success stories

Posted January 30, 2004

Book: A Time for Embracing: Reclaiming Reconciliation
Author: Julia Upton
The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, pp. 116

An Excerpt for the Jacket:

Has sacramental reconciliation disappeared from the horizon of Catholic practice? Has “confession” been extinguished from your practice of the faith? Have you noticed a marked change in the way in which you have become reconciled to God and the Church community over the course of time? These questions and others are addressed in Julia Upton’s study of sacramental reconciliation.

Her concern is that the sacrament of reconciliation — through which the darkness of sin is illumined by the healing light of Christ’s forgiveness — is an endangered species. In sacramental reconciliation the sinner experiences the tender, healing, welcoming embrace of God, which is what Upton regards as endangered.

Upton’s is a holistic approach to sacramental reconciliation that involves studying data from anthropology, psychology, and sociology, and integrating that with data from Scripture, history, and theology.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Sin at the Crossroads

Has everyone stopped sinning? Dr. Karl Menninger, who phrased the question a bit differently in his book Whatever Became of Sin?, examined the apparent disappearance of many forms of sin in our society. He concluded that “the present world miasma and depression are partly the result of our self-induced conviction that since sin has ceased to be, only the neurotics need to be treated and the criminals punished.” Acknowledging the reality of sin in our lives, he believed, was the only hopeful approach available to us. Those who are unable to sin will be left to read the newspapers, look at television, do their own thing, and keep their “eye on the road leading to the main chance.”

Here we have a psychiatrist, not a “theologian” per se, observing and responding to a cultural phenomenon by pointing out for us the importance of facing the different levels of sin that insidiously eat away at the roots of our humanity — personal sin, communal sin, social sin or “collective irresponsibility,” and sins against humanity.

“Sin is more than the sum of what sinners do,” writes theologian Cornelius Plantinga as he vividly describes the insidiousness of sin. “Sin acquires the powerful and elusive form of a spirit — the spirit of an age or a company or a nation or a political movement. Sin burrows into the bowels of institutions and traditions, making a home there and taking them over.”

When I was a child growing up in the 1950s, I thought I knew exactly what sin was and could rattle off definitions with ease. As I emerged from adolescence into adulthood, however, I became less sure of my memorized definitions and of myself.

Was I alone in my confusion? Actually, the Study Document of the Committee for Pastoral Research and Practices reflects similar confusion among Catholics. Laity surveyed were asked to select from a list of statements the three that best described their personal view of sin. The statements were:

1. Disobeying God’s law or that of the Church

2. Injuring myself or another

3. Saying “no” to God

4. Not living up to my potential (laziness)

5. Indifference to the suffering of others (apathy)

6. Wounding the Church, the Body of Christ

7. Striving to go beyond my potential despite cost to self and others (pride and ambition)

8. Loss of God’s grace

9. Refusal to love

10. Selfishness

According to the Study Document, the three most frequently chosen statements were numbers 1, 3, and 8. From this selection, the report concludes, it would seem that people do not understand or have a vocabulary to express the ecclesial or social dimensions of sin.

Surely this cannot be surprising. Before one can develop any vocabulary, one needs to be exposed to words, and by appearing to speak of “sin” almost exclusively as personal failure to obey laws and limiting it to the sphere of sexuality, the Church fails to encourage appropriate vocabulary development and conscience formation. The Church’s social teaching, referred to by some theologians as its best kept secret, would certainly help to broaden the average Catholic’s vocabulary of sin, but this aspect of sin rarely makes either the evening news or the Sunday homily.