The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us of four categorical consequences of sin. Paragraph 1469, quoting Pope St. John Paul II’s 1984 apostolic exhortation On Reconciliation and Penance, states the following on the effects of the Sacrament of Penance:
“It must be recalled that…this reconciliation with God leads, as it were, to other reconciliations, which repair the other breaches caused by sin. The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being, where he regains his innermost truth. He is reconciled with his brethren whom he has in some way offended and wounded. He is reconciled with the Church. He is reconciled with all creation.”
There are four categorical consequences to every sin committed: personal, social, ecclesial, and cosmic. Each sin committed – whether venial or mortal – affects the individual personally (say, by restricting growth in virtue); socially (by somehow adversely affecting one’s relationship with others); ecclesially (wherein the Body of Christ – the Church – is somehow disrupted); and cosmically (read Genesis, Chapter 3 to discover how the cosmos – creation itself – is affected by the sin of our first parents). But these four areas of disruption – these breaches – can be healed through the Sacrament of Reconciliation because of Almighty God’s intervention, forgiveness, and mercy.
It’s the third of these consequences I’ll focus on here: the ecclesial disruption caused by sin – during this time of egregious Church scandal. As Christians, we know that sin is always a personal act. Even though it might be carried out with another (as in adultery) or with others (say, when a group robs a bank), sin is always committed by one’s personal choice. In fact, the Church defines sin not only as an offense against God, but as an offense against truth and a person’s own reason and right conscience.
As the Catechism makes clear, the Church herself benefits from her members individually receiving the Sacrament of Penance. This is important to recall at a time when we confront egregious Church scandal and seek a lasting remedying and healing of the situation. Paragraph 1469 states:
“This sacrament (of reconciliation) reconciles us with the Church…. In this sense it does not simply heal the one restored to ecclesial communion, but has also a revitalizing effect on the life of the Church which suffered from the sin of one of her members.”
The Church benefits from her members going to Confession. And while the Church’s current crisis rightly puts clerics and their superiors in the spotlight, the bigger picture needs to also be examined to help solve that crisis as an important one among others. The old saying that “no man is an island” is aptly applied here. In other words, everything each one of us does – whether cleric or lay member – is somehow interconnected with that big picture. “My sins do not affect just me,” can be said here.
As the Catechism Paragraph 1039 states, “The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life.”
With this truth in mind, we can begin to discern not only how clerical abuse has played its major part in contributing to the ecclesial consequences of personal sin, but how the following crises concerning the laity have, as well: only 23 percent of Catholics attend Mass on Sundays (even before the scandals were exposed); 82 percent of Catholics view contraceptives as morally acceptable; 49 percent of Catholics believe abortion should be permissible in some circumstances; 50 percent of Catholics practice cohabitation before marriage; 67 percent of Catholics approve of so-called gay “marriage”; and only 2 percent of Catholics go to Confession regularly.
Again, “no man is an island.” We are all somehow interconnected in what we do vicefully – and there are ecclesial consequences because of it. But the good news is, we are also interconnected in what we do virtuously. And returning to the Sacrament of Reconciliation is one such virtuous act.
FR. WADE L. J. MENEZES, CPM is the assistant general of the Fathers of Mercy, an itinerant missionary preaching order based in Auburn, KY. He is host of EWTN Global Catholic Radio’s “Open Line Tuesday” and the author of The Four Last Things: A Catechetical Guide to Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell (EWTN Publishing).