How We Confess Today
In the days after Vatican II, confession slipped its old juridical moorings, with its distinctive laws, regulations, judgment, and penance. At the moment it is searching for new moorings. What will confession look like once it finds them?
Not a Reset Button
I am a practicing psychologist and a practicing Catholic. Recently a Catholic client expressed serious concern about his increasing use of internet pornography. When I asked what he had done to try to control the problem himself, he mentioned having gone to confession. I asked if it had helped. His reply: “Oh, come on! He told me to say seven Our Fathers and seven Hail Marys!”
For the spiritually mature, the penitential recitation of such prayers may be an embrace of the faith that sustains them. But for many of us these assigned recitations have become little more than an easy reset button: Say the right words and it’s as if the bad deeds had never been done. When assigned as penances, memorized prayers often seem to minimize the gravity of the sins to which they correspond. They are a small, quick chore that puts the seal on large redemptive gains.
In the secular world, any punishment that’s too light or too severe to fit the crime generates strong disapproval among most who hear of it. There is a lot of research that suggests that it’s natural for people to believe in some kind of justice. We want to see efforts rewarded, wrongs redressed, crimes punished. Obvious imbalances between actions and their consequences create cognitive dissonance that we strive to reduce. We may rise in angry protest, spread word of the injustice, collectively confront the powers that be to raise or lower the consequence to fit the crime. Or we may gradually learn to think differently about the crime itself. If people usually get away with it, lightly punished, if punished at all, how bad can it be?
A penance is not exactly a punishment. (If it were, then Catholics who died in a state of grace wouldn’t have to worry about purgatory.) Nor is absolution contingent on penance. If it were, we would do our penance before, not after, we went to confession. All the sacrament requires is contrition, an acknowledgment that one needs the mercy God freely offers and a willingness to accept it. Acts of penance express both sorrow for our sins and gratitude for the forgiveness we’ve already received.
Still, the sorrow we feel for our sins should be commensurate with the sins, and the expression of sorrow commensurate with the sorrow. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “The penance...must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed” (1460). Over time and many confessions, the sense of dissonance from having received incommensurately light penances for serious sin accumulates. There are two ways penitents can reduce that sense. One way is to uphold the grievousness of sin by doing more penance than the priest instructs us to do. So we might decide on our own to do more fasting or more almsgiving, and this isn’t a bad thing. Lenten practices are a collective version of this: acts of penance above and beyond those assigned in the sacrament of reconciliation.
But the other way to reduce the sense of dissonance—the easier and, I suspect, more common way—is unconsciously to adjust our sense of how serious the sin is to fit the penances assigned for it. This incremental adjustment of conscience can be reinforced by the isolation and anonymity of the penitent. Outside the confessional, there may be no reality check. Small penances seem to imply small sins, especially when there is no mention of making amends. And once we begin to think of our sins as small, it is harder for us to resist temptation.
The way the sacrament of reconciliation is often practiced may be reinforcing bad habits rather than curbing them. It may be encouraging people to treat confession as a device for the easy relief of guilt feelings, rather than as an occasion for true reconciliation with God. When penances are mechanical and easy, going to confession can easily become what psychologists call a “neutralization technique”—that is, a way to defuse the negative emotions one experiences as a result of one’s actions. Confession offers the advantage of a spiritual authority performing the neutralizing work for the sinner.
In behavioral terms, the act of going to confession is rewarded in two ways. First, guilt and shame are neutralized. Once you’ve confessed something, it’s behind you. Not only are you allowed to stop thinking about it, you may even be encouraged not to dwell on it. Second, after the penitent has performed his assigned penance, a euphoric sense of innocence is restored: the slate has been wiped clean. I still recall the mood swings this created on the Saturday afternoons of my youth. These began with terror as I walked to church for confession, believing I would go straight to hell if I were hit by a car on the way there. Twenty minutes later I’d walk home in bliss, confident that if anything happened to me now, I’d go straight to heaven.
In this way, one may begin to associate thinking and talking about one’s sins (which the act of confession requires) with the sense of relief that immediately follows confession. The next time one struggles with temptation, the next time one thinks or talks oneself through the choice to resist or yield to temptation, the consequence of sin that will come to mind may be less the damage it causes to oneself and others than the good feelings the act of going to confession occasions. And, paradoxically, the more often one goes to confession the stronger this association may become. Resistance to temptation is thus weakened by the practice of a sacrament that is supposed to strengthen it.
This “iatrogenic” aspect of confessional psychology can be reduced without threat to Catholic sacramental theology by putting more emphasis on the relationship between penance on the one hand and both a purpose of amendment and the making of amends on the other. A confessional practice that took both justice and psychology more seriously would be more concerned with redressing the real effects of sin, the habits it forms, and the suffering it causes its victims. How few confessors insist that we apologize to those our sins have hurt if we haven’t already, and try to make amends insofar as that’s possible. Too often, reconciliation becomes something between the sinner, God, and the church’s appointed intermediary. The persons sinned against are left out of the picture. I think of my own sins and the people they have hurt: the people I bullied as a child, for example. Why did no confessor ever instruct me to make amends to my victims? Nothing that happens at confession seems designed to reduce the likelihood that one will hurt the same person again—or a different person the same way.
This, incidentally, is an aspect of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis that most Catholics found appalling: the seeming lack of concern on the part of the priests for the victims of sins committed by priests. Inasmuch as it was a sin, the appropriate remedy was confession, and this had nothing to do with the victim. It does not appear that anything is about to change in this regard. In March 2010, a regent of the Vatican court that handles issues related to the sacrament of penance told the Catholic News Service that a priest who confesses sexual abuse in the sacrament of penance should generally not be encouraged by the confessor to disclose his acts publicly or (even) to his superiors. The bishop was also quoted as saying that when a priest confesses such acts, “the confession can only have absolution as a consequence” and “one cannot provoke mistrust in the penitent.”
This is discouraging. If the sacrament of reconciliation is really about reconciliation as well as absolution, then confessors will have to do better, and the church must train them to do better. I am not suggesting that confession be turned into an ecclesial version of psychotherapy. But I do think the practice of the sacrament ought to be reformed so that it reinforces resistance to temptation rather than undermining it. Until such a reform, the church may continue to ask penitents to check their consciences against the Ten Commandments, but it will only be paying lip service to the Golden Rule: Love thy neighbor as thyself.
The Challenge of Truthfulness
Writers of confessional narratives in the Christian tradition have never lacked for exemplary models. St. Augustine’s Confessions is the classic prototype. Augustine’s purpose in writing this great work was to understand and deepen his relationship with God, to whom his words are directly addressed. The uniqueness of the Confessions lies in the fact that it is both a profound work of spirituality and a great work of literature, brilliant both in its description of Augustine’s journey toward God and in its analysis of the paradoxes involved in trying to write a genuinely honest confession.
The South African novelist and critic J. M. Coetzee sees in St. Augustine’s Confessions the central problem for all writers of confessions, religious or secular—that the truth about the self remains “inaccessible to introspection.” The theft of pears described in book 2 of the Confessions brought shame to the young Augustine. But, as he came to understand much later, his desire was not for the pears themselves, which were thrown away, but for the experience of shame—for the young Augustine was ashamed to be shameless. As Coetzee notes, Augustine’s
heart is not shamed (chastened) by the knowledge that it seeks to know shame: on the contrary, the knowledge of its own desire as a shameful one both satisfies the desire for the experience of shame and fuels a sense of shame. And this sense of shame is both experienced with satisfaction and recognized, if it is recognized, by self-conscious searching, as a further source of shame; and so on endlessly.
Caught in the tangle of sin and guilt, Augustine laments: “Who can unravel such a twisted and tangled knottiness?” Coetzee concludes that “until the source from which the shameful act sprang is confronted, the self can have no rest.”
If the difficulty St. Augustine faced in scrutinizing himself is typical, it would appear that fully honest confession is almost impossible. The process of self-examination and disclosure seems endless, as layer after layer of insight proves illusory, provisional, distorted by self-serving motives. As the very process of rational introspection becomes subject to skepticism, the thoughtful person may constantly doubt his own competence or authority to make an honest confession. As Coetzee remarks, “Confession is helpless to construct its own truth.”
Confessional writing has proliferated since St. Augustine’s day, especially in the modern age. Novelists have been particularly attracted to the confessional form. Dostoevsky, for example, was obsessed with confession, so much so that it is possible to think of all his novels as one long struggle with the problem of how to make an honest confession. Think of the narrator of Notes from Underground, of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, of Stavrogin in Demons, or of Ivan Karamazov and Fr. Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. In all these characters we find Dostoevsky’s lifelong wrestling with the challenge of truthfulness about oneself. Coetzee sees in Dostoevsky’s fiction a “sequence of texts” that confront “the impasses of secular confession, pointing finally to the sacrament of confession as the only road to self-truth.”
Prophetic as he was, Dostoevsky could not have foreseen some of the new difficulties for truth-telling that confessional writers have faced in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Mea culpas seem to have multiplied exponentially in the age of modern media at the same time that the practice of private sacramental confession has declined. And as confession has become more common and more public, it also seems to have become more trivial. Goethe blamed the rise of Protestantism for the decline of sacramental confession; the historian Oswald Spengler agreed, and thought it was inevitable that after the Reformation the confessional impulse should find an outlet in the arts. He predicted that, in the absence of a confessor, confessions would tend to become “unbounded.” And so they have. Exit Fr. Finn from the confessional; enter Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Phil, the world.
Along with the decline of sacramental confession and the rise of its secular substitute, there has occurred an erosion of the language with which we formulate acknowledgments of wrongdoing. Pop psychology has furnished us with a new vocabulary of quasi-clinical terms that make it easier than ever for us to excuse ourselves for our sins even as we are confessing them. This new linguistic currency seems to offer self-knowledge on the cheap—and thereby makes true self-knowledge even harder than it always was.
The novelist Walker Percy, a Catholic convert, recognized the same difficulties of honest confession and confessional writing that interested Dostoevsky a century earlier. Using the language of semiotics in his satiric parable Lost in the Cosmos, Percy stressed the problem of isolated self-consciousness: “From the moment the signifying self turned inward and became conscious of itself, trouble began as the sparks flew up. The exile from Eden is, semiotically, the banishment of the self-conscious self from its world of signs.” Percy believed it is impossible for one to know and say the truth about oneself by means of self-reflection alone. He arrived at the same “impasse” of secular confession that Dostoevsky had run into. And so Percy came to affirm Kierkegaard’s belief that the self “can only become itself transparently under God.” To become oneself “transparently under God” is to stand before God in humble recognition of oneself as a sinner, as one does in sacramental confession. Near the end of Percy’s third novel, Love in the Ruins, the wayward protagonist Dr. Tom More goes to confession, receives absolution, dons sackcloth, and receives the Eucharist, so beginning a new life in grace. Another of Percy’s novels, Lancelot, takes the form of a long confessional story addressed to a character who turns out to be a priest. And in Percy’s last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, Fr. Rinaldo Smith confesses a life of dissolution and misanthropy, and an early infatuation with Nazism, shortly before celebrating Mass at St. Margaret’s Hospice, where he serves the disabled and the dying.
All confessions are made to someone—an implied or actual listener. And all attempts at honest confession, sacramental or secular, autobiographical or fictional, are valuable if undertaken in the spirit of humility and truth. Honest confession is a harrowing journey, full of traps and pitfalls, a trial in which true victories in self-understanding are won painfully, and never quite conclusively. But as we learn in reading the confessional stories of St. Augustine, Dostoevsky, and Percy—and as they discovered in writing them—the deepest truths of the self can be fathomed only if there is a transcendent listener: a divine other who is the ultimate confessor, the dispenser of the grace of true self-knowledge, and the one person who, impervious to our self-deceptions, is able to free us from them. Many are familiar with Augustine’s famous prayer: “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in Thee.” It is the natural counterpart of another prayer in the Confessions, which deserves no less attention: “Lord, I pray you to let me know myself.”
What I Hear
At St. Francis of Assisi Church in midtown Manhattan, the friars hear confessions for six and a half hours a day, Monday through Friday, and during that time there are usually two friars hearing confession. For a few hours on Tuesdays a third friar is hearing confessions in Spanish. On Saturdays confessions are heard for nine hours straight, on Sundays for two and a half. When I mention this to people, they look mildly shocked. And if I add that there are usually enough penitents to keep the confessors busy the whole time, people look at me as if I were a visitor from deep space.
In October 1973, I walked into the church with an elderly friar to hear my first confession. We had been assigned the same confessional shift. I took a deep breath and tugged at his elbow. “What do you do?” He looked me up and down and said, “Just forgive them.” That was it. The next moment I was fumbling with the gates that slid open and closed on either side of the confessional. In time, one got the hang of sliding them open smoothly and tugging them along gently when they got stuck in their runners.
Today matters are very different. The confessionals have been redesigned so that the penitent can kneel or sit face-to-face with the confessor. The lighting can even be adjusted to a soft, welcoming setting. I sometimes wonder if piped-in music is next.
These changes mark large differences in the practice of the sacrament itself. The new design of the confessional, with its face-to-face option, tends to encourage conversation. This conversation contributes uniquely to reconciliation—the word many people now use for the sacrament. I prefer this face-to-face conversation to the disembodied voice wafting through the screen, but many penitents still prefer the older arrangement. I sit next to the screen much as my father used to sit by the radio listening to the big bands. Talking through the screen, I listen attentively to silences, to the space between words. An unforeseen advantage of the new design is the way it can accommodate young mothers with a little one in tow. Young children can’t really be left unattended in a midtown church, so they have the little space of the confessional to explore while mom takes advantage of their momentary distraction to speak to the Lord. The little ones regard me in my habit with mild curiosity. I try not to coo.
Nowadays a lot of people are angry. Often for good reason. My grandfather used to say, “What good is a man without a temper?” But the anger I hear in the confessional has often lasted too long and is now hurting. I try to point out that fear underlies anger. I say, “Ask the Lord to help you name the fear.” Naming the fear is a step toward banishing it. “Do not be afraid—it is I.” Stress also puts in a frequent appearance in the confessional—stress about work (or the lack of it), the mortgage, bills. Anxiety tells a man he is vulnerable, and this does not sit well with him. It tends to feed his anger and he often turns this anger on his spouse and children.
Another difference between then and now is the mention of abuse. I don’t recall such disclosures years ago. And anyway, after the sex-abuse scandal of the last ten years, it hits rather close to home. I feel a small discomfort. The victim is usually female, and the abuse usually took place within the home. Sometimes the victim asks whether he or she should confront the abuser, who may now be elderly or even near death. If the victim does decide to confront the abuser, I suggest that there be at least one more person present. It will go better with someone else at your side. I do not envy the victim this task, but I admire the courage it takes to right a destructive wrong.
Still another difference from many years ago has to do with contraception. As a young priest, I used to hear married people confess that they were using contraception, but not anymore. Perhaps it has become a decision undertaken in good conscience and there it has remained. Young people tend to consider sexual morality within the context of a relationship rather than as a matter of discrete acts. As a result, I find it helpful to speak to them about friendship. I emphasize that friendship is a spiritual bond, one that sometimes requires sacrifices. Friends display the affection appropriate to friends, sometimes a delicate point to make. Of course, the categories of mortal and venial sin compete with the language of relationships in talking about sexual matters. But I worry these categories do not really illumine justice, mercy, and faith—the “weightier matters” our Lord speaks of (Matthew 23:23). Does an emphasis on sorting our wrongdoing into mortal and venial sin blind us to serious, often nonsexual moral questions?
The humanity of the sacrament occasions a good measure of humor. Some time ago I slid open the gate and there kneeling before me was a very drunk man. He thought he was in the subway: “What station is this?” I said 34th Street and Seventh Avenue. “Thank you, sir,” he said as he got to his feet, with the slightly elaborate courtesy drink can induce. Then there was the lady who came to my one side and asked me to be kind to her sister, who was nervous over confession. “You see, it’s been a while, Father.” I assured her all would be well. With that, the same lady simply moved to the other side of the confessional and began her confession. I had a hard time suppressing a smile and remaining suitably grave. At the end of her confession, I told her she had a very kind sister. “She is that, Father. Thank you.”
These experiences lead me to speak of the sacrament as “floating.” In the days after Vatican II, confession slipped its old juridical moorings, with its distinctive laws, regulations, judgment, and penance. At the moment it is searching for new moorings. What will confession look like once it finds them?
In the future, even more perhaps than in the past, humility will be the confessor’s most important virtue. He will not wish to control the conversation, preferring instead to welcome the penitent and listen with his heart. He will listen to the Spirit of God already speaking in the confession of sin. It is humbling to hear members of the church confess their unworthiness to the Lord, confident of his forgiveness. As for the confessor’s authority to bind and loose, it must always be distinguished from the priest’s fundamental identity as a fellow sinner in need of God’s grace.
This sacrament is full of that grace. The people whose confessions I hear teach me again and again that the Lord is greater than our hearts. The sacrament is not really about you and your sins, much less me and my power to forgive them. It is about the Lord and his love. That is why he has the last word. I remember a young man who would kneel during the absolution and begin to speak in tongues. It was a kind of chattering (I don’t know how else to describe it), and it roughly coincided with the prayer of absolution: we both spoke at the same time. At the end, there was a brief silence. The air felt charged. He would smile and stand and go his way. I mention this as an example of what the confessor receives from penitents. It is the constant and repeated witness of a holy people who come to this “floating” sacrament and who, in their great kindness, allow me a share in their love of Jesus the Lord. Witnessing their faith, I ask the Lord to keep me out of his way.