The Sacrament of Reconciliation: Learning from the East and the West




Vechoor Front

The Sacrament of Reconciliation

Learning from the East and the West

The book was released by His Excellency Philippose Mar Stephanose, Auxiliary Bishop of Thiruvalla and Memebr of KCBC Family Commission, on 21 September, 2014 on the occasion of the National Seminar on Marriage and Family, conducted in St. Thomas Apostolic Seminary, Vadavathoor under the auspices of the Pontifical Oriental institute of Religious Studies, Kottayam (Paurastya Vidyapitham). Rev. Dr. Vincent Alapatt, the President of the Institute, received the first copy. Rev. Dr. Andrews Mekkattukunnel introduced the book to the audience in the following words


To crown this inaugural session of the National Symposium a new book on the Sacrament of Reconciliation is being released. This book is quite suitable for the occasion because a proper understanding of the sacrament of reconciliation will help us to solve many problems that affect the families and even prevent future crises. The fact that it is authored by Rev. Dr. Dominic Vechoor, one of the members of the Organizing Committee of this Symposium, adds to the significance of the event.

Pope Francis who always projects the merciful face of the Church, said once: ‘I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful’. Here is a timely response to the call of the Holy Father. Dr. Dominic in this new book identifies mercy as God’s fundamental and defining attitude; he understands the confessor not only as a judge, but also as a doctor of the soul. The therapeutic dimension of the Church is highlighted in his book. In six chapters, Dr. Dominic draws extensively on sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition both of East and West with a view to motivate people for a better and meaningful reception of this sacrament. He does this by beautifully manifesting how the wisdom of the East and West are complimentary, helping a mutual understanding and appreciation.

In the words of Malpan Dr. Matthew Vellanickal, the first President of Paurastya Vidyapitham, ‘this is completely a new approach to Catholic theology, a pioneer attempt to combine the East and West in the Catholic moral theology. This new methodology could very well be applied to other theological disciplines as well’. Rev. Dr. Thomas Srampickal, the famous Moral theologian and former Rector of this Seminary states that ‘this is the first authoritative book on the sacrament of penance, attending to biblical, patristic, liturgical, spiritual and ecclesial dimensions with East-West integration’. Any reader of this book would agree with Mar Joseph Kallarangatt in saying: ‘we enjoy the taste of taking a tonic and will inculcate in us the impression that we are in ‘a great hospital of souls’ with the unique Physician Jesus Christ’

A book with more than 250 pages costs only Rs 180. This book would be very useful to all those who wish to learn more about the sacrament of reconciliation, especially to students of theology and priests. We congratulate and thank Dr Dominic Vechoor for this enriching contribution to Moral Theology and the sacrament of Reconciliation. We expect more of this kind from his storehouse of wisdom.




In this richly rewarding and scholarly study The Sacrament of Reconciliation: Learning from the East and West, Rev. Dr. Dominic Vechoor, successful chancellor of the Eparchy of Palai, and currently Professor of Moral Theology at Paurastya Vidy-ap-itham, shows that the sacrament of reconciliation has a central place in moral theology. In the six chapters of this text, the author draws extensively on biblical, patristic, liturgical, theological and magisterial sources of the Christian wisdom of both the East and the West with proper emphasis on the East Syriac tradition. The author succeeds brilliantly in showing that moral theology is closely linked with Scripture, patrology, liturgy, ecclesiology, magisterial teachings and actual contexts of human life. It is a very fitting thing that this book is published on the feast day of St John Maria Vianney, who is considered as the ‘veronica’ (vera=true, icona=icon), the true icon of the sacrament of reconciliation. The Church is unable to draw a picture or to write an icon better or brighter that John Maria Vianney. The words of Pope Emeritus Benedict are piercing: ‘From John Maria Vianney, we can learn to put our unfailing trust in the sacrament of penance (reconciliation), to set it once more at the centre of our pastoral concerns and to take up the dialogue of salvation, which it entails’.

    This study is a substantial one. It opens the mind of the Church and radiates the merciful grace of God upon a penitent sinner. As we go on reading, we enjoy the taste of taking a tonic and will inculcate in us an impression that we are in a ‘great hospital of souls’ with the unique physician Jesus Christ.   We see in this text on the sacrament of reconciliation a flood of Divine Mercy. That is why Maria Vianney says that it is not the sinner who returns to God to beg his forgiveness but God himself who runs after the sinner and makes him return to Him. Pope Francis says: ‘ I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity’. In the section on ‘Reconciliation as a Sacrament of Mercy and Healing’, the author identifies mercy as God’s fundamental and defining attribute. A confessor is understood not only as a judge, but also as a doctor of the soul. Mercy does not abolish justice but fulfils it. The benchmark of a confessor must be the gentleness and kindness of Jesus Christ. It is his duty to make available the therapeutic dimension of the Church. About the Book of Walter Cardinal Kasper Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, Pope Francis said : ‘This book has done me so much good’. I am sure that all the readers of this text book of Rev. Dr. Dominic Vechoor will repeat the words of the Pope.

I conclude with the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: ‘Cheap grace means the justification of the sin and not the sinner… cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without Church discipline, communion without acknowledging sin and absolution without personal confession’.

            My warmest greetings to the author as well as the readers.

Mar Joseph Kallarangatt

Bishop of Palai & Chairman,

CBCI Commission for Doctrine


The Catholic Church is a communion of individual Churches, Western and Eastern, with their respective liturgical and theological traditions. In the past, the Catholic Theology in general, and the Catholic Moral Theology in particular, was very much determined by the Western ecclesial and theological dimensions and perspectives. The Second Vatican Council, with its ecclesiology of communion, had given an impetus for theologians to explore new ways of theologizing in the light of communion ecclesiology. This book of Rev. Dr. Dominic Vechoor on The Sacrament of Reconciliation: Learning from the East and West is a concrete example of this new development in the area of Moral Theology.

This book offers a fresh look at the sacrament of reconciliation from its historical, theological, canonical, pastoral and spiritual aspects. The author also explains the sacrament of reconciliation from Eastern and Western theological perspectives, which is a new approach to the Catholic Theology. In this presentation, the author is showing how the wisdom of the East and West regarding the sacrament of reconciliation are complementary, helping a mutual understanding and appreciation.

It is the healing dimension of the sacrament of reconciliation that the author is highlighting particularly in this book, which is a very important aspect in the tradition of the Church. In the present pastoral crisis regarding the reception of this sacrament, it is highly important to rediscover the healing aspect of the sacrament of reconciliation which is more explicit in the Eastern liturgical traditions.

The healing aspect of the sacrament of reconciliation is already anticipated in the healing miracles of Jesus (Mk. 2,1-12; Jn. 5,1-14). This aspect of the sacrament of reconciliation, which is especially stressed in the East Syriac tradition, is brought out clearly by the author. He emphasizes also the need of blending both the healing and judging dimensions in order to have a more healthy approach to the sacrament of reconciliation.

I find this book as a pioneer attempt to combine the East and the West in the Catholic Moral Theology. While congratulating wholeheartedly the author of this book, I pray that this book reaches the hands of many people, who will appreciate the sacrament of reconciliation and experience in it the healing touch of Jesus Christ.

Malpan Dr. Matthew Vellanickal

Vicar General, Archeparchy of Changanacherry

Professor Emeritus, Paurastya Vidhyapitham


            The best definition of God that can be traced in the Sacred Scriptures intones thus: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4, 8, 16). God can be indentified with love itself because the very substance or being of God is the perfect fellowship and intimate communion of three persons: Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. This infinite divine love became flesh and was manifested in Jesus Christ, whose voluntary self-sacrifice on the cross for the divinisation and salvation of human beings is the supreme act of God’s incommensurable and inscrutable love (cf. Jn. 3, 16-18; 1 Jn. 3, 16; Rom. 5, 8). The quintessence of the Gospel of Christ, which was bequeathed to the Church and which she uninterruptedly transmits to the future generations, is love in its various dimensions such as mercy, forgiveness, healing, redemption, peace and joy.

            As the erudite study of Rev. Dr. Dominic Vechoor rightly demonstrates, according to the Catholic doctrine, the principal means of channelling the healing medicine of God’s love and mercy to the weak human beings afflicted with the sickness of sin and stained by the evils of this world is the lawful and valid celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation by the official ecclesiastical ministers of the Church, who are not the proprietors of the sacrament, but humble servants and tangible instruments of the Holy Spirit, the real celebrant of all the sacraments. The present work of Rev. Fr. Vechoor is in fact an attempt to explore the riches of the sacrament of reconciliation from a moral theological point of view, taking into due consideration the “two lungs” of the Catholic Church, namely the Latin Western tradition and the Eastern tradition represented by the East Syriac heritage.

            After a general introduction, which sets forth the scope, method and approach of the book, in five chapters the author highlights the historical, theological, canonical, pastoral and spiritual dimensions of the sacrament of mercy, based on sacred scripture, East Syriac patristic tradition and magisterial teaching in a really catholic manner, namely taking into due consideration the traditions of the East and the West. The general conclusion, a theological synthesis of the entire study, brings out new moral theological insights, pastoral implications and future possibilities for the meaningful celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation, from which the Christian faithful were progressively alienated due to the mistakes of the past. The three appendices at the end of the book, which provide important documentation concerning the sacrament, are really useful and complementary. I am sure that the present scientific work of Rev. Dr. Vechoor offers a useful tool for bishops, theologians, pastors and scholars for approaching the sacrament of God’s mercy, love, forgiveness and healing in the right perspective, with a thankful heart and an open mind, respecting the various ecclesial traditions and autochthonous cultural heritages which only add to the beauty of the Bride of Christ.

Msgr. Paul Pallath

Relator, Congregation for the Causes of Saints

Associate Professor, Pontifical Oriental Institute, Rome

Consultant, Congregation for the Eastern Churches, Rome

Commissioner, Tribunal of the Roman Rota


Reading through Rev. Fr. DominicVechoor’s book The Sacrament of Reconciliation: Learning from the East and the West, I really feel that it does enlighten the readers providing them with correct and up to date theological knowledge about the sacrament of reconciliation. It also generates appreciation for the sacrament, together with sincere gratitude to the Lord for blessing the community of the believers – human, sin-prone and weak as they are – with this gift of love, mercy and forgiveness. Proper knowledge and appreciation should motivate people for a better and meaningful reception of the Sacrament, God-given means of our sanctification and salvation. The book thus partakes of the Church’s initiatives for the new evangelization.

Usually, books on the sacrament of penance focus only on the moral and canonical aspects of the topic. As against it, a salient feature of this volume is its multi-dimensionality, discussing the topic in its ‘historical, theological, canonical, pastoral and spiritual aspects’. It is a great advantage for the readers to find all these diverse but relevant aspects discussed under one cover. Besides, as the title reveals, the author highlights the Eastern perspectives on morality, sin and related aspects as well as integrates both the Eastern and the Western views, which lend a special richness to the book. At the same time, the author presents the matter in simple and easily understandable language. To the knowledge of this writer, there is no authoritative book on the sacrament of penance, attending to the above mentioned features of multifacity, East-West integration and simplicity. The volume therefore bridges a gap and responds to a genuine need.

The book is also distinguished by several features that characterize the post-Vatican II/ contemporary vision and approach to morality and sin, issues like personalistic perspective, social dimension, holistic view, etc.

As we find in the Acts of the Apostles, the life of the early Christian community was highly inspired by the gospel message. The faithful were united in mind and heart, closely listened to and followed the teachings of the Apostles, prayed together, broke the bread and shared their wealth in common so that there was nobody uncared for among them (2, 42-47; 4, 32-37). Such a life-style of brotherhood, concern and care for all in the power of the Spirit could have been the nucleus for a sound Christian moral theology. But owing to diverse pressures and influences, which are also discussed in this volume, morality came to be conceived, more so in the Western/Catholic Church than in other denominations, as a sum of laws, together with their subtleties and interpretations, which became a burden rather than genuine guide for Christian living. Under this conception, sin is a violation of the law and offence to God, and God is a close observer of human operations, rigorous judge and avenger. Ever since Vatican II, moral theology has been striving to restore the biblical understanding of morality as grateful response to God’s invitation to share in his life by a life of love, enabled by the grace of the Spirit. Here love is the law and it aims at the full flowering of man- ‘Sabbath is for man, man is not for Sabbath’ (Mk. 2, 27). ‘Man fully grown is the glory of God’: Irenaeus. Then, sin becomes wounding a love or offending and deserting a relationship (parable of the prodigal son: Lk. 15, 11 ff). It is heartening that this volume reflects well these Vatican II perspectives.

Catholic morality was very individualistic too or, as it is sometimes said, highly vertical, which was closely associated with legalism. Moral life was considered as a private affair of a person or a matter between a person and his God (vertical relationship),whose laws he was supposed to obey. If he obeyed, he would be rewarded, otherwise punished. The social (horizontal) dimension of sin did not figure in the picture. This view, though often inadvertently, promoted the growth of structural evils and social sin for which no particular person(s) here and now might be responsible. This book repeatedly reminds us that moral life is unavoidably social and the moral health and status of any community/society is the fruit of common strive. “No man lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone”. In this context, the author also highlights the relevance of common celebration of reconciliation (with private reconciliation in necessary cases) which has been a long practice in the Eastern Churches.

Going beyond the idea that sin is a bad act, the author likens it to sickness, in tune with the Eastern perspective, which again is very significant. Reconciliation is then not just a corrective act but part of a healing process which should pay attention not only to the spiritual-moral aspect but also to the psychological, emotional and even physical wholeness of the person. The confessor needs to understand the tendencies, dispositions, attitudes and motives of the penitent to guide him properly. This holistic approach to reconciliation is truly constructive and to be appreciated and practised.

We congratulate and thank the author for this enriching contribution to Moral Theology and the sacrament of reconciliation. The book would be very useful for all those who like to learn more about the sacrament of penance, especially for students of theology and priests. Wishing the book wide readership,

Rev. Dr. Thomas Srampickal

Professor, Marymatha Major Seminary, Trichur

Rector & Professor Emeritus, Vadavathoor Seminary


It is an ecclesial reality that the sacrament of reconciliation is now passing through a crisis all over the world. The considerable decline in the number of Catholics going to sacramental confession, seen especially in certain parts of the world since the last few decades, has been one of the major pastoral challenges that the Catholic Church faces today. For the present generation, this sacrament has become almost ‘unknown’ and is one of the most ‘unloved’ sacraments. Even for the practising Catholics, it has become one of the forgotten fountains of divine grace. Moreover, for some, the reception of this sacrament does not give any real God experience. Not only that, on the contrary, sometimes it brings fear, anxiety and boredom to them. The generational crisis is also there. The new generation finds difficulties with the traditional penitential practices of the old generation. This is partly because of their lack of genuine preparation and partly because of the ineffective administration of the sacrament by the ministers of the Church.

Meanwhile, different pastoral initiatives of the ‘new evangelization’ are going on in the whole Church to conscientize the faithful of the rich theological aspects of this sacrament of salvation that our Lord graciously willed (Jn. 20, 23; Mt. 16, 19; 18, 18) and which has gradually received its doctrinal and liturgical expressions in the Church down through the centuries. We are convinced that such renewed pastoral and missionary commitments on the part of the Church need ‘new ardour, methods and expressions’ in the understanding of sacramental life, for which our present Holy Father Pope Francis, ever since the beginning of his pontificate, constantly encourages us. The Franzian accent on divine mercy, pastoral benignity and missionary commitment gives a new impetus for the entire Church.

This book is a fresh look at the sacrament of reconciliation from its historical, theological, canonical, pastoral and spiritual aspects. We try also to appreciate the sacrament of reconciliation from the Eastern and Western theological perspectives, both of which add to the beauty of the Catholic theology. The purpose of this study is to have a better understanding and a fruitful celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation in the Church. It convinces us all of the beauty of receiving this sacrament and the priests also of the joy of being the ministers of this sacrament. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds the priests, “We have to learn to put our unfailing trust in the sacrament of reconciliation and to set it once more at the centre of our pastoral concerns and to take up the dialogue of salvation, which it entails…” (Letter to the Priests, 16 June 2009).

The healing imagery has decisively influenced the understanding and praxis of this sacrament in the East Syriac1 tradition. This book focuses on the healing imagery of the sacrament of reconciliation, more evident and pervasive in the East Syriac understanding of this sacrament that has either been ignored or forgotten in the Western   theological tradition since scholastic times, until when it was a common Christian tradition. At a time when Catholic theologians are searching for innovative pastoral approaches to this sacrament, we hope that the biblically inspired healing imagery of this sacrament, could suggest timely and better alternatives to the entire Church.

The sacrament of reconciliation is a major theme in special moral theology, however, closely related to the sacramental theology. Hence in this study, we are at the cross roads of both moral theology and sacramental theology. We make this study in the holistic context of a unified vision of the various branches of theology. This study on the sacrament of reconciliation is assisted by our understanding of Christ Jesus (Christology), Holy Spirit (Pneumatology) and the mystery of the Church (Ecclesiology). The theological genius of the Eastern and Western Churches is also sufficiently placed together to reach an integral vision and a Catholic understanding of this sacrament.

This study is made in a ‘spirit of mutual rapprochement and harmony’ (Orientale Lumen, 3), which ‘in love respects and transcends diversities and differences’ (Ecclesia in Asia, 3). It is with a true ‘passion for the universality of the one, holy, apostolic and Catholic Church’ (OL, 7) and in ‘full awareness of the bond of communion with the universal Church’ (EA, 2) that we try to understand the theological richness of the Eastern and Western traditions.


This book is developed in six chapters.

After the introductory remarks on the pastoral context and theologlical orientations of the book, the first chapter deals with the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation. The second chapter analyses the present day crisis in the sacrament of reconciliation.

A historical appraisal of the sacrament of reconciliation in the general historical context as well as in the common tradition of the Eastern Churches is made in the third chapter. The East Syriac theological tradition with regard to the sacrament of reconciliation the penitential life and praxis of the St. Thomas Christians of India with all possible cultural adaptations and the present practice of the sacrament of reconciliation in the Syro Malabr Church are also discussed in this chapter.

The theology of the sacrament of reconciliation and its canonical aspects are studied in the fourth and fifth chapters respectively.

The sixth chapter deals with the pastoral and spiritual aspects of the sacrament of reconciliation for an effective administration and reception of the sacrament in the present context.

Finally in the general concusion, the theological insights, pastoral implications and the future possibilities of furthur studies are summarised.

The formulae of absolution used in the Latin, Syro-Malankara and Syro-Malabar Churches and a few recent and very important instructions of the Apostolic See with regard to the sacrament of reconciliation are given as appendix.

A bibliography of the works cited in the book is given at the end of this study.


Since this is an interdisciplinary study involving different areas of theology such as Bible, history, patrology, ecclesiology, liturgy, sacraments, moral theology, canon law, etc. the method employed is mainly historico-theological. An analytical style is used to explain the diverse aspects of the healing imagery of the sacrament of reconciliation.

Healing imagery related to sin, repentance and forgiveness of sins is not the exclusive prerogative of the East Syriac tradition. They are seen in other ecclesial traditions as well.   For example, St. Ambrose writes: “Christ is everything for us. If you desire to heal your wounds, he is the doctor; if you are parched by the heat of fever, he is a fountain; if you are oppressed by guilt, he is justice; if you have need of help, he is strength; if you are afraid of death, he is life; if you wish for paradise, he is the road, if you flee from darkness, he is light; if you look for food, he is nourishment” (De Virginitate 16, 99). St. Augustine in his Confessions writes: “Lord, have mercy on me. I hide not my wounds. You are the physician, I the sick; You the merciful one, I the miserable. All my hope is nowhere but in your exceeding great mercy” (X, 28: 39, 29:40). However, in this work, the main concentration is on the early East Syriac tradition.

As we know, the whole dogmatics and ecclesiastical discipline with regard to the sacrament of reconciliation are of gradual development down through the centuries in different forms under various ecclesial and cultural situations.This is not an exhaustive study of the Catholic understanding of the sacrament of reconciliation with all its long and chequered history of development. Nor it is a detailed historical analysis of the development of the sacrament of reconciliation in the East Syriac tradition. We have also not dealt with the Orthodox and the Protestant approaches to this sacrament, two important traditions in the Christian world. This is a modest endeavour to look at the sacrament of reconciliation from a Catholic moral thological perspective in the context of the Eastern and Western theological traditions.

The Eastern approach to moral theology is a relatively new approach in Catholic moral theology. It is not easy to find much direct study material for our support. This is even more difficult with regard to the sacrament of reconciliation because we have been trained mainly in the traditional Western theological and ecclesial categories. This book is an initial attempt to think differently but in a very constructive way, imbibing the mind of the Church, especially that of Vatican II. The present study places a challenge before our uniform and monolithic thought patterns for a pluralistic theological and ecclesial approach in order to open our eyes to a wider horizon in moral theology in general and to a new dimension in the sacrament of reconciliation in particular.


This book is the result of many years of reflection and study.   In a way, this is an edited version of my doctoral thesis, which I defended in the Alphonsian Academy, Rome, in December 2003.   In this book, I have also incorporated the insights, which I received from my teaching as well as pastoral and administrative experiences.

I make use of this occasion to place on record my sincere thanks to all those who have generously helped me to bring out this book.

I am fully confident that my Lord always guides me under the protection of his ‘wings of grace’ (Ps. 91,4; 3, 5; 17, 8) in the maternal protection of Bl.Virgin Mary.

I sincerely thank Mar Joseph Kallarangatt, Bishop of Palai. He has always been a constant support and encouragement for me, during my seminary studies as my inspiring professor and later as my Bishop. I also gratefully remember Bishop Emeritus Mar Joseph Pallikaparampil, who graciously sent me to Rome for higher studies in moral theology and who has been for me a father figure and a constant support ever since the beginning of my seminary studies. I also place on record my gratitude to Mar Jacob Muricken, the Auxiliary Bishop of Palai, who has always been expressing brotherly care to me, ever since our joining in the minor seminary together in 1986.

I acknowledge my heartfelt thanks to Prof. Basilio Petrà, the moderator of my doctoral thesis for his generous availability, paternal encouragement and critical observations, made at various stages in the course of the development of my study with his deep erudition in Oriental patristic moral theology. I also place on record my sincere gratitude to Prof. Sebastian Brock, the second moderator of my thesis for his never failing availability and for the perceptive observations that he gave me at different stages of my thesis with his profound wisdom in Syriac patristic studies.

My special thanks are due to Malpan Rev. Dr. Mathew Vellanickal and Msgr. Paul Pallath for their profound words of appreciation. I most sincerely thank Rev. Dr. Thomas Srampickal for his erudite foreword to this book. I thank Rev. Dr. Alex Tharamangalam, the Rector of Vadavathoor Seminary and Rev. Dr. Vincent Alapatt, the President of PaurastyaVidyapitham, Vadavathoor and all my colleagues here for their cordiality and encouragement. My thanks are also due to Rev. Dr. Andrews Mekkattukunnel, Rev. Dr. Jose Vadakkedam, Rev. Dr. Michael Naickamparambil, Rev. Fr. Kuriakose Narithookkil, Rev. Fr. Augustine Paraplackal, Rev. Dr. James Thalachelloor, Rev. Dr. Pauly Maniyatt and Rev. Dr. Philip Mattathil who read the draft of this book and offered their creative and critical observations. I also thank Prof. Kuriakose Paraplackal and Rev. Dr. Jose Pulavelil for having improved the language of the book. I also place on record my gratitude also to Dr. Joy Francis M.D, Prof.T.C.Thankachan, Mr. Navy George and Mr. Alex George Kavukatt. I am also deeply grateful to the OIRSI publication and the WiGi printers for their dicated work and generous co-operation. Last, by no means, least, I am deeply grateful to my beloved mother, beloved members of my family, loving students, friends and well-wishers elsewhere, who have generously cared for and loved me all through my life.

It is our hope that studies like this would promote a solid and creative theological inquiry into the patrimony of the Christian wisdom of both East and West with special emphasis on its biblical, patristic, liturgical, spiritual and ecclesial roots and the effective theological engagement to present the faith and morals of the Church to the faithful of today in an attractive manner with renewed missionary and pastoral commitments.

Fr. Dominic Vechoor

04 August 2014

Feastday of St. John Maria Vianney

1 In this book, we use the expression ‘East Syriac’ to denote the early Syriac and the subsequent East Syriac tradition. It stands for those Churches and Christian writers, who were using East Syriac as their liturgical language, even beyond the original geographical area. So in our study it has more a linguistic and theological significance than a geographical connotation. Now it is the ecclesial, liturgical and theological tradition shared in common by the three Churches: the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Church and the Syro-Malabar Church. This tradition is also differently named in the theological and liturgical writings as ‘East Syrian’, ‘Syro-Oriental’, ‘Chaldean’, ‘Indo-Chalden’, ‘Persian’, etc. In our study, we prefer to use the term ‘East Syriac’.


Pastoral context and theological orientations

The healing dimension of the sacraments is an emerging theme in the contemporary Catholic Sacramental theology. It is all the more evident with regard to the sacrament of reconciliation. This renewed Catholic sensitivity to the therapeutic dimension of this sacrament can be described as the re-discovery of a rich theological notion, rooted in the Word of God and elucidated by the Fathers of the Church. It has been well attested in the liturgical prayers of the Church and constantly emphasised by the teachings of the Church (magisterium). The therapeutic dimension of the sacrament of reconciliation is getting more attention in recent years and is also adequately supported by the contemporary theological insights and by the modern studies in behavioural and medical sciences as well as by the contexted studies.

1. Pastoral Context

The biblical, patristic, liturgical and magisterial teachings on the sacrament of reconciliation can essentially be summarised that it is a sacrament of mercy and healing. The Church in her constant tradition has upheld the healing dimension of the sacrament of reconciliation. However, a juridical approach has, somehow, determined the Catholic understanding of this sacrament. This may have its influence on the decrease of sacramental confessions among the Catholics today. In the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, St. John Paul II observes: “As it reflects on the function of the sacrament of reconciliation, the Church’s consciousness discerns in it, over and above the character of judgement, a healing of medicinal character…. The rite of penance alludes to this healing aspect of the sacrament, to which modern man is, perhaps, more sensitive, seeing, as he does in sin, the element of error but even more, the element of weakness and human fragility” (n. 31, II).

The pastoral experiences inspires the priests to bring out more and more the therapeutic dimension of the sacrament of reconciliation and to administer this sacrament of healing with the attitude of a merciful father and a prudent physician. The healing dimension of the ministry of a confessor is becoming all the more relevant today.

In the effort to ensure a more faithful understanding and a more fruitful celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation in the Catholic Church, we consider that it would be a ‘wise pastoral balance’ and an ‘authentic Catholic approach’, if the Church were to familiarise herself with her tradition as a whole with its Eastern and Western theological richness. Knowledge of its practice among the Eastern Churches is of great help for discovering a pastoral solution for the contemporary crisis in this sacrament. In the introductory chapter of RP, St. John Paul II acknowledges the unique contribution of the Eastern Churches with regard to the sacrament of reconciliation, saying that “…the Eastern Churches, whose theological, spiritual and liturgical heritage is rich and venerable, has also profound perspectives with regard to the sacrament of reconciliation” (n. 4). The fact that the traditional Catholic understanding of the sacrament of reconciliation reflecting more of the juridical conceptions of the Western theology, has challenged theologians to study more about the penitential praxis in the Eastern Churches as well. The Eastern understanding of the sacrament of reconciliation may, at first appearance, seem to be different from the view that is traditional in the Western Church since the scholastic times. But on a deeper analysis, we understand that it also is a solid vision, thoroughly biblical and theologically sound. It is also faithful to the mind of Christ and to the spirit of the Gospels.

The ‘Great Jubilee’ celebrations of 2000 gave an optimistic sign of a deeper love and appreciation to the sacrament of reconciliation. At the close of the Jubilee year, outlining the pastoral programmes for the third millennium, St. John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, recommended this sacrament as one of the important spiritual nourishments for the life of holiness, to which each and every faithful is called (n. 37). Also Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on several occasions especially during the year of faith (2012 – 2013) expressed his deep anxiety over the increasing crisis in this sacrament. At the same time, he expresses also his never fading confidence for a renewed pastoral courage and priority in re-vitalising the sacrament of reconciliation.

The Holy Father Pope Francis in his first encyclical ‘Lumen Fidei’ presents sacraments as one of the important means for the transmission of faith in the Church (nos. 40-45). In his recent Apostolic Exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium’, he reminds us of this sacrament by making a pertinent observation: “The confessional shall not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (n. 44). The preparatory document (2013) and the instrumentum laboris (2014) for the third extra ordinary general assembly of the Synod Bishops of the Catholic Church (October 2014) also express deep concern for the growing ‘signs of weakness or total abandonment’ of the sacraments of marriage, reconciliation and Eucharist and invite the entire Church to find out better pastoral solutiones for the contemporary challenges and difficult situation of faith and sacramental life .

All these magisterial invitations and realistic pastoral experiences motivate us to learn from both East and West and bring out the richness of this sacrament.

2. Theological Orientations

The healing imagery of the salvation history is a profound biblico-patristic theme with immense moral theological, sacramental and pastoral implications for the faithful of all times. The Fathers of the Church speak frequently of a fallen humanity and of Christ as the ‘good physician’, who came to heal the infirmities of the fallen human nature. Closely related to this theological concept, the patristic tradition in general views sin as a state of spiritual sickness rather than an isolated negative human act. Just as the human body and mind may become sick, so also may the human spirit in its constant struggle against evil. Thus for the Fathers, the notion that ‘I am a sinner’ is more important than the notion that ‘I have sinned’. They explain repentance, forgiveness of sins and the penitential practices with the biblical imagery of healing (Cfr. Ex. 15,26; Ps. 103, 3; Sir. 38, 9-10; Is. 53, 5; Hos. 6,1; Mt. 9, 1-12; Lk. 10, 25-37; 1 Pet. 2, 24 etc.). The notion of sin as ‘disease of the soul’ is also more realistic. Experiences show that persons mostly ‘do not commit a sin’ but ‘suffer from a sickness’.

This book pre-supposes certain basic theological insights:

2.1. Fidelity of the Church to the Divine Revelation and her Openness to the Contemporary Realities of Life

Church of Christ is not something that we invent anew according to our personal likes and dislikes nor is it an unchanging repetition of certain prayers, formulae of faith, laws and customs of life. She is a divine institution, a saving mystery, a historical reality and a living memory that is handed down and that preserves her original kerygmatic core given to her by the Saviour and the Apostles. This living tradition that grows and develops in the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit has something to say to the people of every age. As St. John Paul II writes in his Apostolic Letter, the tradition of the Church is ‘never a pure nostalgia for the past nor a regret for the lost privileges but the living memory of the Bride, kept eternally youthful by the Love that dwells in her’ (OL, 8). Pope Francis reminds us that faith is a living memory of the future (memoria futuri) (LF, nos. 9,38,40,44; see also EG,13, 49).

Hence the study of theology is not merely proposing something altogether new for the sake of newness nor deconstructing or breaking completely away from the rich past but a faithful ecclesial understanding and interpretation of divine revelation, fulfilled in Jesus and transmitted over the centuries through Scripture and Tradition, the understanding of which grows for ever in the Church until the final plenitude of divine truth (DV, 8-10). This is not to be falsely understood as a mere archaism but as a precious fidelity to the authentic revelation.

At the same time, the Church keeps her eyes open to the contemporary and conextual realities of human life. The Church may not have ready-made, single and universal answers for all the wider pastoral and moral problems (GS, 33, 43; see also EG, 184) that come up day by day in this fast developing post-modern globalized society. As Vatican II proposes, the Church seeks to find out better pastoral solutions in the light of the renewed understanding of the revelation, while at the same time, making use of human reason, human experiences, the findings of various human sciences and particular cultural and ecclesial contexts, without losing the essentials of the Gospel and without falling into relativistic thoughts (GS, 4, 33, 44, 46; OT, 16; EG, 40). Each and every faithful is constantly invited by the Churh to bring out creative and positive understandings and formulations of the faith and moral teachings of the Church Here, the principle proposed by Pope Francis becomes all the more relevant: realities are more important than ideas (EG, 231-233).

2.2. A Dynamic and Realistic Understanding of History and Tradition

In the Christian perspective, human history is a dynamic reality and there is a sure sense of continuity and progress in total dependence on the ‘Lord of history’ (GS 45; Dominus Iesus, 15). As the Apostolic Letter says, ‘man is belonging to a history, which precedes and follows him’ (OL, 3). Hence any authentic study of the present is to start from the past. To know the past is to understand better the present. Without such a solid historical consciousness, we may be tempted to make false and hasty conclusions. Of course, it is necessary to purify the past memories. Unless we undergo this process, expectations for a splendid future will be in vain. This is not a mere chronological going back, out of historical curiosity but a creative and progressive theological blending. It is an attempt ‘to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence’(OL, 8) and thereby for a deepening of Christian faith at the dawn of this third millennium (NMI, 1).

In an authentic theological approach, the traditional dispute whether one is a defender of the past or a promoter of the future simply collapses. It is actually both. A theologian is like a ‘walking man’, one leg on the ground and the other in the air. We must learn from the past to courageously face the living realities of today. But we must also move beyond it to the future that will incorporate the immense riches of historical experiences of the past and present. Here, the pricipile proposed by Pope Francis seems to be more intelligible: Time is greater than space (EG, 222-225).

2.3. A Holistic Approach to Theology and Man

Theology always envisages a creative and progressive thinking, keeping the basic substratum of divine revelation. Theological reflections come from all forms and expressions of faith, of both revelation and reason. Therefore, theology is to be studied as a harmonious whole or totality (CCC, 114; LF, 32-36, EG, 34-39), integrating its different branches and in its inter-disciplinary character with other human sciences. There is a coherence of the truth of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of revelation.

Besides, a unified vision of theology is also a characteristic feature of the Eastern mind. A wonderful unity of faith and reason, heart and intellect, love and knowledge, feeling and thinking, practice and theory, orthodoxy and orthoparaxis, liturgy and life, human fragility (oikonomia) and ethical normativity (akribeia), mercy and justice, personalistic and objective approaches, the Church and the state, is seen in the Eastern theology. Theology must take into consideration the human person in the totality of his body and soul in his concrete context and situations of life. Here, the principle suggested by Pope Francis becomes clearer: whole is greater than part (EG, 234-237).

2.4 . Catholic Character of the Church, Faith, Theology and Praxis

We cannot speak of an authentic ‘Catholic’ theology without taking into consideration the rich and legitimate diversities and differences, seen in the one, holy, apostolic and Catholic Church (ecclesia una, sancta, catholica et apostolica). We are called to theologise as ‘Catholics’, not in terms of Western theology alone nor in terms of Eastern theology alone but taking into consideration the   cultural and ecclesial heritages of both the West and the East. The catholicity of the Church is not a static reality but a responsibility of each faithful to build up every day.

The Catholic character of the Church with her Eastern and Western faces must be expressed at all levels of her faith and life. Since there is always a reciprocal relation between the East and West in the formulations of theological truths (UR, 17), a mutual appreciation of the wisdom of East and West must ever be promoted. St. John Paul II, promulgating the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches wrote: “The Church by God’s providence, gathered in the one Spirit, breathes as though with two lungs, of the East and of the West, and burns with the love of Christ in one heart, having two ventricles”.1 This was a historic magisterial recognition of the ecclesial reality of the Eastern and Western traditions in the Catholic communion of Churches, re-iterating the need for a pluralistic approach to theology as against a monolithic approach of cultural universalism and liturgical uniformity.

Recent studies go a step further. As Sebastian Brock, an eminent scholar in the Syriac patristic studies, comments, unlike human beings, the Church is miraculously endowed, not just with two lungs but with a third lung as well, from which she also needs to learn to breathe once again.2 S. Brock in his innumerable and valuable studies has been always insisting on the relevance of a ‘tripartite approach to Christian theology’ and on the beauty of drawing from the three equally important streams of Christian tradition-the Syriac Orient, the Greek East and the Latin West . This tripartite approach to theology has now become well accepted among the Catholic theologians. We should understand these different theological traditions as mutually complementing one another. In the past, too often, one theological tradition has tried to dominate the other, thus creating a serious imbalance and impoverishment of the Christian tradition. Each tradition needs to recognise the value of the other traditions and thus be enriched by them.3

It is an ardent desire of the holy mother Church (sancta mater ecclesia) that the ‘Catholic’ character shall be expressed at all levels of her life and teachings, including those of moral theology. It leads us naturally to the urgency of   learning also from the East in moral theology as well. As St. John Paul II writes in Novo Millennio Ineunte, “may the memory of the time, when the Church breathed with ‘both lungs’ spur Christians of the East and the West to walk together in unity of faith and with respect for the legitimate diversity, accepting and sustaining each other as members of the same body of Christ” (n. 48). Added to this, a strong sense of diversity is a hallmark of post-modern culture at all levels. We believe that a healthy appreciation of the richnes and diverstiy of the wisdom of the East and the West is a solid virtue.

2.5. Pluralistic Approach as a New Hermeneutical Methodology in Moral Theology

It is true to say that the traditional Catholic moral theology is very much determined by the theological and ecclesial categories of the West, especially of the scholastic theology. While we fully appreciate the wisdom and genius of this rich cultural and theological tradition, we have to bear in mind that there are also profound moral theological notions, coming from other cultural and ecclesial heritages, which, far from being contradictory or conflicting, complement them, making for a richer and fuller understanding of Catholic moral truths. Moral theology, being the study of our ‘life in Christ’, is so rich a reality that there are as many valid theological approaches to it as there are to the mystery of Christ. We hope that such a pluralistic approach will give a more Catholic character, pastoral benevolence, normative docility and credibility to the moral teachings of the Church and help to reduce the dissociation of faith and moral life (VS, 88-89).

Thus, departing from the sophisticated and abstract rational speculations on various moral questions, which are mainly contributions of late scholastic theology, we may return to the original freshness of the first experiences of living the Christian faith, continued to be expressed through the Scripture, the Apostles, the Fathers of the Church, the liturgical prayers, the genuine life, culture and practices of different ecclesial communites and the living magisterium of the Church. This is supported also from human reason, experiences of the past and the contributions of modern sciences. Thus, moral theology becomes a rich theology of Christian living. The Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor reminds that the vocation of a (moral) theologian is to “ever deepen the understanding of the Word of God, found in the inspired Scriptures and handed down by the living Tradition of the Church in full communion with the Magisterium” (n.109).

2.6. An Eastern Approach to Catholic Moral Theology

At the first hearing, it may sound strange to speak about an Eastern approach to Catholic moral theology. The spontaneous reaction would be: since the faith and morals of the Catholic Church are one and the same everywhere in the Church, how can there be different approaches in moral theology? In this book, we try to propose with sufficient theological basis that the same faith and morals of the Church must be studied, explained and interpreted in the light of her different and legitimate cultural backgrounds and ecclesial traditions (EG, 40-41,68-70). Being faithful to the common Catholic teachings on faith and morals, each individual Church4 develops her own ways and expressions to explain and to live the same faith and morals of the Church.   This idea will be clearer in the light of the rich theological teachings of Vatican II on communion ecclesiology5 which historically reproposed the ideal of the early Church, admitting unity in the essentials of faith and diversity in its expressions in different cultural and ecclesial backgrounds. The theological genius of the Syriac,Greek and Latin branches of Christian theology should be taken into consideration. The richnes and diversity of Ambrosian, Arabic, Armenian, Byzantine, Coptic, Ethiopian, Roman, Slavic and Syriac worlds must duly be respected. The different cultures of Africa, Asia, America, Europe and Oceania are also to be considered.

When we speak about an Eastern approach to moral theology, it does not mean that we are proposing a different or a new Catholic moral theology. It is only a new understanding of the Catholic moral theology from an Eastern perspective. It is a newness of approach and emphasis. This does not mean that the ethical thinking and living in one individual Church is entirely different from those of another individual Church or of the universal Church. The possibility of an Eastern approach to moral theology is a fairly recent theological awareness in the Catholic circle. Among the Catholic moral theologians, it is B. Petrà, who for the first time, has spoken extensively of an Eastern dimension in moral theology.6 It is a very positive sign that there is a renewed interest among theologians to bring out more of the Eastern moral perspectives.7 To know closely the Christian East itself is a faith experience (OL, 1). This study is based on three basic presuppositions, which give space for different approaches to moral theology:

  1. The cultural and ecclesial diversity in the Catholic Church. It is a fact that most of the moral concepts (human act, moral act, moral laws especially natural moral law, moral conscience, virtues and sins, etc.), principles (principle of double effect, principle of totality, etc.) and teachings (on sexuality, marriage and family, human life, human person, common good, justice and truthfulness, social justice, etc.) in the traditional Catholic moral theology are well founded on the Augustinian and Thomistic categories of the West. Now it is high time that we become familiarised with the other legitimate theological traditions in the Church, both Western and Eastern. If Catholic moral theology is to be genuinely ‘Catholic’, it must take into consideration the plurality of human cultures and the ecclesial reality of the communion of Churches.
  2. The solid theological contributions of the Eastern Churches. It is right to say that the East contributed much to the theological developments of the various branches like trinitarian theology, christology, soteriology, pneumatology, anthropology, ecclesiology, liturgy, sacraments, monasticism, mysticism, spirituality, mariology, iconography, Church discipline etc. (Cfr. UR, 14-18; O L, 1-16; Instruction from the Oriental Congregation, 7-12). Therefore, it is natural that they would also have their own ordering of faith and praxis of Christian life and specific ethical thinking in their proper cultural backgrounds.

iii. A healthy appreciation of the theological wisdom of the East and the West. Mutual appreciation of the richness of the Western and Eastern theological traditions will result in the enrichment and organic growth of both traditions. Rather than the dominion of one over the other, we have here a fuller understanding of the mystery of Christ and the life in Christ. Referring to the need for a balanced re-integration of Eastern and Western perspectives in moral theology, B. Häring observes: “After the great schism in the 11th century, the West went its own way and the East remained foreign to the three main influences that shaped modern Catholicism, namely, scholasticism, the reformation and the sixteenth and eighteenth century rationalism”.8

As OL, n. 28 reminds: “the words of the West need the words of the East; the words of the East need the words of the West so that God’s Word may ever more clearly reveal its unfathomable riches and thereby promoting a deeper humanity and truth”. It is hoped that the deeper knowledge and appreciation of the Eastern and Western theological approaches will give a new horizon for our faith life, especially for our ‘Catholic’ understanding of the scarament of reconciliation .

vechoor back


1 JOHN PAUL II, Apostolic Constitution Sacri Canones, 18 October 1990, AAS 82 (1990), 1033-1044. For details see, B. PETRÀ, “Church with ‘Two Lungs’: Adventures of a Metaphor”, Ephrem’s Theological Journal 6 (2002), 111-127.

2 S. BROCK, “The Syriac Orient: A Third ‘Lung’ for the Church?”, Orientalia Christiana Periodica 71 (2005), 5.

3 Cfr. International Theological Commission, Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria (2011), nos. 5, 74-85, 99.

4 When it refers to the individual Church, the Latin Code of Canon Law (CIC) uses the term ‘autonomous ritual Church’ and the Eastern Code of Canon Law (CCEO) uses the term ‘Church sui iuris’.

5 The Catholic Church as a communion of different individual Churches (LG, 23; OE, 1-3; UR, 14-17) is a key to understand the ecclesiological teachings of Vatican II. In the Catholic communion, at present there are 23 individual Churches in six liturgical families, both Eastern and Western (Annuario Pontifcio, 2014). All these Churches are equal in dignity, rights and duties, adding beauty to the universal Church. This communion Ecclesiology is all the more relevant in the multi-cultural and ecclesial context of India, where the Church is manifested as a beautiful mosaic of the communion of three Churches sui iuris.

6 B. PETRÀ, “Church sui iuris, Ethos and Moral Theology” in Church and Its Most Basic Element, ed. P. Pallath (Rome, 1995), 161-178.

Pin It

Comments are closed.