Personal Sin, Shared Reparation

Mark Shea has an interesting post at National Catholic Register in which he answers a reader question which goes in part:

One of the priests at our parish spoke about the pedophile scandals and how we should confess our sins (and he said it like that – sounding like it implied we should as a group ask for forgiveness as Catholics for these terrible crimes) and seek forgiveness for allowing this to happen. Even though I think that these are horrible, awful, abominable events, and pray for both those who have been damaged by these sins, and as difficult as it is, those people who committed these sins, don’t exactly feel responsible for doing this myself so am having a hard time wrapping my head around repentance for the sins of others. I have sinned in a multitude of other ways but do I need to carry the burden of other people’s sins as well? Do I need to ask forgiveness for this myself? Are we supposed to ask forgiveness as Catholics even though we individually didn’t have anything to do with it?

Mark’s reply is worth reading in its entirety, but I think the key passage is:

It is a radical misreading of the Tradition to say that, for instance, you are somehow personally guilty for some sin committed by a pervert priest or negligent bishop. Don’t approach penance for their sins as though you must somehow feel guilty for crimes and sins you did not commit. Therefore, you also cannot and should not try to “repent” for sins and crimes you did not commit.

On the other hand, part of the nature of the Christian faith is that it recognizes the fact of human solidarity. You neither personally ate from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, nor handled the hammers that drove nails through the flesh of the Son of God. Yet, in some mysterious sense, when these sins were committed, we were all implicated in them. This is why it doesn’t do (as many Catholics have done over the centuries) to say that “the Jews killed Jesus” (with the convenient suggestion that I most certainly had nothing to do with it). The fact is, Jesus’ death occurred because we, the human race, killed Jesus—and therefore, by the miracle of grace, Jesus died for us all and now offers his grace to us all. It is in the awareness of our radical solidarity with each other and with Jesus that we can offer penance for one another.

I thought this was a particularly helpful way of explaining things.

Drawing it out a bit further, in development of the thinking I’d done on the topic of individual versus collective in earlier, it strikes me that one of the important things to understand here is that the groups within which we live out our lives (families ties, church ties, associative ties, etc.) may not be capable of committing sins as a group, but that the necessary reparation for sin does often carry through a group. This is because sin is not merely the violation of a legal code, but is destructive to the relationships that bind us together into communities.

Take this down to the most direct human relationship, the family. Imagine a situation in which it becomes known that the father of a family abused one of the children over a period of years. This is clearly a sin of the father — and it may be that the other members of the family never knew about it or had any ability to prevent it. Thus, they do not share in fault. But the relationship between the mother and the abused child, and the other siblings and the abused child will have been changed by the father’s sin. They can’t just ignore the fact that the sin occurred, and indeed they will need to make special efforts to heal their relationships with the abused member of the family. That is not because the whole family was at fault for the abuse, but rather because the experience of the child at the receiving end of the abuse was not merely personal but social — not merely “my father abused me” but “I was in a family where I was abused by my father”.

In our family of the Church, we now face a similar situation. Few of us shared any knowledge or culpability in the abuse which a small percentage of priests perpetrated, and yet our relationships with those abused, with each other, and with our priests have been changed by the fact that this abuse occurred within our family. That is why healing will require work towards reparation on the part of all Catholics (in different ways depending on our places within the Church) even though most of us hold no personal culpability in the sins themselves.

3 Responses to Personal Sin, Shared Reparation

  • “even though most of us hold no personal culpability in the sins themselves”

    I agree to that to a certain extent. But these Priest that offended came of a culture and society on many levels we endorsed or were silent about befor they even entered the Church. That is one reason why I sometimes find the timeline of abuse cases interesting. What was happening then that caused this

  • I had an physically abusive father and one of physiological tricks is to make the innocent feel guilty or responsible. It’s all your fault, why would anyone want this apart of their family? I believed that my sins is what contributed to the passion of Christ but false witness to my guilt would be a sin that convicted
    Christ.

  • Very good piece.

    I would go a step further though, because I am sure that more people knew about the abuses than we let on. I read a chilling account of an old monsignor warning a parish dad not to let his son on a fishing trip with Fr. Newpriest. The father explained to his disappointed son, “Father does bad things to little boys.” Neither the father nor the monsignor did anything actually to stop the priest though! I also know from the anecdotes of relatives that there have been priests that people – even many people in the parish – “felt weird” about, or thought they were “off” somehow. Of course, I do not expect people to go to the police over such intuitions… Still, it makes one wonder.

    I grew up and was an altar boy in a parish with a priest who is currently serving time in prison for child sexual abuse. He is serving time because, among other reasons, our bishop handled the case well. He never touched me, or any of my friends as far as I know, and I do not feel personally responsible for his sins.

    But I do feel responsible for having prayed so little for priests – even though I know that they are under constant spiritual siege, more so than most of us. I feel somewhat responsible for not having believed a friend of mine when we were kids and he told me that an older boy in the neighborhood invited him to sinful activity. I do feel responsible for being so materialistic, so hedonistic, so lax. I wonder whether, for all my ranting, I don’t bring down the body of Christ more than build it up.

    We have a lot of spiritual housecleaning to do here in the House of God – and that’s each of us, not just our bishops.

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