Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

What I Have Seen and Heard for August 30, 2012

By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY | Published August 30, 2012

“Is it a sin to get a tattoo?” That was one of the questions that I fielded at Milledgeville last Tuesday evening as I made my annual visit to the Campus Catholics ministry at Georgia College. While I assured the young person that tattoos themselves were not sinful, it’s an entirely different question about them being wise, prudent or tasteful, but that was not the question the young person raised.

We Catholics occasionally use the category of sin to apply to a vast array of unrelated human issues. The world is not neatly divided into those things that are sinful—of which there are quite a few—and those things that are not sinful. Sin is very serious business and should not be taken lightly. Sin involves hatred, violence, lies, deception and the intentional destruction of relationships between us and God and among one another. In and of themselves, tattoos just don’t make the grade!

There are many things that we do that might be foolish, rude, ridiculous and inappropriate but that do not deteriorate to the standard of sin. Sin lodges in the will and the soul of a person and there becomes a source of spiritual corrosion and even death.

The next question that evening touched on a related topic: “How can we explain to our non-Catholic friends our custom of going to confession?” Our Catholic tradition of the Sacrament of Reconciliation may indeed baffle not only most non-Catholics but many Catholics, who simply do not understand why one would confess to a priest—a mere sinful man himself. This sacrament has long been a source of misperception, and our customs have changed regarding its practice. In our world of hyper-individualism, sacramental confession can be even more a source of confusion.

More baffling than even the Sacrament of Reconciliation has been our shifting and often confused attitudes about sin itself. For many people sin is an antiquated and quite useless category of human behavior, and for many others who still might acknowledge it as a reality, it is excessively personal and highly individual in nature. Why would one ever need a sacrament to address this type of an issue? Our obsession with the individual and the sovereignty of the person generally disassociates sin and community. Yet classic Catholic teaching on sin presumes an individual has a relationship within a community. Sin involves not just a personal concern between God and me, but it dramatically involves how we belong to and impact one another. Every sin, no matter how private it might seem, destroys in some fashion or another the harmony that God plans and wills for the human community.

Therefore as I responded to the second question, I had to begin with a declaration that none of us lives in absolute isolation and things that we might do as individuals have an effect on people beyond ourselves. The priest becomes not merely an instrument for reconciling us to God (who can and does forgive us when we humbly ask for His mercy), but confession becomes also a moment when the community’s disorder is mended. If we don’t see ourselves as really connected to each other, then it would be difficult to grasp why this sacrament is important for the Church.

The Council of Trent taught about the character of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in terms of the priest acting as a judge in behalf of the Church. We all recognize that almost every society designates judges who work in behalf of the community. Judges are also citizens, who share the same limitations and aspirations as their fellow citizens. Yet they administer justice in behalf of society. They reconcile people who may have violated a law in the name of the community. They hand down sentences that seek to restore a sense of harmony within society. They do this because an infraction of a law creates an imbalance within society, violates the harmony of a community. Obviously there are judges who fail to live up to the very laws they are supposed to administer—traffic court judges who speed, civil magistrates who lie or steal. If their infraction is truly serious, they are removed from office, but we don’t do away with our need for judges because society requires them to administer the laws that keep a community in balance.

It is a similar situation with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We priests all know that we are sinful members of the community, yet we also exercise an important function in helping the family of the Church maintain a spirit of harmony, unity and solidarity because it is God’s will that we live in union with one another—and because none of us lives completely alone.