’t said or don’t intend to say to their face, but instead do everything you can to hold up others’ reputations without regard for your own.

Lastly there is venting.  Sometimes we need to vent and get some correction ourselves or guidance for how we should say something to someone (I.e “This is driving me nuts and I don’t know what to do about it”).  The subject of our venting should be us:  how we’re feeling, what is bothering me and why I think it’s rubbing me the wrong way, etc.  That can be legitimate, but use it sparingly.  I frequently end up in the confessional when I’m not careful with this one.

In summary:

“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.” (Eph. 4:29)
Friendship is messy but filled with grace, and our conversations often are the exact same way.  But with hearts intent on imparting grace (and a readiness to apologize when we don’t quite hit that aim) we should feel more emboldened to wade into the messiness of an authentic conversation with a friend and truly let our friendships and speech become like iron honing iron.