The Catholic conception of sin was the first lens that I ever viewed moral wrongs through. If something was wrong, it was a sin. Sins weren’t just the things covered in the Ten Commandments but a variety of other wrongdoings, both defined and vague. Being reluctant to go to Mass was a sin, being mean to my little sister was a sin, lying to my parents was a sin. Through that perspective, if something wasn’t a sin, it couldn’t have been wrong. Of course, as I got older the line between sin and not sin blurred more and more.
The way I was taught as a child to right these wrongs was of course, to go to confession. Growing up, my sins were always the same: getting mad at my sister, not paying attention to Mass, lying, envy, etc. Honestly, most side effects of teenage angst would probably qualify as a sin. It wasn’t that confessing made me a better person, or at least stopped me from from sinning in the exact same ways year after year. At the moment of confession, I do believe that I was genuinely contrite, and genuinely sought forgiveness. I always mentally envisioned God, or maybe an angel since I’m sure the Supreme Being had to delegate, with reading glasses perched on their nose, crossing out my sins with a red pen in the ledger where they kept all of humanity’s transgressions. Kind of like Santa. But later in life two major questions began to arise.
As my sense of morality drifted from one rooted in the Catholic faith to one rooted in many things, it felt odd to confess things I didn’t really believe were wrong. I stopped regularly attending mass in college, due to a variety of issues with the catholic church and the feeling that I didn’t really get anything out of going to mass. But me sleeping in on a Sunday morning didn’t hurt anyone. If anything it allowed me extra rest for a day that was usually reserved for homework and other productive tasks. My sense of morality began to be rooted in the question of “did I cause harm?.”
Then of course there were many sins delineated by the Church that I could not and would not believe were wrong: being gay, being trans, living with your partner before marriage, abortion, etc. Even my devout parents didn’t really believe they were sins. My faith as moral compass was further eroded by the endless catalogue of sins that the Catholic Church had committed, even by its own measure, sins that had never been apologized for, harm that they had never been held accountable for, harm that was still perpetuated today. Was the Church ever contrite? Did they ever ask forgiveness? Asking for absolvement from an agent of an institution that never stopped its sinning, an agent who lives their life mostly in isolation from the regular tumult of the human condition, didn’t feel like a rectification of a wavering moral compass.
Running parallel to my waning faith in the Church was my education in restorative justice and abolition. Restorative justice is a response to crime that eschews our traditional notions of punishment. Instead, it takes the view that crime is not just defined as breaking the law, it’s causing harm to people, relationships and communities. We address this harm by bringing together all the stakeholders to cooperatively decide on a resolution. This method can cause fundamental changes in people, relationships and communities. Restorative justice is applicable not just to crimes as defined in the legal sense, but other wrongs as well. For example, many schools have adopted a restorative justice framework as an alternative to traditional disciplinary measures.
Restorative justice seemed like a more practical alternative to confession. If I lied to a friend, instead of just telling an old white man that I did and then doing 10 Hail Marys to erase my sin, my friend and I would work together to repair the harm that I cause and rebuild trust. Obviously that’s a very simplistic example, but restorative justice made sense in so many ways to me. Not only in the capacity of sinning, but in regards to all of the myriad ways we harm others. Instead of focusing on punishment or a violated norm or custom, we focus on whether harm was caused and how we can repair that harm in a way that includes both victim and offender. It teaches us that others are not disposable, that everyone is worth redemption, and that the relationships we have with others, our sense of community, is more important than an individual harm and while accountability is a solution, punishment is not.
I’m going to put a pin in restorative justice to briefly explain the ethics of care. The ethics of care is a feminist theory of morality, developed as a parallel (but not necessarily opposing) theory to the ethics of justice. It holds that moral action is centered on our interpersonal relationships and exalts the virtue of “care.” According to Carol Gilligan, an ethical framework of care is more common to women, due to the way they’re socialized to prioritize relationships and the feelings of others. However, it’s not limited to women and Gilligan’s connection of the ethics of care to femininity is obviously not inclusive of trans and nonbinary people. The ethics of care is at the core of restorative justice and explains how centering our connections with others. The ethics of care rejects hierarchy and instead elevates a network where everyone is a giver and receiver of care.
When we think about the forgiveness of sins and confession, it is framed as repairing our relationship with God. And of course, I recognize that for the devout, their relationship with God is the most central relationship in their lives. But what if we didn’t view our relationships as a hierarchy? And what if central to repairing our relationship with God was repairing our relationships with those we have harmed and those who have harmed us? The ethics of justice and Catholic perceptions of justice tend to view forgiveness, justice, and punishment as not very distinct from one another. What if we threw out the concept of punishment? From God, or the Church or from one another? What if we instead viewed forgiveness and accountability as part of a process of repairing and of healing? And what if we prioritized our relationships with God or faith or whatever higher power guides you by prioritizing our relationships with others?
What might confession look like then? What might the concept of atonement look like?