I’ve come across an interesting blog by Melinda Selmys – Sexual Authenticity: an intimate reflection on homosexuality and Catholicism. There are a number of articles I think worth sharing, but top of today’s list is this one, on fraternal correction. How should we react when those we love are doing something that we think to be a sin? The article uses a child or sibling ‘coming out of the closet’ as an example, but it is just as relevant wherever we feel that someone we love is heading for a fall, and we feel to emotionally connected to be fair or reasonable. Here’s a lengthy exerpt:
In his discussion of the obligation of fraternal correction, [St Thomas Aquinas] 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.