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“And Those Whose Sins Ye Shall Retain. . .”

Mercy – and forgiveness-talk – is, of late, almost non-stop. The mercy of God, we know, may forgive any sin, except, perhaps, that one against the Holy Ghost. That latter one has more to do with the one needing forgiveness than with God’s stated inability to forgive it. If someone firmly “wills” not to be forgiven, he cannot be forgiven. Or, better, he cannot receive the consequences of God’s forgiveness. If he could be forgiven but still “will” the sin, he would himself be God, though a voluntarist one, one who makes good to be evil. Such a god is not God. But because God has the power to forgive all sins, it does not follow that all sins will therefore be forgiven. It depends on the sinner.

Mercy is a secondary issue. It is not needed unless something goes wrong in the world. Christ came for the unjust, not the just. (Luke 5:32) In a sinless world, no one needs mercy. Still, it is not a sinless world, however much we might deny, privately and publicly, that certain sins are not sins.

Before anything needing forgiveness existed, Aquinas held that the universe was created in mercy, not justice. God was not necessitated to create anything. Creation did not occur because God “owed” something to someone in justice. God in creating did understand that free creatures, if He created any of these wobbly types, might well need mercy in addition to justice. So he proceeded with His plan.

Mercy is not “opposed” to justice, as if it makes justice somehow disappear in God and man. It is not either mercy or justice, but both justice and mercy. Mercy comes into play only when justice is requited.

In John’s Gospel (20:23), the disciples receive the Holy Spirit. Then, they are told: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you shall retain, are retained.” We hear a good deal about the first part of this sentence but little of the last part, this “whose sins you shall retain.

La Confessione by Giuseppe Molteni, 1838 [Fondazione Cariplo, Milan]

A couple of things seem to be clear, at least in logic. Things that are not sins do not need to be forgiven. Most of the things we do are not “sins.” Even to someone who denies that sins exist (if there be such, and there seem to be), the logic is clear. Some things we do or think are sins; others are not. We can identify both what are sins and whether we decided to put them into effect. If someone thinks it is a sin to brush his teeth in the morning, he does not need forgiveness but information, though even erroneous consciences bind.

Thus, the power to forgive sins is bound up with the retention of sins. Which ones are to be forgiven? Which ones retained? What sins ought to be “retained”? A confessor is not free to forgive what ought to be retained. What, in other words, are the principles of retention?

The Gospels, it strikes me, have no doubt that some sins should be “retained.” With all due respects to those theories that want to empty hell and save everyone, they seem, if true, to undermine any need to worry about our sins. They will be forgiven no matter what we do. But that is not possible. If no act on our part exists to indicate that we realize what a sin is and that we did it, we cannot be in the forgiveness business.

Forgiveness demands something to be forgiven and, not least, some indication that we want to be forgiven. We acknowledge that we destroyed the order of good in our sins. I, for one, do not want a God who simply “forgives,” no questions asked, no demands made.

What sins are “retained”? Only those that we present or fail to present to be judged as to what they are, along with our participation in their coming to be. The act of “retention” belongs to the same one who is given the power to forgive. Grounds of retention are many – denying that sins are sins, denying that we knew what we were doing, denying that the power to forgive or retain exists.

“Retention” is an act every bit as solemn as forgiveness, perhaps more so. If those in charge of forgiveness and retention obscure or obliterate the difference so that everything is forgiven, no matter what, the very purpose of Christ’s delegation is defeated. The “retaining” of sins means that they are not forgiven.

This retention, paradoxically, is mercy. It is the mercy of truth that comes to the sinner. He knows “officially” that he is not in good standing with his God or himself. Only if he knows this truth about himself can he realize that he still must acknowledge and repent.

To call a sin a sin is simultaneously an act of courage, justice, and mercy.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.