John Heard: Only the Truth will set us free from sin and guilt

12 Mar 2008

By The Record

Recently I wrote in favour of an apology to Australia’s Stolen Generations, those indigenous children (now adults) who suffered under a policy of forced removal from their parents and communities. Where individual actions, wrong-headed government policy and racism had given explicit or even implicit sanction to widespread cruelty and inhuman treatment, Australians were right to say sorry.


John Heard


It is rendered multiple times during the Mass, but most prominently at the Confiteor, the Gloria and the Angus Dei. Where we have, via either direct action or omission (what I have done and what I have failed to do), failed God and each other, we confess our failings. We do not shy from characterising these failings as sin: turning away from God’s law of love.
Because it might need re-stating in the sometimes-rootless modern era, sin is that which makes man unworthy of the immortality God promises in Christ. The Church, as the sacrament of salvation for the world, must always facilitate the reconciliation of man with man and man with God. This is the mystery of Christian community and the bedrock of Catholic unity.
It is significant that this process is given deep, sacramental power and great intimacy every time we go to confession.
Because Catholics demonstrate then that they are serious about sin, guilt, remorse and redemption. Rather than paying lip service to the call to account, we face Christ in the priest, humble ourselves, confess, express remorse (Oh my God, the simplest Act of Contrition runs, I am sorry that I have sinned against you…) and promise to do penance (…because you are so good and with your help I will not sin again). We also pray for each other, which is recognition that we are all sinners.
The Church is, then, as much a hospital for sinners as a club for saints. To flourish, man must – in the words of the Ash Wednesday formula – turn from sin and return to the Gospel. We have to put ourselves right with God and with each other.
From the heart of the Mass and the sacrament of confession, this ethos of atonement thrives wherever Christians live.
It permeates the life of the Church. If we are living correctly, it should characterise Christian communities and operate, like yeast in the proving loaf, as the peacemaking leaven in pluralist democracies and other mixed faith nations.
In millions of unlooked for and sometimes unnoticed acts of charity, forgiveness, remorse and atonement, Christians work therefore and in this way, for love. We also, collectively, follow the personal and public witness of the Popes.
John Paul the Great, for instance, led the Church into a deeper understanding of the central significance of atonement theology and public reparative action.
On a number of occasions, he called for a ‘purification of memory’ and apologised for past wrongs committed by the children of the Church against our brothers in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, against the Jews, our ‘elder brothers in faith’ and against other groups, including for any Catholic’s complicity in the African slave trade, the oppression of indigenous peoples in various colonial nations and in the handling of the case against Galileo.
It is important to note, however, that each apology was framed in the correct manner. The Pope did not, and indeed a Pope cannot (and still be a good Pope), apologise so as to suggest that the Church – understood as the deposit of faith – could be wrong in central issues of Christian faith and morals.
He can and did, however – and did so movingly and relatively frequently – apologise for historical, personal and collective failures of love; those times when individual Catholics fell short of the high standard of Christian love.
To be clear then, when Catholics apologise, when we confess our sins, we ask forgiveness of God because we believe that our sins are hateful in His sight. We apologise, first and most powerfully, to Him. We understand that only He can improve our position, that salvation is His alone. This is very basic.
Most Christians, Catholics and even those further from mainline and orthodox traditions, hold this in common. Of course, we also apologise to individuals and groups hurt by our failures and we are truly sorry for that hurt, but Christian remorse and reparation have an absolute, God-centred meaning.
I confess to Almighty God first and then to you here present. This is the heart of Christian teaching on sin and guilt. A deontological account of sin and guilt, like the one offered by Christianity, is important, not least because it contrasts with quasi-consequentialist approaches. Unlike in most neo-Pagan, atheist and other modern cultures, where apologies might owe more to spectacle, ego and a sense of revenge, than to love, the Christian model is more demanding. It is certainly more loving.
A Catholic will fail himself and God, therefore, even if there are no obvious or quantifiable, negative consequences for other human beings. Only people who get this understanding wrong would, therefore, call on the Church and on individual Christians to apologise to homoactivist groups and, what is more, call on Christian leaders to march supportively in the often deliberately anti-Christian Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras.
Indeed, only a faulty reckoning with the history and ideology of such groups and events would encourage Christian ministers to publicly support them. Perhaps the central orthodox Christian teaching on sin and atonement needs urgent re-stating, however, in light of the actions of the so-called 100 Revs.
Acting individually and on the proviso that they were operating without any recourse to Christian (specifically ‘Biblical’) teaching on homogenital acts and human sexuality, the 100 Revs Group unilaterally apologised to homoactivist sympathisers (assuming, as they did, that all same sex attracted men and women are homoactivists) and then, astonishingly, marched alongside deeply anti-Christian groups like the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in Sydney.
The accompanying 100 Revs Statement was, unsurprisingly, a curious and very uneven document. It is not clear that it is a Christian document; in fact most Christians will find it deeply heterodox. It is, first, strange to find apparently Christian leaders deciding to act outside settled Christian teaching. By adding the proviso about Church/Biblical teaching on human sexuality, it is certainly clear that the signatories have exempted themselves from orthodoxy and mainstream Christine teaching.
Their apology is, therefore, outside Christianity. There is a grave danger that it might lead other Christians into error.  
It certainly deliberately ignores the foundational teaching on sin and guilt. It forgets the story about God’s love and man’s weakness before Him and favours some alien, perhaps neo-Pagan, certainly politically correct guff about the need to ‘welcome’ something the group calls the ‘gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people’, whoever they might be.
This is followed by the empirically contentious claim “that the churches we belong to, and the church in general, have not been places of welcome for…GLBT…people…[I]ndeed the church has often been profoundly unloving toward the GLBT community” which fails to accurately represent the sage, humane and constant witness of the Catholic Church.
Perhaps most alarmingly, it ignores the fundamental difference between same sex attracted individuals (moral agents characterised by free will and a vulnerability to grace) and intentional acts. Again, this puts the 100 Revs firmly outside Christian thought on sin and guilt.
Anyone familiar with and committed to the Catholic teaching, in particular, knows that it is, far from unwelcoming, rather a profoundly moving call to Christ.
It does not even single out same sex attracted men and women for unfair treatment, it is in line with Christian teaching on human sexuality and chastity generally. Indeed, it comes in the same section of the Catechism that sets down chastity as the ideal for all human beings, including married couples.
Sometimes this fact is forgotten by otherwise well-meaning, but perhaps culturally or personally bigoted priests and laity. Such people must be connverted to love, not least for the sake of the often vulnerable, suffering young people they are called on to shepherd. But, it should not be claimed that the first place a young same sex attracted man can feel affirmed and loved, wholly, is amongst homoactivists and the denizens of a ‘gay’ parade.
To claim that Christians must also meet the extremist demands of such people in order to manifest proper love for others is nonsense. Christians must look to their consciences.
We must fight to ensure that Catholic teaching, in the full and liberating splendour of truth, is always and everywhere promoted.We must, alongside the Church, commit to a fully integrated sexuality, a process whereby men and women can – with grace – become more fully human and also draw closer in to God.
It is simply wrong then to re-imagine this teaching as somehow deficient in terms of Christian ideas of ‘welcome’ and hospitality. It is wild indeed to go even further and conclude that marching alongside half-naked biker lesbians and lewd men dressed as nuns (often replete with deliberately and deeply hateful simulacra meant to mock and blaspheme the Most Blessed Sacrament and the Church’s sacramental ministry) is the best way to make up for any personal and collective failures.
Any truly Catholic group and serious, loving Christians, whether from Los Angeles or New York City, from London or Moscow, indeed anyone in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne committed to the Christian model for love, sin and guilt simply cannot accept the 100 Revs’ call for an apology.
The individuals involved in such movements are wrong and their participation in so-called Pride marches and other hyper-sexualised, anti-Christian events is scandalous. We must pray that they return to the Gospel and ask them to pray for us: that we might all remember the true teaching on sin and guilt in love. We must never forget the words of the Master and the constant witness of Christian saints and leaders, throughout history:
Only the Truth will set us free from sin and guilt.  

John Heard is a Melbourne writer.