The Joy of Being Wrong Essays, Part 2.2--the Problem of Confession

[Note:  Since it has been a while, the first post on forgiveness is here]

I will state up front that I have always struggled with the Sacrament of Confession (or Reconciliation, to give it the more modern label).  I have always found the experience both unpleasant and spiritually unsatisfying.  More specifically, I have never gotten a handle on what I am supposed to do with the Sacrament.  Either it turns into me reciting a laundry list of faults and failings, the recitation of which feeds into a tendency to view myself entirely through the lens of my failures and deficiencies.  Candidly, this state of mind sets me on the path to the dark home of my depression, a home from which the grant of absolution provides no escape.  Or, it turns into an unfocused counseling session, which the poor priest is not really expecting or prepared to engage in, leading to a frustrating and unproductive experience.  For this reason, it has been several years since I have been to Confession.

Nevertheless, the Sacrament is an important part of the Catholic faith, and notwithstanding my personal experiences it is not going away.  But how do we understand the Sacrament in light of James Alison's reflections on forgiveness?  Because it would seem there is an immediate problem.  The way that Confession is generally presented is that you have committed various sins, and that you need to go to Confession in order to wipe away those sins.  Conversely, if you don't go to Confession, those sins are not wiped away, making God's mercy transactional and contingent.  Alison insists that God's mercy is not transactional and contingent, and indeed the moment we recognize we have sinned is the moment of forgiveness.

If that is true, then what possible purpose does Confession serve?  After all, by the time I have realized I have sinned, I am already forgiven.  What is the point of some public act of seeking forgiveness if it has already been granted?  Indeed, Confession would seem to be the embodiment of everything Alison is trying to move us away from in our thinking about God and his mercy, placing us back into the emotional blackmail space.

I think there are two, related purposes for Confession.
The first one is primarily therapeutic.  Recall that the difference between what I called "Scenario #1" and "Scenario #3" models of forgiveness in the previous post is really the order of operations.  In Scenario #1, the order of operations is (1) we screw up in some way; (2) we become aware of having screwed up; (3) we go and seek forgiveness; and then (4) we receive forgiveness.  Whereas, in Scenario #3, the order is (1) we screw up; (2) we are forgiven (defined as being held in love through our screw up); and then (3) we become aware both of our screw up and having been forgiven.

But that does not fully describe Scenario #3, because there is an implicit 4th step.  Once you open the door and realize that you both forgot to bring in the dry cleaning and are loved anyway, the normal human reaction is to go back down stairs to your significant other and make some sort of acknowledgement of what has occurred.  You might, in fact, ask for forgiveness, even though that is on some level superfluous since you have already been forgiven.  You likely would express gratitude for the forgiveness you have received from your significant other.  You probably are going to say something about how you are absolutely going to take the bag to the dry cleaners first thing tomorrow morning.  Many of these statements might, on the surface, not seem all that different from the kinds of things you would say in Step 3 of Scenario #1.

This act of acknowledging the forgiveness you have received is not really about the one providing forgiveness, but about us.  We have a psychological need to close the circle on the incident, to acknowledge our role in the process, and to express gratitude for the forgiveness we have received.  Confession therefore becomes less a listing of faults and more a testimony of God's love and compassion.  And, like all testimonies, it doesn't really work to keep them to yourself--you need to express them to some other person

But there is another dimension here, and it ties directly to a theme that Alison has expressed in several places in his writings--Confession as a component of a public act in which God acknowledges and yet redeems God's people.  Here, Alison unpacks in what for me was a mind-blowing way the significance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the manner in which Jesus fulfilled and incorporated into Himself the meaning of those service.  Through ritual acts, God restores the order of creation to its proper, right relationship.  That order of creation includes our own order--our relationship with God, our relationship with others, our relationship with all of creation.  While we may, and should, seek that restoration, it is not something that we can grasp onto or even request, but something that we are offered gratuitously and which we undergo.

The Sacrament of Confession, then, can be seen as a miniature Yom Kippur, in which we experience in a ritual way the restoration of the proper order through God's saving action.  We no longer do so through animal sacrifice and the blood, because Jesus has encompassed and incorporated all of that into Himself on the Cross.  As such, it is appropriate to have the priest stand in for Jesus in Jesus's role as the vehicle for the transmission of restoration of right order.  It is not enough to talk about how we are forgiven; we must on some level experience that forgiveness, and ritual can help us to do that.

One obvious consequence of this understanding of Confession involves the role of communal penance services.  As they are usually conducted, there is a collective acknowledgement and awareness of our sinfulness, followed by individualized Confession with a priest or priests. These services are an innovation of the post-Vatican II period, they exist in something of a netherworld, and are often distrusted by more conservative folks, who always seek to emphasize individual Confession in the traditional way.

On this reading, communal penance services are entirely appropriate, and should perhaps be seen as the preferred form of the sacrament.  By adding in the communal dimension, the linkage to the communal quality of the Yom Kippur service--both in its Temple forms and in modern rabbinic Jewish practice--is emphasized and highlighted.  It is not simply myself as an isolated individual that is being redeemed and forgiven, but all of us together as the People of God.  Individualized Confession at the end of the service is entirely appropriate for the therapeutic reasons discussed above, but there is value in the communal service on its own terms alone.  Further, by placing individualized Confession in the context of a broader and more communal process, it may help to ameliorate the temptation to make Confession the vehicle for an expression of emotional blackmail by God.  That dimension will always be with us, but it can be relativized and limited though the broader public liturgy.

Confession will always be the most difficult of the sacraments for me.  But this alternate approach has helped me work through some of my uneasiness, and perhaps it will help others as well.  When my parish's Advent penance service comes around, I will make a point of being there.

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