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April 28, 2013

At the beginning of the Mass, the celebrant and the congregation calls to mind their sins, and ask God for forgiveness.  This is traditionally called the Confiteor, the Latin word for I confess.  The celebrant confesses that he has sinned through his faults, words, and his own inaction, “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault,” beating his breast at those words (though usually this is nothing more than a gentle tap).  The Confiteor is even more strikingly performed in the Latin Mass, where the celebrant and the altar boys kneel.

One aspect of Christianity, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, that is universal is the individual examination of conscience.  Catholics were historically encouraged to examine their consciences regularly, sometimes even daily, and many prayer books and pamphlets are published with long lists of sins.This impulse is not entirely lost in Protestant Christianity either.  Many more liturgical churches begin with the congregation reading a general confession of sins and asking for forgiveness.  But of course, this is not even a Christian impulse.  Jews every year, between Rosh Hashonnah and Yom Kippur set aside days to examine their conduct over the past year and ask for forgiveness.  (Even Trekkies who practice Klingon religion observe the Day of Honor, and examine their conduct over the previous year.)

However, the title of this article is not Confiteor, or I Confess, but rather Confitemur, or We Confess.  It is not unheard of for conservative Catholics to act as though the Church has never said or done anything wrong in 2,000 years.  In their zeal to make their case, they often find themselves defending the indefensible.  These people no doubt put much credence into the traditional practice of individual examination of conscience, but when it comes to collective acts, there is no possibility of sin.

Furthermore, I think that, if individuals sin, and a church or religious body is made up with individuals, then there is a definite role for a collective examination of conscience.  A religious body should take the time periodically to examine its actions, see where it has fallen short, and ask for forgiveness.

When I studied about the Shoah in college, my professor talked about how a Lutheran Seminary teaches a class called “The Failings of Martin Luther.”  (Do Catholic seminarians learn “The Failings of the Early Church Fathers?”)  I also saw a short film called “Sister Rose’s Passion,” about how a Dominican nun challenged the presentation of Jews in religious textbooks in the United States.

I’m curious.  What would it mean for a religious group to perform an examination of conscience, to look at the ways that, in the past and in the  present, it has sinned and needs forgiveness and penance?  What would it mean for a religious organization to confess its sins and do penance or make amends?  I don’t know, but I do know that if a religious body refuses to do such a thing, it’s because deep down it probably knows the religion isn’t true.


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