Article 112 – Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Paragraphs 1440-1460 Those familiar with the teachings of Archbishop Fulton Sheen probably recall his expression: “Sin is in the blood.” As a teenager, these five short words puzzled me. As a young adult, however, I slowly came to the realization that, in seeking a more intimate union with God, it is cruc i a l t o first discern how deeply rooted sin is in humanity.
We a l l w i t n e s s firsthand how ugly sin can be. Hatred, jealousy, alienation, hopelessness, suffering, cutting words, bad habits and forgotten courtesies cause enormous hurt and at times even ruin the life of a person. Such sin not only weakens, but can also destroy our ability to relate to others and diminishes our potential for a deeper relationship with God.
“Sin has lost its bite” claim some. Others suggest “there’s no such thing as sin anymore.” But, the fact remains that people do not enjoy sinless lives or live in a sinless world. Sin is very much present in our world.
What many in our modern age do not accept is how offensive sin is to God. The Catechism tells us that “sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him” (ccc 1440). It also “damages [our] communion with the Church” (ccc 1440). For this reason “conversion entails both God’s forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church, which are expressed and accomplished liturgically by the sacrament of penance or reconciliation” (ccc 1440).
A d d i t i o n a l r e flection helps us understand that the real issue is not only the loss of the sense of sin, but the loss of an appreciation of the reality of sin. In t h e p a s t , s i n w a s c h i e fly i d e n t i fied with individual acts that stained the soul, and was especially associated with disregarding rules, disobeying norms or breaking commandments, with the categories of sin easily understood by most. Actual sin was any thought, word, or deed contrary to the law of God. It was serious or “mortal” sin when the matter was grave and the sin was committed with full knowledge and consent. This led to the loss of sanctifying grace, the divine life of the soul. The sin was less serious or “venial” if the matter was not grave in itself, or if the sinner was ignorant of its gravity or did not fully consent to it.
Central to our present understandi n g o f s i n i s t h a t i t d e fines sinfulness in terms of destroying our proper relationship with God and others. Therefore, we need to be reconciled with God and with the community of the Church. We should be grateful that the sacrament of penance (reconciliation or confession) was the fi rst sacrament Christ gave us following his resurrection. The Catechism explains, “In imparting to his apostles his own power to forgive sins the Lord also gives them the authority to reconcile sinners with the Church” (ccc 1444).
The good news proclaimed by our Resurrected Lord is that of mercy and compassion, which unites God and humanityand reconciles people with one another, ultimately re-establishing inner peace and harmony. Thus, “Christ instituted thesacrament of penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace” (ccc 1446). This unity of peace and harmony to which we are invited does not come easy. As
a community of faith, our discipleship entails much more than offering a loving embrace toward others or whispering a word of sorrow to God. Following Jesus in volves more, including grow ing each day in greater intimacy with him. Put another way, our precious Catholic faith can only be sustained by a deep spirituality that includes our faithful reception of the sacraments Christ gave us. The reconciliation which we seek begins in the heart and requires a change of heart, a personal conversion which ought to steer us to the sacrament of penance/reconciliation. Why? As the Catechism reminds us: “The confession [or disclosure] of sins, even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others” (ccc 1455).
Conversion summons us to reject the habits of the world and to absorb the habits of God. The unselfish choice of dependence on God, service, love, peace and justice replaces the negative values of self-reliance, control, coercion and greed. This faith decision, grounded in God’s trust and grace, invites not only the individual, but also the entire Church, to move away from worldly attitudes. Life experiences and choices are seen from the perspective of God. Only then can humanity be embraced with the love of Jesus which changes and restores. As such, the Church explains that “confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of penance” (ccc 1456). In fact, the Catechism tells us that “each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year” (ccc 1457).
Why is the Church so insistent? Because “all mortal sins of which penitents… are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret…for these sins sometimes wound the soul more grievously” (ccc 1456). This is all about keeping the soul from eternal danger.
Equally important is the relationship between the sacrament of penance/ reconciliation and the Eucharist. The Catechism explains: “Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if they experience deep contrition, without having first received sacramental absolution” (ccc 1457). Said another way, to receive Holy Communion while in the state of grave sin opens the way for a person to commit the additional sin of blasphemy. The Catechism explains further that “children must go to the sacrament of penance before receiving Holy Communion for the first time” (ccc 1457). This has been a point of contention over the past 40 or so years, but most parishes have returned to this correct practice by providing opportunities for children to receive Jesus in fi rst confession before receiving him in First Holy Communion.
Next time we will complete this section on the sacrament of penance by discussing the minister of the sacrament and the effects of the sacrament.