Confession is the best. I am absolutely convinced of this fact because the sacrament is one of the few Catholic Things that atheists, agnostics, and members of other religions will get – at worst – only mildly annoyed about and – at best and most usually – wishful, dreamy and sentimental about. Honestly, the number of atheists and agnostics I talk to who deny the remotest possibility of a relationship with God and then ask, in a somewhat timid, casual tone, “Can people who aren’t Catholic go to confession?” is both ridiculous and wonderful. (My answer is usually, “Yes, just become Catholic beforehand.”)
Why this need for confession? I suppose the answer, “because it forgives sins” is too simplistic for our psychology-obsessed world. But for whatever reason, the desire undoubtedly exists in the human heart, as made manifestly obvious by the various and bizarre attempts to fulfill that desire. We have for instance:
The out-pour. This is very frightening if you are the individual chosen to listen, and not entirely satisfying if you are the guilty. But I’m sure you’ve all been on one end or the other: You are sitting down, perhaps with a date, when she starts crying. You ask what’s wrong, and by God, she tells you. She was abused at a young age and now hates boys entirely; she has become purposefully manipulative. In fact, she says, she’s manipulating you right now. Or perhaps it is the boy who pours and the girl listens; he’s addicted to pornography. Her turn: She used to cut herself. He used to take painkillers. She hates her mom. He hates his dad. Perhaps the girl confides in her best friend, the boy in his roommate. Whatever it is, we’ve all been there; the desire to tell our sins is strikingly apparent. And yes, there is obvious value in this telling. But what after?
The problem is that we human beings don’t just want to tell our sins; we want to be rid of them if they haunt us, free if we are addicted to them! But what can the listener do? He could say that it’s OK, that he doesn’t blame us, which is all well and fine for him, but we’re not OK, and we certainly blame ourselves. He could commiserate, which is nice, but leaves us in the same position as before. While an out-pour can be comforting – you stand up from it having been accountable to another human being – it can also be depressing: “Great! Now some one else knows. And I still did/do it.” It is good, but it fails to satisfy.
Then of course, there’s the recent phenomenon of the online confession. This is always interesting. It might manifest itself on the small scale, perhaps as a Facebook status – “It’s time for me to get over all the crap in my life” – or on the large scale, perhaps as a blog. Confessions of a _____ is a pretty popular title for blogs, and I have seen words filling that blank ranging from the mildly sinful – “Shopaholic” and “Mean Mommy” – to the scary – “Abortion Addict”, “Welfare Queen”, and “Sexaholic”. People want to confess.
Again, the problem is that the desire for confession is not satisfied by mere response. A man puts up the status “Drugs have ruined my life, I’m quitting,” on Facebook, and he gets 32 likes, three comments that say “Good for you!”, “lol, why?”, “wait, is this a joke?”, respectively, and a final one that says “good job!” The problem is that our sins are not forgiven by a mass of people agreeing with them or disagreeing with them. We’ll feel relieved, for the weight of a secret is off our heads, but it fails to satisfy. When we log off the internet, we are still alone with ourselves, and we still screwed up. It’s just that now people know.
Then there’s the psychiatrist’s office. Don’t get me wrong, these men do great work. But there comes a point when our modern take on psychology – which all too often denies the reality of sin – is simply an attempt to fix spiritual problems with physical methods; prescribed pills and the like. The problem with this method is that it’s evasion. “I feel incredibly guilty because I’ve performed sexual acts with my members of my own sex,” says the patient. “Let’s talk about that guilt,” says the psychiatrist. And despite thousands of dollars and years of therapy spent attempting to get rid of the guilt, it often remains. Why? Because guilt is not The Thing; guilt is the symptom. In this manner, psychiatry is inherently limited to treating symptoms, never the underlying disease, because – though it shouldn’t be this way – so many in the profession deny the existence of the disease; by denying the existence of sin.
The Roman Catholic priest operates in a much less subtle way. He heavy-handedly, with absolute disregard for your feelings, hears your sins as sins. You approach him, he smiles, you say, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.” You tell him how long it’s been since you last confessed. You tell him your sins.
And there’s no bullshit, no pride, no “these are the things that the actions of my parents have conditioned me to do”, no hoping the priest will say “Oh those? Those aren’t sins! Everybody does that!” No, you confess your sins, you admit to them. He – in a thick Irish accent if you’re lucky – gives you some advice on how to stop sinning.
And then he performs the single act that every other form of ‘confessing’ strives for but cannot attain. Every trip to the psychiatrist, every blog post, every emotional out-pour seeks after this, consciously or not; the forgiveness of your sins. It’s why Catholics go to Confession. The accountability is wonderful, yes, the getting-something-off-your-chest feeling is fantastic, yes, simply sharing your guilt with some one is a beautiful thing, again, yes. But you want more. You want to undo the wrong, to heal the wound. You want to be a child again, to be made innocent, pure as snow. And through the amazing sacrament of Reconciliation, you are. You are free. You are clean. You are reconciled to God and to your brother man. Your sins are not avoided, brushed over, transformed into not-sins, shared to everyone, or commiserated over. They are eradicated, forgotten by God. And the Catholic, in a very real way, is aware of it.
I do not aim to convince anyone of the reality of this event, nor list its biblical foundations, though if any one would like to share their own experiences or knowledge below, feel free. I simply hold that all ‘confession’ is mere imitation of Confession, weak and trembling fingers that point to The Real Thing. And The Real Thing is a sacrament that truly allows us to say, “It is a good, true and beautiful thing, being Catholic.”