Regardless of how flawed your confession is the sacrament will always leave you with a discernable lightness, says Melanie McDonagh Even the movement offear proceeds from God’s act in turning the heart; wherefore it is written (Dt 5:29): “Who shall give them to have such a mind, to fear Me?” And so the fact that penance results from fear does not hinder its resulting rom the act of God in turning the heart.
– St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica The modern take on penance can probably be summarised in a telling little episode in that really awful film The Name of the Rose, where Sean Connery does himself least justice as the Franciscan friar, William de Baskerville. When his companion, the young novice, Adso, says timidly that he’d like to confess his sins (he’s been with a girl), Friar William says urbanely: “Why don’t you talk to me instead?” It suggests that there’s not much to choose between confession of sins and a nice chat, except that the latter is probably preferable as being a bit more informal. And if I had a quid for every time someone has suggested that there’s a lot of similarity between the 20th-century practice of psychotherapy and Catholic Confession, I’d be able to pay off a fraction of my overdraft.
Confession is, as it happens, quite a bit in the news lately, not least thanks to the hair-raising recent suggestion from the Irish government that priests who hear confessions in which a paedophile confesses to child abuse must report the matter to the police. The effect was to turn the entire debate about mandatory reporting of abuse claims into a heated discussion of the inviolability of the seal of the confessional, which was hardly helpful. It also, interestingly, suggested that child abuse is a crime of greater magnitude than murder or grown-up rape, which presumably priests can still keep to themselves. That debate is not yet resolved but it did resurrect the whole concept of the seal of the confessional to a
Catholic culture in Ireland which is now largely ignorant of it. The other occasion when interest in Confession peaked recently was when the Vatican approved a mobile phone app for people preparing for Confession. It was, as most of us would instinctively be aware, a kind of electronic version of those bits at the back of old-fashioned prayer books which go through your examination of conscience with you: how you might have sinned against each of the commandments in turn, with particular reference to the sixth and ninth. But naturally nonCatholics assumed that this was actually a mobile phone app that could of itself forgive sins and the ensuing debate was comic in its way. It was an opportunity for non-Catholics to marvel at our odd, credulous ways at a time when Catholics are acutely conscious of how few of the faithful actually go to Confession at all. Which is a shame, because as the quote from St Thomas Aquinas above makes clear, the Sacrament of Penance is altogether more interesting than most of us imagine. It is an act of God who turns our hearts towards him. As Herbert McCabe, the distinguished Dominican theologian said, it is not a matter of us changing God’s mind about us; it is about God changing our minds about him. It’s not just absolution that gives us grace; the very fact of us repenting of our sins and confessing them is itself the result of God’s working in us. So our going to Confession in the first place, a bit like prayer, is a result of God’s prompting. In fact, of course, God never stops loving us; penance is a way of us loving him. And as Thomas Aquinas observes above, it doesn’t matter very much if it’s fear of punishment that makes us confess, because it is still an act of God in turning our hearts to himself. Of course there was a time when, with or without the prompting of God’s grace, you turned up for Confession on Saturday mornings.
I remember when children were encouraged to go to Confession every week. And it’s a pity they aren’t still, because it might make the whole business more entertaining (and I don’t mean that frivolously) for priests who have to hear it. The thing about children is that they’re often honest and the perfect little short story by Frank O’Connor, “First Confession”, about a little boy who confesses that he intended to murder his granny, suggests that they are in this respect an example to us all. How often have we all wished to murder our granny/spouse/parent but never quite got round to saying so in Confession? The old examination of conscience drew a distinction between being tempted to a sin and yielding to that temptation, but indulging in fantasies of homicide would, I expect, be culpable in its way. And talking of confessors getting bored, one of my favourites is in a Carmelite church near me, where I once observed that he had been reading Vanity Fair; it made me feel this was a kindred soul.
I go to Confession perhaps half a dozen times a year; sometimes much less, but I never, regardless of how flawed my Confession is, leave it without a discernible lightness. Of course the benefits of Confession are greatly enhanced if I prepare the ground and engage in a decent examination of conscience and if the priest in turn helps by the right sort of prompting and by giving advice relating to what I’ve said, not generic stuff.
But as I say, even when I’ve been rubbish, even when the priest has been rubbish, I’ve always felt lighter. I suppose this is what people feel when they talk about penance in terms of psychotherapy; it is therapeutic, only not in the way they think. Of course Confession is easy when you’ve got a nice concrete sin to report: a whopper, adultery or embezzlement or something. It’s the little sins that are so hard to pin down. Heinrich Böll wrote a lovely story about a man watching a girl go to Confession after some sexual sin and wishing he too had something solid to confess to. All his sins, he said, were like a bowl of water that you leave out overnight. The water becomes slightly clouded, sullied in a way that’s hardly discernible. And how can you confess to the sins so apparently slight, sins that equate to particles that make waterless clear?
Yet, as Herbert McCabe says about venial sins, they’re really about what you love more than loving God. It’s usually about a disproportion in your love of other things: power, money, sex – the usual. All of which doesn’t, I have to say, make examination of conscience more easy. I find it’s best to avoid celebrity confessors; I once went to one in the former Yugoslavia who accused me of being a rampant capitalist and money maker (I worked at the time for a stockbrokers) when I was in fact a failed capitalist and hopeless money maker.
Brilliant confessors are a fine thing, of course, but they can make us forget that the merit of the thing is still there even when we or the priest don’t play our part well. The thing about Confession is that it’s God’s work, and he’s never rubbish.
Melanie McDonagh is a columnist and leader writer for the London Evening Standard