Clerical Penance: A Modest Proposal

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penitence.jpgFr. James Martin, S.J. has been been hither and yon urging that what’s been missing in the Catholic hierarchy’s response to the current abuse crisis has been penance, as in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As warrant for his position, he cites the pope’s recent suggestion that some penance might be in order at this time. But so far as Martin is concerned, what’s needed is not generalized penance for the entire Church, as called for by the bishops of England and Wales a few days ago. The laity should not do atonement for the sins of the fathers.

What would the clerical penance look like? Martin mentions real work for the poor such as service in a soup kitchen, but begs off the job of serving as episcopal confessor. David Gibson pronounces himself baffled. How about letting history be the guide?

The Early Church organized penitents into four groups, the members of which were permitted varying degrees of participation in worship services. Those guilty of the most serious sins–mortal ones–were not permitted to enter the church. Called flentes (weepers) or hybernantes (those out in the cold), they stood outside, sometimes arrayed in sackcloth and ashes, and begged the prayers of the faithful as they went in. This was the most public penance imaginable, and surely public penance is what’s required in the present case.

Imagine the pope pronouncing a Sunday of Clerical Penance, on which all bishops and priests would put on sackcloth and ashes and stand outside Catholic churches around the world asking for parishioners’ prayers and begging their forgiveness. The effect would, I predict, be stunning.