Swimming the Tiber 38: The Human Right

Last time, I talked extensively about how contraception sinfully controverts God’s will for married life. Two posts before that, I talked about the importance of keeping our children safe as a society. I have talked about the urgent necessity of baptism, too.

It should come as no surprise to anyone, then, that I oppose abortion in all its forms.

This wasn’t always true; like many people, I didn’t give it much thought. I was opposed to abortion on the face of it (“Yeah, that’s bad”), but when prompted about situations of rape, incest, and danger to a mother’s life, I said, “Well, those are probably okay, I guess.” But my Catholicism has cleared my thinking on this issue.

The past 44 years have seen innumerable arguments on the subject. Being against abortion or not did not always follow the political divide (the deciding Supreme Court had four Nixon appointees, one Johnson appointee, one Kennedy appointee, and one Eisenhower appointee–that’s 5 / 7 Republican nominees, folks), but somewhere in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Republican party took a stronger stance against abortion, prompting the Democrat party to do the reverse. (Democrats for Life are a thing, but they are not necessarily welcomed by some party leaders.)

There are good (read: well-crafted) arguments for abortion, and there are bad arguments for abortion. There are probably arguments for abortion that I haven’t heard, because it’s typically a debate I try to avoid. (As a Catholic, my opposition to abortion is so absolute that even Republicans and evangelical Protestants think we go too far. It makes for a difficult conversational environment.)

Let me quickly run through the bad arguments for abortion that I have heard, with simple rebuttals.

It’s Just a Clump of Cells

This is plainly false. This argument suggests that a fetus is like cancer or that weird wart you had to get lasered off. Even a rudimentary understanding of biology makes it clear that a fetus is a unique organism, with its own unique DNA. As a unique organism with human DNA, that makes it a unique human. The “it’s a clump of cells” argument falls flat immediately because it’s factually wrong. (This is still true even if this new organism becomes multiple organisms through twinning; the uniqueness of the zygote is absolute.)

The Presence of the Fetus Is Invasive

It can certainly seem that way, I suppose, when you believe entirely wrong things about sex. If you think, as many do, that sex is for fun alone, then the sudden, unexpected appearance of a child will seem unfair and/or invasive, like a squatter in your real estate holdings. But of course that’s not what’s going on; we already know that sex should only occur in marriage and that one of the purposes of sex and marriage is procreation. A proper understanding of sex alone disproves this argument.

Besides that, the biology of procreation is still against this. A new human organism is made up of two parts in the initial zygote: an egg and a sperm. The egg is a part of the woman’s body designed for reproduction and was already present there; the sperm, with one notable exception that I’ll get to in a moment, was invited in by the woman. The result cannot be invasive unless the constituent parts were; any time they were not, the invasive argument doesn’t fly.

The Burden Is Entirely on the Woman

When this is the case, it’s tragic, but bad circumstances alone don’t justify anything. This is a non sequitur. What does a deadbeat dad have to do with the price of tea in China?

A Fetus Is Only Human Once It Is Viable

This is often coupled with the “clump of cells” argument above, and falls flat on that account, but there’s another reason this argument is no good: viability is a moving goalpost. The age of viability was much, much later 100 years ago than it is today (as of this writing, at least one child born at 21 weeks 5 days has survived past infancy, barely half of full-term). As technology and medicine improve, the age of viability will continue to go down. How could it be that a 24-week-old is a human today, but was not 100 years ago, and an 18-week-old is not today, but will be in another 100 years? Either they are or they aren’t.

A Fetus Is Only Human with a Heartbeat/Brain Function

Rudimentary organs exist at 8 weeks gestation (about 6 weeks after conception on average, since gestational age is typically counted from last menstrual period). The circulatory system comes first, such that a heartbeat can be detected by 6-7 weeks. Electrical brain activity is detectable around 12 weeks and regulates somewhat later than that.

Ignoring that this depends entirely on the “clump of cells” argument as a baseline, is there supposed to be a specific time or stage of development, which changes very slightly with every unique organism, or just whichever one is most convenient?

No One’s Forcing You to Get an Abortion

No one’s forcing me to rob banks or kill people or cheat on my wife. No one has killed me or cheated on me (full disclosure: I have been burgled). But I oppose those actions on principle because I want to protect the victims, regardless of their identity. My concern is not, “You’re doing bad things, how dare you,” but, “Unique human beings are dying and I want it to stop for their sake.”

Abortion Is Necessary to Prevent Poor Quality of Life

This is ridiculous on the face of it. It presupposes that suffering is worse than death. I have not written directly on the economy of suffering in Catholic thought, and I won’t get into it here (it’s a post in itself that I may get to eventually), but we know that suffering is a part of life (as a result of sin). This claim that suffering is worse than death is an extension of the modern tendency to value pleasure more than any other good; if something is not pleasurable, it should not exist. But even in practice, we do not behave as if this were true. We go to work, and even when we enjoy our jobs, it is still work and not always pleasurable. If we follow this line of reasoning to its natural conclusion, it suggests that we should kill everyone for fear that they may at some point suffer.

After all, there is no guarantee of particular suffering; there is a nonzero occurrence of false positives in prenatal testing for various syndromes and disorders–but many people take the results of these tests as absolutes. Even then, some conditions that people call “poor quality of life” (such as Down’s Syndrome) are not suffering. They have challenges, and they are not always happy, but this is true of everyone; we call it “poor quality of life” because their challenges are different from ours. And to think that you may somehow save them from these challenges by aborting them!

What logic is there in suggesting that we should kill ourselves for fear of dying?


You may disagree, of course, but I find those to be the weakest arguments for allowing abortion. They’re easily refuted, and it’s not even a question of religious opinion, but simple logical and/or scientific facts. But there are some arguments in favor of abortion that have a little more backbone.

Children Conceived by Rape or Incest Are Invasive

Ignoring for a moment that rape and incest account for less than 1.5% of reasons for obtaining an abortion, let’s examine the argument on its own merits. (After all, I don’t want abortion to be used under any circumstances.) The argument goes that, because the sperm was uninvited, then the child was uninvited. This is, at least, factual.

It is not, however, sufficient. The argument goes that the child is somehow party to the crime of its male parent and is therefore culpable, but this is not factual (the child has no awareness of its origins and made no choice about its own conception). This argument relies heavily on denying rights to the child. Not even a kangaroo court will condemn a man to die without first claiming some crime, however false that claim may be. But the unique human organism conceived as a result of a crime is deemed guilty and executed without any court at all. (For the Biblical argument here, see Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18:4, 19-20.)

Then the argument turns to the trauma of the victim (i.e., the woman who was raped). It would be evil, one supposes, to visit another trauma (pregnancy and childbirth) upon a woman who had just experienced trauma (rape); it would be evil, one supposes, to subject a woman to hardship who had already undergone hardship. But the way a woman handles trauma depends very heavily on her individual psychological state, so these blanket statements are not useful (in the same way that the reverse accusation–that abortion is traumatic for a woman–are not entirely useful). Anecdotally, you will always have counterexamples; scientifically, Surgeon General Koop (who did not find “no evidence” of the harm of abortion) found that every study he had access to was created with a preconceived notion about abortion, and the politicization of the issue had resulted in no reliable studies altogether. Both sides continue to cite studies in the same vein, while denying consistently that there was any possibility of bias.

Anecdotally, there is also the possibility that carrying the child to term will be restorative and, even if the woman gives the child up for adoption, it will provide better closure than an abortion. Anecdotally, the reverse can also be claimed.

In this case, then, the argument for or against traumatic experiences cannot be made. Yes–rape is more traumatic than I will ever know. Yes–pregnancy can be very difficult, especially when you did not want it. But the argument for abortion insists that a human life must be taken in an attempt to alleviate the suffering of its mother; the argument against abortion insists that a human life must be allowed to live in the same attempt. As for me, I will take the road that sees more people live; this argument is like the trolley problem, but on one track lies one person and the other track is altogether clear of people. The trauma of the victim of rape is a constant regardless of which track is chosen.

Human Rights Are Not Innate

This argument disregards natural law and presupposes that the rights of individuals are granted not by a Creator, but only by the government. By this argument, there are no natural rights, but only legal rights. The right to life, then, is granted when the government says it is; through Roe v. Wade, the government has deemed that the legal right to life does not begin at conception. By that merit, abortion is legal.

I grant that this argument holds weight among those who disregard natural law. Since the government, by its nature, also disregards natural law, this argument is why abortion is legal in these United States.

But natural law is determined by nature, and it is from natural law that human laws are derived. I lack the philosophical background to argue for natural law in full depth, so I will not attempt to. Let it suffice to say this: Natural law is the law under which we are bound simply by existing because of the way the world works. Those who disagree, from what I have read, generally follow either Hume (claiming that you cannot derive ought from is, which presupposes that all rights are granted by some authority and are not innate to creation) or Sartre (as rational beings, we are absolutely free and under no laws whatsoever, which is itself a natural law). Read more from Catholics, Wikipedia, and John Locke (for the basis by which our country’s Founding Fathers made this claim of self-evident truths). See Romans 1:18-23 for a relevant Scripture passage.

As for me, I do not trust the government. Governments, by and large, become corrupt over time, seeking their own good. Knowing that natural law is true, I will not cede the right to life to a collection of legal rights granted by a temporal authority, which may remove those rights as it sees fit (as nearly all governments have done in the history of our species).

Abortion is Justifiable Homicide

Of all the arguments for abortion, this one disturbs me the most. Most people (i.e., those who support abortion rights) do not make, even refuse to make, this argument. It allows not only that a fetus is human, but also that, as a human being, it may have natural rights, such as the right to life–but that those rights may be abrogated by the decision-making power of its mother. The argument goes that there are circumstances which allow the mother to unilaterally determine whether her fetus will live or die. I will get to the prime example of these circumstances in a moment, but supporters of this argument frequently allow poverty, suffering, and inconvenience to be sufficient reason for an abortion.

The danger, of course, is that this is a slippery slope. Once we deem that human organisms may be eliminated as inconveniences or causes of suffering, we enable ourselves to kill the sick instead of treating them, to kill the poor instead of feeding them, to kill the naked instead of clothing them. We would seek a utopia built on the bones of those we find unpleasant. This is as opposed to Christianity as any philosophy can be.

Abortion is Necessary to Save Lives

This one comes up frequently; it’s also the primary argument that even some Republicans will use to support abortion (along with, slightly less often, cases of rape and incest). It goes like this: when the life of the mother is in danger, abortion is permissible.

This sounds reasonable on the face of it, but from a Catholic ethical perspective, it isn’t. It also doesn’t clarify what “in danger” means to any degree, so this is frequently used to justify abortions where both mother and baby would have turned out fine. But even when that isn’t true, the most ethical position I can think of is this: Work as hard as possible for as long as possible to save both lives; in the event that at least one life cannot be saved (i.e., trying to save both will mean losing both), treat it like a triage situation and work to save the most viable.

People often refer to the principle of double effect when arguing for abortion here. The act of abortion, they say, does kill the baby, but it saves the mother, which outweighs the cost. This is not an appropriate use of that principle. Double effect does apply in some situations like this, but not all, and never to a distinct act of abortion. The first requirement for the principle of double effect to apply is that the act itself must be either good or morally neutral; an abortion is inherently evil (by taking a human life), so it does not qualify. What does qualify, for example, would be a salpingectomy (the removal of a Fallopian tube) during a tubal ectopic pregnancy; in that case, the child cannot survive to viability and attempting to allow it to do so would kill both it and its mother. Removing the Fallopian tube is a neutral moral act (which could be done to combat cancer, for example), but it has the double effect of killing the child and saving the mother, which is morally better than the alternative (allowing them both to die).

The difference may seem moot, but from an ethical standpoint, it’s justifiable, whereas abortion is not.

If you came here looking for a fight, I’m sure you still disagree. But my point in going through this incredibly divisive and difficult issue is this: Think about why you believe things. I never thought about why I was against abortion generally but okay with it under vague circumstances. When I thought through the arguments, and applied the wealth of knowledge and tradition in the Catholic Church, my faith and my ethics came into alignment and became clear.

Next time (hopefully next week), I want to address an issue that many non-Catholics bring up in opposition to the Church: “I talked to a Catholic and they didn’t know the Bible or good behavior or the movement of the Spirit or anything! Why would you want to join a church like that?” To find out, keep coming back for more.

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Swimming the Tiber 35: A Serious Issue

Up to this point, most of my posts have included a humorous undercurrent (or at least I like to think so). I’m going to do my best to avoid that this time around. I need to spend a short post to talk about something very serious and recent when it comes to accusations against the Catholic Church: the clerical abuse scandal.

To be honest, I planned and wrote this post before Cardinal Pell was recalled to Australia to face charges on multiple counts of sexual assault of a minor while he was a seminarian (Victoria semi-recently lifted the statute of limitations on child abuse). I didn’t think this would be so completely topical, but suffice it to say this: If he is guilty, may justice be done to bring the victims as much peace as is possible, and if he is not guilty, may justice likewise be served by the dismissal of this case. But now let us return to this regularly scheduled post.

Between the 1950s and today, thousands of people in the United States, and more worldwide, have accused Catholic priests of sexual abuse of minors. In many of these cases, the allegations were known to Church officials and were not dealt with properly. Since then, a number of investigative reports have been released and the widespread problem has been brought into view.

There is no defense for this. There is no justification. There are two things: (1) to know why this happened (so we can prevent it in the future), and (2) to determine whether the Catholic Church is safe for my children.

Question 1 has been given fairly extensive study by Rome, by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), by the media, and by the public in general over the last 20 years. The problems were manifold, but I will try to summarize.

  1. Priestly sexual abuse of minors was not known to be widespread. Individual bishops in individual dioceses handled allegations against priests without much discussion among those bishops. This allowed the problem to continue relatively unchecked without an organized effort against it.
  2. Common medical opinion suggested that child abusers could be treated, cured, and returned to society. Although opposed early by some, there was a general idea at the time that men who abused children could, like alcoholics and drug addicts, be corrected and returned to ministry. This was obviously an incorrect assessment, and repeat offenders were allowed to access children again and continue their abuse.
  3. Some cases were specifically covered up. There have been anti-Catholic arguments that the Pope himself is personally responsible for every abusive cleric (he isn’t–see above about how these cases were handled generally), but there really were bishops who covered up abuse in their dioceses–again allowing repeat offenders to continue their abuse. This is unconscionable.

There have been other explanations by other people, but these seem to me the salient points.

Now to question 2: Is the Catholic Church a safe place for my children? The short answer is, “As safe as anywhere else, if not safer.”

In the first place, the Church has done a remarkable job of turning this around. They have acknowledged the problem and apologized for it, but more than that, they have taken steps to avoid it in the future. Every priest is evaluated closely for these tendencies before being put in a position. Educators, teachers, and anyone who looks after children (at, say, Sunday school or a church retreat) must undergo education, not only about the evils of abuse, but about how to spot signs of it in children. Children are likewise educated in Catholic schools. Every volunteer, paid employee, and seminarian undergoes background checks. Of course, every offender engages in a “first-time offense,” so background checks are not always productive. To avoid point 1 above, these investigations are taken not merely to the diocese but to Rome. Substantiated allegations immediately result in the laicization of the priest (defrocking, i.e., removal from the priesthood).

There are still problems, yes. Rome has a backlog of cases to investigate, for example. Priests, of all people, are called to a higher standard, and we should like to think that this would never happen at all. But remember that the Church has both sinners and saints in her ranks; some of the chaff are evil indeed, and we must be wary. Child molesters seek out places where they have access to children; the Catholic Church has many schools, but so does the government, and there’s no indication that priests are more likely to abuse children than others in similar positions of authority over children, whether at Protestant churches or in public or private schools.

Anecdotally, I taught at a public school for one year. In that time, a (female) special education teacher at the same school I taught at was fired after being charged (and later convicted) for sexual abuse of minors. I didn’t know her personally, but the number of children abused by adults in schools is staggering and should not be taken lightly just because there is greater media focus on churches.

Which returns me to my short answer to question 2 above: The Catholic Church is as safe as anywhere else, if not safer. The spotlight on the Church and her focused efforts and increased cooperation seem to me to make her even safer than, say, educational institutions with very little oversight. I fully intend to keep a wary eye over my children and to educate them thoroughly as I am able, especially as they get old enough to spend time in educational settings. That goes the same whether they are in a CCD class at the local parish, a parochial school, a private school, a public school, or with a tutor. “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance,” said John Curran (not Thomas Jefferson), and that applies to our free will as well as to our democratic liberties. It is our duty as parents to contend with the world on behalf of our children, as our heavenly Father does for us, and that responsibility does not end in even the safest place.

There is one more question that some will ask, though I do not: Doesn’t a scandal of this magnitude, from even your bishops and cardinals, prove that the Catholic Church is false and corrupt? The short answer is no. The medium version (I haven’t time for a lengthy one) is this: If we abandoned the Church every time one of her leaders was a sinful man, this whole Christendom thing never would have gotten off the ground. The objective Truth we find in Catholicism does not depend on the moral standing of her clergy (praise the Lord!), but rather upon the divine Word, who said that the gates of Hell would never overcome his beloved Church.

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Swimming the Tiber 28: For All Have Sinned

For [there] is not a distinction, for all [men] erred [on a particular occasion] and are behind the glory of God, being justified as a gift by his grace through the ransoming in Christ Jesus; which God set out as propitiatory through faith in his blood unto a demonstration of his justice, on account of the dismissal of the failures(errors/faults/sins) that came before, in the forbearancelit. holding-back of God, towards the demonstration of his justice in the present time, in order that he may be just and justifying the [one who lives] out of faith in Jesus.

– Romans 3:22-26 (my translation, simplified)

I have simplified my translation of the above passage because, frankly, rendering it like the original Greek may be informative, but it’s also confusing. My aim here is to clarify, not obfuscate.

Before I started looking closely at Catholicism, I had never heard this doctrine about Mary, but it’s possible some of you have. In addition to being born without original sin, remaining virginal throughout her entire life, being the worthy queen mother of the King of Creation, and indeed being the very Mother of God, Catholic doctrine holds that Mary never committed personal sin in the course of her life.

Like me, you are probably quick to reply with Romans 3:23 above or Ecclesiastes 7:20 or Psalm 143:2 or Galatians 3:22. “Scripture clearly indicates that all have sinned!”

Well, let me ask this: Did Jesus sin?

Before you answer, remember your Christology. Jesus is fully God, yes, but he is also fully man, meaning that if statements about “all men” are absolute and without exception, then he is included. But of course Jesus did not sin, despite being tempted in every way just as we are (Hebrews 4:15).

Now that we have established the prime exception, let’s look at the secondary one. Ecclesiastes 7:20 can be safely cleared, first, because it was true when it was written, and because the phrase “on earth” (like “under the sun” elsewhere in Ecclesiastes) reinforces that such things are impossible without God. Psalm 143:2, likewise, was true at the time, and in that psalm, David is asking the Lord to do exactly as Paul says in Romans 3. Galatians 3:22 depends on the verse immediately before it, which frames the statement in terms of the law: “Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law.” (NRSVCE) This is the context in which all are imprisoned under the power of sin: exactly what Paul says in Romans 3:19-20.

So let’s focus on the Romans passage, since it seems to be the hinge on which this whole question swings. Like classic exegetes, let’s look at each phrase to determine the meaning of the whole. Before we do, it may be beneficial for you to refresh yourself on the concepts of soteriology, which I discussed at length early in this series.

  • For there is not a distinction. Jews and Greeks are on equal footing. Knowing the law of Moses does not help you. Sacrificing at the temple in Jerusalem does not help you. The justice of God is available to all equally, and its necessity is obvious to all.
  • For all [men] erred. “All” is masculine, but collective. All men are all people. Everyone commits discrete acts of sin (presumably, excepting any exceptions, like Jesus). The aorist is used here, though a translation in the perfect sounds more natural (“all have sinned”) and is frequently used instead. The tense provides that sense of discrete acts, which is what clearly distinguishes this from original sin.
  • And are behind the glory of God. This is often translated “fall short,” but I retained a more literal translation because it recalls Romans 3:9, not to mention 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 and 2 Timothy 4:7. The point is that, though we try to win, we lose the race when we run it alone.
  • Being justified as a gift by his grace through the ransoming in Christ Jesus. Our justification is a gift by the grace of God (see the rest of Psalm 143). We are released from the bindings of sin because God freely gives this to us, specifically through the atonement of Jesus’ death on the cross.
  • Which God set out as propitiatory. God gives his grace, our justification, to reconcile us to himself.
  • Through faith in his blood unto a demonstration of his justice, on account of the dismissal of the failures that came before, in the forbearance of God. In short, faith grants us access to this justification, because the blood of Christ acquits us of sin at God’s discretion. This we already know from our examination of soteriology.
  • Towards the demonstration of his justice in the present time, in order that he may be just and justifying the [one who lives] out of faith in Jesus. This brings to mind verses like Psalm 71:10-13, where enemies of God’s people claim that he has abandoned them, but he proves himself and brings glory to his holy name. Note also that God is justifying the one out of faith, that is, the one who lives from faith or comes from faith; this suggests that he is justified not merely who assents, but he whose life reflects his faith.

Consider also that, when Jesus forgives sin, he makes a request of us: “Sin no more” (see John 5:14; 8:10-11).

We already know that God has given Mary a special grace to escape original sin. This passage in Romans suggests that it is God’s grace which frees us also from personal sin and makes it possible for us to obey the Lord and “sin no more.” We also know that Jesus’ atonement is retroactive (that is, it applies to the saints and holy ones who lived and died before Jesus did, such as the patriarchs–see Hebrews 11).

There should be no danger, then, in saying that God, by his discretion, could give Mary the grace not only to escape original sin, but also to resist temptation and avoid personal sin throughout her life.

“But why?” you may say. I certainly did. I argued, “Well, fine, maybe it’s possible, but what purpose could there possibly be in doing this?”

Well, remember what we’ve been talking about these past few weeks. Mary is, first of all, a vessel for the Lord God Almighty; should not such a vessel be holy and pure in God’s sight? But more than that, Mary is Jesus’ own mother, and Jesus never sinned–so we know he obeyed the commandment to honor his father and mother. What greater honor could he do her than to free her first from the shackles of sin in which we have all been enslaved?

Next week, we have one final topic about Mary before we move on; it should be less controversial than these, if for no other reason than it’s not unique to Mary. Look forward to an examination of the bodily assumption of Mary!

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Swimming the Tiber 18: The Sacraments: Confession

But all [these] things [are] out of God, the [one] having reconciled us to himself through Christ and having given to us the service of reconciliation, that God was, in Christ, reconciling to himself [the] cosmos, not reckoning to them their blunders, and having placed in us the word of reconciliation. On behalf of Christ therefore, [we] are ambassadors,1 as with God summoning [others] through us; [we] beg [you] on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. On our behalf, [he] made the [one] not knowing error [to be] error, in order that we may become [on a particular occasion] [the] justice of God in him.

– 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 (my translation)

“But we don’t need a mediator for confession!” you may say. “Requiring priests for the confession of sins was the old covenant (Leviticus 4), not the new!”

This is another one of those times where I’m going to talk about the ordinary and the extraordinary means of receiving something from God. Certainly, God can forgive any sins he wishes at any time, and indeed he does so–of that I am certain. But what is the proper means by which we obtain that forgiveness? Do we ask him directly, or do we confess to another?

When I was younger (and Protestant), I held pretty firmly to the “ask him directly” path. “Of course, only God can forgive sins!” said I. “Why even involve anyone else?” I was also given to understand that for the really big sins, I was supposed to take them before the church (meaning the local church, for reasons I was never clear on). But naturally, I had never committed any of those sins. (Remember, I was working under a faulty understanding of the magnitude of sins, not yet understanding the difference between venial and mortal sins.) And so I would sin, usually in private, and I would confess, always in private, and I would feel kinda sorta maybe a little better, but not really. The weight of my sins never quite left me, and the stain of my wickedness was never quite washed clean.

Which is not to say that my emotions are the proper judge of whether or not I was truly forgiven. Of course, I had to forgive myself, and I had to accept the mercy of God, whether I thought I deserved it or not. These are still true even now, when my confessions work quite differently. But my emotional state illuminated something that I didn’t really know before: when my confession is only between me and God, my reconciliation is only between me and God. Sin does not only separate us from God; it separates us from each other. It fractures the Church herself (2 Corinthians 2:5); it fractures our very souls. And as a Protestant, I had no means–at least no means I could see–that could restore a right relationship between me and other people. Could I go before the whole local church? I suppose so, but what could they offer that would restore me to the spiritual union of the Church?

Cue Catholicism, which has an ordinary means of acquiring reconciliation, not only between us and God, but also between us and the Church. It heals those fractures, and the balm of penance soothes our divisions. This ordinary means is called the sacrament of Confession, or Reconciliation, or Penance. (They’re all equally valid terms, often used interchangeably.) It’s called confession because that’s how we start it; we go to confess our sins. It’s called penance because that’s how we finish it; we pray or engage in charity or otherwise perform an act that restores what our first (sinful) act broke. And it’s called reconciliation because that’s what it provides to us when we are faithful and obedient in it.

Now, before you jump on my case, let me clarify something: God is absolutely capable of forgiving sins and restoring right relationship with his Church without involving anyone but you and him. Certainly he is capable of that, or else we wouldn’t have so many Psalms (like Psalm 32:5 or Psalm 51) and wisdom literature (like Proverbs 28:13; Sirach 4:26; 21:1) telling us how important confession is. We know that God has authority to forgive sins and his authority in this matter is absolute, or else the Jews would not have claimed blasphemy by Christ for his statements of the same (Matthew 9:2-3; Mark 2:5-7; Luke 5:20-21).

So why does the Catholic Church insist on this mediation through priests? Well, for one thing, Scripture makes it pretty clear we should confess to one another, and not just in silence (Proverbs 28:13 again; James 5:16; 1 John 1:9). But to whom should we confess? To everyone? Sometimes, yes (2 Corinthians 2:5-10). But to whom should we regularly confess? To those ordained by God and granted this authority by his Word (John 20:21-23), and those to whom they pass along that authority (recall the end of this post on the papacy, specifically the section on the succession of apostolic authority).

That’s what it means for “us” to have this ministry of reconciliation (see the quote at the top of the post): that the apostles (St. Paul included) had the authority to forgive sins, granted to them by God, which they granted to the bishops that came after them. Those bishops, in turn, granted it to the priests of the local parish. But recall again, from my post on mortal sin, that some sins are so heinous that they can only be forgiven by the Pope, and of course, Scripture is quite insistent that there is one sin that no one has the authority to forgive (Matthew 12:31; Mark 3:28-29; Luke 12:10).

Remember, priests are special in this forgiving business. They are the vicars of Christ (as I talked about in my post on the priesthood of believers), so the sacraments they perform are done in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ.” They are limited and finite and broken like the rest of us, but they have dedicated themselves to God, and so Christ works through them to forgive sins and work wonders on earth.

So what does this sacrament really look like? Confession and penance are fine terms, but how do they work?

Well, there is a standard form to confession. You greet the priest, request a blessing, tell them how long it has been since your last confession (this can help them select an appropriate penance, among other things), then identify your mortal sins by type and number (and your venial sins as accurately and completely as possible). The priest will provide instruction on what penance will restore your relationship with the Church, which you agree to accomplish, and then you say an “act of contrition,” a prayer that indicates your repentance and desire to follow Christ. If you miss those parts (i.e., if you don’t confess honestly, if you don’t do penance, and/or if you don’t repent), then any absolution given is not valid.

The opener is almost word-for-word what you see in movies and TV shows (“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; it has been X days/weeks/months/years/forever since my last confession”). We’ve already talked about how to differentiate and identify your mortal and venial sins. And the act of contrition is just one of several prayers you can memorize that focus on your repentance and desire to repudiate sin and follow God’s commandments. (Of course, you can also communicate those points–(1) I’m sorry, and (2) I’ll try to do better–without memorizing a prayer, but the act of contrition makes it easier to remember.)

Which leaves the “penance” part. What is penance? It depends on the priest and on the sins you’re confessing. Some priests always give the same penance–“Say a prayer for the sick of the parish.” Your job, of course, is not to question your penance, demand a heavier (or lighter) penance, or to try to do the priest’s job for him; your job is to obey, do your penance, and restore your relationship with God and the Church. Other priests will work in your sins–“Say these three prayers for yourself to grow in humility and love for your family, and for the driver that cut you off in traffic.” Some will work in physical penance–“Say the ‘Our Father’2 and spend the next three nights sleeping on the floor without a pillow.” If your sins are criminal, your penance almost always includes turning yourself in to the civil authorities and making appropriate recompense.

Whatever it is, penance is always a sacrifice–of time, of pride, of money, but especially of self. In this way, it restores our relationship to God and to others, because it forces us to return things to their proper order: Jesus first, others second, yourself last (J-O-Y, for those who haven’t heard the backronym I first heard about twenty years ago, but which my local pastor mentions almost every week).

Self-sacrifice is crucial to the whole process: First, we “examine our conscience,” that is, we identify our sins. During this process, we ought to be careful not to think of our sins too lightly; we cannot ask forgiveness for something we intend to keep doing under the presumption that God will keep forgiving us (Sirach 5:4-6). Second, we humbly confess our sins and beg God’s forgiveness, showing this humility by going to another person and being open about our sins (even if it takes some prodding–2 Samuel 12:12-13). Third, we accept our penance, obey God’s will, and work to restore what we have destroyed. Fourth, we must acknowledge the great gift we have been given by holding nothing against our fellows, but forgiving as we are forgiven (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:23-35; Colossians 3:13).

And in case you’re wondering, that whole “priests aren’t allowed to break the seal of the confessional” thing is legit. Many priests talk about not even remembering what was said afterward. And if they do tell tales out of school, so to speak, they are committing one of the few sins that only the Pope has authority to forgive.

Next week, I’ll be diving into the sacrament of marriage. This has a lot of political entanglements attached to it, but I’m going to try to focus on what God and the Church say positively about this sacrament and its benefits. (In a month or three, when I get to ethical behaviors in the Church, I’ll address some of the challenges of a holy marriage in modern society.)


Footnotes:
1 Literally, “Over Christ, therefore, [we] are elder,” but based on context, the “ambassador” translation is most appropriate. It is important to note, though, that this verb is closely tied to presbyter, a term frequently used for bishops.
2 You might know this prayer better as “the Lord’s Prayer.” Catholics name prayers after the first 2-3 words in them.

Swimming the Tiber 10: Judging Your Sins

Happy new year! I’m not going to talk about New Year’s resolutions, I promise. (Well, at least not outside that sentence.)

Last week, I talked about virtue and vice from the perspective of Catholic philosophy; the week before, I talked about how we are justified and, more crucially related to this topic, how sin and salvation interact. Please keep both topics in mind going forward.

When I was younger, I had a particularly egalitarian view of sin. Basically, I told myself that all sins are committed equal. Whether you murdered someone, robbed them, flipped them the bird on the freeway, or gave them an uncharitable thought, you had sinned, and that was all it took to condemn you (lacking God’s grace, of course). Nazis were on an even playing field with schoolyard bullies.

A simple logical appraisal tells us that this is ridiculous, but it cemented itself in my mind for a reason: it was a reaction against moral relativism. In a sense, moral relativism tells us not only that we can define “good” for ourselves, but more importantly, that there is such a thing as “good enough.” Secular philosophy says that if we’re mostly good, then that’s fine, and we can do a few bad things here or there (errare humanum est, am I right, Seneca?) without endangering our souls (or being “Bad People,” depending on the particular flavor of secular philosophy we’re talking about).

Even as I child, I knew that was hogwash; we can’t be good enough (that would make us practically Pelagian!), because that would invalidate the sacrifice of Christ, and that would make God not just extraordinarily cruel, but unjust. (After all, if we can achieve perfection and salvation without divine intervention, then Christ’s death was unnecessary, and in such a case, the execution of Christ as propitiation for sin is excessive rather than normative. In short, if we can choose not to sin, or if we can be saved in spite of our sin without repentance, then Jesus died for no reason.) So I said that all sins were equal, basically so that I could refute anyone who said that little white lies wouldn’t send them to hell.

But I didn’t make that conclusion from logic, I made it from convenience. Saying the first part made saying the second part easier, it didn’t make it truer. The former doesn’t prove the latter, and the latter doesn’t necessitate the former. Here’s what I mean: I can say that all sin is sin, and that any sin (whether the taint of original sin or the commission of any sin small or large) is enough to separate us from the presence of God, without once suggesting that genocide and mild deception are on the same level. And so I should.

Because obviously not all sins are equal.

But all sins are sins.

Which brings us to the main point of this week’s post: the Catholic concept of “mortal” and “venial” sins. Recall that two weeks ago I talked about the idea of losing our salvation through sin, that by sinning, we separate ourselves from communion with God. In the Catholic Church, sins are put into two classes: mortal sins and venial sins. Mortal sins are the big ones–the ones that cause that fall from the state of grace. Venial sins are the small ones–the ones that are bad, the ones that helped to condemn our souls in the first place, the ones from which we need to be purified, but that do not reflect an evil or unrepentant heart (just a frail human one). This is even Scriptural:

If someone sees his brother committing an errorlit. erring an error not toward death, let [the one seeing it] prayhere and throughout, lit. ask, and he will give to him [the one sinning] life, for the [ones] erring not toward death. There is error toward death; not about that do [I] say that [he] should pray.a purpose clause as a kind of indirect speech; literally, this sentence is something like “not about that do [I] speak in order that [he] may pray [about that]” Every injustice is an error, and there is error not toward death.

– 1 John 5:16-17 (my translation)

Let me be clear: classifying sins is not about judging people, just about judging sins. It’s okay to call yourself the foremost of sinners, but you shouldn’t go around saying it about other people. If a Christian is sinning openly, respond as exhorted by Scripture and the Church (Matthew 18:15-35; Galatians 6:1-10; cf. 1 Corinthians 5), but whether in the Church or out, final judgment is reserved to the Lord. (Again, as I’ve written before, the Church does not keep a list of “anti-saints” who are in hell, but does keep a list of saints who are surely in the presence of God even now.) Judging your sins is about examining your own conscience, so that you know what to confess and where to improve.

In fact, proper judgment of sins is crucial to a good confession. I will talk in more detail about the Sacrament of Confession/Penance/Reconciliation in a few weeks, but here’s the short version: since Christ gave the Church the authority to bind and loose sins (see Matthew 18 again), the Church engages that authority through private confession to a priest. In general terms, in such a confession, you should identify your mortal sins by kind and number, and your venial sins more generally (though as accurately as you can). This isn’t about doing “spiritual accounting” or keeping a detailed log, but it’s about identifying all the areas in your life where you are still broken and to what degree you are broken.

(By the way, I should note that these two classifications, “mortal” and “venial” are not the entire spectrum of sin severities; there are some mortal sins which are so heinous that a regular priest does not have authority to loose them, and even a few–five, last I checked, and most of those can only be committed by priests–where only the Pope has that authority.)

So how do you judge your sins? Well, the Church identifies sins as mortal if they meet the following criteria:

  1. The sin must be a grave (serious) matter.
  2. The sin must be committed with full knowledge.
  3. The sin must be committed with deliberate consent.

Grave matter is defined as the Ten Commandments, in short. Stealing, killing, committing adultery, etc. Grave matter has been more fully defined, especially in light of “modern” sins that may or may not have been spelled out in Scripture; there are a wide range of books that are useful for the examination of one’s conscience (i.e., the judgment of one’s sins). (I find this one very helpful, but there are even apps for that.) Full knowledge means knowing that something is a sin and doing it anyway (pretending not to know makes it worse). Deliberate consent means that it is a personal choice (claiming hardness of heart is not an exemption, but compulsion may be, in the determination of the Church). If any of these criteria are not met, then the sin is venial, not mortal.

For some more detail on these subjects, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1854-1864.

Next week, I’m going to drop all the sin talk and focus on one of the virtues–not one enumerated, nor one universal, but a virtue nevertheless: virginity.