Matthew 18:15-20
'Correctional Facility' by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.  If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that 'every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.'  If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.  If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.  Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  Again, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.  For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

Do we love others enough to correct them?  It may seem an odd question to the modern mind, so accustomed to thinking of love as a matter of  "live and let live" or "supporting you whatever you choose to do."  But in reality, love corrects.  Because love seeks the good of the other, it does not shy away from correcting or rebuking what harms him.  Out of love for his children, a father corrects them and at times punishes them - to keep them from danger.  Out of love a man will confront his friend, and even risk losing the friendship - for his friend's good.

Our Lord Himself shows us this love.  "Get behind me, Satan!"  He says to Peter (Mt 16:23).  "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!"  He says to the leaders of Israel several times (Mt 23:13, 23,25,27,29).  He loves them enough to correct them strongly - for the good of their souls.

In addition to this example, our Lord also gives instructions regarding "fraternal correction," that is, how members of the Church ought to correct one another.  We are to speak with the person individually.  "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone" (Mt 18:15).  Our Lord does not command us to brood, to gossip, to hold a grudge, to complain to everyone else, to post it on our blog, etc.  We are to have the integrity and courage to approach the person directly.

Further, when following our Lord's example and instruction, we should also share His motive: love.  Out of love for the person, and with the awareness that it is far worse to do evil than to suffer evil, we confront the person for the good of his soul.

This obligation to correct rests even more on the Church's hierarchy, which holds the power to bind and loose.  Our Lord directs that the obstinate sinner be brought before the Church.  And if "he refuses to listen even to the Church," then we are to treat him as "a Gentile or a tax collector" (Mt 18:17).  Which is to say, place the person outside the Church.  We can see this sobering instruction as a primitive expression of the Church's penalty of excommunication, which forbids reception of the sacraments and excludes from the Church's Communion.

This punishment is indeed severe.  Yet the severity itself serves the good of the individual soul.  It reveals the gravity of the person's sin and therefore (we hope) provokes repentance within the individual.  The purpose of excommunication is not to get rid of someone but to shock the person into asking forgiveness.

Further, by removing a cause of scandal and division, excommunication serves the good of the Church.  It clarifies the Church's teachings and requirements for Communion, and so it prevents further harm to the Body of Christ.

Members of the Church's hierarchy bear the burden of correcting those who bring great harm upon themselves and the Church.  They should learn from the sad fate of Eli who, although a good man, fell out of favor with the Lord because he failed to rebuke his sons (cf 1 Sm 3:13).  So also the priest, bishop or pope who fails to correct error fails to help souls and does a disservice to the Church by allowing scandal and division to fester.

Many problems arise from the failure to serve out of love.  But many evils also arise from the failure to correct out of love.  It is no sign of love, either for an individual or for the Church, to allow someone to continue in sin.  Love demands not only that we approve what is good, but also that we reject what is evil.  For the good of our souls, and for the good of the Church, may we bear that love for one another.

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