Church as a Communion of Sinners

Since it’s Lent, let’s talk sin. Sin in the Church.

We all know that the Church has an eternal and a temporal aspect. The Church, we say, includes the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory. The Church is also the visible, hierarchical, papal institution that we know. There are currently 23 churches that recognize Pope Francis as the earthly leader of the Church. The largest one is the Latin church in the West.

But we all know that Catholics sin. Day-to-day and structural sins. Inquisitions, crusades, corruption, sex abuse, Renaissance popes, hypocrisy, racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. These sins cause scandal in the Church; yet, we insist that individual Catholics (not the Church) are responsible for the evil.

But therein lies the problem. We want to identify ourselves with the communion of saints without acknowledging our membership in the communion of sinners. As a heavenly institution, the Church gives us access to grace. This grace is communicated in the sacraments and through the intercession of those who have come before us and who now enjoy Christ perfectly in heaven. What a blessing! But as an earthly institution, the Church is also a community of sinners. Everyone, from the pope to the laity, is a sinner. Although we normally claim that sin is never a private matter (hence the necessity of sacramental confession) we often talk about sin in the Church as if it is. “The Church didn’t burn heretics at the stake, misguided inquisitors hand in glove with the State did.” “The Church didn’t exclude African Americans through slavery and segregation, racist Catholics did.” And yet we know that capital punishment was used to suppress heresy for centuries. It was defended through a particular interpretation of Augustine’s Just War theory. We know that religious orders owned slaves and that it was once illegal for blacks to join the priesthood. All of these practices were condoned by the Church.

Christians, on pilgrimage to the City of God, exist in an ever-changing world. We are always in dialogue with the surrounding culture. Sometimes this dialogue is more like a screaming-fest, but the Church never exists in a vacuum. In each age, Catholics must decide how to live out the Gospel. Unfortunately, the Church has condoned acts in the past that later we recognized to be evils. As individuals, we are always learning from past mistakes and taking steps to repair the damage our sins cause. Why should the Church be any different?

I know too many Catholics who feel the need to justify the Church’s complicity in past and current evils. But as individuals, we are taught to acknowledge our sins, confess them, and seek to make reparation for the pain they have caused. The Church’s understanding of discipleship has changed in some ways over the centuries, and that is a necessary development. Popes condemn capital punishment today and the Jesuits at Georgetown are giving preferred admission to descendants of slaves. But except for the Jesuits at Georgetown, not many institution-wide, collective penances have been attempted to make reparation for past evils.

I believe that the Church needs to think of penance less individualistically than it has done historically. It is ironic that a church that insists so much on community should be so slow to make communal apologies and implement communal penances. The world doesn’t expect perfection from Catholics. It expects integrity. It is tragic that priests sexually abused children, but it is even more tragic that bishops covered it up. In our desire to be seen as a communion of saints we have tried to suppress the fact that we are also a communion of sinners.

This Lent, let’s begin to consider the communal dimension of sin in the Church. The next time someone confronts you about an evil the Church has been complicit in, do not try to justify it. Acknowledge it. As a Church (beginning on the parish level) we should take steps to repair the damage our sins have caused. As a Catholic I have inherited not only the graces but also the sins of the Church. In the City of God, sin will not exist. But the Church on pilgrimage in the City of Man is marred by sin. I pray that we will begin to acknowledge collectively the sins we have committed in the past and take steps collectively to do better in the future. The Jesuits at Georgetown have taken a step in the right direction.

This is the first of a series of reflections I will be posting on confession and penance. What does your parish do to address structural/institutional sin in the Church?

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