Friday, June 07, 2002

The confession (or disclosure) of sins, even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible.

---From The Catechism of the Catholic Church

Confession, Part II

(If you didn’t read part I, skip down, and read that first.)

So, why go?

I admit to finding persuasive the logic that makes confession somewhat extraneous. I really do. Several things have caused me to rethink my attitude towards the sacrament, though.

First of all, the Church says we should go once a year, even if we believe ourselves not to be in a state of mortal sin. While I’m not quite sure why this should be, anyone who takes moral theology seriously understands that one must give great weight to Church teaching in informing the conscience. This means, if the Church says something, and you don’t want to do it, you have to be able to explain why the teaching is not merely inconvenient or unfair, but wrong. I can construct a case that perhaps confession is not essential, but that’s not the same thing as proving the teaching in error. So there’s one major reason right there.

Second, what harm does it do? Now, this may seem a silly reason to follow a teaching, but it isn’t. Think about birth control. In the very recent days when “NFP” wasn’t as accurate or reliable as now, following Church teaching on birth control had potential consequences that were quite significant in the present world. So a couple had to decide one way or another, and be prepared for the outcome of their decision. But there’s no harm in confessing one’s sins, at least not that I can see. So, suppose I had been right, and confession is unnecessary for the forgiveness of sins. If I go anyway, the worst that has happened is I lost an hour or two on a Saturday afternoon, hanging around Our Lady’s chapel, praying. That seems like one of the least risky propositions I can think of—especially as compared to the alternative. (I.e., that I was wrong about the necessity. This is one of Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God, by the way: the Divine Wager, I think it is called. Which bet would you rather lose: that God exists, or that he doesn’t?)

The third, and final reason that I have rethought my opposition to the sacrament is the one that I have always recognized as valid, as encapsulated in the quote above. We are designed for confession. We are built with a release valve, set to let out all the “bad humours.” We can’t help it. Don’t believe me? Turn on Oprah, or Sally Jessie, or any other daytime talk show and watch for a week. The urge to confess is what makes those shows possible. It is a psychological necessity.

When I reflect on my ills, my failings, my sinfulness in the peace and quiet of my room, I am always inclined to mitigate and excuse. “Well, I really let poor so-and-so have it today, but he sure deserved it!” In the confessional, no such excuse is tolerated. I let so-and-so have it. Period. I am sorry for having done it. Period. The clear contemplation of my fault in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do, is the surest path to forgiving myself. Truly. Because I cannot forgive in myself what I do not acknowledge about myself.

And that is why I think the Sacrament of Reconciliation is so important. It is true that God’s forgiveness is all around, and always there for the taking. But hanging on to the wrong things—the excuses, the justifications, the sins themselves—fills the place where forgiveness goes. Continuing to condemn yourself is a way of clinging to your failings, and being contrite, by itself, leaves you no certain knowledge that you can safely let your sins go.

In the moments before death, the Act of Contrition succeeds as it does not at other times because it is not a way around the problem right before death. It may be true that Confession is not necessary to accept forgiveness, but it is the best way I know of to receive it. At the end, when all is said and done, you walk out having let go of your wrongs, in the certain knowledge—because someone other than you has confirmed it—that you are forgiven. There is remarkable liberation in that moment.

Now, if one of the priests would just get up and remind us of that some Sunday.


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