When you see someone do or say something harmful, you may feel inclined to speak up. As a Christian, you have a responsibility to exercise fraternal correction, which is to correct or admonish your neighbor with the purpose of reforming him and preventing future sin. But often we don’t speak up. Sometimes it’s because we want to avoid conflict, and other times it’s because we want to avoid being judgmental.
So what is the difference between fraternal correction and being a judgmental jerk? Is it simply in the delivery or are they actually distinctly different things? Monsignor Stuart Swetland recently addressed this on an episode of Go Ask Your Father™ in response to a question from a listener.
He explained, “Jesus told us not to judge others, in the sense that their eternal salvation is something reserved for God alone. God alone is the judge of the ultimate disposition of one’s heart. And we have no access to that inner sanctum of the person, which is his or her conscience.”
“This is why we should always assume good will,” he pointed out. “And if there is a positive way of interpreting actions and intent, we should always assume that positive way is, in fact, the real intent of the person.”
So the difference lies in whether you are judging a person’s heart or judging their actions. In many cases, someone can cause harm unintentionally. But something can still be objectively wrong, whether or not it was done with malice or an intent to harm. In those instances, it is still the duty of a Christian to lovingly correct their neighbor.
“Jesus also taught us to fraternally correct others when they are erring,” Msgr. Swetland said. “And He told us that by their actions you shall know them, and by their fruits you shall know them. So He says that we can see actions and we can discern the fruit of certain actions. And both of those are tell-tale signs if it is, in fact, good or wicked, helpful or destructive to building up the kingdom of God.”
“So we can see the real consequences or fruit of people’s actions,” he continued. “And we can see also the action itself. And while we assume some good will, if an action is objectively wrong, it’s always wrong. And so that allows us to judge not the heart, but the action allows us to judge not the intent but the consequences, the fruit. And those we can use as evidence to help a person correct their erring ways.”
The key, Msgr. Swetland illustrated, is to remember that fraternal correction is not a matter of judging, shaming, or proving your moral superiority. It is about love and accompanying your neighbor on the path to heaven.
“All Christians, out of love for others, have to want, will, and work for the true good of the other,” he said. “That means we want to help the person overcome whatever weakness or sin that they’re participating in because we love them. We don’t want them to wallow in their wickedness, because it hurts them, it hurts others, and ultimately could be to their eternal detriment if they don’t get right with Christ.”
“This is the fine line we have to walk where we are called to love and correct and see the action and the fruit of the action to help the person become the best version of themselves.”