In his Lenten Message for 2012 Pope Benedict writes challengingly about ‘fraternal correction’. The adjective is crucial, since it indicates that the Pope is not here referring to the magisterial function of the Church, or the legitimate exercise of ecclesiastical authority. The word ‘fraternal’ implies a fundamental and radical equality that precedes all differences of status or function.
The Pope writes not only of the courage to correct other people – sometimes far from easy (except behind someone’s back, when it becomes treacherously easy) – but also the spiritual generosity and modesty to accept correction by others, so that both we and them gain insight into deeper truths about ourselves, and thus be renewed. He uses the word ‘reciprocity’, and cites Luke 6: 41: we must ‘observe the plank in our own eye before looking at the splinter in that of our brother’. In Lent, ‘the community constantly does penance and asks for the forgiveness of the sins of its members’.
In contrast to a Church that remains alert to its own need for forgiveness, the Pope writes, ‘Contemporary culture seems to have lost the sense of good and evil’. That is doubtless true of bourgeois, materialist culture, far from absent in Europe. Sometimes, however, our secular contemporaries have rightly identified evil where previous generations, including Christians, had failed to recognise it. Some fifty years ago, it was once joked, a moral theologian had the unusual distinction of ‘inventing a new sin’: racism. Once such a vice is named, we can reflect on it (and on ourselves) in a new way: and new consciousness may promote repentance and healing.
Other destructive attitudes (Christians may call them sins) have since come into focus, sometimes first in the secular sphere, and only then within the Church: among them, sexism and homophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Conversely, some secularists may be blind to their anti-religious prejudices, such as the contention that religious belief manifests simple-mindedness. People of faith and secular thinkers can and must learn from each other. Since we are all children of God, ‘fraternal correction’ has no intrinsic institutional limit.
It may be no coincidence that this message was issued at the time of an important conference in the Gregorian University in Rome, supported by the Holy See. Beyond the practical purpose of urgently promoting improvements in the Church’s safeguarding of children, the symposium’s title ‘Towards Healing and Renewal’ evoked a deeper purpose. Indeed the Pope’s message called for a ‘profound renewal of the Church at every level’, and the conference liturgy begged the forgiveness of abuse victims. One speaker, Marie Collins, a survivor of prolonged clerical sexual abuse, said, ‘You have to give credit where credit is due. . . If there is a chance they [Church authorities] are trying to change, you have to encourage that’. The invitation to her itself embodied the Church’s openness to forthright and just criticism.
In every sphere, both religious and secular, those in authority can read ‘fraternal correction’ automatically as dissidence or revolt. It is right that in Lent the Pope, while summoning the secular world to a deeper sense of the spiritual, also calls the Church, including those in it who hold authority, to accept correction from those they claim to serve.
By Frank Turner