Pope Francis famously said during an inflight interview in July 2013, “who am I to judge?” The Pope is almost always quoted out of context on this point. He could not have meant that Christians should not judge, because Jesus says the opposite in today’s gospel: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault.”
Christians, in fact, must judge each other’s actions and correct when necessary, as Pope Francis himself wrote a year after his famous “who am I to judge” quote. “I must correct another Christian when he does what is not good,” he said, but I must correct with prudence and charity, so that the offender is not lost. “The purpose [of correction] is to help the person realize what he has done … but [it] also helps to free ourselves from anger or resentment….” The Pope has put his finger on a terrible phenomenon of our time: anger and resentment. At Charlottesville last month demonstrators and counter demonstrators screamed at each other “you are filth!” The levels of vitriol escalated until a man killed a woman. Welcome to a post-Christian society, where it’s normal to call another person “filth.” America, when it was Christian, believed in the brotherhood of man because we believed in the fatherhood of God. In losing right religion we have lost the art of respectful public discourse and fraternal correction. We have become too afraid to call each other to virtue, because we no longer believe in virtue.
“Actually,” Pope Francis continues, “before God we are all sinners in need of forgiveness…. Jesus told us not to judge. Fraternal correction is a mark of the love and communion which must reign in the Christian community … a mutual service that we must render to one another.” But how can we correct each other unless we make judgments on specific behaviors? We must judge, but we must judge rightly. Notice how Jesus himself judges throughout the New Testament, calling the Pharisees “whitewashed sepulchers” and how he chases the money changers out of the temple with a whip—hardly an inclusive, tolerant, non-judgmental approach. Those who say we should never judge in fact do judge those with whom they disagree, calling them “haters” or “intolerant.” If we imagine we can never judge, we end up judging, but judging wrongly, without love. The best example of right judgement, I think, is the woman caught in adultery. Jesus does not “condemn” the woman; he forgives her but he also tells her not to sin again. Neither does he condemn the condemners, the hateful Pharisees. He points out their sin too and calls them to virtue: “let him without sin cast the first stone.”
The question is not whether to judge, but how to judge. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” First, Jesus points out that the offender is “your brother.” We are all children of the one God, and we correct because we love. Second, we do correct when necessary. We summon up the courage to address real issues between us. Third, we correct gently, respectfully, and privately if possible. If your brother listens to you, great. If not, then what? Do you call him a hater, do you write him out of your life, do you gossip about him or publish something nasty on Facebook? No, you lovingly, patiently, take the next step—bring two or three others to help him. If that fails, you appeal to the Church, the loving community that has his best interest in mind. If that fails, then sadly you must “treat him as a tax collector.” You must say to him: “you have put yourself outside of our community, and we can no longer talk as brothers, but we pray that you will return to the family someday.” Fraternal correction must be an act of love, and as the first reading makes clear, not warning a brother of his sin—his dysfunction—is neglect, for which God will hold us responsible. Who am I to judge? I am that man’s brother, and I love him. I will do all I can to judge him fairly, lovingly, willing goodness for him. A brother saves a brother from death.
From a position of weakness
This is not easy. Many of us, much of the time, simply avoid fraternal correction because we find it hard to correct without rancor. We simply avoid confronting the real issues. Before correcting a brother or sister, a husband or wife, we must be very pure and humble ourselves. We must pray to avoid any hint of superiority—of judgmentalism. The best way to correct another is from a position of weakness, after much prayer and fasting, certain of our own weaknesses. We must let the Lord speak through us rather than our own frustration and pride. In July 1917 at Fatima, Our Lady showed the three children a vision of hell, “where poor sinners go.” The children realized hell is not just a fable, and they began offering many sacrifices that sinners may not be condemned. We correct each other precisely that we may not be condemned, for all of us are exposed to the clear and present danger of losing our souls. May Our Lady intercede for us, that we may have the wisdom, courage, and humility to correct each other in virtue, and gladly accept correction from each other.