Wednesday, December 7, 2016


Posted by Tim

Our local debate over the nature of "forgiveness," and how said forgiveness should be applied to those who used their positions of power in our diocese to mislead the faithful - and in the case of sex abuse victims, physically and psychological damage them, might benefit from a review of the current controversy brought on by the pope's extending to priests the power to forgive the sin of abortion. 

Pope Francis initially extended this power to priests as a provision of the Year of Mercy, and now has extended it permanently. The decision led to quite a bit of confusion amongst Catholics because, and rightly so, we believed that priests (with faculties) already have the power to forgive sin, even the sin of abortion. 

So what was the pope talking about?

In short, the Church not only considers the intentional termination of life in the womb a mortal sin against the Fifth Commandment, it also considers it a crime with the penalty of automatic excommunication. And while any priest (with faculties) can forgive mortal sin (including abortion), the crime of abortion can only be absolved by a bishop. (The matter is quite complex as illustrated here.)

So while a person might be absolved of the sin of abortion (after a sincere confession), he or she would still not be able to participate in the life of the Church until the crime is also absolved, which, up till now could only be absolved by a bishop or a priest with the permission of a bishop. The pope's new decree essentially permits priests to both absolve the sin AND the crime without first seeking permission of the bishop. 

In the Archdiocese of Agana, there were not only "sins" against the faithful, there were crimes, and we do not even have to go to the sex abuse cases to make this claim. But before we go there, let us examine the different types of forgiveness.

First, only God (not us) can forgive sin. This remains the case in the Sacrament of Confession because the minister of the Sacrament forgives in the name of the Church by the power of God. (A priest is welcome to draw this out or better state it in the comments.)

Second, we have the ability to internally forgive those who have hurt us, intentionally or not, but this is NOT the same as forgiving sin. 

Third, there is the matter of public sin. The classic example is the lawmaker who advances legislation on matters the Church considers to be grave sin (i.e. abortion, euthanasia). Individual Church leaders may get muddled about this but the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made the Church's definitive position clear in 2004:
5. Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist. (Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion, General Principles, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, July 2004)
What gets even more muddled is how such a lawmaker, assuming a conversion of heart and sacramental absolution, comes back to Communion, since reception of Holy Communion is a public act and could contribute to the sin of scandal if his repentance is not as publicly known as his previous immoral advocacy. 

At the risk of sounding simplistic, a general rule is public sin requires public contrition. Reducing it to the lay level, if a husband is in a publicly adulterous situation and has a change of heart, he has a duty not only to privately confess his sin in the Sacrament of Confession, he has a duty to his wife and family, since his adultery was known to them and they were pubicly harmed by his acts, to recant his sin and ask for their forgiveness as well. 

Bringing this back to our local situation, the offenses committed against the faithful were committed by diocesan officials who abused the power of their offices. To what degree their acts were "sinful" and to what degree they are spiritually culpable, is not for us to decide. But what IS for us to decide is the extent of public harm to the local church and what must happen to make things right. 

To be continued

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