27 August 2001

reconciliation and justification

I finished reading Reconciliation and Justification: The Sacrament and Its Theology by Kenan B. Osborne (Paulist 1990). Osborne is a Franciscan priest and always brings an interesting perspective to his writings, with an obvious sympathy for Protestant emphasis upon sola gratia and the centrality of faith in salvation, but also with a keen knowledge of the Roman Catholic tradition and teaching with an emphasis upon its diversity.

In this particular book he addresses the question of "sacramental reconciliation" - probably better known by many as "confession" or "penance" - with a particular focus on its relationship to the doctrine of justification. The doctrine of justification is important to him since he wonders how best to understand traditional Catholic teaching about "merit," "satisfaction," and so on, in light of the sheer unmerited gratuity of salvation in Christ. How ever they are to be understood, he says, they should never be presented in a way that undermines the nature of salvation as a total gift, received in faith.

Osborne places "reconciliation" in several contexts:

[1] the work of Jesus Christ in which sinners are reconciled to God and to one another, constituting Jesus as the "primordial sacrament" in light of which any other reconciliation, ritual or otherwise, must be placed;

[2] the Church as the locus of reconciliation in Christ as that is manifest in history, constituting the Church as the "basic sacrament" of God's salvation in the world;

[3] the reconciliation that is enacted among Christians as they forgive one another, bear one another's burdens, and minister in Jesus' name to each other, overcoming evil with good;

[4] the ritual means of reconciliation as that takes place in the general confession of sin in each liturgy, on special occasions where sacramental reconciliation is conducted in a general fashion, and in the sacrament of reconciliation, privately with a priest, as traditionally conceived.

Among other things, Osborne argues that Catholic doctrine does not hold that sacramental reconciliation privately with a priest is necessary for the forgiveness of serious sin. Rather, the rite is a celebration of God's forgiveness already held forth in Christ where it is witnessed to by a priest for the benefit of the penitent and of the Church. Moreover, he maintains the stipulation of naming one's sins to a priest in "number and kind" is a matter of church regulation, not divine law.

Many other features of Osborne's book could be noted, but my main interest in it was the way in which it presented a current Roman Catholic understanding of "confession" in the context of the history of doctrine and in dialogue with Protestant concerns. And he goes a long way towards meeting the traditional Protestant objections to the rite of confession within a Roman Catholic context.

We would also do well to remember that private confession to minister of the Gospel is not foreign to either the Lutheran or Reformed traditions (see Luther's Small Catechism or Calvin's Institutes 3.4.12-14). The proclamation of the Gospel through the ministry of absolution and reconciliation in the care of troubled souls is still central to the Church's ministry, whatever criticisms of the Roman Catholic practice we may still retain.