The Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 4, paragraph 1430, on the sacrament of penance and reconciliation states:
Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outworks, ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance.
Right now, in the United States, ongoing revelations regarding sexual abuse in the Christian Church mean that we’d all better prepare our hearts – spiritually, individually and communally – as internal signs and external guides for who we are and what we are about; hearts with the courage of conscience to live and act in a Church and a country that is losing its bearings. Beyond moralism, beyond pontification on how others should live, we as Christians are compelled to examine our own hearts, learning or re-learning repentance; discerning and enacting the meaning and method of gospel penance.
Paragraph 1459 of the Catholic Catechism adds:
Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover . . . full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he[she] must ‘make satisfaction for’ or “expiate” his[her] sins. This satisfaction is also called ‘penance.”
Many Protestant communions avoid catechisms for sola scriptura (scripture alone), so you’d think we’d at least have taken the Apostle Paul seriously when he described the global gospel message he preached “in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance” (Acts 26:20). Instead, we’ve frequently watered down repentance with cheap grace, replacing perseverance of the saints with once-saved-always-saved indulgences.
“Sex abuse accusations and cover-ups against other pastoral and denominational leaders reflect similar failures in multiple American Protestant communions.”
A longtime Baptist friend says that our Protestant-revivalistic-evangelical tradition often proclaimed: “Come forward and repent, then go home all washed and clean for Sunday dinner. . . you can move on without missing a beat.” He notes that our concern for instantaneous salvation consistently overlooked penance as a “time-period for regaining trust that involves, indeed demands, sackcloth and ashes.” Converting the human heart is a lifelong, daily calling.
Jewish scholar Barbara Binder Kadden says that “in Jewish tradition the heart is also the seat of all emotions.” She cites one midrash that references over 60 different emotions from the heart, with the idea that “the heart sees, hears, speaks, falls, stands, rejoices, weeps, comforts, sorrows…” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:16). Other students of Judaism suggest that the Hebrew word for heart, lev, lies at the center of human thought and spiritual life; “the heart sees and knows.”
Christianity follows mother Judaism in preserving the metaphor of the heart. As Paul wrote the Corinthians: “You are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (II Corinthians 3:3). In his Treatise on Religious Affections (1746), Jonathan Edwards observed: “we come necessarily to this conclusion, concerning that wherein spiritual understanding consists; viz. that it consists in a sense of the heart, of the supreme beauty and sweetness of the holiness or moral perfection of divine things.”
In America’s Theologian, Robert Jenson suggests that for Edwards, “the sense of the heart belongs to that ‘one thing’ that separates human beings from ‘brute creatures.’” Four hundred years later, it seems the jury is still out on that distinction.
“Rightly or wrongly, directly or indirectly, all churches in this country are affected if not tainted by these developments.”
The term “brute creatures” comes to mind in our individual and collective failure to listen to women who have been abused, and the refusal of Catholic hierarchy to listen to boys and girls cruelly abused by those supposedly ordained by Christ to care “for the little ones.” Meanwhile, the mandate for responding to those abuse victims came, less from the Church – Catholic or Protestant – but from the “secular world” in the press, the #Metoo Movement, and a Pennsylvania Grand Jury that issued its 800-page report documenting over 300 abusive priests, multiple cover-up bishops, and more than 1,000 abused boys and girls.
“No one listened to us,” abused men and women cried out across decades, while their lives were being torn apart. The documentation of such long-present abuse gained momentum in the Boston archdiocese in 2002 through the work of The Boston Globe; the 2018 report deepened the depth and the horror of cases long overlooked or undermined. Yet its research on abuse applies to only one state.
Protestants aren’t immune. Recently the entire ministerial staff and board of elders of the Willow Creek Church in Illinois, a flagship mega-congregation, evangelical to the core, resigned with apologies for their failure to heed reports of women abused by their founding pastor. Willow Creek leaders also acknowledged payment of $3.5 million to settle two cases in which disabled young men were abused by a layman who volunteered to work with children. Sex abuse accusations and cover-ups against other pastoral and denominational leaders reflect similar failures in multiple American Protestant communions. No wonder Americans are deserting religious communities in droves.
We Protestants “have frequently watered down repentance with cheap grace, replacing perseverance of the saints with once-saved-always-saved indulgences.”
Rightly or wrongly, directly or indirectly, all churches in this country are affected if not tainted by these developments. We must all work hard to regain discerning, tender and, yes, repentant hearts, a renewed sense of penance that will require more than a spiritual quick fix. Internal transformation requires external action.
The New York Times quotes Catholic abuse survivor Marie Collins who responded to Pope Francis’ confession of “shame and repentance” by insisting: “Statements from Vatican or Pope should stop telling us how terrible abuse is and how all must be held accountable. Tell us instead what you are doing to hold them accountable. ‘Working on it’ is not an acceptable explanation for decades of ‘delay.’”
An elder at Willow Creek Church acknowledged that the sins of their founder/pastor “were beyond what he previously admitted on stage . . . We believe he did not receive feedback as well as he gave it, and he resisted the accountability structures we all need.” One of the Church’s historic and continuing sins is just that, failure to receive the same moral “feedback” as we were dishing out. That’s where penance comes in.
I wonder what would happen if the Roman Catholic Church, and Protestant churches as well, responded to failures in the sexual abuse crisis by declaring:
Our witness is so broken, our actions so heinous that we can no longer claim to be the arbiters of Christian morality in the public square. As a sign of public repentance, we will tend our own hearts for at least 5-10 years before claiming moral authority in church and society. We cannot pontificate about immorality in others while we have spent decades perpetuating abusive moral behavior and covering it up. We’ve already paid out billions of dollars in settlements, but we’ll mortgage the Body of Christ to the hilt if need be. Penance comes at a price.
Might that be what the Catechism calls an appropriate “visible sign” of gospel humility and penance?
In The Cost of Discipleship (Nachfolge 1937), Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that Jesus “held that the only way to safeguard the gospel of forgiveness was by preaching repentance. If the Church refuses to face the stern reality of sin, it will gain no credence when it talks of forgiveness. Such a Church sins against its sacred trust and walks unworthily of the gospel. It is an unholy Church, squandering the precious treasure of the Lord’s forgiveness.”
Eighty-one years later Bonhoeffer’s words sound tragically contemporary. “Stern reality,” indeed.