Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 18: The Loss of the Sense of Sin, Part 7: The Church

By now, you’ve likely gotten the idea that I think The Loss of the Sense of Sin would be more accurately described as a lack of a sense of sin. It’s not that I disagree with Pope John Paul II. I think the lack is a feature of human life in the mortal sphere. I don’t think any era is particularly better or worse than any other. I could be wrong, but in reading history, and considering the grave sins overlooked by people of great virtue in the world and in the Church, I think we’re better off focusing on our own lack–no need to compare favorably or unfavorably with any other era.

Even in the field of the thought and life of the church certain trends inevitably favor the decline of the sense of sin. For example, some are inclined to replace exaggerated attitudes of the past with other exaggerations: From seeing sin everywhere they pass to not recognizing it anywhere; from too much emphasis on the fear of eternal punishment they pass to preaching a love of God that excludes any punishment deserved by sin; from severity in trying to correct erroneous consciences they pass to a kind of respect for conscience which excludes the duty of telling the truth. And should it not be added that the confusion caused in the consciences of many of the faithful by differences of opinions and teachings in theology, preaching, catechesis and spiritual direction on serious and delicate questions of Christian morals ends by diminishing the true sense of sin almost to the point of eliminating it altogether?

The issue that had yet to come to pass as of the writing of this is certainly grave misbehavior of bishops, even to the point that the last three popes have each come under suspicion from various sources inside and outside the Church.

One confessor I knew pretty well honestly and seriously thought the people coming to the sacrament were too hard on themselves and bore scars of ill treatment–self-imposed or otherwise. Clearly, not every Catholic goes to confession these days. Perhaps it is the less active women and men who are giving themselves a pass on a sense of sin.

Nor can certain deficiencies in the practice of sacramental penance be overlooked. These include the tendency to obscure the ecclesial significance of sin and of conversion and to reduce them to merely personal matters; or vice versa, the tendency to nullify the personal value of good and evil and to consider only their community dimension. There also exists the danger, never totally eliminated, of routine ritualism that deprives the sacrament of its full significance and formative effectiveness.

Not mentioned is the warping of the sacrament to a juridical affair. Penance is a liturgy. Not a court. I would also agree routine ritualism is a problem as well. Small venial sins confessed more frequently than a month–I know some value the practice. This kind of routine seems better handled by form III.

The restoration of a proper sense of sin is the first way of facing the grave spiritual crisis looming over (people) today. But the sense of sin can only be restored through a clear reminder of the unchangeable principles of reason and faith which the moral teaching of the church has always upheld.

If no era is better or worse than any other, “restoration” may be a fruitless effort. The Holy Father counselled three things:

There are good grounds for hoping that a healthy sense of sin will once again flourish, especially in the Christian world and in the church. This will be aided

  • by sound catechetics, illuminated by the biblical theology of the covenant,
  • by an attentive listening and trustful openness to the magisterium of the church, which never ceases to enlighten consciences,
  • and by an ever more careful practice of the sacrament of penance.

None of these three are bad. Good catechesis is always a plus, even if it only retains effectiveness with people who are already committed to Jesus and to the Church. The second of these works when those giving witness to penance and sin are giving a demonstrably personal and credible witness.

A side note from the lay sphere: my wife and I were quick to admit when we were wrong in our relationship with our daughter. That wasn’t how I was raised. But the young miss, who can be a difficult housemate at times, is very quick with sincere apologies and a sense of having wronged others. I wonder if the lack of a sense of sin can’t be best addressed by parents with children in a spirit of humility.

As a liturgist, I have opinions about the poor quality of penance as a liturgy, especially in form 1. Greater care is certainly needed, especially if John Paul II’s advice to illumine the sacrament with biblical theology.

This document is Copyright © 1984 – Libreria Editrice Vatican. The link on the Vatican site is here.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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