CANON LAW FOR TODAY
By Rev. Frank Morrisey
Sins are forgiven in a variety of ways, through God’s grace and our charity
In our Oct. 8 column, we looked at the sacrament of reconciliation, and noted that this sacrament, instituted by Christ, forgives sins committed after baptism.
But, is this the only way that sin can be forgiven? Of course not.
Unfortunately, sin is a factor in the life of every human being. Indeed, one definition of death is: “to stop sinning suddenly”!
The Code of Canon Law does not enter into too many details relating to the forms of forgiveness of sin. These pertain more to the realm of moral theology. For this reason, we must look outside the code to find the various answers to our question. Among the primary sources, we could mention the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Catechism tells us that there are many kinds of sins — sins of action and sins of omission; sins against God, against the church, against one’s neighbour, against oneself. Sins are also distinguished according to their gravity. Thus, there are mortal sins and venial sins, as well as imperfections. Mortal sin destroys the virtue of charity in a person’s heart. It implies a turning away from God. Venial sin, on the other hand, does not destroy charity, but certainly weakens it.
For a sin to be mortal, we recall that three conditions are necessary: there must be serious matter, full knowledge, and consent which is sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice (see Catechism, Art. 1857, 1860). Even though. on the surface, certain acts could well seem to be most serious or grave, unless we know the state of the person’s knowledge and consent, we are unable to determine that such and such an act was indeed sinful.
Because mortal sin implies a total turning away from God, and since this contradicts basic attitudes instilled in a Christian, we must not conclude too easily that every grave act is indeed a mortal sin. The church’s practice and attitude is to give the sinner the benefit of the doubt. Pope Francis’ now famous words apply here: “Who am I to judge?”
Fortunately, venial sin does not break our covenant with God. While it weakens our response to God’s grace and call, we nevertheless remain open to it and wish to live our lives accordingly.
There are many ways of receiving forgiveness for venial sins and for other imperfections. Primary among these is reception of the Blessed Eucharist, because through it we are, once again, reconciled with God. This sincere act of conversion opens us to repentance and to the reception of God’s grace.
Outside the eucharist, there are many actions of daily life, if performed correctly, which can also restore the fullness of God’s grace within us. Among these, we could note: concern for the poor and acceptance of suffering. This is what Jesus meant when he spoke of “taking up one’s cross” (see Luke 9:23).
Other recognized means are prayer and devotions such as the rosary, sacrifice, almsgiving and sharing one’s goods with those who are in need. Just think for a moment of the many sacrifices a mother makes during the course of a day in order to provide for the well-being of her husband and children. All of these actions, if placed in a context of continually seeking God’s recognition and forgiveness, remove the effects of sin from our heart.
All of these, of course, find their culmination in the sacrament of reconciliation, for, in this sacrament, we meet God directly through a legitimate representative. We take one further step on the road to conversion and open our minds and hearts to the saving power of God.
Could we imagine what life would be like if we did not have forgiveness for our sins? We would be easily discouraged and despondent. We know that only God can forgive sins, but we also know from Scripture that God does not bear a grudge. Rather, like the father of the prodigal son, God is always there, waiting patiently to offer forgiveness and to restore us to the beauty that is ours by baptism. This is what we mean when we speak of a merciful, all-loving God. This is the image the church wishes to portray, not that of a severe judge just waiting to punish the wayward.
These various means of forgiveness of sin are all around us. We have to open our minds and hearts to see the possibilities. It would be rash on our part to disregard them and to continue living as we depended on ourselves alone, and not on the mercy of an all-loving God.
Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 18th article in a series.