Now, Religion in the News—a report and comment on religious trends and events being covered by the media. This week’s item is from Reuter’s News Service, April 9, 2003, with the headline: “Church Declares General Forgiveness, dateline, Singapore. The Roman Catholic Church has suspended confessions in Singapore due to the spread of the deadly SARS virus, and priests will, instead, forgive all churchgoers for their sins, the Church said on Wednesday. ‘The archbishop of Singapore has issued a directive to the priests that there will be no individual confessions and that they are to issue general forgiveness,’ said a spokeswoman for the Catholic News, which represents Singapore’s Catholic Church.”
Tom: Dave, my first question here is, How does this work? Now, the Roman Catholic Church is a religious system of laws and rules and regulations. In my office I have a copy of the Code of Canon Law. There are 1,752 rules and regulations that Catholics must abide by. Some of them deal with salvation, some just ordinances of the Church and how the Church goes about its practices and so on. And, Dave, the thing that you find out is it’s incredibly complex. There are rules to cover rules to cover rules. You know, when we have laws, then we need lawyers to get around the laws that we’ve made, and so on and so forth. Now, here’s a problem: the Church has said that in order to be absolved of sin, you must confess your sin before a priest. You can’t go to God directly; you can’t just say, “Oh, Lord, forgive me,” and none of that.
Dave: You must be specific about the sin.
Tom: Exactly. Now, they’ve got a problem: SARS—people are dying from this virus, so now they’ve got to change their program a bit. This just doesn’t make sense.
Dave: The priest does not want to catch SARS from his parishioners, so he’s not going to get in close proximity with them, and they will individually confess to him, so now we are going to break the rule, the law of the Code of Canon Law, and we are going to forgive sin now….
Tom: Make an adjustment…
Tom: But they won’t make adjustment—they will make adjustments on some things. When I was growing up, eating meat on Friday—that was a mortal sin. If you did that knowingly and died at that point, you went straight to hell. You lost sanctifying grace and you went straight to hell. Sometime later, that’s revised. What about the people who are in hell? Or supposedly—they’re not, for that reason—but according to the Church…
Dave: Right, because they ate meat on Friday. I think they would feel rather unfairly treated.
Tom: This gets more complicated, Dave, and this is why we know it’s got to be a man-made system. Many Catholics believe that you don’t have to abstain from meat on Friday. The Church encourages you not to eat meat on Friday. However, during the time of Lent, Ash Wednesday, you must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday during Lent—you are obligated, under the pain of mortal sin, to abstain from meat. So, these are men’s rules and regulations.
Dave: Tom, what does it mean to forgive sins? You see, no man can forgive sins but God only, the Scripture says. And you find that in the gospels, when Jesus said to this man who had been let down through the hole in the roof, “Thy sins be forgiven thee.” And the Rabbi said, “Hey, wait a minute! Who can forgive sins but God only? Jesus said, That you may know that I have the power to forgive sins…Well, he says, whether is it easier to say your sins be forgiven you or to tell this man, you are healed instantly? And so that you will know that I have the authority to forgive sins, he said to this man, Rise, take up your bed and walk.”
Now the priest can’t do that. Only God can forgive sins, but the forgiveness comes through Christ alone. It is only in Christ alone that we have forgiveness of sins. We have forgiveness of sins past, present, and future, and if we confess our sins to Him, He is faithful and just— that is, ongoing sin—to forgive us. But now, it seems rather clear that only churchgoers—if you show up in church, then the priest will pronounce a blanket forgiveness. But what does this do now, Tom? You see, in Catholicism—and you were a Catholic, I never was—you know that if you die without sanctifying grace, if you die with sins on you, then you certainly are going to go to purgatory, and if you die with mortal sin, you are going to hell. So, forgiveness of sins for a Catholic is a more serious matter. It could be the difference between heaven or hell. Whereas an evangelical Christian, I believe that I have been forgiven once and for all, that I have the gift of eternal life, I will never perish. John:5:24, Christ said, “He that hears my word and believes on him that sent me has everlasting life, shall not come into condemnation but has passed from death to life.” So if I commit a sin after I have believed in Christ, it’s not a matter of whether I am going to go to hell or not, it’s a matter of my pleasing Him and having a guilty conscience and, Lord, I’m sorry that I did this and I am forgiven but…
Tom: And you may reap what you sow in this temporal life based on sin because, Hebrews 12: “Those whom he loves, he chastens, disciplines, and so on.”
Dave: That could be, but for the Catholic now, this is a matter of life and death—this is a matter of heaven or hell, or at least, purgatory. Well then, what is the point of having a plenary indulgence? Let’s say the priest gives them a plenary indulgence. They go out and they go home, and half an hour later they sin again. Now they are under the penalty of sin once more. You made a pilgrimage to Rome, the year 2000, you walk through that holy door and an hour later you sinned. What was the point? You got a plenary indulgence but you’re going to have to have a holy door to walk through all the time. That’s not going to work!
So, it really is meaningless. It’s not going to really…Well, you could say, yeah, but I’ve got less suffering in purgatory because I was forgiven, you know.
But Tom, it’s a tragedy, because the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, shed once and for all upon the Cross, cleanses us from all sin. And the scripture says that, “Once, in the end of the age, he has appeared to take away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” That’s Hebrews:9:26, I think it is, and Hebrews, chapter 10, begins with talking about under the old covenant the Jews had to offer sacrifices day by day by day, but this man, Christ—and it says, “In the offering of those sacrifices, there was a remembrance of sin,” because they couldn’t take away sin. That’s why you had to offer it again and again. And then it goes on in Hebrews 10, to say, “But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice forever, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on High, For by one sacrifice he has sanctified, he has cleansed, he has purified forever those who put their faith and trust in him.”