Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader asks:
My question is, and I am asking you in email because I just am not sure how to word it to pick-up the right stuff through site searches, how are we as Catholics (or Christians in general if that is a more correct way to put it) supposed to feel about sins that we have not committed? 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? I really want to be thinking right on this and am confused about it or maybe the language used is just going right over my head. I can be dense but am super confused about this and am sincerely trying to understand as the Church teaches. Even if we can offer acts of penance as reparation for the sins of others (knowing that everyone is a sinner, or even in the circumstance of offering reparation for those who have entered into a specific sin,) we can’t actually repent for anyone but ourselves can we?
The notion of doing penance for others is a tricky one, particularly when those others are fellow Catholics who have wronged us by their sin and especially when those others are, in fact, the very priests who have been entrusted with the Tradition that bids us to do penance for others. It’s incredibly easy for the guilty parties to use such things as penance as a sort of tool for dissolving their actual guilt for actual sins in a sort of collective pool of “Well, we’re all sinners” or even “Hey! You are to blame for letting me sin!” or some other blame-shifting nonsense. One of the common themes to emerge from the scandal has been that monsters like Fr. Maciel would indeed abuse their victims and then lay the guilt for the abuse on the victim. And depending on how psychologically strong the victim was, that burden of guilt would often be accepted. It is not the least of that man’s crimes and may God have mercy on his soul for it.
So it’s not too surprising that calls for Catholics to do penance for these sins often get interpreted as blame-shifting. However, I would submit that this is not, properly understood, how we who bear no personal responsibility for the Scandal should understand the call to penance. Penance does not mean “take the fall and bear the blame so that guilty people can skate or dissolve their sense of responsibility for the crimes in the Collective”. Penance is, in the Christian tradition, our participation in the innocent suffering of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. Our tradition tells us that Christ who knew no sin, became sin for our sake so that we might become the righteousness of God. He bore the sins of the world, but he did not commit the sins of the world. He was blameless, and opened not his mouth, says Isaiah. Similarly, in Christ, Paul declares that he fills up in his flesh what is lacking with respect to the suffering of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church (Colossians 1:24). That doesn’t mean “Jesus didn’t do enough so I have to make up for his well-meaning but inadequate effort on the Cross.” Rather, it means that as Christians, we bear the cross with Jesus and offer our innocent sufferings in union with His for the good of others—including others who are sinners as guilty as hell.
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. Such penance does not mean that some guilty cleric is saying, “It’s not my fault! It’s your fault!” It means rather, that as members of the Body of Christ in union with the innocent Christ crucified, we can offer our innocent sufferings and acts of self-denial and prayer so that the evil of these sins can be purged from the Church and the world. Our prayers and sacrifices, offered in penance, become sacramental, not simply isolated events that have nothing to do with the common good. Whether the sinner repents or not is not within your power to determine or make happen. That is between him and God. But whether you make an offering of your life in union with Jesus who said, “Forgive them” is within your power. And such offerings, accepted by God as fragrant sacrifices can be and have been powerful instruments of conversion for sinners. Nobody knew that better than Paul himself, whose conversion began with Stephen’s penitential offering of his very life for the men (including Saul of Tarsus) who were mad to murder him and for whom he prayed, “Lord, do not count this sin against them.”