My classmates and I learned theology surrounding the Sacrament as well as practiced hearing confessions and giving counsel and penances to our classmates and staff at seminary. Here are two interesting things we discussed.
First, St. John Paul II, in his exhortation, “Reconciliation and Penance,” discusses how sin permeates our lives in broad ways. What we often think of as private—sins we see as exclusively ‘between us and God’—actually harms more than just us and God. Private sin began to destroy human relationships in the first sin of Eve eating from the forbidden tree. Her sin pulled Adam to sin, and each one’s relationship with God and with one another was obscured; they could no longer trust each other fully, and God could no longer trust them fully.
Like Adam or Eve, we choose against God’s plan for us, but we often don’t think it hurts anyone else. St John Paul II reminds us that “man's rupture with God leads tragically to divisions between brothers.” The people building the Tower of Babel (Gen 11) were not in right relationship with God. So, they were scattered throughout the world. As we approach Reconciliation, we can reflect on our “personal sins” and the effect our sins have on others, too.
Second, our individual sins lead to social problems, called “social sin.”
St. John Paul II acknowledges several understandings of social sin. One understanding he calls unacceptable, though, is attributing sin to an unnamed or “anonymous entity” which would relieve an individual of responsibility. This cannot be. “The real responsibility…lies with individuals,” he writes.
The sin of a society as large as a nation or as small as a local club finds its root in personal action—or inaction—that contradicts God’s will. Countries or organizations doesn’t “act”. Individual people do. The Pope writes, “nothing is more personal and intimate than this sacrament, in which the sinner stands alone before God with his sin, repentance and trust.”
To say that the Sacrament of Penance is not intended for the forgiveness of social sin is to say that Confession is for persons, not societies. In the act of Sacramental, one person approaches God to confess sin and amend one’s life. Society cannot do that as a whole. However, since “cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins,” as individuals approach the Confessional, societies will indeed become better, too.