The Pope's Call for Penance

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. 

Read the rest at Huffpost.

James Martin, SJ

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8 years 11 months ago
The Church instructs us: we are called to penance and reparation. When has Our Lady,in her apparitions, not implored us to dedicate ourselves to both penance and reparation ? Yet, in some ways, these concepts are foreign to our culture now. Instead, we seek punishment.

Conversations with God: Penance and Reparation @
8 years 11 months ago
I did not mean to imply that priests who abuse anyone should not be held to account by the law and the Church. I mean to say that we participate in the redemption of each other through reparation. We are our brothers' keepers...
Jim McCrea
8 years 11 months ago
"Almost certainly none of the erring bishops were evil men -"
To believe THAT requires a tremendous leap of faith.  Maciel was the equivalent of a bishop and he was evil incarnate.
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 11 months ago
"... the acceptance of penance ... real penance, an actual penance, a hard penance, is a necessary part of the process of reconciliation."
I think that this is well said and of utmost important.  Penance is not a hardship, but a privilege - a way for a person to atone for his sin and again be reconciled with the community.
This should also be the basis for our penal system.  Prison time as a way for a person who commits a crime against society can atone for the crime and re-earn his place again in the community. 
Unfortunately, the whole process of reconciliation is not fully understood or implemented.  The Catholic Church would be a very good place to start.  Sacraments are not just mysterious little rituals, but living springs of grace.
Vince Killoran
8 years 11 months ago
A great column. It reminds us to separate penance from "settling scores" without taking away from the need for real reform and justice.  Couldn't this "hard penance" be folded into the calls for a Vatican III?
Kate Smith
8 years 11 months ago
Jim, do you have any idea how I ask for a meeting with Fr. Nicolas, the Jesuit superior general?   Any chance you can find out?
We survivors of clergy sexual abuse by Jesuits (and other religious orders) are completely 100% left out in the cold.  Imagine it for a minute.
Bishops tell victims to see the religious order with allegations.   When an agreement about that is breached, bishops say see the religious order.
In my particular case (and perhaps many others), I was told to contact the papal nuncio also.  That is because the Jesuits (like many religious orders) shipped the perp over to Germany to preside at mass (after he was removed from ministry and had no priestly  faculties anywhere and the Jesuits said they would not ask for faculties).  The nuncio had no response.
Back to my question:   how does a victim arrange a meeting with Fr. Nicolas? Can you find out?
I hope this is not a question that stumps you.   Jesuits are soooo variable when it comes to pastoral instincts and abilities.  Since I've never heard it in the media, I couldn't figure it out on my own.
Kate Smith
8 years 11 months ago
P.S.  Fr. Nicolas has some people around him that don't help him, which you might already know.   Here's what I mean.  Using the e-mail contact information on the curia website, I asked where to mail a letter to Fr. Nicolas last spring.    Guess what response I got.  "We are not allowed to give out that information."    A mailing address???   Before I could even ask again, another e-mail came, with the info.  
I sent a letter in May 09.   I got a letter back in June 09, saying he asked the province to handle it.
I wrote back, said the province did not handle it.  And there was no response, and no response, and no response.   And no response.
If Fr. Nicolas is who the stories describe, he should not be afraid of people.  Hell, it's harder for me.  He should be able to listen to how the Jesuits mess up or do well in the US - and tell me how he sees it.
8 years 11 months ago
The opinions as to the need for penance are well taken. But it it more important that the Vatican Bureaucracy admit to faults. It is ludicrous for the Pope to point out the failures of the bishops of Ireland or any other country or diocese,  as if their ommissions and misdeeds were not in lock step with policies and procedures set for in Rome (i.e. Crimen Solicitationis)  In the Popes Pastoral Letter to Ireland, he states in part: 
''To my brother bishops It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations.''  One would have expected the Irish Bishops to rise up and say, ''but we were only following your policy to prevent scandal.''  Hans Kung's open letter to All Bishops, April 16th,  makes this point without mincing words.
Jeff Bagnell
8 years 11 months ago
Insightful post as usual.  The emphasis on penance reminded me of the startling message of the angel at Fatima, "Penance, penance, penance!"  And the angel was talking about all sinners, not just the ones in the Vatican.
8 years 11 months ago
The pope's words seem to be directed more at audiences than to those who were responsible for hiding these crimes, which allowed hundreds, maybe thousands of young people to be molested who would have been spared that horror - if only the bishops had done what was morally right instead of what they thought Rome expected of them.
So, the first thing the pope needs to do is put the charge where it belongs - these crimes are not the result of secularization or materialism in society; they are not the result of the people not praying enough or going to the sacraments enough; and they are certainly not the result of Vatican II.  The pope has blamed all of those things - but not the bishops themselves, nor the sin of clericalism and a structure that puts loyalty to Rome and the pope above loyalty to God and the gospel.  The pope says penance must be done - by whom?  If it is the bishops who were the agents of all this horror, why does he not accept the resignations that have been offered and demand more?
Why was Cardinal Law not given penance?  Instead he was given a prestigious basilica, a lifestyle that is the envy of most ordinary Catholics (who do not have servants, drivers, etc), and a position vetting new candidates for bishop.  This does not sound like penance for a man who actually thanked one of the worst sexual perverts in Boston history for his service to the church! 
Why were some of Cardinal Law's associates not given penances?  Instead, they were given their own dioceses.
I am among those who have ''deconverted'' (a term I first heard in another entry in this blog today) - because until the pope and the hierarchy honestly say that what they did was morally wrong and they will do penance - leave their comfortable and prestigious lifestyles to work with the poor, perhaps - there is nothing left to believe in in this church.
Molly Roach
8 years 11 months ago
Here again, I think we are getting lost in the difference between sins and criminal behavior.  Penance is all very well and good but let's remember that we have a penitential system that is personal and secret.   The abuse scandal in our church has long roots in all the personal secrecy.    Victims were "absolved" by their attackers. Framing penance as a way out of this is inadequate.  
david power
8 years 11 months ago
David Smith I envy you your calm and reason.Your tolerance and equanamity are way beyond me because I am an Irishman who has been reading about children being raped by Priests since he was fifteen.Cardinals ,years later, write letters congratulating bishops who shield the men who sodomised the children and are "delighted" by these actions.Truly I envy you. They felt that the reputation of the Church was worth the possible rape of a few children and you call them good men.I envy you.You are not Irish.You have never been sexually abused and had your faith torn from you.Cardinal Brady allowed himself to be put forward for the college of cardinals knowing that he had failed to stop Brendan Smythe who went on to rape about 20 more children after Brady was aware of what he was doing.Cardinal?Why thank you.You speak of healthy and appropriate which is beautiful ,so beautiful and positive sounding that I almost forget all the people hurting because of our Church at this moment.Innocent people who were not heard of due to a Church to busy being in Triumphant mode.I envy you.Have you ever met a victim of this abuse ?Of course I know the answer but hope that you would too. To recognise that we must do penance and place the victims first is not primitve ,it could even be called Christian.      


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