A new prayer for forgiveness

SUN JOURNAL

Reconciliation: Some find the church's popular `zero tolerance' policy for priests who abuse minors contrary to the teachings of Catholicism.

August 18, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Then Peter came up and said to [Jesus], "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven."

-- Gospel of Matthew

In the wake of months of shocking revelations that hundreds of priests sexually abused minors in cases dating back decades, and the equally unsettling realization that many a bishop turned a blind eye, the leadership of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church came under intense pressure to respond swiftly and decisively.

The demand, made by victims of sexual abuse, the news media and many Catholics in the pews, was for "zero tolerance": Cast abusers from their jobs and even from the priesthood, for even one transgression, no matter how long ago it was committed.

The bishops say that zero tolerance was exactly what they adopted at their June meeting in Dallas. No priest who has ever abused a minor will offer Mass, wear the Roman collar or call himself "Father." Some bishops will seek to defrock them.

But now there appears to be a growing backlash against zero tolerance. Critics say it goes against what it means to be a Christian: that sinners are always given a chance to reconcile with God and the community.

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life, writes in his most recent issue that the bishops "have succeeded in scandalizing the faithful anew by adopting a thoroughly unbiblical, untraditional, and un-Catholic approach to sin and grace.

"As in Shakespeare's `strange, eventful history,'" he writes, "they end up adopting a policy that is sans repentance, sans conversion, sans forbearance, sans prudential judgment, sans forgiveness, sans almost everything one might have hoped for from bishops of the Church of Jesus Christ."

When the American cardinals went to Rome in April to discuss the crisis with Vatican officials, Pope John Paul II condemned sexual abuse by priests as an ""appalling sin" that is "rightly considered a crime." But he also stressed the need for reconciliation, which some believe was a signal the Vatican would not accept a harsh, zero-tolerance policy, and might reject what the U.S. bishops adopted in Dallas.

"We cannot forget the power of Christian conversion," the pope told the cardinals, "that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person's soul and can work extraordinary change."

And last week the leaders of the nation's religious orders, which include about a third of the nation's priests, said they would abide by the bishops' policy in excluding abusers from ministry, but adamantly refused to expel them from their religious communities. Offenders cannot wear a Roman collar but will be permitted to wear the habit of their religious order.

Forgiveness and reconciliation lie at the heart of Catholic theology and religious practice.

"It's a hallmark; it's the character of the church to be a forgiving church," said Chester Gillis, chairman of the Georgetown University theology department. "God's mercy is limitless, and the church represents that mercy, forgiveness and compassion. If you can't turn to the church for forgiveness, where can you turn?"

The Catholic Church's theology on forgiveness and reconciliation is rooted in Jesus' teaching in the Gospels. Jesus forgave sins, often when he performed a physical healing. He explained his attitude toward forgiveness in the parable he told of the prodigal son, in which a father welcomes back his child who had left home and squandered his inheritance on dissolute living.

The Catholic approach to reconciliation evolved over centuries. The early church was tough on sinners. In the first decades after Jesus' death, his followers believed his second coming was imminent, so those whose sins were forgiven through their baptism were not given a second chance.

But as the second century progressed without the second coming, the church had to deal with those who had been expelled for serious sins, particularly those who had committed what was considered the ultimate offense: apostasy.

In an era of Christian persecution when many heroically chose martyrdom rather than denounce their faith, some chose to save their lives and offered sacrifices to Roman gods.

There evolved a system of public penance, also used for serious sins such as murder, adultery and heresy, whereby the sinner was given one, and only one, more chance. This involved going to the bishop to confess, and submitting to an onerous and humiliating process of penance, which could last months or even years.

The penitent was allowed to attend the first part of the Mass that included Bible readings and the sermon, but had to leave before the prayers over the bread and wine and Holy Communion. Penitents were expected to wear distinctive garb, such as sackcloth or a hair shirt, often bore chains and cut their hair, and were ordered to remain celibate, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

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