When I was coming into the Catholic Church, I met a number of angry ex-Catholics enraged against the Sacrament of Penance.
“I hate it!” they would say. “I grew up with all that Catholic guilt!”
As though the sacrament caused the guilt.
I never understood that, because I had been raised completely outside the Catholic tradition, and I could tell you all about guilt.
Unbaptized, stumbling through life trying to figure things out based on television, pop music and comic books, I was filled with shameful and embarrassing memories of all sorts of things I had done that I could no more rinse out of my heart and mind than Lady Macbeth could wash off Duncan’s blood from her hands.
I had no apocryphal knuckle-rapping nuns, no icy cold Irish priest, no forbidding and distant Catholic grade-school teachers, no abusive Catholic parent that I could blame for my sense of guilt.
Yet by the time I reached adulthood, I was drowning in guilt — and I knew that it was due to my fault, to my fault, to my own most grievous fault, and not to some convenient myth of the awful guilt-mongering pre-Second Vatican Council Catholic Church stalking my beautiful sinless childhood.
Path to grace
Indeed, coming to the Catholic Church with my burden of guilt and discovering for the first time what was being offered in the Sacrament of Penance, I could scarcely believe something so wonderful could be true. You go into a little room, pour out your guts as you’ve longed to do and purge yourself of all the shame, sin and pain you’ve been lugging around like a lead weight for all those years — and when it’s all over you don’t get a lecture on what a jerk you are, or shocked silence (these priests have, after all, heard it all before a zillion times). No, you get gentle counsel, accepting love, a tissue, if necessary, and words of absolution, spoken by Jesus Christ himself in the person of the priest. Then you walk out of there, not only with your sins thrown as far away as the east is from the west, but with grace to be a completely new creation! You’re a new man! And it doesn’t even cost anything!
Now, you’d think that people would be beating down the doors to take such an offer. But the weird thing is that, in the late 20th century and early 21st, confessions have dropped off sharply.
Somehow, at the end of a century of horrors and slaughter that dwarfed all previous centuries by orders of magnitude, we Catholics examined the evidence for the monstrous evil of which ordinary people are capable (two World Wars, hundreds of millions murdered, the popularity of disco) and concluded: “We’re OK. Sin is just manipulative guilt mongering. Feeling good about myself is the No. 1 priority. I can get along fine without all the tedious examinations of conscience and other gloomy stuff.”
And so we thought we’d put all that dark pre-Vatican II stuff about confession behind us.
But it ain’t so. For the curious thing is that, as Father Robert Barron has pointed out, as our civilization continues with the shattering process that began with the Reformation, it’s not that Catholic truths merely get rejected. Rather, it’s that once they are rejected, they violently reassert themselves in destructive ways someplace else. It’s as though Christendom exploded like a great volcano and now chunks of Catholicism are raining down here and there in the cultural landscape where people build little shrines around them.
So, for instance, our culture rejects the Catholic notion of sacrificial penance and spiritual discipline in order to perfect the soul. Boom! We blow it sky high and that chunk of the Faith comes hurtling back to earth in the arena of “personal fitness.” So, a culture that regards with horror a monk who fasts develops a fascination with purging, the Stairmaster, tofu diets and water fasts, and sundry checkout-stand magazine miracle weight-loss formulas in order to perfect the body with a rigor that would have mystified ascetics of old.
Similarly, we reject the Sacrament of Matrimony and become obsessed with sex. We reject the second coming and become obsessed with sundry end-times scenarios ranging from “Left Behind” books to climate disaster in “The Day After Tomorrow” to some sort of rubbish about Mayan calendars in 2012. We reject angels and spend our time looking for aliens in tomes titled, significantly, “Communion.” We abandon the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick and run after healing crystals. We reject the Communion of Saints but believe in New Age mystics channeling 35,000-year-old warrior spirits.
“Penance, an application released for the iPhone in early December, allows users to absolve one another’s sins. After passing the application’s obligatory security PIN system (conventional online security measures are the app’s primary faith-orientation), you come to an interface resembling a confessional booth. Through the left door you can ‘confess,’ offering your sins to whoever is listening; behind the closed door you can ‘absolve’ any sins received; and at the far side you can ‘reflect,’ considering the shared confessions of others, conveniently arranged like a pinball machine’s top-ten list.” (This should not be confused with “Confession: A Roman Catholic App” for the iPhone and iPad, which serves as a digital examination of conscience and received an imprimatur by a U.S. bishop.)
So now, instead of confessing your sins in the safety of a sacrament where a priest trained to guide you in the riches of the Catholic tradition is bound by an oath that will excommunicate him should he ever breathe a word, you can now confess by blabbing your sins to random strangers in cyberspace who A) could hack your information and pass your most intimate secrets to the world; B) will give you the first dumb advice off the top of their heads; and C) can’t absolve your sins any more than I can. And you have to pay for it.
The way back
The lesson in all of this is an old one: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord. And our hearts are restless till we rest in thee,” said St. Augustine. The reason we hunger for all this spiritual junk food is because we actually hunger for spiritual real food: Jesus, the Bread of Life. That’s because Catholic truth answers to our humanness, and our humanness will not be denied.
So, if we don’t know about Jesus or (more tragic still) have turned our back on him, we don’t “get past” the Faith any more than a starving man gets past food. We just put something else — something inferior — in the place of Jesus, for nature (and especially human nature) abhors a vacuum. We continue to try to fill the hole and discover the iron truth that you can never get enough of what you don’t really want.
Happily, there is a way back to Jesus and his Church for Catholics who have sinned by (among other things) ditching the Faith. Indeed, there is even a way back for Catholics who have not only ditched the Faith, but joined the Nazi party, risen through the ranks of that filthy organization, achieved the rank of gauleiter of Occupied Poland, and overseen the slaughter of millions of innocent men, women and children. We know this because it happened once: Hans Frank followed exactly this path and, as his execution for his monstrous crimes loomed, he returned to the Church, made his confession, and (our Faith teaches us) his sins — even his — were forgiven by Christ, and he was made fit to enter the kingdom of heaven.
This really shows us the beautiful — and shocking — power of confession. The good news is, if even a man like Frank can find forgiveness, there is hope for us. The shocking news is, we are solemnly bound to forgive even men like Frank — to forgive as the Lord has forgiven us.
That’s tough. And it could have something to do with why people are so reluctant to approach the confessional, though I doubt it’s the main reason. The main reason, rather, appears to be the loss of the sense of sin. We have become a culture adept at rationalizing sin rather than confronting it. So, for instance, I once talked to a man who was trying to defend the notion that a friend of his could lie for a really good cause. I pointed out that, in fact, the Church taught, “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2485). His response: “If lying is intrinsically immoral, then what my friend did was not lying.”
This sort of moral reasoning goes a long way toward explaining our empty confessionals — that is, rather than naming sin for what it is (which is what confessing means), we attempt to call it something else. (“If gluttony is a sin, then eating an entire chocolate cake is not gluttony but ‘celebration of creation’.” “If fornication is a sin, then having sex outside marriage is not fornication but ‘incarnational sexuality’.” “If gossip is a sin, then whispering about the pastor’s visits to that cute blonde’s house is not gossip but ‘concern’.” “If vengefulness is a sin, then running that guy off the road was not vengefulness but ‘citizen justice’.”)
This fear of really facing the truth of our acts is rooted in our fear of facing the truth about ourselves. For we deeply believe that, at bottom, sin is the reality about the human person and virtue is the mask. The proof of this, of course, is the way we habitually talk when somebody else sins — especially somebody we dislike. “Ah ha!” we say. “He seemed like such a Holy Joe, but now the mask is off and we see what he really is.” We see it in arguments about things like the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin when people object, “But how can she be sinless? To be human is to be sinful. If you say she’s sinless then she can’t be human!” And we see it in our own deepest fears that, “If people knew what I was really like, they would be horrified.”
Every one of these statements is rooted in the deeply un-Catholic mistake that says that sin is not merely normal (which is true) but natural, which is a lie from the pit of hell. Sin is not natural. Sin is what destroys nature. God made nature, and God does not make sin. Sin infected our nature at the fall, and that distortion remains with us down to this day.
But we must be careful when we speak of this. For while original sin is real, it is more accurate to think of it as a sort of spiritual birth defect than to think of it as what God intends for us to be. It is real as blindness is real. But it is not so much a thing as, like blindness, the lack of something: the life of grace in the soul. Precisely what Jesus Christ does for us in the sacraments is supply that life of grace and make us truly ourselves.
Which means something revolutionary for those of us who fear confession. It means that sin, not virtue, is the mask. To be sure, sin is real. But sin is not the deepest truth about us: Jesus Christ is. When a person sins, he puts on a mask that hides the truth about him: the truth that Jesus Christ is our true face. When we confess, we speak the truth about what we have done. But when we are absolved, God takes the mask off us and we walk out of the confessional free and as we truly are: saints in Christ Jesus who have been set free to walk in newness of life. “All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor 3:18).
Response to grace
The benefits of confession are manifold, but I will focus here on two of them. First, you don’t go to hell. Second, you instead go to heaven. I’m not talking “afterlife” (though that applies, too, of course). I mean we live hellward or heavenward lives and much of our happiness, even in this world, depends on how we respond to offers of grace.
We’ve all known people who live fundamentally heavenward lives. They may have troubles (who doesn’t), but there is something about them: they are just fundamentally oriented toward light, truth, love and joy. They may fall down and get up a lot, but, however many times they fall, they are still pressing on toward the heavenly Zion.
Likewise, we’ve all known (and sometimes been) people who are living hellward lives. You know: dodgy, clever, always looking for loopholes, always parsing what the meaning of “is” is, always filled with the fear of getting caught, always trying to approach Jesus’ call for radical love from the perspective of “What’s the absolute bare minimum I have to do to just squeeze through the Pearly Gates?”
Some people imagine that to live such a life is happy-go-lucky while the heavenward person is hagridden. But I think it’s just the opposite. The heavenward people in my life are generally at peace, though they may be greatly afflicted with the burdens and sufferings of love in a loveless world. They may be in great pain, but it is not the pain of knowing they are lying to God. But the hellward person, striving always to figure out some way to pull a scam, to save his life instead of losing it, and to avoid the cross, winds up being the hagridden one. As Dante said, “In his will, our peace.” Conversely, against his will, no peace.
Confession helps us in all this because it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. The great thing about having a confessor is that he is not imaginary. He neither mercilessly accuses you (as the conscience of the overscrupulous does) nor lets you get away with the kind of rationalizing bunkum we concoct to avoid looking ourselves in the eye. I know a man, once tormented by scruples (an experience of hell on earth), who was liberated by his first confession. His confessor (a very wise and holy old priest) said of his confession of vanishingly small peccadilloes, “That was a very good examination of conscience. (brief pause) I don’t think you need to worry about those little things. When an elephant walks into the room you know it.” I’ve also known of confessors whose wise questions have helped those who want to shade the truth to say what needs said so that Jesus can liberate them from clinging to cherished sins.
Confession is one of the greatest gifts Jesus has ever given the world. If you haven’t been in a while, why not take this Lent as the opportunity to return and get back on track for heaven?