"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, February 27, 2009

Confession as solidarity

It is disappointing, if inevitable, that most images of the Sacrament of Reconciliation show a priest sitting in one half of a big dark box and separated by a grille from the shame-faced penitent kneeling in the other half. That's why I've used an image of a different method. Although many people still "go to confession" in the box, utilizing a soft-gauze, emotionally unthreatening anonymity, most churches and priests now offer other physical formats too. They should. For even when conducted in complete anonymity, the sacrament is a communal celebration. It ought to be. For that reason, I prefer that it seem to be—especially in our culture, where individualism runs rampant and even good Christians like to pretend that their repentance is only between "me and Jesus."

As a semi-monthly penitent, and a weekly one during Lent, I sit face-to-face with my confessor. That's because what I need is more like a conversation than a mutual recitation. I want to be clear about the journey on which I've stumbled. For my habitual sins are so humdrum that it would bore even me to restrict myself to listing them, and the Spirit occasionally leads to me to see this-or-that sin as unusual or grave enough to be interesting. Yet I know that many priests prefer as much brevity as possible. Sometimes that's because they are fortunate enough to have a long line of penitents to deal with, and sometimes it's because they don't set aside enough time to hear confessions in the first place. Sometimes that in turn is because they simply hate hearing confessions, especially when, as is likely, they find themselves with a penitent who has little to say and less to confess but rattles on anyhow. So I've learned to be concise. But I avoid lines when I can, and I don't confess to priests who otherwise won't have a conversation. I want to confess why I've been backsliding, and I want to do it before somebody willing and able to tell me whether, and if so how, I'm kidding myself. I don't want to do that because I fancy myself better able to handle the truth than others. I don't compare myself with others in such ways. Rather, I want to risk being told I'm kidding myself because the Church I love, the Mystical Body of Christ in which we are all family, needs me to be honest with myself. I need to see how I've been wounding her; for if I can see that, then I am better motivated to change than I would otherwise be. Then, when I receive absolution, I feel I am being welcomed back to the family I've hurt.

Although my dislike of "the box" is admittedly a subjective preference, I don't believe it is merely that. That degree of anonymity was not normative for rites of reconciliation in the early centuries of the Church; for reasons I lack time to explain, it took a long time to become the norm. Until rather recently, though, that was not a problem. Most people were Catholic because that's what they, along with everybody they knew and indeed the very culture, had always been. The people's sense of Catholicism as "us" was lively in the sense that mattered. When it could be had, sacramental confession was seen almost as a form of good citizenship. That's not to say there weren't plenty of sinners and of the lukewarm. But there was still the sense that an individual's spiritual sloth was bad for "us" as well as for the individual. That's why, today, I favor a more physically open style of confession. You get the sense that you're speaking to and hearing from the family, even if most of the actual individuals would rather not hear what you're saying any more than you would like them to.

Catholic culture, to the extent such a thing still exists, is not much like that anymore. Americans, especially, want people to mind their own beeswax. Cars, computers, and now video games have made that easier than ever to do. It it no accident that the sense of the Church as a mystical body, as a covenant family, has declined at the same time. To some, she is primarily the hierarchy or the institution and only secondarily "the people of God." That is unfortunate, though not universal. Yet nowadays, among many Catholics who do have a lively sense of "us" as the Church, a sense of sin arises only within a political matrix. In "progressive" parishes, sin is seen mostly as "structural," as a systemic failure to embody those social teachings of the Church which are not somehow connected with sex and/or procreation. With the exception of the grossest felonies, pretty much everything else is seen as more a matter for therapy than repentance. So, most prog Catholics rarely if ever celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation. But even among more orthodox Catholics, sin is seen almost exclusively as a private, individual matter. Even though they reject the Protestant mantra: "I don't need a priest between me and God," they see the priest who represents Christ as keeping sin and forgiveness between "me and Jesus." It's no wonder that so many regular penitents prefer the box and hope they get a penance that won't involve their interacting with anybody but Jesus.

It is not that I judge those who do. That would be silly and pretentious. But I do think that priests need to emphasize the corporate consequences of sin, and the corresponding need for concrete acts of repentance that often involve doing things to help repair the damage sin does to others. Clergy and catechists must also stress the importance of the confessor as representing the Church, the Mystical Body of the Lord, wounded by every sin her members commit. Celebrating the sacrament with that in mind might be one of the most important ways in which we pray for each other. That would be "solidarity" which goes beyond even that kind which is called for by the principle of Catholic social teaching so labeled. It would instance the solidarity of the communion of saints.
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