Finding the price for sins of the church

Pope Benedict recently declared the sovereignty of his particular faith over all others.

Meanwhile, at the same time, a $660 million settlement is being paid out in Los Angeles for more than 500 cases of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests.

In the Catholic tradition, contrition is only one step toward forgiveness of sins. One must also do penance for these transgressions. In certain cases throughout history, this literally was done through “payment” of money. Generally, however, indulgence, or the full forgiveness imparted by the priest, is achieved through mandated prayers and partaking of the sacraments, through confession, principally.

Indulgences are offered at the discretion of presiding religious officials, and necessary penance is determined by the number and severity of sins committed by an individual.

Mortal sins are more severe in nature, and by definition they sever the connection between God and the offender. These sins involve acts such as adultery, lying, murder and sexual abuse. To be considered a mortal sin, the act in question must have been done consciously, willfully and with full understanding of the severity and consequences of such behavior.

In all cases, these sins can be forgiven, but given the varying gravity of mortal sins, there are cases in which the unrepentant sinner may be excommunicated. Grace, it would seem, just isn’t big enough for some sins.

One perspective on sinfulness has its roots in Reform Judaism, wherein it is not believed there is actually an entity that embodies evil – like the devil – outside ourselves. Rather, the potential for both good and evil resides within us, and that it is through our own free will that we make the choice in each situation whether to act out of good or evil. In this mindset, “the devil made me do it,” doesn’t cut it. We must face our own evil head-on.

Some may believe that priests are particular targets in a greater spiritual war, wherein the Evil One draws a bead on the heads of those who otherwise would lead humanity toward hope and salvation. Others would contend that positions of religious leadership provide a potentially toxic combination of relatively unchecked power and implicit trust: the perfect breeding ground for human lust for sex, power and the like.

These sins of abuse certainly are mortal in nature. It speaks to the potential for human evil, even in the most sacred and vulnerable of places. Though the public at large is not asked to forgive the priests, the payment of more than $600 million suggests a contrite, if not corporately guilty, church.

The cardinal-archbishop offered apologies to those “offended” by the acts of abuse. I can think of stronger words, ones that might have fit better, but at least he offered an apology. The settlement was agreed to by the church, which suggests both sides somehow came to terms that they felt were appropriately representative of the penance due on the church’s side, and the salvific effect desired for those who were violated.

This symbolic civil act, however big, doesn’t really offer the closure many had hoped for. The settlement could have been 100 times more, and we would still have to face the same fact: Even church representatives commit grave acts of sin.

Is there a monetary price to be paid for sin? Once the tables are turned and we suddenly find ourselves on the receiving end, does our perspective change? If, instead of apologizing for any offense the church may have caused, the bishop would have said, “Bless us, Father, for we have sinned,” would we have the heart or will to offer a hand of grace?

Those involved in these cases of abuse have been done irreparable harm. What has been committed can never be undone.

But what statement is made in accepting an offer to settle? What price can we ever claim as fair or just, and even in opening our hand to accept the penance, are we even the slightest bit closer to forgiveness?

Further, is the church any closer to the change required to help us all heal and trust again?

Advertisements