Must we call it the Sacrament of Reconciliation rather than the Sacrament of Confession?

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You may have come across expert VaticanIIologians who say that we should not speak of the Sacrament of Confession or of Penance any more, but use the sacrament’s shiny new name, given to it by the Second Vatican Council: The Sacrament of Reconciliation.

This is nonsense. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the Sacrament of Penance, Confession, and Reconciliation. The Code of Canon Law also uses all three terms. Hard-working parish volunteer catechists should be reassured that it is still perfectly proper to use the term Confession and it makes sense to do so because that is the name by which it is most commonly known. For adults under instruction, it might be helpful to explain the other terms since they tell us something about the sacrament. However, it is worth knowing why the term “reconciliation” is used, and what its significance is, since this is widely misunderstood.

Vatican II’s “astonishing enactment”

In Lumen Gentium, the Council fathers dealt with the sacraments in their relationship with the Church. Of penance, they said:
Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain, by his mercy, pardon for the offence committed against God and at the same time are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by sinning…
Dealing with the priest’s ministry of the sacraments in Presbyterorum Ordinis, they said:
By the sacrament of Penance, they reconcile sinners with God and the Church.
Rahner refers to these two texts and says “This declaration of the Council is an astonishing enactment.” Actually it need not have been astonishing to Rahner, since he worked hard, together with other theologians, to have the “enactment” made. The modern promotion of the idea of reconciliation with the Church can be credited to the respected Carmelite theologian Bartolom√© Xiberta who, in his “Clavis Ecclesiae: De ordine Absolutionis Sacramentalis ad Reconciliationem cum Ecclesia” (Rome 1922) proposed that the sacrament of penance effected reconciliation with the Church and not simply with God through the Church. This thesis met with some support but also with widespread rejection. Rahner cited an impressive list of theologians who agreed with Xiberta before the Council: De La Taille, Cabrol, de Lubac, Leeming, Schillebeeckx, Ratzinger, Congar and Vorgrimler.

The important thing to note about Rahner's astonishment is that it concerns reconciliation with the Church, not reconciliation with God. It is obvious that the sacrament of penance brings about reconciliation with God. This is not something new; it was taught, for example, at the Council of Trent. (Sess.14, cap.3 DS 1674) It is not so obvious that it brings about reconciliation with the Church or why this is so important.

A helpful idea

Once a person commits a mortal sin, he or she must not receive Holy Communion. In a state of unrepented mortal sin, it would in fact be a sacrilege to receive Holy Communion, condemned in clear terms by St Paul (1 Cor 11.27). However, it is the teaching of the Church that if that person makes an act of perfect contrition, then he or she is immediately restored to grace, even before making a sacramental confession – but still may not receive Holy Communion before making a sacramental confession.

Some theologians think Xiberta’s revival of the idea of reconciliation with the Church is helpful here because it offers an explanation of why a person who is reconciled to God (forgiven and returned to a state of grace) is prohibited from receiving Holy Communion until he or she has been to confession. The idea is that the sacrament of penance reconciles us to the Church and readmits us to Holy Communion because of that reconciliation.

The hidden agenda in promoting Xiberta's thesis might well have been the desire to allow children to make their first Holy Communion without having first been to confession. In fact, this practice was allowed for a while, but then once more prohibited. In fact, the theology of reconciliation with the Church was probably a little too convoluted for it to become a popular rallying cry, though the bad practice of celebrating first Holy Communion without prior confession persisted in many places.

A theological problem

A theological conundrum arises from the celebration of the sacrament of penance when the penitent has only committed venial sins and has therefore remained in a state of grace and has continued to be able to receive Holy Communion. When someone is already freely allowed to receive Eucharistic Communion it is hard to see how it makes any sense to talk of them being reconciled with the Church by a confession of venial sins.

This was a problem for Rahner and others because they wanted to make reconciliation with the Church an essential part of the sacrament. (Technically, they argued for it being the “res et sacramentum.”) Rahner referred at one point to the idea of reconciliation with the Church being present in the sacramental theology of the late middle ages, but we must bear in mind the relevant remark of St Thomas Aquinas who said:
"Through venial sin, a person is separated neither from God nor from the sacraments; and therefore he does not need the conferral of new grace for the remission of it nor does he need reconciliation with the Church." (In Sent., lib.4 d.17 q.3 a.3 qc.3 co.)
So as far as St Thomas is concerned, it is not possible to make reconciliation with the Church an essential part of the sacrament. I agree with the Angelic Doctor on this point. It is much more sensible to see it as one of the effects of the sacrament, an effect that is only relevant when mortal sins are confessed.

Should we talk of First Reconciliation? (Or is that just silly?)

In many Churches that I have visited, I have seen references to children making their “First Reconciliation.” I entirely accept that the catechists may have felt that they must follow what is laid down by the experts, and I have no wish to cast aspersions on their valuable volunteer work with children preparing for the sacraments. However I am reminded old definition of an expert in Church terms: “A priest from another diocese with a briefcase.” Don’t necessarily trust ‘em.

Of the different names of the sacrament that have been used by the Church for centuries, reconciliation is probably the least helpful for children. Although we allow the theoretical possibility that they can commit a mortal sin, it is unlikely that they have any but venial sins to confess. (I love Fr Bernard Bassett’s description of children’s confessions as “Naughty rude fighting.”) To talk of first Reconciliation could imply that it is the first time (of many) that the child will be separated from the Church by mortal sin. The term first Confession is more sensible because we all commit venial sins, and there is nobody who does not benefit from making a confession of devotion (i.e. a confession where the sins confessed are venial sins.)

The kindly and merciful reception by the priest, of a child's first confession, the sincere resolution not to sin in the future, and the joy of knowing the forgiveness of God have been witnessed by countless generations of priests and parents. There is no need to complicate things by using a word that is known to English-speakers most commonly in the context of divorce proceedings.

And anyway, the whole point got missed very quickly

As a matter of fact, the introduction of the word reconciliation for the sacrament of penance was rapidly misunderstood. Archbishop Bugnini, describing the formation of the Ordo Paenitentiae in his “The Reform of the Liturgy” seems to think that “reconciliation” refers to reconciliation with God and seems to be unaware of the theological discussion that had taken place. The Ordo Paenitentiae itself in the Praenotanda speaks of reconciliation with God and with the Church, but referring to reconciliation with the Church speaks entirely of how we affect one another either by our sins or our good deeds, and therefore how our penance brings with it a reconciliation with our brethren. Its horizontal communitarian interpretation completely misses the point of the theological discussion started by Xiberta and fostered by Rahner’s list of theologians.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church goes even further in missing the point when it says of the sacrament of penance:
“It is called the sacrament of Reconciliation, because it imparts to the sinner the love of God who reconciles” (n.1424)
Well, no actually. It came to be called the sacrament of Reconciliation because Karl Rahner and others wanted to emphasise reconciliation with the Church.

In the end, we would be better off just using the terms that our people have grown accustomed to, rather than the new term Reconciliation which was introduced as part of an arcane theological discussion, a discussion which few actually knew about, making a point that was almost immediately missed, and is not nowadays generally understood.

Photo Credit: The photograph is of the confession of Fr Felix Cappello in the Church of Saint Ignatius in Rome. Fr Cappello was a professor of sacramental theology, and a much-loved and revered priest, especially for his ministry in the confessional. His manual of sacramental theology is superb. I took the photo on a visit to Rome in 2012.

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