Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 28: The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, Part 2: Crisis

From its preparatory stage and then in the numerous interventions during the sessions, in the group meetings and in the final propositions, the synod took into account the statement frequently made with varying nuances and emphases, namely: The sacrament of penance is in crisis.

Agreement from me, though I think the crisis is a multifaceted one, and no single viewpoint–certainly no ideology–captures exactly what the crisis is.

That people do not avail themselves of the sacraments–any sacraments–certainly reveals a critical situation. Two centuries ago we had infrequent reception of Communion. It might be said that now, all the sacraments face an erosion of participation, even as Vatican II called for a more full, active, and conscious participation.

More from the 1983 synod:

The synod took note of this crisis. It recommended a more profound catechesis, but it also recommended a no less profound analysis of a theological, historical, psychological, sociological and juridical character of penance in general and of the sacrament of penance in particular.

We’ll note in the weeks ahead how much of this analysis made its way into this document, and how those insights have helped us in the intervening three-plus decades. Were the attempts at addressing this moment positive?

In all of this the synod’s intention was to clarify the reasons for the crisis and to open the way to a positive solution for the good of humanity. Meanwhile, from the synod itself the church has received a clear confirmation of its faith regarding the sacrament which gives to every Christian and to the whole community of believers the certainty of forgiveness through the power of the redeeming blood of Christ.

Pope John Paul II’s assessment, with which I don’t find myself in total agreement:

It is good to renew and reaffirm this faith at a moment when it might be weakening, losing something of its completeness or entering into an area of shadow and silence, threatened as it is by the negative elements of the above-mentioned crisis.

Three overarching negative influences:

For the sacrament of confession is indeed being undermined, on the one hand by the obscuring of the mortal and religious conscience, the lessening of a sense of sin, the distortion of the concept of repentance and the lack of effort to live an authentically Christian life.

This is, alas, the common substrate of all ages, and among all Christians from catechumens to bishops. Conscience is always beset by temptations. The curious counter-witness to a lessening of a sense of sin is that saints whom we would view as virtuous, themselves had a personal sense of sin that deepened the more deeply they delved into the spiritual life. I’d say that some people today have a strong sense of sin in some areas of modern life. In these, the Church hasn’t quite caught up.

And on the other hand, it is being undermined by the sometimes widespread idea that one can obtain forgiveness directly from God, even in a habitual way, without approaching the sacrament of reconciliation.

Perhaps the key bit here is distrust of authority, and part of the following observation we can place at the feet of even trusted confessors:

A further negative influence is the routine of a sacramental practice sometimes lacking in fervor and real spontaneity, deriving perhaps from a mistaken and distorted idea of the effects of the sacrament.

It is therefore appropriate to recall the principal aspects of this great sacrament.

And we’ll get to these in the days to come.

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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