Does sin have a social aspect? This question is one key to understanding the recent refusal by Fr. Scott Nolan of St. Stephen in Grand Rapids, Mich., to offer Communion to Sara Smolenski, a Kent County district court judge living in a same-sex “marriage.” It also offers us insight into the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation (aka Confession or Penance) and the priest’s role in it.
In a recent Twitter comment on the controversy, Legionary priest Fr. Matthew Schneider said, “The Church says Communion should not be given to be a person acting contrary to the Church’s morals in a way that is grave, manifest (public & relatively well known), & obstinate. When these 3 points are clearly met, Communion cannot be given. (The latter 2 are often not clear.)” To which “Ghost” (@murn10) replied, “So sick off his [sic]. It’s not the priest[’]s place to do that. [S]in is between us and God. No priest has a right to get in between that.”
The Fallacy Exposed
A simple example explodes “Ghost’s” contention: Is child sexual molestation between God and the pederast alone?
Obviously not. First, there’s the molested child, whose body the pederast has violated and whose psyche the pederast has damaged. Second, there’s the family of the victim, who have been indirectly victimized themselves. Then, there’s the community, both in itself and as represented by its government, which has a valid and long-standing interest in protecting its members from harm. It would be as foolish to say that the sin was between the pederast and God alone as it would be to say that the crime was between the pederast and the state legislature alone.
We can’t use a pederast as an example without calling to mind predator priests. In these cases, the Catholic community is also wounded by the priest’s violation of our trust and the abuse of his spiritual authority. Then there is the counter-witness to the gospel which hypocrisy and obstinate persistence in sin necessarily entail. Even laypersons have an obligation to support the gospel message by their behavior, for which reason anti-Christians often cite Christian hypocrisy as grounds for disbelief: “For, as it is written, ‘The Name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (Romans 2:24).
Is there such a thing as a sin against God alone? Blasphemy committed in the privacy of one’s mind, or in the company of like-minded, consenting others, still leads to that publicly deceptive behavior we call hypocrisy. A victim’s consent to a wrong doesn’t remove the objective character of the wrong done to them; the Church preaches forgiveness of sins, but categorically rejects the proposition that sin is “a matter of opinion.” If there is a sin that has no social ramifications but merely offends the Holy Trinity, I can’t think of it.
Sin and Community
No, “Ghost” is mistaken. Saint Paul, in one of his “Body of Christ” passages, tells the Corinthians, “If one member [of the body] suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). This is not only a Christian sentiment. The principle, “What affects one affects all,” has a long and distinguished place in moral philosophy, and is the moral foundation of all law and government. It’s implicit in the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18; cf. Mark 12:30-31) and integral to the Catholic social principle of solidarity.
Sin, then, has an objective social character. The person who deliberately sins, whether in public or in private, sets themselves above and against not only God but the community as well. Christ drew an “equals” sign between our relationships with others and our relationship with God throughout his earthly ministry; it’s at the very core of the gospel message. If we grant that sin has such a social dimension, then the implication follows that repentance and forgiveness also has a social aspect.
Grant that, as Christians and moral actors, we each bear personal responsibility for living the gospel message. Nevertheless, Christianity isn’t a do-it-yourself project. For one thing, Christ’s mandate to preach the gospel message (Matthew 28:18-20) necessarily implies an institution which has the authority to teach it (v. 18: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me …”) and the moral obligation to preserve it in its integrity. Second, while some have called the Church a “hospital for sinners”, her character is more like a therapy group: We seek recovery from sin not just by ourselves but with the assistance and support of other recovering sinners.
The Social Aspect of Sin and Confession
In granting the apostles — and, by necessary extension, their deputies and successors — the power to forgive and retain sins (John 20:22-23), Christ not only recognized the social character of sin but also made the formal Church the ordinary instrument of its absolution. We also see this recognition in Matthew 18:15-18, in which Jesus lays down the process for confronting unrepentant Christians (the scriptural basis for formal excommunication). It’s also implicit in the Sacrament of Baptism: non-believers can’t baptize themselves.
Contrary to the assertion of the Protestant reformers, there is plenty of patristic evidence that the Sacrament of Reconciliation (aka Penance or Confession) was a part of the Church’s life from the beginning. “Therefore confess your sins to one another,” James exhorts his readers, “and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Confession was required before one could participate in the Eucharist, “that your sacrifice may be pure” (Didache 14.1). Other citations illustrate that bishops and their priests played vital roles in confession.
… [I]t would have been inexplicable to the early Christians if any one who professed faith in Christ had questioned the existence of that power [of forgiveness] in the Church. But if, contrariwise, we suppose that no such belief existed from the beginning, we encounter a still greater difficulty: the first mention of that power … would have raised a protest or led to a schism which would certainly have gone on record as plainly at least as did early divisions on matters of less importance. But no such record is found; even those who sought to limit the power itself presupposed its existence, and their very attempt at limitation put them in opposition to the prevalent Catholic belief. (Edward Hanna, “The Sacrament of Penance,” Catholic Encyclopedia)
Again, “Ghost” is wrong: The Church (in both her formal and community aspects) has the right and the duty to insert herself between the sinner and God. The priest acts not only in persona Christi and as the instrument of reconciliation with God but also as a representative of the faithful, with whom sinners must also reconcile themselves. The social aspect of sin is just as important as are the personal and divine aspects. If what we do to other people is what we do to God (Matthew 25:31-46), then if we refuse to seek forgiveness from others, do we not treat God with the same contempt?
Dissent and Communion
Now, I think we’re in a better position to understand the Smolenski contretemps:
Accept as a premise that Catholics have a positive duty to live the teachings of the Church. (To say “to live the gospel message” would be a distinction without a difference.) Accept as a corollary that this duty not only comes from within the walls but is expected from outside the walls by non-Catholics and non-believers. Accept finally that sin, as I have argued above, damages not only our relationship with God but also our relationship with the Church and the civil community in which we live — relationships which we must seek to repair.
Dissent, heresy, and schism are wounds to the Body of Christ. They fracture the unity throughout the world of belief and the continuity throughout time that makes the faith katholikos — “universal.” The disunity they create confuses, misdirects, and gives scandal. The more publicly visible the dissenter, the more widespread the damage. Dissenters who then present themselves for reception of the Eucharist — Communion — pretend to unity with the universal faith they have openly disavowed: the false witness of hypocrisy. That her dissent is her honest opinion doesn’t make it any less damaging.
Judge Smolenski, as an educated, intelligent person, had every reason to know the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage and gay sexual relationships. She nevertheless chose to attempt a civil marriage with another woman in open defiance of those teachings. But participation in the Eucharist is not a civil right. By denying Judge Smolenski Communion, Fr. Nolan publicly called her hypocrisy out. In doing so, he was acting within the scope of his role as a leader and representative of the Church. The Church teaches the forgiveness of sins, not the celebration or redefinition of sin.
That sin has social effects and implications ought not to be denied. We do not live in a social vacuum, so we do not sin without affecting others, not even in the privacy of our minds. Christ established a community and made its leaders instruments of his mercy precisely because sin is as much a social problem as it is an individual problem. The belief that sin is “between us and God alone” has no basis in scripture, in tradition, in church history, or in human reality. It is a construct of an antisocial concept of freedom as a lack of responsibility to others.
Tertullian compared people who avoid confession to a man suffering a disease who avoids showing his privates to a physician out of embarrassment, eventually dying of modesty. “Is it better,” he asked rhetorically, “to be damned in secret than to be absolved in public?” (On Repentance 10) But some people don’t want to hear or believe that they have a disease. So they tell the doctors to mind their own business and thus become contagion carriers out of willful pride.
And they tell themselves they’re not hurting anyone else.