Fr Daniel Donovan's commentary today was triggered by his reading of the recent glossy Pentecost 2012 Message offered by Cardinal George Pell to the people of Sydney on Forgiveness and Sin. In part what Fr Dan writes is a critique of the shallowness of the Cardinal's attempted catechesis but I suggest it is rich in adult insight. If the institution instead of attempting to treat the vast bulk of their baptized constituency as "simple people"* and "little people"* who had to be "spoon fed" their beliefs at around the level one educates children in a kindergarten, and instead attempted the sort of adult conversation you'll find in this commentary from Dan Donovan I think we'd all be in a far better place. As a preliminary to Fr Dan's commentary readers may care to read the full text of the Cardinal's thoughts on the subject on the Sydney Archdiocesan website HERE. [*They are Pope Benedict's expressions – see my expanded introduction on the Catholic Forum HERE] ...Brian Coyne, editor
It has long been the custom to reference Church documents by their opening words and numbered paragraphs so, following this practice, this critique labels the current Sydney Archdiocese Pentecost Message 2012 Forgiveness makes a difference (FMAD). The first impression of FMAD was its Annalsesque appearance popular in Catholic High Schools in the 1970's. The black/grey and white background set a rather dire mood for the promised message which little more than the current Vatican line that the local bishop has the responsibility "to help the faithful find direction amid the confusion of points of view and the clang of media information, purposeful disinformation and manipulated bias." Both Cardinal Kurt Koch's comment and FMAD are based on the assumption that Catholics are "confused" and are unable to make correct conscientious judgments about right and wrong in their lives. People who live in the real world are not persuaded by "points of view" any more than they are by "institutional hypocrisy"!
If FMAD was an attempt by a local bishop "to help the faithful find direction" then it only demonstrates that the core problem is that the local bishop (at least in Sydney) is not in touch with the people. Even the visuals were confusing and why were there so many in such a short document? For example "Forgiveness and Sin" (with "sin" crossed out) certainly did not capture the reader's imagination. The visuals throughout the document except for the Calvary scene (p. 4) were distractions and largely irrelevant to the desired outcome of providing people with "direction amid confusing points of view" on the reality of sin. Doves with olive branches, soldiers at Gallipoli friezes from the Scriptures, photos of penitents, a computer keyboard with "porn key", etc., detracted from the overall impact. Gallipoli and Ataturk story however, did permit the Cardinal to introduce his recent travels to Gallipoli Beach for Anzac Day 2012 but added nothing to the discussion.
The Calvary visual was powerful and needed to be on the front cover as the unifying theme of the entire document providing a clear graphic about "costly grace" and the disciple's responsibility to heed Jesus' call "Come follow me!" The "Justice and Forgiveness" section at the end with its fleeting references to "Noah's covenant" [FMAD #27] and "cheap grace" [FMAD #42] were meaningful and would have allowed FMAD to help the people in their conscience formation by providing a positive theology of covenant (Calvary visual) repentance and discipleship. Possibly the theological impact of these concepts might have been developed through Paul's words [Rom 13: 8-10] that "the one who loves his or her neighbour has already fulfilled the Law".
The concept of "cheap grace"...
The Cardinal rejects [FMAD #42] any suggestion that personal confession of sins to a priest is "cheap grace" but it is hard to locate any articles which make such a claim. Rather from the days of learning the catechism the questions distinguished between "perfect contrition" and "imperfect contrition" (attrition). Clearly, the Catechism stated that if a person could not participate in the sacrament of penance "an act of perfect contrition" could forgive sin but not so attrition. However "attrition" was sufficient to forgive even serious sin with auricular confession to a priest. The "cheap grace" was not about confessing sins to a priest but rather the disposition of the penitent and if he or she had fully repented of sins. It is not the form of the sacrament but the disposition of the penitent which is described as "cheap grace" — forgiveness without repentance.
"Costly grace" in contast...
"Cheap grace" is described by Bonhoeffer as "without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate". "Costly grace" by contrast, is "the gospel which must be sought again, again and again". Ultimately, the difference between "cheap grace" and "costly grace" turns on the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. Grace is "costly" because it flows to the disciple from the cross (or the new covenant in the blood of Jesus) and is bestowed in Jesus' call, "Come follow me!"
Discipleship and "Costly Grace"
FMAD needed a positive theme which could be developed through the document. Moreover it was difficult to establish the specific audience for whom the message was intended. There was a range of possible audiences: "a Christian," "adults," "mothers" to name some but there was not one specific group. While the text did have a certain male appeal it would certainly have raised the ire of women some of whom commented that after the first paragraph they gave up. The three stories of "perfect forgiveness", for example are all men: Nelson Mandela, John Paul II and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk yet these stories are not integrated into the wider text or even revisited in the final section on "Justice and Forgiveness".
Women on the other hand, are poorly presented in the document. Firstly the Protestant English Queen Elizabeth I is the model of "imperfect forgiveness" making sure that she remembered where "she had buried the hatchet" [FMAD #16]. Secondly, there are women "unable to forgive themselves" after procuring an abortion. It would not have been out of place if the gravity of this situation had been noted as a pastoral concern for the Church community to minister to these women. Often the marginalisation of these women is the result of Church teaching.
FMAD's treatment of women is encapsulated in the section on Repentance in the analysis of the pericope of Jn 8:11 the woman "caught in the act of adultery". Again the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is the context. The woman's accusers want evidence against Jesus so that they might condemn him for breaking the Law. So they bring him a dilemma, the Law of Moses requires that "such women" be stoned but what do you say? Jesus bends down and writes on the ground suggesting that "those without sin cast the first stone". One by one they go away leaving Jesus and the woman alone. "Has no one condemned you?" Jesus asks. "No sir," she replies. "Well, neither do I condemn you, go away and sin no more." It was not a matter of the woman returning to "old habits" she had been graced [Jn 1:16-17] through God's Word. The Samaritan woman [Jn 4: 5-30] is a similar story of discipleship or "costly grace" which frees the person from sins and transforms them in the Spirit.
However, the woman's accusers had gone back to their "old habits" by the end of this chapter [Jn 8: 58-59], they are back again questioning Jesus' authority. In his answer Jesus declares that he is greater than Abraham, "before Abraham was I am". Subsequently, he had to go and hide because they intended to stone him.
Change of mind and attitude...
In John's Gospel repentance is "metanoia" — that change of mind or attitude of Christ [Phil 2:5] which comes through the "truth and loving kindness" of Jesus [Jn 1:17]. The prologue of John's Gospel contains the paradox of repentance that Jesus "came to his own, yet his own people did not receive him; but to all who have received him he gave power to become children of God for they believe in his name" [Jn 1:11]. Systemic or structural sin [Jn 1:5, 3:19, 8:12, 12:35,12:46] rather than "points of view" prevented the Jewish authorities and the political/religious groups from becoming Jesus' disciples [Jn 8: 37-39].
Sin cannot be reduced simply, to the actions and/or omissions of individuals nor can it be trivialised to the extent that almost every human action can be "categorised" as grave sin [FMAD #23]. The early Church had a communal process for dealing with "serious- post-baptismal sin" in the Church and it recognised only three serious sins, apostasy, murder and adultery, which excluded the sinner from the community. Public Penance was so called because, the whole community journey with the penitent during the time of his/her penance. The penitent confessed his or her sin to the Bishop and was admitted to the order of penitents and was excluded from the liturgy of the Eucharist. He or she was required to wear distinctive dress and to leave the Assembly with the catechumens following the liturgy of the Word. Penance was only permitted once in the person's lifetime and the whole community experienced sin through the disruption of its life and integrity.
This period was known as "exomologesis" or "Confession" which was much more than "telling sins", it was proclamation of God's great mercy and victory over sin. God's mercy had overcome sin in Jesus and the community experienced that mercy again in the reconciliation of its brother or sister [Jn 8:11]. Finally, the community judged that the person had repented and ready to be reconciled with the community, the absolution was given and the penitent(s) was reconciled at the Holy Thursday Eucharist.
Public Penance -vs- Private Penance...
By the seventh century, Public Penance in Europe was beginning to be replaced by a form of Private Penance introduced by Irish Missionaries. Private Penance had the advantage that it could be repeated but the role of the reconciling community was lost. Greater emphasis was placed on the "telling of sins" and personal shame to discourage any blasé attitude to sin in the community. For in Private Penance the absolution was given prior to the person's performing his or her satisfaction or penance. Gradually, the sacrament of penance lost its original medicinal function within the community becoming a forensic judgment by the priest of the penitent's contrition and he administered, or withheld, the absolution accordingly.
As the number of serious sins multiplied, the Ten Commandments and the seven capital sins provided an easy and ready guide for the examination of conscience and the confessing of sins when all Christians from 1215 were required by law to "confess their sins at least, once a year". Sexual sins were always serious ("semper et pro semper") and consequently the sixth and ninth commandments required special attention by both the penitent and priest. The Councils of Lateran IV  and Trent [1543-1565] emphasised "confession" as "telling sins" rather than community worship. Trent decreed that all serious sins be confessed "according to number and kind" and failure to do so was itself a sin. This Council also, stressed the power of the priest to forgive sin. FMAD continues to explain the sacrament of penance as "confession" and the individual's initiative of telling sins [#41-42] without any reference to communal proclamation of God's mercy as in Nehemiah 9, especially vv.19, 30-33 and Augustine's Confessions.
Vatican II restored the emphasis on God's mercy the Rite of Penance [RP #1-4] establishing three Rites of Reconciliation not to dim the community's sense of sin but to restore the communal worship aspects of the sacrament. The formula of absolution praises God's mercy, the centrality of the Jesus event, the role of the Spirit and the ministry of the Church (the community) in mediating God's forgiveness. So the prayer of absolution states:
God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself, and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins, through the ministry of the Church, may the Lord grant you pardon and peace and now I absolve you from your sins.
Penance is necessarily a part of Christian life and is dependent on God's initiative rather than human activity. Today men and women seek this "pardon and peace" but frequently, are disinclined to approach the sacrament of penance because of their negative experiences in this sacrament over the years. The Church has traditionally, taught that the sacraments exist "for people" (propter homines) but has managed in practice to reverse this principle so that people existed for the sacrament (propter sacramentum).
Catechesis for Conscience Formation...
FMAD claims that sins "are categorized according to gravity, not according to our feelings ... and obviously some acts are worse than others" [FMAD #23]. The gravity of sin should not be gauged by comparison with other acts for all sin offends against God's covenant and his people in Christ. The conditions necessary for "grave sin" are from the Seminary Moral Texts of yesteryear: grave matter, full knowledge and free consent [FMAD # 24-25]. While these conditions might objectively constitute mortal sin, it is a rather simplistic approach which would discount the impact of feelings and emotions on human decisions. Paul recognises this complex psychology of human sinfulness [Rom 7: 22-25] and gives thanks to God for the victory over sin "in Christ".
On the other hand, it was always a problem for the Schoolmen (Scholastic philosophers/theologians) when settling the form and matter of the sacrament of penance to carefully, avoid any indication that "sins" or "telling of sins" might be "the matter" of the sacrament. Generally, they agreed that the contrition of the penitent (sorrow) was the matter and the priest's absolution was the form. This would appear to be the point of the Cardinal's questions and the voting strategy with the 10-13 year olds, in the section on Repentance. Such a teaching strategy presumes that the youngsters would have prior knowledge of the parts of the sacrament and an understanding of the difference between perfect and imperfect contrition otherwise the activity might well be counterproductive.
The explanation of the "traditional Christian distinction" between "sinner" and "sin" is simply not convincing. Surely the child's capacity to distinguish between the parent's alcoholism and the parent would depend on the child's cognitive development and level of maturity? Does a child between 5 and 11 years of age, have the ability to make such a distinction? Child psychologists and educational experts would not necessarily agree that a child prior to reaching an age of abstract reasoning would be capable of performing such a task. Certainly, it was not my own experience when working with Alateen groups around Sydney. Children were more inclined to resent the parent or parents for their alcoholism and carried these scars from childhood into their adult lives.
FMAD's failure to address systemic or structural sin is a serious omission thereby implying that sin or "grave" sin is confined to personal actions or omissions. Secondly, the attempt to replace the mature Christian conscience with the "Ten Commandments" as the foundation of moral life [FMAD #19] is simply futile. Would this mean that the Christ and the Gospel are irrelevant in Christian moral life and developing a mature Christian conscience? If "sin" has been reduced to "only different points of view" then a mature Christian conscience is more important than ever and the hierarchy should be encouraging rather than demeaning the role of conscience. So drop those weasel words like "general sense of right and wrong" or "reasonable instincts" and emphasise the indispensable role of conscience in moral life.
The fact that FMAD does not provide a definition of conscience which could well account for the confusion surrounding conscience and its function, not only in this text, but also in the minds of Church leaders. So a workable definition of conscience is as follows:
"Conscience is the last practical judgment of a moral agent about the right or wrong nature of his or her proposed action or omission."
What is so wrong about that? Conscience is a practical judgment about the morality of a specific action. It is an invalid and naive comparison to compare conscience (the sacred centre of decision making) to the mechanical functioning of a clock. Clocks are not autonomous as is conscience and clocks only measure "movement according to before and afterwards".
Were one to accept the analogy to the clock, it is still only partly correct! Only if the clock was "too slow" would the person miss the bus; were the clock "too fast" the person would certainly, "catch the bus." The "this" in the final sentence [FMAD #26] is ambiguous. Does the sentence refer to people deadening their "reasonable instincts" through repeated sins, or simply to people missing the bus because their clocks are "too slow or too fast?" Such nonsense offends the intelligence of the Catholic people and widens the divide between the people and the hierarchy.
"Traditional Christian teachings" not only address personal sins but also, structural or systemic sin. Institutions whether secular or ecclesiastical, must be vigilant that their structures do not exploit or undermine the inalienable right of the human person. Church authorities have the responsibility to eradicate structural scandals within the Church such as: sexual abuse of children by clergy, charges of money laundering and tax evasion by the Vatican Bank (IOR), political liaisons with the corrupt Government of Italian Prime Minister, Berlusconi, nepotism and power struggles between Vatican officials.  Church authorities in recent years have been too slow to address these weighty matters which are reported daily in the world press and online services. Increasingly, it is not possible for the Vatican to peddle the line that there is a conspiracy in the media against the Pope or the Church [FMAD # 27]. However if the advice which the Pope receives from his Cardinals is not better than their advice to the people of God then it is little wonder that these public scandals proliferate!
Living Hopefully Ever After?
FMAD closes on Calvary [FMAD #47-49] and the story of the "good thief" [Lk 23:39-43] highlighting Jesus' promise to the repentant man that "today you will be with me in paradise". So FMAD concludes that "There is hope for us all." What a conclusion! The document was tedious and had painted a rather bleak picture of society today in which the people of God were confused and their consciences "deadened by repeated sins". Later [in FMAD #30] the erosion of "social capital" is identified as having serious repercussions for future generations. It was difficult to establish the link between this paragraph and conscience. There seems to be an assumption that the Church can be neatly divided two groups: the better than (the hierarchy) and the less than (the laity). Jesus told his disciples at the last Supper that service not power was the hallmark for his community and its leaders [Lk 22:25-27].
The real challenge for the Church today is to eradicate structural sin which over the centuries has blinded leaders to political power which has undermined the Church as the sacrament of God's Kingdom in the world [Mt 28:20]. Jesus' vision of a community of disciples has been replaced by a corporate model of big Church and God's work of evangelisation has become a business. The Pope is the CEO, the Cardinals his board and the local bishops are the branch managers. The People of God, so fated by Vatican II, have become pilgrims without a moral compass (conscience) lost in a wasteland of conflicting "points of view". The anomaly in FMAD is that while the Cardinal urges forgiveness and repentance for the people he ignores the reality that Church leaders have for centuries failed to forgive each other and repent of the schisms that plague the Body of Christ!
Fr Daniel Donovan, submitted to Catholica 20 Jun 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2012 Fr Daniel Donovan