“Who am I to judge?” These are probably the most famous words of Pope Francis. And of course the Holy Father is right. Our Lord himself teaches: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Mt 7:1). Even he, to whom the Father has given the authority to judge (Jn 5:22) says, “I judge no one” (Jn 8:15).
And yet this spiritual work of mercy – perhaps the most delicate one – encourages us to admonish the sinner. If we see someone heading toward an open manhole in the street while distracted by reading their mobile device, we have an obligation to get their attention and warn them that they are in danger. This is true for the moral manholes of life, too. If someone we love is developing habits that are self-destructive, we would be failing in love if we did not intervene.
But how can we do this in a way that will have positive results?
First, admonishment, like charity, begins at home. The first sinner I should be cautioning is me. When speaking of not judging others, Jesus admonishes us to deal with the plank in our own eye before attempting micro-surgery to remove the speck from another’s eye. We should develop the habit of examining our conscience often and receiving the Lord’s forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation regularly. One clue to guide our self-examination may be to look at what we find wrong in others. A day of recollection and an annual retreat also offer occasions to take stock of ourselves. If we are honestly aware of our own shortcomings, we will approach another person with compassion and sympathy.
Second, fraternal correction should be truly fraternal: it is aimed at helping the other person improve, not at making me feel better because I’ve gotten something off my chest. The Letter of James urges us to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, because “human anger does not work God’s righteousness” (Jas 1:20). Finger-pointing and scolding do not help the other person (or ourselves, for that matter). We should only offer counsel after mature reflection, and never in the heat of anger.
Third, we should speak to our erring brother or sister about the matter, and not to anyone else. Our Lord directs us: “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and tell them their fault, between the two of you alone” (Mt 18:15). When we gossip about a person’s perceived or real failings we are guilty of the sins of detraction or calumny, which, according to the Catechism, “offend against the virtues of justice and charity” (CCC 2479). There may be circumstances in which a person’s behavior is so damaging to themselves and others that we might need to ask one or two others to assist us, but the right to a good reputation demands that the matter still be treated confidentially.
Fourth, we should make it abundantly clear that the concern we raise does not diminish our love for the other person. If even God, who is justice itself, sends rain on the just and the unjust (Mt 5:45), who are we sinners to withhold our love from another person because of their failings? God does not love us because we are good; we are good (and become better) because God loves us. Our final word of admonishment should be a word of unconditional love.