June 25, 2009

Confession, On The Other Hand

I'm really into the confession theme this week. Maybe it's because I need to go!

There is another, more difficult side to the pastoral care of penitents. Sometimes you have to challenge or confront them in uncomfortable ways. Here are some examples:

1. When they come to confess other people's sins. I can't believe how common this is! Folks whose emotional and spiritual lives are very much embedded in their personal or family relationships are the most susceptible. Usually the tendency to confess other people's sins is a sign of the larger problem of taking emotional responsibility for the bad behavior of other people. This is very unhelpful because in almost no cases has the penitent actually been asked by the Holy Spirit to take up the pastoral care of the other party, and taking responsibility for them in this way actually enables the irresponsibility of the other!

With this you have to let the penitent know that perhaps it would be good to talk to someone about the problem, but that it's not appropriate for confession.

2. When something isn't sinful. People come because they feel guilty, but guilt is wider than sin. Just because we feel guilty doesn't mean that we have sinned. A lot of folks come to confession to exorcise their guilt, and there isn't anything intrinsically wrong with this on the emotional level, but it's not the real meaning or use of the sacrament. It's easy to feel guilty about mistakes, misfortunes, or things we have been unable to do, but that doesn't make these sinful.

Missing Sunday Mass is a good example. This is something commonly confessed, but not always a sin. For example, when a penitent is asked why she missed Sunday Mass, she might respond that she had to care for a sick child, or that the person she depends on to help her get there didn't come. These are not sins, but the penitent still feels guilty about it, because she knows that her world has fallen short of the faithfulness to God she desires.

In these sorts of cases it is important to help the penitent understand that the negative emotion of guilt is only there because it derives from the more positive spiritual stance of a desire for faithfulness to God. This is the place out of which he should pray. On a more general level, this is good for all penitents to remember if they are ever overcome by the guilt and shame of sin: they only feel that way because of the more powerful spiritual gift of wanting to serve God well.

3. Shifting the locus of culpability. Sometimes you have to try to get a penitent to look for the locus of moral--not emotional--guilt in a different place. In most versions of the act of contrition, there is a resolution of amendment. So, someone has to to know what such amendment of life might look like in practical terms. The best example is a recurrent habitual sin, often in the area of speech or sexual purity. Many times the pattern of habit is so ingrained that a plan for amendment that takes the form 'quit doing x' is never going to work. A better plan would be to try to rearrange and adjust the rest of one's life in order to eliminate the need for the function of the sin in daily life and reduce its occasions. In other words, the moral guilt of the penitent may lie not in the actual sinful act, but in the failure to address the arrangement of the rest of his life in which the sin fits so comfortably.

4. When someone doesn't believe in forgiveness, or doesn't believe she can be forgiven. In some ways this is the hardest of all. Sometimes the simple question, 'do you believe you can be forgiven?', carries a strong enough charge that it will reduce someone immediately to tears. Those with a strong desire for the devout life can sometimes be confronted on their belief in the forgiveness of sins. 'Don't you believe in the forgiveness of sins, in the sacrifice of Christ?' Those who are more fragile often need to be led little by little to accept that God could love them. Often these kinds of troubles derive from an unwillingness to forgive oneself that derives from self-pity or self-hate, which is then projected onto God. To such as these I often give the Apostles' Creed as a penance, just so the penitent will have to actually pray, "I believe...in the forgiveness of sins."


Unknown said...

I like the Confession series. My wife is not Catholic and there has been plenty of arguments but she has been surrounded by the family in our Catholic Identity/culture by our 3 oldest kids. But it is uncomfortable for me to keep introducing another part Catholicism that keeps shifting us to more traditional. It is fun looking back and see all of the changes that took years to implement. But confession at 4 PM on Saturday is very difficult. Being a good Baptist girl, I had added another verse from John for her to memorize John 20. So she doesn't object to it, but with a family of 4, I personally feel selfish for going. The 9 y/o has gone with me 4 times since she first received her first reconciliation. There is one good priest that will always make time for me. But each month I email him for an appointment. I am waiting for him to ask me why I am so special that he needs to make time for me. I have been waiting but now I really want to go. I keep fooling myself that this Saturday I will do it. but do not. So now either I email him or have an uncomfortable time Saturday. so thanks for making me address this topic. Maybe I will email the priest and just talk with him so I can explain the situation. What to do?

Brother Charles said...

Send the email, LM; it's the priest's responsibility to tell you if that way of asking is inappropriate.

Julia said...

I like the Confession series, too! Confession is so mysterious. All we lay people know is what happens during our own confessions. Who knows whether that's normal or what's going through the priest's head?

"On a more general level, this is good for all penitents to remember if they are ever overcome by the guilt and shame of sin: they only feel that way because of the more powerful spiritual gift of wanting to serve God well."

- If I may, I think it's also important to remember that any guilt or shame that drives one away from God, prayer, or Reconciliation is NOT good and is not given by the grace of God. I don't remember his exact words, but when I was having trouble once a priest told me that the guilt that brings you to the Cross is a gift, while the guilt that drives you away from it is a curse. I have found it invaluable to be able to recognize this difference so as to stay close to the former and very far from the latter.

Brother Charles said...

Julia, thanks for the distinction!

cuaguy said...

My turn for a question. What to do when one knows that the Sunday mass that they missed is not a sin. I had a high fever this past weekend, and obviously wasn't at mass. I feel very guilty about it, and can't seem to get rid of that guilt. Help please!!!

Brother Charles said...

Cua: At Mass this Sunday, form your intention as being united in prayer with all of the sick and elderly who long to assist at Mass but cannot.

I know it sounds funny, but I bet it helps!

cuaguy said...

Thanks, I will!

pennyante said...

CUA said: "...I feel very guilty about it, and can't seem to get rid of that guilt. Help please!!!"

Cua, perhaps your illness has actually been a valuable lesson for you. We all strive for perfection in our spiritual life and when we are less than perfect (such as when our body lets us down), it can humble us before the Lord.

We recognize how fortunate we are... because we can usually go to Mass whenever we wish, compared to those who are unable to because of age, illness or other circumstances. Now we can understand much more clearly how disappointed they must feel because they cannot participate as they used to. Experiences like yours can help us become much more compassionate toward others.

As we act compassionately, we follow right along in the footsteps of Jesus...

Anonymous said...

Hope you don't mind a question from a new "lurker".

Not making excuses here just stating facts, last week was exceptionally busy for me, worked several 12 hour days, the sang with the Choir Friday night for a 50th Jubilee of Ordination, Saturday sang at a 1st Communtion Mass then had the normal Saturday chores to catch up with, got ready to go to Mass on Sunday, sat down to put my shoes on then just couldn't push myself to get up again - I know if I was feverish or sick it wouldn't be a sin but is this extreme tiredness an excuse?


Brother Charles said...

Yes, Anonymous, fatigue can lessen or eliminate culpability in some cases. So I would bet that your fatigue at least removed the possibility of this being a mortal sin in your case. Also, fatigue from doing good is a much better excuse than fatigue from doing evil, so you have that on your side too. :)

cuaguy said...


Your idea worked!!!!


Brother Charles said...

Glad to hear it!

Anonymous said...


Thank you