Since becoming Catholic last Spring, I’ve had opportunity to think about what’s been gained by swimming the Tiber, as well as what’s been lost—by which I mean things about my former religious life and culture that Catholics just don’t understand or do. My post a few weeks back about the absence of a contemporary Catholic music scene was one of those. This post is about an addition: the confessional.
I admit I anticipated this part of Catholic life with some trepidation. On the other hand, I had never sensed a great deal of settled reconciliation with the Almighty in solitary, silent, mental confession. Which meant forgiveness took on the form of a circadian rhythm of sorts. I would feel bad about things for a day, confess silently, and then wake up the next morning having largely put behind me whatever it was that I had blundered the day before. Although a good night’s rest seemed to sufficiently shelve yesterday’s misdeeds, I don’t know that the divine economy actually works like that.
Alas, that approach is no more. Now confession is spoken, in real time, and it occurs when I go and actually do it. The psychological difference between a silent and a spoken confession is like night and day.
Lots of Christians are a part of accountability groups, of course. The biblical writer James (5:16) recommended people confess their sins to each other, after all. Such groups could in theory function as confessionals, but they lack the ability to convey confidence about forgiveness, since there’s no authority vested in a small group of one’s peers. It’s more of a social control thing, I presume. (And to their credit, evangelicals—and especially Mormons—are pretty adept at social control.) But I’ve never much taken accountability groups seriously. Given what I study, I’ve typically understood them primarily as small groups that serve to help younger Christians keep their hands off each other (or off of themselves). I could be wrong about such groups, especially since I was never in one. The confessional, however, is about far more than reciting sexual peccadillos. Perhaps accountability groups are too.
Running is cheaper than therapy, I’m told. For me, however, running only produces exhaustion and stomach-aches, with no high anywhere in sight. But I get it—running seems to be good for the mental health of many. I think confession may be as well. And moreover, it’s free to the faithful. It is not therapy, of course, although the advice (and the occasional blunt directive) I’ve been given on various subjects has been helpful feedback.
The practice of confession, or more aptly termed “reconciliation,” also highlights something I’ve long took seriously, but never quite knew what to do with—the existence of levels of wrongdoing. Whenever some well-meaning soul would try to theologically pass off a major personal problem as technically no worse than a minor oversight, I’d cringe. Some sins are significant and prompt confession because the Church in its authority and wisdom and discernment says so.
Skeptics, of course, might say that sin is a social construct—that human beings are behind the identification of actions as sinful. I’m quite sure they’re right. But just because something is socially constructed doesn’t mean the construction is arbitrary, irrelevant, or mistaken. For Catholics, real people made authoritative decisions about the objective wrong-ness of certain actions, regardless of how the action is subjectively experienced. And there are real, living people—priests—who act in persona Christi, making authoritative judgments about forgiveness in the here and now (as Christ commissioned them to do in John 20:23).
Guilt is more difficult to socially construct. It’s distinct from shame, which is more public in nature. I don’t like guilt (or shame). But disliking guilt doesn’t mean there’s an inherent problem with it. It pushes me toward acknowledging the truth about my actions—that they hurt. Ignoring it in a quest to boost my self-esteem doesn’t make me a better person. It makes me a narcissist. Confession resists that.
Unfortunately, not many Catholics go to confession: 75 percent say they either never do it or go less than once a year. Only two percent of them report going once a month or more. That’s too bad, because whether it’s spoken to a priest or to another kind of human being, confession is functional. It’s human to want to speak the brokenness that regularly characterizes our own actions, even if we suppress the inclination. And to be sure, I never like to go to confession, but I always like having gone. But to deny our own brokenness, and seek to stuff it instead, just doesn’t make sense. (We will create poor substitutes for it if we don’t do it well.)
For the record, I’m not knocking therapy. Been there, done that, and will probably do it again someday. But I wonder if the level of demand for psychotherapy—and rates of prescription antidepressant use, now up to an astonishing 21 percent of women and 10 percent of men—would diminish even a little bit if people employed an accepted and acceptable way to confess. Don’t you think?