+++ open letter +++
Dear Cardinal Burke,
I have a question, with an explanation I’ll try to keep short. It includes a question about Amoris Laetitia, but only tangentially.
The question: after the teaching of Pope Saint John Paul II on Penance and Reconciliation, which includes a revolutionary section on social sin, is the Church going to re-think and re-shape the way we go about celebrating this Sacrament, to incorporate his ideas into our life? For example, what does it look like to see the sin of inhospitality in our lives, and to repent and turn away from it, toward freedom to worship without fear?
I want to write about this for 10,000 words or so. I won’t! I’ll be as brief as I can be, and hope it’s still clear, not too gnomic.
1. John Paul II wrote: “Whenever the church speaks of situations of sin or when the condemns as social sins certain situations or the collective behavior of certain social groups, big or small, or even of whole nations and blocs of nations, she knows and she proclaims that such cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins. It is a case of the very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it; of those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference; of those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world and also of those who sidestep the effort and sacrifice required, producing specious reasons of higher order. The real responsibility, then, lies with individuals.” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 16) This is a careful description of the interface between social sin and personal sin. That is, when I see that my society is in sin, what do I look for in my own life? Here, I think, is an answer.
2. I have never heard of anyone going to confession and asking God for forgiveness for gravely evil silence or indifference. That is, I don’t think that JPII’s teaching has affected the way we celebrate this Sacrament – at least not yet.
3. I note that there are many lists of sins floating around, with much attention recently given to the “non-negotiable” sins (from Catholic Answers??). This list of “non-negotiables” includes euthanasia, which definitely is has blurry and negotiable edges – but that’s a distraction. The real problem here is that Jesus had a list too, in Matthew 25; and his list is not a part of the way we prepare for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. That’s a serious problem. If he has a list, and you have a list, and his list isn’t on your list, then your list is complete garbage.
4. His list is about sins of omission, like: you didn’t welcome strangers. St. Thomas Aquinas stated firmly that the sins of omission in Matthew 25 are indeed, in the categories of scholastic teaching, mortal sins. It seems to me that JPII’s list above does resemble the Lord’s list – not point by point, but in approach.
5. I note with great interest the reaction of the woman at the well to her celebration of reconciliation with Jesus. She danced off hollering, inviting people to check it out. It wasn’t just that she was free from shame, stepping away from something; she was free to love, racing towards something (someone). This does indeed look like the thing that Zechariah prophesied: “Blessed be the Lord, who has come to us and set us FREE … FREE to worship without fear!” That’s not about keeping cops away from the doors of our churches; that’s about drawing close to God as our Father, not as an angry and vengeful Judge.
6. I understand the guy in the back of the church beating his breast, bowed over in shame. He’s a model, contrasted with the holy-holy braggart who stands erect. Got it. But I think there’s a before and an after, and I think the dancing whore turned exuberant story-teller is the after-shot. We aren’t supposed to come out of an encounter with God feeling clean; that’s good too, but it’s not the point. We’re supposed to come out ready to change the world. Not just erect, but dancing. Free to worship, which means – true worship, that is, in the teaching of the prophets, means – caring for the poor, because we like them, because they look like God who is an extraordinarily beautiful person (to understate it, which is the only way we can state it).
7. It seems to me that the Sacrament of penance and reconciliation is indeed supposed to send us out ready to change the world. JPII said that it is sinful to “take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world.” So freedom from social sins should mean – in part, among other things – the freedom to embark on serious efforts to change the world.
8. I think that the whole tribunal apparatus, addressing sexual sins with a social machine that goes from parish to diocese to Rome, looks stupid in the absence of a similar social machine addressing social sins like inhospitality and war and racism. For sure, family life is fundamental. But American immigration policies since we brought the Chinese here to build our railroads has been deliberately shaped to smash families. America said to them: “Build our railroads through the mountains; but don’t bring your wife, here’s a whore; now we’re done with the work and with you, get out.” It’s ludicrous to separate family life from employment. Family life is fundamental to social life and spiritual life – fundamental, but not the whole story. Living with a second partner after a divorce may be “living in sin,” but so is institutional racism. So is a defense posture based on a gravely immoral determination to use weapons of mass destruction if “necessary.” Further, sexual sins may indeed be scandalous, but not uniquely so; other sins that include scandal are flirting with nukes, and treating whole groups of people with contempt.
9. If there’s a tribunal examining abuses of human sexuality, why not other socially relevant sins? I’m not eager to re-institute the Inquisition! But if we don’t have a social machine wrestling with the problems of SAC and the nuclear triad, of walls, of renewed Crusades, why do we have a complex social machine to wrestle with sex? The tribunals focus on problems that are not on Jesus’ list! If we can leave questions about repentance and turning away regarding structures of evil and social sins in the hands of parish priests, why can’t we leave marriage issues there too?
10. It seems to me – anecdotal evidence, no more than that – it seems to me that the people who care most about the work of the marriage tribunals and divorce and communion are often extraordinarily careless about social sins. I think this imbalance and division is an emergency in the life of the Church.
Do you expect that the teaching of Pope Saint John Paul II in Paenitentia et Reconciliatio, particularly the teaching on social sin, will lead to large and systematic changes in the way we understand and celebrate this sacrament? If so, will this change – possibly end – the whole marriage tribunal apparatus?
Respectfully yours in one Lord,