One of the many deeply disturbing aspects of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has been the lack of discussion about penance. While public apologies from bishops who protected abusive priests are becoming more common, doing penance to atone for individual sins is still too rare. This is even more confounding given that when confronting sin, the church has as an obvious model as a resource: the sacrament of reconciliation--known by most people as "confession."
Every Catholic knows that forgiveness in the confessional demands penance. Reconciliation in the church requires the same thing.
This is why Pope Benedict XVI's remarks last week might be an important starting point. "[W]e Christians, even in recent times,” he said, “have often avoided the word ‘penance,’ which seemed too harsh to us. Now…we see that being able to do penance is a grace and we see how it is necessary to do penance, that is, to recognize what is mistaken in our life, to open oneself to forgiveness, to prepare oneself for forgiveness, to allow oneself to be transformed. The pain of penance, that is to say of purification and of transformation, this pain is grace, because it is renewal, and it is the work of Divine Mercy.”
If the church hopes to heal, the turn to penance is, as the pope says, “necessary.” And I mean real penance.
To be clear, I am not speaking here of criminal activities. Obviously, any cleric who has done anything illegal--the sexual abuse of minors, or anything else, for that matter--should face, like anyone else, the full measure of the law. Sexual abusers should be in jail. Instead I'm speaking of sin, a broader category. What is illegal is almost always sinful. But what is sinful is not always illegal. Sin is larger category, and it is that I am addressing here.
Serious sin creates a rupture between the sinner and God, between the sinner and the community and between the sinner and the one sinned against. That rupture must be healed. But without true penance true healing will never take place. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its lengthy section on penance, says bluntly: “The sinner must…make amends for the sin.”
This may be one reason why many victims, victims’ families, and advocacy groups (as well as many Catholics) are so angry with church leaders who seem to have done no real penance. For penance demonstrates not only to God, but to the one sinned against (in these cases victims and their families) the seriousness with which the person takes his (or her) sins. Penance shows that you mean business when it comes to being forgiven.
Some argue that the Catholic church has already done "penance" by paying out large legal settlements to victims and their families; or that the church has done "penance" by being forced to close schools and parishes, and sell church property to pay legal fees; or that the universal church has done "penance" by seeing its stature seriously reduced in the public square. But those are involuntary actions in which the church had no choice. Penance, on the other hand, must be voluntary. The one seeking absolution willingly accepts penance, and fully understands its theological and spiritual importance.
Think about the sacrament of reconciliation. When a Catholic seeks forgiveness of sins, he or she enters the confessional to hear a word of forgiveness spoken by a minister of the church in the name of God. But there are several steps that come before forgiveness. Each step, one by one, can help the church understand what it is called to do, and how it must confront the sins of the fathers, and begin to foster the healing needed in the wake of the abuse crisis.
First of all, the penitent confesses sin. That has already happened in some dioceses in the United States, where bishops have spoken of their errors, their failures, their misjudgments and their sins. It took a tragically long time for some church leaders to recognize the need to confess their sins publicly; but most eventually understood what they must do.
Second, there needs to be a firm purpose of amendment, where the penitent demonstrates a seriousness about not sinning in the future. A person who says, "I sinned but it wasn't a big deal" or "I sinned and I'll do it again" is not showing true contrition. As the Catechismstates, “Contrition is sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again." Some of that contrition began to take place in the church in this country, as with the meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, when they adopted their "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," which set forth their now-famous zero-tolerance policy.
But before absolution is granted there is an important step: the acceptance of penance. And this is where too many church leaders have missed the mark, and why Benedict's homily is so critical. For some reason, the idea of penance seems to have eluded some bishops. Some who were responsible for the shuffling around of abusive priests decades ago have died. But some church leaders--those still in office or retired--seem to have a difficult time grasping that real penance, an actual penance, a hard penance, is a necessary part of the process of reconciliation.
James Martin, SJ