The past few weeks have seen a number of pretty vocal criticisms of a handful of public figures in Church life. Many of these criticisms are entirely justified, and only a fool would try to defend the actions of those few individuals who have fallen short of the call to holiness. Often these public reprimands are bound up with a call for Church reform. The Church is, in fact, permanently in the business of reform, though we might more usefully speak about ‘conversion’. Of course, this might not be the ‘conversion’ that society wants, but reform and renewal and conversion, are not alien to the life of the Church – in fact, they are central to it. Christians undergo a constant and continual conversion deeper into a relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ, and so with the Church and each other, because that is the life to which we are called by our baptism.
Part of that continuing conversion is the growing towards Christ which takes place through the recognition, admission, contrition, and absolution of sin. In this, the Christian is restored to the grace of baptism through God’s forgiveness in the sacramental action of Confession. When we Christians do something wrong, we don’t only have vocabulary to describe it – e.g. sin – but we also have a clear moral code by which we are able to judge the act. ‘Wrong’ and ‘Sin’ are not only fluid terms in the Western secular mindset, but they are always applied subjectively because no moral code exists independently of the Judeo-Christian moral law which undergirds the very fibre of society. Thus we have the analogous situation of a senior Churchman being decried for doing something which secular society encourages and promotes, and the cries of hypocrisy from certain quarters begin to ring hollow.
Most importantly, however, the Church proposes the idea of forgiveness. Not only do we Christians acknowledge our own sin, but we also believe that no human or human action is beyond forgiveness, or beyond redemption. We believe that, whatever mistakes we make, there is no end to God’s mercy and forgiveness. When such a model is placed alongside the current secular trend of perpetual condemnation, it not only appears appealing, but also somewhat more human – we all do wrong and we are all wronged, the Church – in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – offers us the ability to forgive and to be forgiven. Even outside the vocabulary of Christian forgiveness, there is a certain natural moral sense that the process of contrition for error can and should be rewarded by a renewed relationship between the offender and society. This is something that needs badly to be reclaimed.
The secularist mindset fails to provide a clear moral code by which we can live, and so it fails also to be able to objectively identify good and evil. What is good for one person is seen as evil for another, and an act which is perceived as evil cannot then be countered by an act of good – in other words, saying sorry becomes an empty gesture which cannot be objectively defined as good. If this dark, cold, and unforgiving world is what’s on offer these days, then count me out; in the Church, though, we have something different to offer.