Someone once described the perfect marriage in terms of an agreement between the spouses, whereby the husband concerned himself with big issues like Isis and the war in Afghanistan, the 100% vs. the 1% in this country, the loss of civility in the factional arguments within the US congress and the climate changes enveloping large area of the US, while the wife concerned herself over smaller things like adequate income to put food on the table and pay the rent, finding a good school for the children, sufficient health care for the family and tending to the upkeep of house and property. Their concerns never crossed paths, so arguments were minimal.
And so it is in other life situations. And it emerges in church life, such as the rising prominence of social concerns (in both church and society at large), often occurring in conjunction with an apparent diminishment of interest in matters of personal concerns. One aspect of this conundrum emerges in issues of sin. Until recently, personal sin, at least in Catholic circles, was a dominant concern, probably because of the prominence that confessional practice enjoyed in Catholic practice for a long period of time, during which children attending Catholic schools were carefully instructed on “how to go to confession”, including the formula for initiating the ritual, and then the types of sins to be confessed, so as to receive absolution from the priest, and God’s forgiveness. The content of confession usually focused on “things I did” more than on “things I failed to do”. And the ten commandments, explained and illustrated, served as the reliable guideline for identifying such sins. In this form, confessional practice was an intensely personal exercise centering largely on oneself, though usually in relationship to family life, marriage and one’s circle of friends.
In recent years, for a variety of reasons, “social concerns” have emerged as a dominant issue in contemporary society, as a prominent focus of both secular sources, such as newspapers and electronic media, and even of religious sources, such as recent church teaching, largely papal encyclicals of the last ten popes or so, within Catholicism, and the writings of prominent theologians, especially in the mainline Protestant traditions. As a result, our attention has been riveted on issues of war and peace, the economy (management and labor especially), the travails of nature (issues of water availability and usage, climate control and storm systems, agricultural problems, rising seas levels, reduction of soil productivity, abortion not only as a personal issue but also a social one), etc. And, with this shift in the perception of the dominant evils afflicting this world of ours, the understanding of “wrong-doing” has changed from the individual person to larger social units.
And this focus change has impacted the practice of the sacrament of confession, or reconciliation, as Catholics now refer to it. Frequenting this sacrament has notably declined among Catholics, even “practicing” ones: does this reflect a diminished sense of sin, or possibly a changed understanding of it? Are more people now concerned with social sin than with personal sin, and does this affect the traditional practice of sacramental reconciliation (confession)which has come to seem out of touch with the real wrongs and sins of contemporary life, as exhibited in the social arena? Indeed, many parishes have adjusted their practice of the sacrament of reconciliation to “penance services” (which choreograph the social side of penance) in an effort to address social sin. Yet many Catholics still cherish the traditional understanding of sin and the confessional practice designed to address it. Hopefully this will not create any cleavage among Catholics cherishing their own opinion on what sin is all about, and on the sacrament of reconciliation provided to address it.
Does Jesus provide us any guidance in this matter? Perhaps some of His remarks are helpful, such as: “…it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mt. 19.24), or “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?” (Lk. 6.41), or “Well done, good servant! You have been faithful in this very small matter; take charge of ten cities.” (Lk. 19.17)
But certainly all of us need a conscience that is sensitive to both personal matters and social issues, that is, to the large as well as the small. And this may call for some corrective lenses.