Jack Dominian

The object of the Christian life is to know, love and serve God. In fact Jesus made it clear that the heart of faith is love.

But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees they got together and, to disconcert him, one of them put a question, 'Master, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?' Jesus said 'You must love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets also.'

Clearly, love is at the centre of the relationship between God and man, and between human beings themselves. This love involves the heart which means affect, the mind which contains reason, and the soul which is the sphere of spiritual discernment. But men and women are not dualistic entities, they are not matter and spirit, they operate as whole beings. In this operation their awareness of what is right and wrong, their freedom to choose between the two and their capacity to assent to their decisions have been traditionally the elements making up responsibility for their actions.

What is right and wrong has been discerned from revelation through the inspired word of the Bible. Here there are two traditions that have held sway. The Roman Catholic one which claims that the teaching Church interprets the word of God, and the Protestant one which encourages a more direct dialogue between the Bible and the individual believer. For both, however, revelation is a primary source of teaching of divine truth.

Revelation is supplemented by reference to tradition and natural law. Thus revelation, tradition and natural law form a core of truth to which the Christian tries to adhere. This adherence is achieved by a combination of discernment by the soul and the individual's rationality. In this respect freedom plays a vital part in the choice and consent of an individual action.

Traditional psychology emphasized that human action was ultimately focused on the will which chose from a spectrum of right and wrong and finally gave assent to a decision. In this perspective, which belonged to all the Churches but was emphasized particularly by the Roman Catholic Church, sin consisted of an action which was wrong, for which the individual had full freedom and exercised full consent. Sin thus constituted the free decision of the whole personality against the will of God. Sin was divided into serious or mortal, and minor or venial.

Having committed a sin, the Catholic Christian went to Confession which is the Sacrament of Penance. In Confession the minister acts in the name of the Church as the forgiving presence of Christ.

In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them 'Peace be with you', and showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw the Lord, and he said to them again 'Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.' After saying this he breathed on them and said 'Receive the Holy Spirit for those whose sins you forgive they are forgiven, for those whose sins you retain they are retained.'

Initially in the early Church, confession was carried out publicly and allowed (though with some variety) once in a lifetime. Eventually it became private and could be repeated, and, indeed, in recent centuries frequent Confession was considered a good Christian practice. Those who went to Confession disclosed their sins, sought absolution and made an act of contrition. Until the mid-seventies this form of Confession was very common, in particular in the Roman Catholic tradition. In pastoral practice it presented a number of problems. The absolution received often became mechanical; the penitent repeated the same sins between one weekly confession and the next. There was no basic transformation of the personality. Confession became superficial and, although large numbers attended, it became a routine without much meaning.

In the 1970s private confession became less common, and currently very few people go to Confession in the Roman Catholic Church, despite repeated attempts to re-activate the Sacrament. The demise of Confession is a complex phenomenon. It is associated with a drop in all Church activities, including liturgical attendance. But at a deeper level there is an awareness that traditional Confession did not involve the whole personality and that psychological factors play a much greater role in human responsibility and freedom in action. Whilst Confession continues with diminished frequency there is a much greater awareness of the impact of dynamic psychology on the human personality and on what we understand by sin.

Millions of Roman Catholics and Christians of other denominations grew up with this understanding of sin which presupposed clear knowledge, free consent and, for mortal sin, grave matter; and the manuals of the past spent a great deal of time interpreting what constituted clear knowledge, free consent and grave matter. This language has virtually disappeared today; in fact, over the last thirty years, there has been a shift from this rational psychology to the present model which will be considered in this chapter.

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