Admonishing the sinner is, first and foremost, an act of mercy.
Admonishing the sinner is, first and foremost, an act of mercy.

Admonishing the sinner is one of the principal formulas of Catholic doctrine, teaching that it is every Catholic's responsibility to reprimand those who have succumbed to the temptation of sin. It instructs the faithful to remain vigilant to lack of counsel by lapsing Christians and those outside the faith whose judgment has deteriorated into a cycle of spiritual neglect. Listed as one of the seven spiritual works of mercy, admonishing the sinner is a religious duty elaborated on in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as an act of compassion that is committed for the benefit of the person in need.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church

The enormous volume of Catholic doctrine is summarized and delivered to its constituents in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or CCC. The CCC makes reference to admonishing the sinner in Section 2447, which reads: "The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently." Instructing and advising are the essentials of admonishment, as are reprimand and correction.

The Baltimore Catechism

A localized version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which stood as the first catechism written for Catholics in North America, known as the Baltimore Catechism, explains when the Catholic is obliged to admonish the sinner. Section 814 states that a person is obliged to admonish when the sin is a mortal sin, when the person has authority over the sinner, and/or when the warning will not make the sinner stray even further from the path. If these criteria are met, the concerned Catholic should move forward with an admonishment.

Fraternal Correction

A key factor in the admonishment of the sinner is fraternal correction, defined as a private admonishment by a person's kin or neighbor. The fraternal or familial bond can be a powerful tool in assessing as well as correcting the lapsing Catholic's behavior. Someone is far more likely to consider what a neighbor or "brother" has to say before a stranger without a personal stake in the sinner's recovery. In his 2008 article, "The Duty of Fraternal Correction," Father Raniero Cantalamessa, a preacher in the Pontifical Household, writes: "Why does Jesus say to admonish your brother privately? Above all, this injunction has respect for your brother’s good name, his dignity in view." Remember, the purpose of admonishment is to help -- not humiliate -- the sinner.

When to Wait

A person in the midst of a life-rending crisis might not be the right choice for admonishment. At least not in the thick of the problem itself. Provided that the person is not endangering his or her life or the lives of others -- and of course that the sins are not mortal nor so grave as to permanently endanger the person's immortal soul -- exercising restraint might be the best option. This harks back to the third Article of Section 814 of the Baltimore Catechism's requisite obligations. If the outcome of the admonishment is going to push the sinner further away from God, then that person should be spared until such time as the message will be better received. In either case, sensitivity should always be used so that the endangered person receives the message of Christ's love and hope that he so desperately needs.