Whatever Happened to Mortal Sin?

Austen Ivereigh is another of those papal interpreters who explain to the rest of the world what the bishops and pope really mean. His advance copy for the upcoming synod of bishops on sexual abuse is the sort of piece Harry Emerson Fosdick could have composed:

The church’s task is not to lament and condemn, but rather to discern and reform.

We’re so used to hearing that Francis is “behind the curve” on the abuse issue. In truth, he is well ahead of it. While most Catholics, not least bishops and religious orders, remain fixated on cleaning up the institution, demonstrating that it is now transparent and accountable and regulated by new measures, the pope has grasped that keeping the focus on the institution in this way is precisely the problem. This is apparent in the texts he addressed to the Chilean bishops and the people of God last year, which in turn draw on his meditations on institutional desolation as a Jesuit back in the 1980s. Both those texts of three decades ago and last year’s letters have been collected and commented on by his Jesuit collaborators in Rome, Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Fr. Diego Fares, in a new book published in Italian and Spanish, Las Cartas de la Tribulación (“The Tribulation Letters”). If the book had come out later, it would doubtless have included Francis’s letter to the U.S. bishops at the start of their retreat at Mundelein seminary.

The heart of the pope’s message is a pithy little sentence that occurs back in his 1980s writings and again in his letters to the bishops of Chile and the United States: “Ideas you discuss, but situations have to be discerned.” Whenever the church faces a time of tribulation, there are various temptations it can succumb to: to recoil into itself, to put up defenses, to blame others, and essentially to argue—with others, and within itself. The church is prone to “ruminating” on its own desolation, lamenting and blaming, and at its worst falls into “victimism,” which, says Francis in his preface to the book, “conceals in its breast the resort to vengeance, which only feeds the evil it pretends to eliminate.”

All these are means of evading the real task, which is to seek the grace that is always on offer in desolation and tribulation: the grace of conversion. By accusing ourselves, not others—in humility, repentance, and self-correction—we open ourselves to that grace. We change. We are converted. We see where we went wrong. And with that new sight comes the chance to change course. The church’s task is not to lament and condemn, but rather to discern and reform.

What is so hard to discern about the sin of sex outside of marriage? Or how tough is it for bishops to tell the truth and be responsible with those under their oversight? It may require a little extra discernment to ponder the sort of sin that proceeds from victims for resenting their abusers or the bishops who covered up the tawdry activity. But do you really need to look to systems and cultures to figure out sinfulness or that the wages of sin is death?

It is breathtaking to see how much Rome has changed since Benedict XVI and John Paul II. It is even more staggering to see people like Ivereigh whitewash popes and bishops’ actions and responsibilities in the current climate. It makes you think the gates of hades are winning.

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