THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY FOUNDED IN 1840
SACRAMENT OF RECONCILIATION
STILL NEED TO CONFESS
Every parish priest will be aware that Saturday queues for the Confessional – which were a routine part of Catholic parish life a generation or more ago – have gone, possibly for ever. Every parish priest will also be aware that 90 per cent or more of attenders at Sunday Mass will go forward to receive Holy Communion. In other words, the old link between Confession and Communion, one being a condition of the other, has been broken.
That may be a good thing, and the link made between the two may have been faulty theology and an over-legalistic interpretation of the rules. But nothing has really replaced it. And that is a loss. A channel of divine grace has been allowed to dry up, as the distinguished canonist Ladislas Orsy described in a widely-discussed article in The Tablet last month. Fr Orsy advocated a thorough renewal of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the name by which Confession is now officially known, and it is obvious from the response that that need is now widely recognised. He suggested that the sacrament could be administered in a much richer liturgical context – in other words, in a special service of prayer and penance, designed to emphasise the reconciliation between God and the individual penitent that the sacrament brings about.
There is another connection between Confession and Communion, however, that might also be fruitfully explored. The language of the Mass itself is heavily loaded with pleas for God’s merciful forgiveness, from the Kyrie to the Pater Noster and the Domine, non sum dignus. It is hard to believe that God refuses every one of them. Holy Communion itself, humbly and properly received, contains its own absolution from sin – though Catholic teaching since the Council of Trent has been that grave sins wilfully committed must be confessed to a priest first. But the criteria for such mortal sin has shifted to the point where it requires the deliberate and wholehearted rejection of God – something the average parishioner may never be tempted to in a lifetime.
This suggests, therefore, that a thorough examination of the theology behind confessional practice needs to relate it to the other sacraments through which God’s mercy is made available, particularly the Eucharist. And it needs to embrace Pope Francis’ reminder that sins may be social as well as individual, including sins against the environment, and to take seriously Pope John Paul II’s concept of structural sin, which widens the scope for individual complicity in social injustice. The old penitential approach to an examination of conscience through breaches of the Ten Commandments may need to be widened to include the failure to exercise the virtues, such as courage, prudence, justice and moderation.
None of this diminishes the importance of individual reconciliation with God through the sacrament, which can lift a crushing burden of past wrongdoing that, left unhealed, can be cancerous to one’s spiritual and emotional health. But spiritual medicine has more than one purpose. It is to help people to become who they were designed by God to be, by promoting their integral human development. The role of a revised Sacrament of Reconciliation in that process could become central to it.
WILL JOHNSON JOIN THE ANGELS?
Boris Johnson’s arrival as head of the British government has already produced a major tilt in the scales of social justice in favour of some of the poorest and most vulnerable groups in society. For more than 15 years he has consistently advocated an amnesty for illegal immigrants in the United Kingdom, and has now repeated this call on becoming Prime Minister. It may not quite be government policy, though it was part of the platform on which he stood for election as Tory leader. And despite ferocious criticism from the right, it was the position he adopted as Mayor of London. So this is not a flash in the pan, an intemperate Boris outburst on the spur of the moment. He means it.
The proposition is both simple and obvious. There may be up to a million illegal immigrants in Britain – the softer term is “undocumented migrants” – who have no legal right to residence. Theoretically, the government is committed to rounding them up and deporting them, yet it has no intention of doing so. This is anomalous. The bonus to the economy of allowing such people full economic rights and duties, for instance through paying taxes and National Insurance, has been variously put at between £1 billion and £5 billion a year. Nobody really knows.
So Mr Johnson’s first move is to call for proper research into the economic costs and benefits. There is unlikely to be a consensus, with anti-immigration bodies claiming that regularising the status of illegal migrants would be expensive. But the real cost of illegal migration is human and personal. People without rights are wide open to exploitation, for instance in employment and housing; and the previous government’s notorious “hostile environment” policy was deliberately designed to make their lot even more unbearable. By forcing every employer, landlord, bank manager or hospital doctor to check eligibility before providing some necessary service, a climate of suspicion was created that was very harmful to race relations. Mr Johnson has declared himself to be “passionately pro-immigration”. He wants to have an Australian-style points system for those wishing to migrate to the United Kingdom, which it has been suggested could even lead to an increase in annual immigration totals. And he is being lobbied by religious leaders to raise Britain’s annual quota of refugees from 5,000 to 10,000 or more.
The paradox here is that Mr Johnson has come to power riding on a hard-line Brexit bandwagon, and opposition to mass immigration was a major factor in the pro-Brexit referendum result in 2016. The Conservative Party was comfortable with Theresa May’s approach to immigration, legal and illegal, until the Windrush affair blew it dramatically off course last year. So the terms of an amnesty for undocumented migrants, including such details as what period of residence they would have to prove in order to claim it, will be highly controversial. But this time Boris Johnson will be on the side of the angels.
2 | THE TABLET | 3 AUGUST 2019