Hospitals for sinners

religion | Jan 29, 2009 | By James M. Thunder

HBO is releasing a documentary entitled "The Trials of Ted Haggard" about the troubled Evangelical pastor. In late 2006, Rev. Haggard was discharged as senior pastor of New Life Church, a mega-church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, due to allegations that he had an extramarital affair. Soon after he left his offices, the secular press reported that he had agreed to participate in a program of "restoration" administered by peer ministers. See the article in the Washington Post "Haggard Begins Spiritual 'Restoration,'" November 8, 2006;

Several peer pastors, including Rev. Jack Hayford of The Church on the Way, Van Nuys, California, Rev. Tommy Barnett of First Assembly of God, Phoenix, Arizona, and Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, a psychologist with a doctorate in child development, agreed to work to restore him mentally and spiritually, if not also to the ministry. (Dr. Dobson dropped out within a day or so due to his concerns about his workload).

This program of restoration was described as a three-to-five year "demanding" program, consisting of (1) confession of sins to peers who would confront him and not let him "whitewash" things, (2) prayer, possibly accompanied by the "ceremonial" or "symbolic" laying on of hands, and (3) counseling in groups or one-on-one.

The description in the press is likely consistent with the programs described in Focus on the Family’s Restoration Manual: A Workbook for Restoring Fallen Ministers and Spiritual Leaders. Unanswered by the news reports were whether eligibility for this type of program was open only to ministers, and whether eligibility depended on the gravity of the sin(s) or public knowledge of the sin(s) or neither or both. As of this writing, Rev. Haggard has not been restored to ministry.

But my purpose here is not to dwell on the individual case of former pastor Ted Haggard. Rather, it is to discuss sin, contrition, forgiveness and restoration among Christians -- with three observations.

First, the reaction of Pastor Haggard's peer pastors and their program of restoration should garner appreciation among Evangelicals -- and Catholics, too -- for the Catholic Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, commonly called "Confession."

Conventional "Protestant dogma" asserts that it is unnecessary for a baptized Christian to confess one’s sins to a priest and that confession by the sinner directly to God in private is sufficient. Yet this program of restoration implies that confession to God in private is not sufficient.

This program of restoration is more akin to (albeit not the same as) the Catholic doctrine and practices surrounding the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation: regular and frequent examination of conscience with the guidance of a spiritual adviser under the confidential seal of Confession, confession of sins to Christ (through a priest), contrition, forgiveness of sins by Christ (through a priest), and penance.

Second, while many Catholics and Protestants may not be aware of the historical evolution of the doctrines and practices of the Catholic sacrament, much less appropriate this history as part of the Faith that their ancestors in the Faith have handed down to them, it would be helpful to learn of the experience of Christians in the 4th to 7th centuries AD.

"Donatists" were a large group of Christians residing in north Africa (named after one of their number) who asserted that those Christians who, in the face of the prosecution by the Roman Emperor Diocletian (303 to 305 AD), had renounced the Faith, could never be forgiven and, further, the sacraments (such as baptism) administered by the priests and bishops among these traitors were without effect. Some of these men had given the persecutors religious texts to be burned and had given the names of Christians -- to be executed.

In our day, we can imagine the outrage at such "shepherds." Recall the clamor for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston for having failed as a shepherd to protect the lambs, the male minors, from paedophile priests. Recall also the rebellion of the Catholic people of Warsaw to the appointment of Stanislaw Wielgus as their archbishop in late 2006. He denied collaborating with the Polish secret police, but was conceded that he had signed a written statement in 1978 promising to cooperate with them, and he implicitly conceded that he had failed to report this to his religious superiors for nearly 30 years -- both the act and omission being contrary to Catholic Church policy.

So, clearly, the Donatists raised a profound issue of sin, contrition, forgiveness and restoration. The resolution of the controversy -- which has survived since the Donatists did not survive the Muslim conquest -- was (1) to allow the restoration of the traitors to membership in the Church (if not to their role as pastors) through a long process of public penance taking years, even decades, and (2) to declare that the efficacy of the sacraments depended wholly on Jesus Christ and not on the virtue of the priests and bishops who administered them.

My third observation is this: There are many stories within the church of Jesus Christ about sin, contrition, forgiveness and restoration. Sometimes we hear about sinners -- great sinners -- who find the Christian Faith and become saintly, if not saints.

Thus, Thomas J. Craughwell writes of a couple dozen such men and women in his book "Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints" (2006). There is a remarkable story among Catholics about sin and forgiveness. Well, there are many, but this is one of them. In 1902, 20 year old Alessandro Serenelli stabbed Maria Goretti, an 11-year-old, to death when she refused to have sexual relations with him. She was beatified (declared "blessed") in 1947 and canonized (declared a "saint") in 1950.

Maria's story was commonly known throughout the first half of the 20th century (although less so now). But what about Alessandro? The story of his restoration to God is told by Pietro DiDonato in the biography, "The Penitent" (1962). Although a slim volume, there is a lot to this story. Suffice it to say the following: Since Alessandro was a minor, he was not sentenced to death. He served 27 years for her murder.

A few years after his release from prison, on Christmas Eve 1934, he sought out Maria's mother, Assunta (at that time a much more common name than it is now, meaning "Assumption"). Assunta took him to her home and the next day, Christmas Day, they attended Mass together -- to the dismay of the congregation.

Later, Assunta told Alessandro, whose mother had died when he was young, that she was his mother. This is recounted in "The Penitent" and recounted again by Matthew Dioemede in his book, "Pietro DiDonato: The Master Builder," p. 38 (1995).

Assunta passed away in 1954. Alessandro became a lay Capuchin brother, dying in 1969. As a Washington, DC, area Evangelical pastor has repeatedly said, Christian churches are not museums of saints, but hospitals for sinners.

James M. Thunder is an attorney in practice in the Washington D.C. area.


"Haggard Begins Spiritual 'Restoration,'" Washington Post, Nov. 8, 2006; Haggard Begins Spiritual 'Restoration,'" Washington Post, Nov. 8, 2006;

Paul Asay, "Dobson Quits Haggard Team," Colorado Springs Gazette, Nov. 8, 2006,

Omar Zook et al., The Evangelical Free Church’s Recovery Ministry: A Collaborative Approach to Recovery and Reconciliation,

See Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1422-1498,



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