Since launching this home page, I have received what for me has been a surprising amount of e-mail. Most letters have been encouraging, a few quite hostile. I would like to begin this discussion of the sacrament of confession by sharing one of the negatives:
I don't mind the comment on my baldness. That started when I was twenty so I've had thirty years to get used to it. About women's issues I do not consider myself an expert, even though during my twenty five years as a priest, women of all ages have shared deeply with me. However, I was not actually addressing "women's issues" on my home page, but basic human ones: abortion, birth control, the mystery of human life, sexuality, marriage and the priesthood. About those matters I only strove to elucidate what is in the Catechism.
The closing question did bother me. Not that I have anything to hide in that area. Rather I have seen it used against the Church as a kind of "trump card." As Philip Jenkins brings out in his insightful book, Pedophiles and Priests, the scandal has been used that way by both liberals and conservatives. For the liberals, it is the clinching argument against a celibate, all male priesthood. For the Conservatives it shows the folly of ordaining homosexuals.
The rhetoric around pedophilia reminds me of what used to happen when I got into an argument with a certain friend. He knew a dumb thing I had done which I was still embarrassed about. If the argument was going badly for him or he simply did not want to bother with what I was saying, he would trot it out, "but remember you are the same one who did such and such!" I would clam up, more out of shame than anything else.
In fairness to my friend, what I had done was quite public and, aside from laziness and gullibility, it involved no great moral lapse on my part. Still I was pretty embarrassed by it.
Now, this brings me to confession. What often draws people to the sacrament is exactly that kind of awareness. We all have done things which we feel a certain shame about. In fact, people have told me that if others really knew what they had done, no one would like them, not even their mother. My e-mail critic thought he was playing the ultimate trump card. But he does not hold it; someone else does. Someone really does know the innermost secrets of my past--and yours.
The sacrament of reconciliation is where God has chosen to deal with those secrets. One of the truly magnificent and humbling parts of the priesthood is being an instrument of the Lord to heal and even erase peoples' deepest shame. I and other priests have felt overwhelmed by the sacred trust penitents place in us. But really their confidence is in the Lord himself Whom they see beyond our stumbling words and inadequate gestures.
Because what is shared is so intimate, the priest is bound by a seal of secrecy. The seriousness of the seal was demonstrated a few years back. A woman who heard a homily considered that the example the priest used was based on her confession. She protested and even though the violation was far from clear cut, it led to the priest's suspension. On the more positive side priests have refused to break that seal even under threats and tortures. Alfred Hitchcock's movie, Confession is a cinematic testimony to the sacredness of that seal.
The safety of the confessional leads people to confess things they have never told their best friend or even their spouse. A burden weighing heavy on the shoulders is finally lifted. What a tremendous sense of relief is felt! Some people have considered confession to be a kind of "psychiatry for the masses." Carl Jung noted that even though the majority in Vienna were Catholic, most of his clients were Protestants or Jews. He speculated that the confession of sins accomplishes much of what psychiatry does.
Yet confession is radically different from psychiatry. While confession may have great benefit for the human psyche, its goal is something more. I can only explain this by going back to the Bible. When Jesus appeared to his apostles after rising from the dead, he breathed upon them. That breath was a person, the Holy Spirit. And the meaning of the Holy Spirit is first and foremost the forgiveness of sins. (cf Jn 20:22) When we recite the Creed, we say "I believe in the forgiveness of sins," it is an extension of our faith in the Holy Spirit. The sacrament of penance is not about feeling better, it is about receiving the Holy Spirit.
It is axiomatic in Christianity that to be saved, to receive God's life within us, we must first acknowledge our sins. This is a particular problem for modern man. Actions or behaviors considered sinful in the past are looked upon lightly by our society. This is particularly true of sexual ethics, always an area of much variation in cultures. For instance cohabitation before marriage used to be called "living in sin." But now when a cohabiting couples comes to get married they seem to have no sense they are doing anything out of bounds. If a priest brings up the issue, he is on the spot, not the couple. Most priests I know do not bother.
What can be said of cohabitation applies to other areas of sexual behavior. Masturbation, birth control, homosexual activity are non-issues for many people today. Pornography and prostitution, while not generally accepted, are largely considered private matters. However, there is one area of sexual behavior which still does evoke an instant condemnation. That is the one my critic threw in my face at the end of his e-mail. He did it because he knew everyone in our society would consider child molestation to be despicable. A child molester would hide the offense, not just because of the certain condemnation, but because of his own genuine shame.
That shame bears a closer examination. After all, sexual relations of an adult with a child were not always condemned as such. Plato speaks openly about pederasty; he hardly denounces the practice. In Montillou, a documentary book about life in 14th century France, one of those interviewed tells about how he overcame his problem of adultery. He began sleeping with boys! For him it was the lesser of two evils. Today to admit having sex with a child would lead to a prison sentence. When explaining why this is such a heinous crime one of the phrases which comes up over and over is "betrayal of trust." It is deceit, hypocrisy on the worst level.
But, really, is not violation of trust also involved in other uses of sex outside of marriage? A young man asks a girl for a "proof of love;" she in turn "gives herself" to him. They are telling a lie to each other. There is only one place where such language is true: in the life-long commitment which we call marriage. I remember talking to a college student, rather proud of his "conquests." I did not begin by presenting to him the Christian ideal of marriage. Rather I asked him to consider if he had hurt any of those girls. He became thoughtful. He could only nod his head. To say there were no "victims" is simply untrue.
To connect the shame of child abuse with the everyday act of fornication would stretch most folks' imagination. Still there is something here which we are reluctant to face. There is a link between:. Thou shall not commit adultery. Thou shall not steal. Thou shall not lie. Adultery, even fornication, is taking something that does not belong to you. It is a lie, perhaps the most serious one a human being can tell. It is a betrayal and there are victims.
The inner logic of the commandments will convince some. I have found it persuasive with many young adults. This is true especially if two other commandments are called to mind. One of course is "Thou shall not kill." Even many people who are "pro-choice" recognize that abortion is the taking of a human life. According to a Planned Parenthood survey, the primary motive for abortion is to cover up an awkward situation. The decision to abort a baby flows from the deceit involved in misusing the gift of sexuality. A child abuser is called a "slayer of souls." But abortion is to slay a child in the most literal sense.
The other commandment to be considered here is "Honor thy father and mother." I have found that for teenagers and young adults that the fourth commandment, more than any of the others, can lead to a sense of true repentance. Parents might be surprised by this but if young people feel a deep sense of shame it is because they know that on some level they have dishonored their mom or their dad.
Shame and guilt are often seen as negatives, something we need to root out of psyche if we are to have happy, productive lives. Here a distinction has to be made. Or rather we need to recall St Paul's famous distinction. He states there is a shame, a "sadness" which belongs to this world and leads to death. But there is also a sadness which is from God and leads to life. (2 Cor 7:10) We have to deal with the second kind of guilt if we are to ever be free of the first. There is no better place than the sacrament of confession.
How to Confess Your Sins (Advent 1997 Homily)
Procedure for Confession
Article explaining the need for Confession even after becoming a Christian.
For more an article on the struggle between watered down Christianity (dissent) and its full-bodied version (orthodoxy) see my review of Flawed Expectations.
He Approached the Victim: "It's much more likely one of your relatives will lose his life by surgical abortion than by heart attack."
Germaine Greer on Birth Control
Human Cloning: A Catholic Perspective (How the Unthinkable Became Inevitable)
Pictures of Quinceañera