“Penitence Has Never Had a Good Press”

Back in May or thereabouts, Swiss theologian Thomas Michelet, OP, had a lengthy, fascinating piece at Nova et Vetera, “Synod on the Family: the path of the Ordo Paenitentium.” Sandro Magister covered it a couple of times. It was in French, though Fr. Michelet’s contribution to Magister’s column, addressing the Instrumentum Laboris, was translated into English. There is now an English translation of the piece available (we don’t know when it was published, but it has made the rounds recently), which takes on new significance in light of Germanicus’s report, emphasizing the law of gradualness and citing John Paul’s Familiaris consortio. Fr. Michelet notes, in one particularly striking paragraph:

We believe that the ordo paenitentium constitutes not only an application par excellence of the law of gradualness but is actually one of its ancient sources. It is also a touchstone, as it allows us to verify objectively that we are not in the process of establishing – even without wishing to – a system based on “gradualness of the law” which would confuse the path of conversion and rejection of evil with an itinerary of spiritual progress in the good and in the state of grace, thus making the distinction between good and evil a simple difference of degree and not of kind. Between the state of grace and the state of sin there is no continuity nor intermediary, even if in both cases there is the possibility of progression or of regression. Also, we cannot apply even by analogy the ecclesiological schema of degrees of communion of Lumen Gentium no. 8 to the situation of the sinner, precisely because the practice of ecumenical dialogue supposes that, with the passing of centuries, the separated brother has no longer any personal intention to participate in the sin of schism, which is not the case of the first generations who are still subject to the discipline of the Church. Likewise, the good cannot be presented as an optional ideal but as the end which one must endeavour to attain through acts which become ever more fully ordered towards that end – a journey of small steps which by dint of perseverance ends up in reaching its goal. It is only in this way that we can admit a progressive path achieved in stages.

(Emphasis supplied.) You ought to read the whole thing, but we can’t help ourselves from posting a little more of it. This portion is absolutely brilliant, as it summarizes all the problems, doctrinal and pastoral, with the sort of penitential path currently being debated at the Synod:

It would not make sense to enter upon such a “penitential journey” without humbly recognising one’s sin and desiring to be purified of it, to “lower oneself to the ground” (substrati) before the Lord so that he may himself come to raise us up. Likewise, it would not be just to bring this penitential journey to an end in a sacramental reconciliation if its conditions were not fulfilled, that is, as long as there exists an attachment which is opposed to it, whether that of a remarriage or of any other relationship contrary to the Gospel. Such an absolution would be deceitful and one has reason to believe it would be invalid.

(Emphasis supplied.) Ideally, the penitent will finally express his or her sorrow for sin through a valid sacramental penance, which includes, necessarily, the firm purpose of amendment—severing the “attachment opposed to” reconciliation. In the case of the divorced and remarried,

the only solution is to undertake to live as “brother and sister”. This is not simply a matter of continence, but rather of a transformation of outlook and of the acquisition of that interior purity which allows the person to be faithful to the truth of their marriage, albeit in the form of a separation which has shown itself to be legitimate.

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, Fr. Michelet does not argue that the penitent needs to hurry up and file civil divorce proceedings, though obviously that would terminate the sinful, adulterous relationship. Instead, he argues for inner conversion, to an understanding of the truth of the marriage. (We assume that this includes an understanding of the truth of both marriages.)

However, Fr. Michelet acknowledges that those who are capable of committing to continence and chastity—coupled with a recognition of the truth about their marriage—may not be the majority of penitents. What of those who cannot achieve during their lifetimes the inner commitment necessary?

This period is above all one of liberation from interior chains, something not within man’s capacity and which God alone can grant in his own time, even if perhaps not for this world. It may at least be hoped, for those who have resolutely set out on this path, that death will be their reconciliation and their door to salvation, as the catechumen called to the Lord before his baptism and with good dispositions will receive its grace without the sign.

In other words, the process of penance may be life-long, and it may conclude only with death, at which time the penitent properly disposed may receive reconciliation, grace, and salvation.

Addressing spiritual communion, Fr. Michelet says,

What is at stake here is truly spiritual discernment in the service of souls. This truth may be difficult to hear, but that is no reason to keep quiet about it or to deny it. We must do so in charity, accepting that the other may need time to “come to the truth”, to allow it to emerge in her heart, to recognise it as it is, to accept it and to draw consequences from it. It is also matter of charity of language, which consists in finding the right words to express the truth in a way that is audible yet without bending it. For truth without charity is not truth; equally, charity without truth is not charity.

We think this says it all. Go read the piece.