Guilty as sin. An old American colloquialism. It is an expression I heard often when I worked in law enforcement in New Jersey for thirty years, before I became a catholic priest. A phrase that was tossed about by cops, attorneys, witnesses and even on an occasion or two- by a judge from the bench itself. Yes, several times- the defendant was “guilty as sin”.
What image does that condemnation conjure up? As egregious act worthy of the strongest penalty. An act so offensive, that whoever committed such deed, has violated all moral sensibility. The very fabric of the community is threatened to unravel. No doubt the person, “guilty as sin”, is going away for a very very long time.
But let us move from the courtroom to the sanctuary. After all, if one is “guilty as sin” perhaps a time confession is due. After all, the Scottish proverb—“confession is good for the soul.” Is it, or is it good for the church?
In his book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Bishop John Shelby Spong; Bishop Emeritus of the Episcopal Church, writes: “When we examine the history of the church, it appears that guilt- not forgiveness, has been at the center of ecclesiastical control. Guilt has always been the center of church power. A faith in life after death has been predicated on that guilt being alleviated, purged or one being punished eternally.” Such a viewpoint of the church, especially in earlier uninformed times, made the church herself indispensable. “Religious leaders throughout the ages,” Spong continues: “learned that controlling people’s behavior rested upon exacerbating these human feelings toward guilt and weakness.”
As a matter of accepted fact the church, speciﬁcally the Roman Catholic Church, designated Confession a sacrament; falling back upon the words of Christ- “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:23) Reﬂecting upon the word “confession” we come to understand this, as any dictionary will support, “an admission of guilt or sin.” Complicate the early position of the Roman Church by the Papal practice, which was extended to Bishops as well, of “special dispensations”. Wealthy or inﬂuential people could “buy” their absolution from the Church, thereby freeing themselves from condemning guilt and eternal damnation.
The Second Vatican Council attempted to heal this scar by shifting away from “Confession” itself and referring to it as “Reconciliation”; focusing the issue on penance and forgiveness. But I know many Catholics today— Roman, Old and otherwise, who still keep away from the Church because of these positions. They express emotions from anger to sadness. Even in our Mass, I am uncomfortable with the chest pounding: “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” Parishioners too, have shared this opinion with me. “Grievous” after all is deﬁned as “something serious or dangerously signiﬁcant.” For most of us, what could such sins be? Do we have murderers, molesters and mobsteres within our midst? Somehow I feel as if we have returned inside the courtroom.
For those of us within the Old Catholic Church International, I shall attempt to Champion an effort to remove this disquieting phrase at our Synod this August. Let us just leave it at “through my fault.” Sufﬁcient enough it to say, most things of consequence against us are somehow or another our own fault— by something “we have done or should have done.” Our general admission during the Mass covers this adequately.
We must step back and examine what is the message the Church is sending? Do we embrace the forgiveness of Christ, or do we maintain that unless contrition is made- the soul is still lost? We are after all human. Saint Paul reminds us that “all have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) How could anyone then hope to be above the grasp of the grave and sin. Bishop Spong has thrown us a life preserve: “To be human, we are by deﬁnition fallen from grace and in need of rescue. Jesus forgives anyone. Everyone. There is no limit to the forgiveness of God.”
In her book, T he Rites of Justice, Dr. Megan McKenna; Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Theological Union at the University of California- Berkeley, challenges the Church and it’s clergy to “revisit reconciliation. Not so much as something that must be done, as undone. To call upon a change of heart and mind.”
We must be willing to embrace and accept everyone. The Church must be prepared to forgive and receive everyone. Just as Jesus did. Without any predispositions and any ambiguities that anyone can be forgiven, as long as things are done a certain way- and the ﬁne print is read. Confession is nothing more then a trap set by the Church to ensnare the searching soul and keep the church in business.
Christ tells us himself: “My grace is sufﬁcient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
The very future of the Christian faith rests not on traditions of antiquity or a foundation of fear, but on forgiveness- without ﬁne print. Bishop Spong calls upon us “to reexamine and refashion how Christianity will be understood in our time.” We must come to understand that our hearts are open to God always. There is no place within us to hide secrets from God. In our “Open Table” Eucharist, we approach God without deceit or deception. We seek the love and forgiveness of God. Our Christ cleanses us. Our Christ forgives us. Let us live and make our lives a reﬂection of Christ, as compassionate and caring Christians, and embrace our brothers and sisters in the same forgiveness Christ graces us. (This founded in the Lord’s Prayer “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” (Matthew 6:12) This is not merely asking for forgiveness, but an understanding that we ourselves will be forgiven based upon the measure we use to forgive others.)
“Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11)
Father Wolf is a retired police officer in New Jersey, the pastor of St. Aelred’s Parish, and an Assisting Priest at Saint Miriam Parish and Friary in the Old Catholic Churches International.