The Imperative of Fraternal Correction

Every September, the Congregation for Bishops in Rome hosts a seminar for newly-ordained bishops from around the world; the seminar is widely known, at least sotto voce, as “Baby Bishops’ School.” I have a modest suggestion for the curriculum: everyone attending the seminar should be given a copy of the classic World War II novel, “Twelve O’Clock High!,” which is far less a story of B-17s over Europe than a lesson in paternal, masculine leadership.

About halfway through the book, when General Frank Savage has dramatically reversed the disastrous morale of the 918th Heavy Bombardment Group by ignoring an order and hitting a difficult target, a once-skeptical lieutenant (and Medal of Honor winner), Jesse Bishop, admits that he’s misread the fiery commander and asks Savage if he’d “mind very much kicking me in the tail?” Bishop bends over, Savage obliges—and then asks the youngster to do him a favor: “All right, Jesse … I want you to be the one guy in the group that doesn’t believe I’m a general. That door is always open. Anytime you think I’m not doing so hot, come in and tell me. Let me know what the boys are thinking. I need you plenty, and I’ll count on you to keep me straightened out.”

I hope it’s not considered impious if I suggest that every bishop needs a Bishop. Or several Bishops.

Catholic bishops don’t have wives. But like every other high-achievement male in the world, Catholic bishops need someone to keep them “straightened out,” as Savage put it — especially when they’re “not doing so hot.” A bishop with a particularly close and open relationship with his presbyterate might find a Bishop or two among his priests, but the dynamics of contemporary clerical culture mitigate against that kind of frankness. No, bishops need to find Bishops among their brother bishops.

Father Thomas Reese, S.J., would appear to disagree. Several weeks ago, Archbishop Raymond Burke of the Apostolic Signatura gave an interview in which he suggested that some bishops in the United States were not doing all they might do to protect the integrity of the Eucharist, and the souls of those in their care, by not making it clear to pro-abortion Catholic politicians that they should refrain from receiving holy Communion. At a subsequent Washington press conference, Archbishop Burke’s remarks were unfairly used by a pro-life activist to try and settle some scores with bishops of whom the activist disapproved. During the ensuing media fuss, Father Reese, who would not object to being described as on the far side of the Communion-for-pro-abortion-politicians debate from Archbishop Burke, saw his chance and took it. According to the Jesuit master of the Catholic sound-bite, Archbishop Burke “really violated … episcopal etiquette. You don’t criticize other bishops in public and you don’t tell other bishops how to run their dioceses.”

One wonders precisely what “episcopal etiquette” is being evoked here. The “etiquette” of a Cyril of Alexandria, who wrote the Patriarch Nestorius and informed him that his sermons questioning Mary’s title, “Mother of God,” were dubiously orthodox? The “etiquette” of a Cyprian, who engaged in what the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church calls a “violent correspondence” with Pope Stephen I over the validity of baptism administered by heretics and schismatics? Or the “etiquette” of a men’s club in which it’s considered bad form to confront a fellow member of the club, even if he’s embarrassing himself and the club?

With an eye to the Frank Savage Rule of Fraternal Correction, I’ll take the hard-knuckled but canonized Fathers of the Church — Cyril, who was right on the issues, and Cyprian, who in this instance was wrong — over Father Reese’s genteel men’s club. Catholic bishops need someone like Savage’s Jesse Bishop to tell them when they’re “not doing so hot.” The likeliest candidates for administering such fraternal correction are a man’s brother bishops. The privilege of fraternal correction, which is really an exercise of fraternal charity, should not be abused, and it’s usually best done outside the media circus. But can anyone seriously doubt, after the debacles revealed in the Long Lent of 2002, that it’s absolutely imperative?

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • GaryT

    People often mistake “being nice” for “being charitable”. Avoiding the truth because it might hurt someone’s feelings or doesn’t follow “etiquette” is not charitable at all. When circumstances do not allow one to be truthful without violiating some rules of etiquette, well the truth has to win out.

    Political Correctness is a form of “etiquette”. I suppose turning over the money changer’s tables was violating etiquette, but it got their attention and got them to stop their active sinning.

  • One other possible source of such correction is the confessional. As one gets higher in the hierarchy, the need for a strong and holy man to serve as your confessor increases radically.

  • cytodad

    It should be so obvious to the church why young people are leaving the faith. Those that “claim” to be Catholic are refraining from receiving the sacraments. Pope John Paul II’s “Veritas Splendor” was written as guidance for the bishops of the church. In it he implores the bishops to take a strong leadership role in supporting the decisions of the Magisterium. Given that only a minority of American bishops have actively condemned the actions of Notre Dame, it would appear that the rest of them are choosing not to exhibit the kind of leadership Catholic youth are longing for. Until we start providing that firm example and a really strong Catholic identity for our youth, we’ll continue to see them drop out of church and sacramental involvement. The bishops really do need a Bishop.

  • goral

    No doubt there are those out there, certainly not members of the CE club, who would interpret Mr. Weigel’s statement about wives straightening out husbands as advocating marriage for the clergy.

    It may be a lttle late in life for their Moms to call and say – Johnny what do you think you’re doing?
    Certainly there needs to be someone there with the audacity of a woman to say –
    your Excellency, the garbage needs to be taken out.

  • I noticed that the Sexual Abuse of Minors Scnadal was really the first crack in the armor of the “don’t publicly criticize” etiquette. I think that scandal made many realize that if private correction by friends didn’t produce the needed results and two together was just as futile then going “to the Church” – the public statement was gong to be necessary. This change is just beginning and will in some ways seem like feuding but will also draw out the truth very quickly.

  • Lucky Mom of 7

    This isn’t particularly relevant, but Randall Terry (founder of Operation Rescue), who took Bishop Burke’s words and used them against other bishops, describes himself as anti-abortion, not pro-life. There is a distinction.

    Every time an update is issued with new bishops being added to the condemnation of the Notre Dame scandal, I am disappointed when my bishop’s name isn’t there. It’s most discouraging.


  • Warren Jewell

    Any time we touch upon our ecclesial ordinaries, we hit the ‘Disgruntled’ button. We may be praying for them but wonder if they’re praying for themselves OR us.

    We may write letters to our various politicians about one issue or another – and the issues do seem to be piling up! Do we write and beg our bishop to take a stand about this or that – say, showing the likes of Fr. Reese a nice garden to care for, and shut up?

    How about it, Lucky? Does your bishop know that you are discouraged by his lack of taking a stands about the UND/Obama problem? Would you take it with aplomb if he chose to agree with UND President Fr. Jenkins? Yet, at least you would know that he had the backbone to take a stand.

    My ordinary, Cardinal Francis George, came out against UND’s invitation to President Obama. Would he have if he was not current chief spokes-bishop of the USCCB? Hmmm – I couldn’t tell you, for sure. For instance, where is Cardinal George when Archbishop Wuerl of Wash.D.C. says canon law backs him on letting the likes of Pelosi take Communion in his archdiocese? (It doesn’t, and his fellow bishops ought to be all over him, as they should on Fr. Reese about his nonsense contra Archbishop Burke.)

    My, oh my – I am disgruntled, too. A recent CE article has it that we need strong lay leadership – but how strong can we be if all the waters in which they help the fishers of men is muddied by so many of the senior fishermen? And, has not my disgruntlement been deepened and extended in that I must go miles to hear a Latin Mass, if I wish to assist at one? And this inconvenience long after the Pope’s urging to have Latin Mass; why has not Cardinal George insisted that a healthy portion of his pastors have taken Latin-Mass instruction to offer such Mass once a month? In that all any priest need do is ‘say the black and do the red’, how difficult would it be?

    Hey! I am only getting more disgruntled! I think I’ll copy some of this stuff out of CE and ask Cardinal George to un-dis-gruntle me for some part.

    And, as in many such things: ask in clear charity, receive in clear charity.

  • Warren Jewell

    Hey! Wait one minute, scouts! Why is it that I can’t get fraternal correction from out of lay ranks? Am I un-fraternal, or something? Why is not someone or two or more not assigned to ‘keep an eye on THAT big one over there’? Say or do something dumb, and God permits Mom to be channeled through some nice lady who tells me “You shouldn’t be talking like that – want me to wash your mouth out, boy?” A partner tells me “Get in the car – you’re on your way to confession! EXAMINE THAT CONSCIENCE, right now!”

    And, some of us can keep an eye on that Weigel boy, too.

    Think how continuing adult catechesis would be inspired by everyone being given “one to watch over and keep Catholic”. “What those two rollin’ around ‘pon the ground about?” “Discussing apologetics I think.”

    Plus, we could monitor each other for sins of omission, right? Maybe an instance of Catholic witness that would slip by one is caught by another and both are the better for it.

    On a more sober but greatly edifying note, think of one’s correctors around his casket, and realizing that they just might have helped Jesus save their brother. Glory to God all around!

    I want a fraternal corrector! Maybe, one for every eighty pounds of me.

  • plowshare

    Let me add my own disgruntled voice. I strongly suspect Father Thomas Reese was flagrantly insincere in his patently false announcement. In fact, I strongly suspect he was delighted to read about how Archbishop Fisichella reprimanded Archbishop Sobrinho for his announcement that the mother and doctors who aborted the twin babies of the 9year old Brazilian girl incurred excommunication laetae sentiae.

    It was gratifying to read that Sobrinho has received an award from Human Life International for his public stand:
    But it is also disquieting to read how, over a month after Fisichella issued his benighted statement, there has been no official word from the Vatican about the whole controversial affair: