The Deacon's Bench

Could those familiar words of the Act of Contrition help the Church to heal itself?

Over at the Huffington Post, Fr. James Martin goes on at great length on the subject of penance, finally concluding:

What would a real penance look like? What kind of penance would “correspond,” to use the Catechism’s language, with these sins? Priests convicted of sexual abuse are laicized (that is, returned to the lay state) and spend time in jail. Those are grave penances (that’s why jails were formerly called “penitentiaries”) but are undertaken involuntarily. After serving time for their crimes, these offenders, no longer priests, should perform additional penances and spend the rest of their lives praying for their victims. Decades ago, some bishops considered cases of abuse primarily moral offenses and relied overly on the advice of those psychiatrists and psychologists who recommended placing the offenders back in active ministry. But that misguided trust in the advice of psychologists may explain placing a man back in ministry once. Those who moved repeat offenders from parish to parish cannot blame this on psychologists.

Thus, if those who have sinned expect real forgiveness from those against whom they have sinned, a real penance is “necessary,” as Benedict said — resigning from their posts, caring for the sick in hospitals in the inner city, working in a remote refugee camp, serving in a homeless shelter in a slum, or retiring to a monastery to pray for victims.

My point is not to proscribe individual penances. I don’t know who has sinned and who hasn’t; I cannot look into someone’s soul. (And I’m sure victims would have ideas for even stronger penances.) The point is that the hierarchy, seeking a way toward healing, has a spiritual resource that it overlooks at its peril. And that is the sacrament of reconciliation, instituted at the behest of Jesus Christ himself, and which lies at the heart of Catholic theology. And penance, part of that sacramental model, will help to begin to heal the serious rupture in the church.

But there is a difference in this case: the one who forgives. In the confessional the priest grants absolution in the name of God to the layperson. When it comes to these sins, it is the layperson who must grant absolution to those clergy who are seeking forgiveness.

You’ll want to read it all.

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