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Rev. James Martin, S.J. Headshot

Acts of Contrition: Why Real Penance in the Church Is "Necessary"

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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 the larger category, and that is what 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 had to 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 Catechism states, "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.

If someone confesses a grave sin in confession -- murder, for instance -- the priest does not tell the person, "Say a Hail Mary." Great sins require great penances. Why, then, have so few bishops done penances that fit the sins of failing to protect children and young people? As the Catechism teaches very clearly, "[The penance] must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed." And the "gravity and nature" of these sins is immense.

The highest-profile cleric to resign in the United States during the abuse crisis was Bernard Cardinal Law, the powerful archbishop of Boston. In the eyes of many in the Vatican, the cardinal was demoted. After resigning his influential post he went to Rome in ignominy. But in the eyes of most of the faithful (especially in Boston), his "penance" was slight: today he serves as chief priest at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, one of the city's grand baroque churches, and he sits on the Vatican's Congregation of Bishops. Sometimes the penance doesn't seem to "correspond" to the sin. (One exception was the Bishop John Magee, the bishop of Cloyne, Ireland, who resigned outright after the scandals hit his diocese, and apologized to victims.)

More disturbing are penances directed to the wrong people. Occasionally bishops will invite all Catholics in their diocese to commit themselves to a general period of communal penance in "reparation" for the sins of sexual abuse by clergy. Pope Benedict's recent pastoral letter to the Irish church mentions this. In addition to prescribing penances for the clergy and members of religious orders, the pope exhorts "the faithful" to offer their "Friday penances" for one year.

On the one hand, the idea of the whole people acting together, as one, is theologically sound. One of the central images of the church is the "Body of Christ." The church, unified as a body, rejoices and suffers together. Thus the crime of sexual abuse tears at the body of the entire church. But this theological approach, when applied in this case, is misdirected, even offensive. Why should the Catholic "faithful" (the laity) repent for anything? They were not the guilty ones. It would be as if a penitent entered the confessional, confessed his sins, sought absolution, and said, "Could you give the penance to someone else?"

Sometimes a bishop proclaims his faults publicly, in a letter or during a liturgical event. In March, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna and president of the Austrian bishops' conference, read out a dramatic statement at St. Stephen's Cathedral. "Some of us have talked about the gracious God," he said, "and yet done evil to those who were entrusted to them." These symbolic actions can help to heal (although the "some of us" is maddeningly vague). But they are not penances; they are confession. A penance goes further. One of my hopes during the past Easter season was this: during the Holy Thursday Mass, when the presiding priest washes the feet of 12 parishioners (imitating how Jesus washed the feet of the apostles at the Last Supper), bishops could have washed the feet of sexual abuse victims, as a pentitential gesture. But even this would be just a "symbolic" presence. A penitent in a confessional is not asked to do something symbolic but something real, something difficult, something that costs him or her something.

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, they have their priesthood taken away and are returned to the lay state) and, when convicted in court, 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 some psychologists may explain placing a man back in ministry only 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.

James Martin SJ is a Jesuit priest and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.