Why should Catholics go to Confession? This question will seem like an easy one for many readers of my column. Yet if you’ve been reading this column, the first answer many of you will give I submit is the wrong answer. Many will answer that they go to confession because they are not holy and need forgiveness of a serious sin they have committed, i.e. mortal sins. If we were really holy, we wouldn’t need confession. I think this approach is part of what has led to the sacrament not meaning much in todays Church.
The first problem with this theory about confession is that we find no evidence in the Sacred Scriptures for it. If we are looking at our reasons for confession, we should be looking at what are traditionally called the Seven Penitential Psalms. (Psalm 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143.) While they speak of forgiveness, they speak of this as an act of God, not the end we desire.
Psalm 6 teaches us that the God heals our weak bones and our even weaker soul. Psalm 38 speaks of the return of gladness repentance gives us, and how God then guides the glad towards salvation. Psalm 38 teaches us that in confession, God rushes to our defense so that our enemies will not rejoice over our fall. The beautiful Psalm 51 (The Miserere) states that in our confession, a new spirit is given to us, our heart is created anew, and God provides us with wisdom, seemingly to avoid these problems in the future. These examples could be multiplied, but I encourage every one of you to read these seven Psalms.
Another problem with this theory is that the holiest of people, far from going to confession rarely if at all, went with a far greater frequency than those who weren’t saints. Blessed John Paul II went weekly. St. Teresa of Avila went very frequently, and her confessor for quite some time was St. John of the Cross. (If ever the odds were stacked against Satan….) One can search high and low through the writings of the mystics, spiritual masters, and doctors of the Church for this theory, and you would come up empty.
That isn’t to say that this theory is entirely false. When we commit a mortal sin, yes, we must go to confession as soon as possible since our souls have lost sanctifying grace, and we can very well end up in hell if there is nothing mitigating said sin. (Don’t take too much comfort in mitigation, it’s a lot less comforting than it sounds.) Yet if we treat confession this way, we are essentially treating the sacrament as a mere legal process. We go before the judge (the priest), he declares us forgiven (by God’s authority), and then we go on our way, likely to sin again, and repeat the process.
This process is strikingly similar to what the Epistle of the Hebrews describes as the problems inherent in an Old Covenant that existed without the Messiah. Mere human ceremonies could never take away sin or transform the heart of the individual, and make no mistake, after Christ’s death, the ceremonies of the law became mere human institutions. As a result, you had to keep offering more sacrifices for the same sins. While the law had declared you forgiven, more often than not the heart wasn’t transformed. (Hebrews 9:12-15) Mere forgiveness of sins is very important, but it isn’t enough.
Christ instead comes to cleanse our consciences from sin, and transform our dead works to the service of God. St. Paul tells us in his epistle to the Romans that “having been justified by faith, we now have peace with God.” (Romans 5:1) During absolution, the priest grants you “pardon and peace.” We Christians sometimes forget that we were made for this peace. When God created Man, He created Him in paradise, a symbol of the paradise that was communion with the Trinity which was our destiny. The fall of Adam damaged our ability to respond to this call, but it is always still made.
When we make a good confession, that peace is returned to us, and that peace begins to change us. Now due to our attachment to sin, we may not be able to enjoy it to the fullest. Yet the beauty of the Psalms quoted above is the optimism the Psalmist possesses in light of his repentance. Confession has recharged his body and soul, and made it possible for him to head out into the world serving God and doing His will.
In one of his recent daily homilies, Pope Francis criticized the mindset of seeing confession as a trip to the dry cleaners. We are just looking to clean the stains off of our existing clothes. Instead, we go to confession so that we can become holy. We go not just to be absolved from committing this or that sin, but so we can stop sinning and start doing the right thing.
If we want to solve the crisis of the confessional, we need to begin actually teaching these principles, and begin applying them in our own confessions. In many cases, this will require a fundamentally new outlook in the way we approach this sacrament. Yet it is only fitting, as the sacrament provides us a new way to live our life.