Several years ago, during the question period following a talk I had given, I was asked a series of questions about morality, sin, confession, and forgiveness. I began my response with a few distinctions calculated to show how complex these questions were and was moving on to the next step, an attempt to give some answers, when one man present lost both his patience and his temper. He challenged me angrily:
“Father, why are you fudging around in answering this? You know the answer, every Catholic does! Sex outside of marriage, missing Mass on Sundays, these are mortal sins…and no theological or psychological distinctions can change that! You know too, only too well, that the Catholic Church teaches clearly, and has defined at the Council of Trent, that there is only one way to have serious sin forgiven, confession to a priest. To not say that clearly is to soft-peddle the truth!”
I was searching for a response to this challenge when a lady stood up and, shaking and nearly overcome with emotion, spoke for me: “This is not soft-peddling the truth. I believe that Father is saying…and I’ll tell you why. I had a 19-years-old daughter who was killed in a car accident two years ago. She hadn’t been going to church for over a year before that and she was living with her boyfriend. But she was a good girl, with a good heart, and nobody is going to tell me that she went to hell!”
Recently, at a diocesan conference on the sacrament of reconciliation, I had been explaining how reconciliation, like all sacraments, was a touching of the body of Christ and how, consequently, one could have one’s sins forgiven through touching Christ’s body within Christian community and within Eucharist. I went on to say that I consider the practice of confession a beautiful and important sacrament, one used by the mature….and how I consider the fact that many Christians today no longer practice it a bad sign. However, despite the value and importance of private confession, radically we can, and do, have our sins forgiven through living and worshipping within Christian community and especially through receiving the Eucharist.
Again, I was accused of soft-peddling the truth. The Catholic tradition, I was passionately informed, is that all serious sin can only be forgiven through explicit confession to a priest. I’ve been around long enough to know that this statement is generally perceived as, in fact, being the Catholic tradition on reconciliation and so I have had to think long and hard about this: Am I soft-peddling the truth? Doesn’t the Council of Trent clearly demand private confession as the condition for the forgiveness of serious sin? Is a certain theology of the Incarnation (upon which I base the belief that when one goes to Eucharist or participates otherwise in Christian community one is touching the hem of Christ’s garment and is thus being reconciled) faulty? Am I being influenced by some liberal consensus which, blind to all except its own ideological concerns, is trying to be a surrogate for truth?
These are valid questions, questions all religious teachers who know Christ’s warning about scandalizing little ones had better ask themselves fairly regularly. There are penalties for playing loose with the truth. But there are also dangers the other way, one can dangerously reduce truth. One can also soft-peddle the incarnation. Just as one can lack the courage to affirm hard truths because they demand things which go against the grain, one can just as easily lack the courage to affirm how incredible and far-reaching are the tentacles of the incarnation and how lavish is the mercy of God that is revealed in it. I doubt that any Christian who takes seriously what Jesus taught us about God would want to challenge the lady who claimed that, despite her daughter’s wanderings and her dying without explicit confession, her daughter was surely not in hell.
So what do courage and truth demand we say? That there is no forgiveness for serious sin outside of the explicit sacrament of reconciliation….or that Christian community and the Eucharist are the body of Christ on earth and that when we touch them with even a modicum of sincerity we are healed?
Do courage and truth demand that we take Trent’s statement on private confession to mean that outside of explicit private confession there can be, for any Catholic, no other means of reconciliation….or, do they demand that we take Trent’s statement in its proper context and with all its qualifications and affirm, in the name of Trent, that there are ways outside of explicit confession to have sins forgiven?
Do courage and truth demand that we teach that only Jesus can forgive sin and that, today, that forgiveness is dispensed only through private confession…or do courage and truth demand that we affirm, as does Scripture, that we do not replace the body of Christ, that we are not like his body, nor even that we are his mystical body, but that we are his body, flesh, blood, tangible, in history, the on-going incarnation, and that consequently when we forgive, Christ forgives; when we bind, Christ binds; when we console, Christ consoles; and when that woman loved and forgave her wandering daughter, Christ loved and forgave that wandering daughter?
In what does the greater danger lie…in soft-peddling confession or in soft peddling and reducing the incredible love and forgiveness that are revealed in the incarnation?