Social Penance: The Church Accountable?

Torture is part of the Christian past. From a Catholic point of view, the church does indeed have penance to do for the Inquisition. But how? I propose that the way to do penance for the Inquisition is to speak out and resist torture as it is practiced now…. Confession of our sin would require not simply the admission that torture has been done in our name, but the confession that only God is God, and not any nation-state that claims to save us from evil. Christians worship a God who was tortured to death by the empire; it is this God who saves by saying no to violence on the cross. Our penance, then, would take the form of resisting the idolatry of nation and state and its attendant violence. Catholicism should be particularly equipped for this, since it is a worldwide church that transgresses the artificial boundaries of all nation-states.- William T. Cavanaugh, How to Do Penance for the Inquisition

This quote comes from an essay Cavanaugh wrote in the aftermath of a book about the torture of the Pinochet regime and the church’s eventual resistance to such practices.  Questioners at lectures often asked him how a Catholic of all people could write a book against torture.  And while the conventional narrative of the Inquisition is often distorted, it is true that torture figures into Christian history.

I buy into Cavanaugh’s notion of penance and corporate responsibility.  I know that in our fiercely individualistic culture that’s a notion often rejected.  But I accept it, because history and tradition are a huge part of what makes us into the individuals we are.  So I take the idea of social penance seriously.

Which makes me wonder how the church should publicly react to actions carried out by those who claim to be Christians, but are clearly not Christian actions.  Lump into this category the Norway killer, Fred Phelps, Scott Roeder, etc.  How accountable should the church be for these kinds of actions/people?  What form could such an accountability take?


One response to “Social Penance: The Church Accountable?

  1. This is very interesting, and it definitely pulls me in two directions.

    For example, Daniel (Daniel 9) prayed and fasted, mourned and wept, and sought the forgiveness of God on behalf of the sins Israel had committed– even though he himself was not directly responsible for those sins.

    However, I see a couple differences here that I think warrant our attention.
    1) Israel was a physical construction that was all-inclusive of their community. The Church, however, is a Spiritual body of believers in which Jesus Himself says that not everyone who professes His name will be part of. In large part, I reject the idea that the Catholic Church during that era of “torturing saints” was even Christian, rather, they were the embodiment of false teachers.

    2) Even among Israel, Daniel did not do penitence to the offended parties, rather, to God. We confess our sins before Him because He is the one our sins offend (since it was the body of Christ that was innocent, yet broken).

    Where I am torn is my own… sympathy and shame (for lack of better words). I’m ashamed… indeed, even outraged, that people bear the name of Christ while doing such atrocious acts. And I love the souls that they have harmed and desire to see them blessed.

    But when it comes to penitence, I have to question the idea that says I would repent for the sins of other sinners that are nto even apart of the body of Christ.

    I know I threw a lot out there, but anyway, what do you think?

    (- From Travelingstranger on Xanga)

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