Saturday, December 3, 2016

Why Do Catholics Confess Their Sins to a Priest?

No One Can Forgive Sins, but God!

Recently articles circulated the internet about Pope Francis granting permission for all priests to forgive the sin of abortion (here for example).  Predictably so, many non-Catholic Christians started their "only God can forgive sins" talk and started bashing (or mocking) Catholics and their sacrament of confession (Sacrament of Reconciliation).   Thankfully, many non-Catholics were merely inquisitive.

Fact is, Catholics do teach that God alone forgives sins.  This is obvious to those who actually have studied Catholicism and not merely listen to what anti-Catholic Protestants are spouting off,

What Do Catholics Believe About Priests Forgiving Sins?

The Catechism (i.e. teaching) of the Catholic Church says:

[Paragraph 1440] Sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him. At the same time it damages communion with the Church. For this reason conversion entails both God's forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church, which are expressed and accomplished liturgically by the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
Only God forgives sin        [yes, these exact words are in the Catechism]
(1441) Only God forgives sins. [cf Matt 2:7] Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, "The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins" and exercises this divine power: "Your sins are forgiven." [Mk 2:5, 10; Lk 7:48] Further, by virtue of his divine authority he gives this power to men to exercise in his name. [cf Jn 20:21-23]
(1442) Christ has willed that in her prayer and life and action his whole Church should be the sign and instrument of the forgiveness and reconciliation that he acquired for us at the price of his blood. But he entrusted the exercise of the power of absolution to the apostolic ministry which he charged with the "ministry of reconciliation." [2 Cor 5:18] The apostle is sent out "on behalf of Christ" with "God making his appeal" through him and pleading: "Be reconciled to God." [2 Cor 5:20]
There are approximately fifteen (15) pages in the Catechism of the Catholic Church detailing the confession, penance, and indulgences.  I certainly will not quote or cover all things discussed therein.  Those who have an opened mind and are willing to honestly learn what the Church teaches will explore more for themselves.

Looking at these divinely-inspired passages quoted, or referred to, in the Catechism we read:

 Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:17-20)
Notice there are two aspects of reconciliation being taught here:  the "ministry of," and the "message of."   Again, a whole other blog post could barely cover this.

What Do Catholics Believe About Priests Forgiving Sins?

In John 20:20-23 we read Jesus giving his Apostles the power to forgive sins (kind of like a sheriff sharing his authority with his deputies).  After his resurrection Jesus appeared to those closest to him and to the disciples we read:

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

Now, I am aware this brings about another question about Catholic teaching - the apostolic nature of the bishops and priests.   This is a conversation for another blog post.  But you may wish to explore it on your own.  Again, in order to find out what Catholics believe, go to reliable Catholic sources.  (This link is a good place to start.)  Yet, there is no doubt, if you believe the words in the Bible, Jesus gave his disciples the authority to forgive sins.  This is given to the Apostles (and their rightful successors), not all believers.

What Happens In Confession?

There is no set rule per se.  I've been to several different confessors and each is a little different.  It is certainly not some creepy experience like what is often portrayed in movies and television.

(This link is a typical example of what confession is like.)

What Makes Confession So Special to Catholics?

Going to confession the first time was kind of scary.  I still had some of those old Protestant ideas floating around in my head.  I took a four-page list of all the sins I could remember committing.  Father Leon was my first confessor.  He is a retired diocesan priest of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston who was assisting in a communal penance service that night.  My wife & I had met him briefly before and were very impressed with his gentle kindness.

He made me feel at ease and welcomed.  Mercy does that to a contrite person.

I prayed one of the standard Acts of Contrition:
O, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to never sin anymore. Amen.

He saw me pull out the list and start at the beginning.  He immediately and gently lifted his hands and said something like: "Whoa, I don't want you to read through all those.  Fold that up and just tell - from your heart - what you've done."

I started from the earliest things I could remember.  Some years had more sins than others.  I recalled the horrible things I once said about Mary, the Pope, and the Catholic Church.  Tears filled my eyes... and Father Leon's eyes got a bit teary too.  My heart was broken like never before.  I have cried at altars and pews in Protestant churches many times, but nothing like this.

No act of confessing my sins in my old Protestant settings could compare to this.

As I neared the end of my mental list I began - only slightly began - to feel a sense of peace.   I finished and looked at Father Leon, but all I could think of was looking at Jesus, the God-man who died for my sins; the man who died because of my sins, even if I was the only one in history to have ever sinned.  Yes, Father Leon was there, but so was God.  Whenever two or three are gathered in the name of the Lord, He is there.... remember?

Father Leon said something like:  "That was a good confession."  For my penance he told me to tear up that list and throw it away knowing that God has forgiven me.  That those sins were paid for in full.

Then... Father Leon said some of the most beautiful words a sinner can hear.  Something like:
“God, the Father of Mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace. And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The sins I have prayed over so many times in privacy finally felt torn away from my heart.

Few things compare to this in beauty, peace, comfort, and joy.

Why Not Go Directly to God?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said:

I would say two things. The first: naturally, if you kneel down and with true love for God pray that God forgives you, he forgives you. It has always been the teaching of the Church that [when] one, with true repentance — that is, not only in order to avoid punishment, difficulty, but for love of the good, for love of God — asks for forgiveness, he is pardoned by God. This is the first part. If I honestly know that I have done evil, and if love for goodness, a desire for goodness, is reborn within me, [and if there is] repentance for not having responded to this love, and I ask forgiveness of God, who is the Good, he gives it to me. But there is a second element: sin is not only a “personal,” individual thing between myself and God. Sin always has a social dimension, a horizontal one. With my personal sin, even if perhaps no one knows it, I have damaged the communion of the Church, I have sullied the communion of the Church, I have sullied humanity. And therefore this social, horizontal dimension of sin requires that it be absolved also at the level of the human community, of the community of the Church, almost physically. Thus this second dimension of sin, which is not only against God but concerns A Companion to the Individual Celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation 8 the community too, demands the sacrament, and the sacrament is the great gift in which through confession, we can free ourselves from this thing and we can really receive forgiveness in the sense of a full readmission to the community of the living Church, of the Body of Christ. And so, in this sense, the necessary absolution by the priest, the sacrament, is not an imposition — let us say — on the limits of God’s goodness, but, on the contrary, it is an expression of the goodness of God because it shows me also concretely, in the communion of the Church, I have received pardon and can start anew. Thus, I would say, hold on to these two dimensions: the vertical one, with God, and the horizontal one, with the community of the Church and humanity. The absolution of the priest, sacramental absolution, is necessary to really absolve me of this link with evil and to fully reintegrate me into the will of God, into the vision of God, into his Church and to give me sacramental, almost bodily, certitude: God forgives me, he receives me into the community of his children. I think that we must learn how to understand the Sacrament of Penance in this sense: as a possibility of finding again, almost physically, the goodness of the Lord, the certainty of reconciliation. (Pastoral Visit to the Rebibbia District Prison, December 18, 2011)

Yes, I still confess my sins to God in the privacy of my own home, but I also go to confession in front of a priest for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Through this sacrament I am strengthened and encouraged, but most importantly, reconciled.

Through somewhat regular confession I have become stronger, yet more aware of my weakness and dependency on God and his Church.

What I once mocked, I now love.

Sources and Further Reading:

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Castro, the Pope, and Common Decency

I'm sure many are connected to people on social media who are not their friends.  I know many people on my friends lists & contacts are not my friends.  Many are acquaintances.  Some I've never met.

However, I try to be friendly to all of them.

If I'm aware the brother (or anyone close) of someone on my friends/contacts list dies, I'm going to send my condolences and offer my prayers.  Sadly I don't find out many of such deaths and are unable to express words of comfort.

 Even if the deceased was a criminal - I'm not going to say something like:  "Hey, I'm glad your scumbag brother died.  He did so many bad things.  So many of us are glad he's dead."

Fidel Castro did many bad things for decades.  There's no denying that.  Hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of people fled Cuba while he was dictator.  Many went into the water on homemade rafts and sailed to Florida.  Many Cubans risked their lives to flee from Castro and his cruelty.  Many people died because of his cruelty.

Yet, when Castro died, would it not be fitting to send condolences to his family?  Sure, especially if you're a Head of State or an international figure.

That's what Pope Francis did and some are criticizing the Pope for being civil.

For instance Allan West said:  "But listen to the Pope’s response to Castro’s death, and you’d get the impression we just lost a hero."  

Castro was cruel on his entire nation - especially the Catholics living in Cuba.  The Pope (and the two Popes prior) have tried to heal the wounds cause by Fidel Castro.  They've pleaded and reasoned for him to change.

Pope Francis was instrumental in opening diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

No conservatives were upset when Gorbachev and Reagan became friendly and tried to work things out.  No conservatives blamed a dead Reagan for being a commie when Gorby came to Ronnie's funeral!

Yet, Pope Francis reaches out to the surviving brother, offers condolences and prayers for all - especially the people of Cuba.  He didn't call Castro a hero.  He didn't praise Castro for being a nice dictator.

What's wrong with that?   Nothing.  Wouldn't you want the same?

Here is the full text of the telegram from Pope Francis: 
On receiving the sad news of the death of your dear brother, His Excellency Mister Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, former president of the State Council and of the Government of the Republic of Cuba, I express my sentiments of sorrow to Your Excellency and other family members of the deceased dignitary, as well as to the people of this beloved nation. At the same time, I offer prayers to the Lord for his rest and I entrust the whole Cuban people to the maternal intercession of our Lady of the Charity of El Cobre, patroness of that country.
Francisco, PP

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Answering the Violinist Argument

Restating My Thesis:

Premise 1:  All acts that intentionally take the life of an innocent, human person are immoral acts and should be illegal.  

Premise 2:  Abortion is an act that intentionally takes the life of an innocent, human person.  

Conclusion:  Therefore, abortion is an immoral act and should be illegal.

This is a valid argument.  

Which means, if the premises are true, then the conclusion is necessarily true.  For more on validity and arguments go here.  For a further treatment of my thesis go here.  

Objections to my thesis tend to fall into one of the following categories:

I addressed the first three objections in previous posts.  You may see those post by following the links above.

In this post I address the fifth group of objections: The Violinist Argument.

The violinist argument

            In this objection I present what is sometimes called “the violinist argument.”  This argument begins by accepting that the fetus is a living, human being and that its right to life certainly outweighs the woman’s rights concerning her choice and decisions about her body, so, then, an abortion may not be performed.  However, as Judith Jarvis Thompson goes on to say,
                It sounds plausible. But now let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you—we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist now is plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.
            Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still?  What if the director of the hospital says, "Tough luck, I agree, but you've now got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him." I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.[1]

This argument is similar to saying that if a woman’s freedom or liberty is being attacked in any way – rape, kidnapping, etc. – then she has the legal authority to repel the attacker.  Whether the attacker is outside of her body or inside is inconsequential, the woman has the right to maintain her liberty and freedom.  If a fetus is threatening a woman’s freedom, she has the right to use lethal force and abort the fetus.

Response to the violinist argument

The violinist argument does sound rather convincing at first, but once a person gets past the appeal to pity the argument sounds off key.  Thompson presents a reasonable argument to something other than abortion.  Her analogy is clever, but it is a faulty analogy when compared to pregnancy and abortion.  Her analogy is faulty in several respects.

Pregnancy is Not a Crime:

First, kidnapping is a crime, pregnancy is not.  Granted, some places declare families may have only a certain number of children; but no one that I am aware is sent to prison because of a pregnancy.  Abortions are performed in China in these cases, but to my knowledge no one is arrested.[2]  Even in places such as China, since parents are not arrested for the first pregnancy it goes to show that it is not a crime.  However, first time kidnappers are not left off the hook.  Kidnapping is repulsive in every culture.  In nearly every culture a pregnancy is often considered a joyous occasion.  In every culture there are women who would love to have a baby; yet I do not think many wish to be kidnapped.  Equating pregnancy to kidnapping is unreasonable.  Thompson’s analogy fails.

Pregnancy is Not an Unnatural Surgery:

The violinist argument also fails to be valid by equating surgery with maternity.  The surgical attachment of a person to the outside of another person is an abnormal and unnatural process.  The process of pregnancy is natural and has been happening long before surgery or physicians walked the earth.  Equating surgery to pregnancy is unreasonable.  Thompson’s analogy fails again.

Pregnancy does Not Render a Woman Helpless:

In the violinist argument the woman remains helpless for nine months or more.  Pregnant women still are capable of many jobs and activities.  It is true that it is often the case that women are limited to what they can and cannot (or should not) do while they are pregnant, but it is ludicrous to say that this somehow compares to being bedridden with a fully grown man sewn to your back.  Equating these situations is unreasonable.  Thompson’s analogy fails a third time.

Pregnancy is Not an Unnatural Bond with a Stranger:

The mother/child relationship is a special bond known throughout the world and history.  Even though there are cases where this relationship is soured with horrific results, the rest of the world was shocked and did not respond by simply saying, “Oh, well, those things happen.”  Every culture expects mothers and their children to possess a bond that cannot be accurately described in casual terms.  Thompson, however, attempts to reason that the mother’s feelings towards her child are of the same nature as her feelings to a complete stranger.  To equate the stranger/stranger relationship with that of a mother & child is unreasonable.  Thompson’s analogy fails a fourth time.

Pregnancy is Not Science Fiction:

Another flaw with Thompson’s argument is that she does nothing more than to appeal to a fictitious, extremely far-fetched scenario.  Thompson tries to persuade her readers that since they would justify the woman’s choice to withhold life support in this improbable scenario that we should therefore also see justification in women’s choices that lead to over a million abortions each year.  To equate the rare with the rampant is unreasonable.  Thompson’s analogy fails again.

Abortion is Not Merely Withholding Life Support:

Author, speaker, and radio personality, Greg Koukl also responds to Thompson’s violinist argument.  He comments on the flaws that I too noticed: artificial attachment vs. natural process; equating the mother/child relationship to that of a host/predator type of engagement or to the stranger/stranger relationship.  However, he also points to a most serious flaw in the violinist argument.  Koukl says it this way:  
“In the violinist illustration, the woman might be justified withholding life-giving treatment from the musician under these circumstances.  Abortion, though, is not merely withholding treatment.  It is actively taking another human being’s life trough poisoning or dismemberment.  A more accurate parallel with abortion would be to crush the violinist or cut him into pieces before unplugging him.”[3]  
Koukl found the crucial flaw in Thompson’s argument.  Abortion is not simply withholding life-support from an organism that is dying by natural means.  Abortion is unnaturally and intentionally ending a life that is following nature’s course of life.  Abortion is not withholding mercy; abortion is taking an innocent life.  Equating abortion to the withholding of life-support from dying individuals is unreasonable.  

Thompson’s analogy fails, period.

End Note:

There is help for those who have participated in an abortion.  Rachel's Vineyard is a wonderful resource and place for healing.

[1] Thompson, Judith Jarvis, “A Defense of Abortion,” Journal of Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1971): 
[2] I do not think abortion is justified even in the case as China’s population problems.
[3] Greg Koukl, “Unstringing the Violinist,” [article online], available from; Internet; accessed 8 February 2003.  No longer at this site address.  Cannot find update.