Where’s the forgiveness?

confession 01Reporter Jennifer Lebovich had a very interesting article in Sunday’s Miami Herald. She looked at the popularity of online confession websites where people anonymously post their sins or read about the sins of others. She looks at I’ve Screwed Up, GroupHug, My Secret, Daily Confession and the now-inactive Not Proud. Sexual sins are the most frequently confessed, with theft, lying and alcohol abuse following, Lebovich reports.

Lebovich begins with one of the confessions she read about a woman who regrets an abortion she had 18 years ago:

Finally ready to confess, she turned not to a minister, but to her computer.

“I am sorry God for not keeping that baby,” her anonymous confession reads. “I had an abortion and had kept that secret for over 18 years. I feel so ashamed. Please forgive me!”

The confession appears at ivescrewedup.com, a website launched by the Flamingo Road Church in Cooper City. It’s one of a growing number of such sites across the country — some secular and others church-sponsored — that offer a place to spill out ugly secrets or just make peccadilloes public.

“I think it helps people understand . . . that we’re not here to point out people’s screw-ups, that we’re here to help them,” said lead Pastor Troy Gramling, whose nondenominational church launched the site on Easter weekend. “The church is made of skin and flesh and people that have made mistakes.”

The 6,500-member church created the site as part of a 10-week series on the ways people mess up — in marriage, parenting, finances and more. The goal of the series is to help congregants learn from their mistakes.

As I said, very interesting and well-written story. That last line — and many others from the story — gave me pause, however. In churches like mine where private confession is taken very seriously, the reason why people do it before a priest is not primarily to “learn from their mistakes” or confide in someone therapeutically or reveal some past transgression. The primary purpose is to be absolved. When I confess my sins to my pastor, he forgives me in Christ’s stead. Other churches have variations on this, but in the whole “confession and absolution” structure, the emphasis is on forgiveness. As Luther said:

Now mark well what I have said often, that confession consists of two parts. The first is our work and doing, that I lament my sins and desire comfort and renewal of my soul. The other is a work which God does, who absolves me from my sins through His Word spoken by the mouth of man. This is the most important and precious part, as it also makes it lovely and comforting.

Now I know that this is an area where many Christians, particularly many Protestants, have a different understanding of the role of the pastor or priest in regard to forgiveness from God. But as I read the story, the question kept popping up for me: Where or how does forgiveness come into play, if at all? In other words, are these online confession sites more like what you might get from a traditional church’s confession mechanism or more like what you might get from watching Oprah? Does the confessing individual forgive himself? Does the community forgive? Does the magical internet forgive? Here the reporter approaches the question:

The church has received some criticism, Gruenewald said, from people who think that “we’re trying to encourage people to confess to a computer instead of God. We just believe it is a catalyst to have people open up to family and friends and God. I think sometimes it can be misunderstood.”

A recent redesign gave readers the option to post prayers or responses to the confessions.

The Catholic Church is among those who reject the idea of confessing online.

Confession is “the opportunity to confess sins to someone ordained as a priest who is a representative of Christ,” said Mary Ross Agosta, a spokeswoman for the Miami Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church.

That quote from Agosta is rather weak in terms of how well it conveys beefs the Roman Catholic Church might have with online confession. It’s hard to know if that is a reporter error or a missed opportunity on the part of Agosta.

But the article goes on to say that the Web sites make people feel better about their own behavior and moral values. I have no doubt that’s true. But that also is a huge dissimilarity to historic Christianity’s private confession and absolution. I’m sure I’m not alone among penitents in being absolutely mortified when I speak my sins out loud and have to confess the same things over and over and over again to my pastor. In traditional churches, the practice of private confession and absolution reminds the penitent how sin separates the believer from God and how merciful God is to forgive us — it isn’t supposed to make us feel better about our sin.

This wasn’t an article about traditional churches but the comparisons being made — from the first lines to the last — were to the practice of private confession and absolution. I wonder if the contrasts between the two aren’t more interesting — particularly how or whether God’s mercy is distributed through the online forum vs. the traditional practice. Perhaps some better questioning of online confession’s proponents or its detractors is in order.

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  • Martha

    “That quote from Agosta is rather weak in terms of how well it conveys beefs the Roman Catholic Church might have with online confession. It’s hard to know if that is a reporter error or a missed opportunity on the part of Agosta.”

    Mmm – sounds more like Ms. Agosta gave the full explanation to the reporter, and either he (or the editor) went “Can’t put all that in the middle of the story; better boil it down to a sentence.” The way it reads, it sounds like it’s been snipped out of a fuller statement, maybe something along the lines of this definition from the “Catholic Encyclopedia”:

    “The Sacrament of Penance
    Penance is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ in which forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest’s absolution to those who with true sorrow confess their sins and promise to satisfy for the same. It is called a “sacrament” not simply a function or ceremony, because it is an outward sign instituted by Christ to impart grace to the soul. As an outward sign it comprises the actions of the penitent in presenting himself to the priest and accusing himself of his sins, and the actions of the priest in pronouncing absolution and imposing satisfaction. This whole procedure is usually called, from one of its parts, “confession”, and it is said to take place in the “tribunal of penance”, because it is a judicial process in which the penitent is at once the accuser, the person accused, and the witness, while the priest pronounces judgment and sentence. The grace conferred is deliverance from the guilt of sin and, in the case of mortal sin, from its eternal punishment; hence also reconciliation with God, justification. Finally, the confession is made not in the secrecy of the penitent’s heart nor to a layman as friend and advocate, nor to a representative of human authority, but to a duly ordained priest with requisite jurisdiction and with the “power of the keys”, i.e., the power to forgive sins which Christ granted to His Church.

    …From what has been said it should be clear:

    - that penance is not a mere human invention devised by the Church to secure power over consciences or to relieve the emotional strain of troubled souls; it is the ordinary means appointed by Christ for the remission of sin. Man indeed is free to obey or disobey, but once he has sinned, he must seek pardon not on conditions of his own choosing but on those which God has determined, and these for the Christian are embodied in the Sacrament of Penance.
    - No Catholic believes that a priest simply as an individual man, however pious or learned, has power to forgive sins. This power belongs to God alone; but He can and does exercise it through the ministration of men. Since He has seen fit to exercise it by means of this sacrament, it cannot be said that the Church or the priest interferes between the soul and God; on the contrary, penance is the removal of the one obstacle that keeps the soul away from God.
    - It is not true that for the Catholic the mere “telling of one’s sins” suffices to obtain their forgiveness. Without sincere sorrow and purpose of amendment, confession avails nothing, the pronouncement of absolution is of no effect, and the guilt of the sinner is greater than before.
    - While this sacrament as a dispensation of Divine mercy facilitates the pardoning of sin, it by no means renders sin less hateful or its consequences less dreadful to the Christian mind; much less does it imply permission to commit sin in the future. In paying ordinary debts, as e.g., by monthly settlements, the intention of contracting new debts with the same creditor is perfectly legitimate; a similar intention on the part of him who confesses his sins would not only be wrong in itself but would nullify the sacrament and prevent the forgiveness of sins then and there confessed.
    - Strangely enough, the opposite charge is often heard, viz., that the confession of sin is intolerable and hard and therefore alien to the spirit of Christianity and the loving kindness of its Founder. But this view, in the first place, overlooks the fact that Christ, though merciful, is also just and exacting. Furthermore, however painful or humiliating confession may be, it is but a light penalty for the violation of God’s law. Finally, those who are in earnest about their salvation count no hardship too great whereby they can win back God’s friendship.”

    Granted, a great big wodge of explanation like that would be too much to plonk down in the middle of a story, but really more than just one ‘pick the bones out of it’ sentence is, as you have pointed out, necessary.

  • http://www.losingourreligion.blogspot.com Renee S. Horton

    You all do great work every day on GetReligion, but this piece was especially well-done. Thanks for all the information and for your insights into on-line confession, as well as how the story was reported.

  • http://blackphi.blog-city.com/ BlackPhi

    An interesting post, on an interesting subject. The sponsoring church of I’ve Screwed Up is affiliated to the SBC, so it is not really relevant to the story to give a big comparison to the RC way of doing things – the “duly ordained priest” as a confessor, rather than either confessing to one another (as in James 5:16) or directly to God, would be a no-no anyway. I do agree though that an exploration of what Flamingo Road Church believe is going on would have been very relevant to the story.

    Interestingly the ISU website encourages those who make use of it to go along to their church to find out “what to do with what you confess”.

    That sentence that worried Molly, “The goal of the series is to help congregants learn from their mistakes”, is odd really. It refers to the course which led to the website being created rather than to the website itself, yet the way it is presented looks as though it refers to the latter. This makes the lack of any statement about what the church do see as the website’s purpose even more unfortunate.


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