Why Pay a Shrink for What the Catholic Church Does for Free?
By Oswald Sobrino, a review of Pardon and Peace: A Sinner's Guide to Confession, by Fr. Francis Randolph (Ignatius, 2001)
On Holy Thursday, 2001, Pope John Paul II wrote to all priests to encourage them to focus on the sacrament of Penance, or Confession. In doing so, the Holy Father referred to the recent “crisis” of this sacrament. Certainly, it is no surprise in Western countries to find that the loss of a sense of sin, and certainly of a sense of grave sin, has had a significant effect on whether Catholics avail themselves of this great sacrament. Yet, as noted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this is the sacrament where continuing Christian conversion takes place. As described by John Paul II, Confession is a dramatic encounter between Christian and Christ, an encounter fraught with the majesty of man’s freedom and Christ’s eager offer of grace.
The following thoughts on Confession arise from considering two books with the same title Pardon and Peace, but published over 50 years apart. The first Pardon and Peace, written by Fr. Alfred Wilson, C.P., appeared in 1948 and has been reprinted by Roman Catholic Books. The current Pardon and Peace was published in 2001 and was written by Fr. Francis Randolph, an English priest. In spite of a half century of tumultuous change in the Catholic Church, the fundamental thrust of the books is the same: Take advantage of this astonishingly approachable but powerful sacrament and its richness. While the books understandably differ in their emphasis on certain issues, both authors end up in the same place: A buoyant and cheerful Catholic will find his sustenance in Confession.
Fr. Randolph (2001) wastes no time in stating his theme: “Confession, believe it or not, is about happiness. It is about how to get rid of all those nagging feelings of guilt; how to be relaxed and at peace, knowing that God loves us. It is about preserving that peace and happiness throughout this life, with the cheerful expectation that it will continue in our next.”
This picture of the sacrament is probably not the instinctive picture in the minds of many Catholics, for whom Confession is probably viewed as a frightening burden and cause of anxiety. In contrast, both books emphasize that Confession is a much neglected and misunderstood treasure.
In the 1948 Pardon and Peace, Fr. Wilson quotes a psychiatrist who said that plenty of people pay him to do what the Catholic Church does for free, and that his remedies do not provide absolution of sin. Certainly, dependence on secular psychiatrists and psychologists must be enormously higher today than in the 1940s. Faith in Christ’s forgiveness and healing makes Confession a tonic that bestows a spiritual transformation, beyond the power of mere human counseling, on today’s alienated and fragmented individuals. These benefits, plus confidentiality, make Confession, not a morbid experience, but rather a highly approachable channel of grace.
In uncovering the joyful aspect of this sacrament, both authors discuss the types of sins. As may be expected, the earlier version of the book focuses on venial versus mortal sin: “Before a sin can be mortal there must be: 1. Serious matter, i.e., question of an important law; 2. Full advertence of the mind to the gravity of this matter; i.e., we must know and recollect its gravity at the time of acting; and 3. Full consent of the will in the act of sinning; e.g., if we were hustled by spontaneous and indeliberate passion into acting before we had time for sufficient deliberation, there would be no mortal sin.”
Wilson’s effort to clarify the marks of mortal sin sought to purge the overly scrupulous Catholic of fifty years ago of the notion that absolution was required prior to receiving Holy Communion if only venial sins had been committed. Absolution is required prior to Holy Communion only when we are conscious of mortal or grave sin (otherwise at least once a year). In the current book, Randolph begins his analysis of sin by distinguishing material sin, which is committed without full awareness or consent, from formal sin, where we are aware of the sinful nature of the behavior and nonetheless intend to carry it out. Randolph also discusses mortal and venial sins. Both authors recommend the confession of venial sins as both appropriate and desirable, although not strictly required. Randolph’s pastoral advice rings true: “Bring all your sins before the Cross in confession, and leave them there without bothering to analyze the exact degree of sinfulness. God’s grace is quite sufficient to sort them all out; you can leave the confessional confident that you are forgiven and that God loves you.”
Both discussions of mortal versus venial sin are pertinent to many modern Catholics who have received deficient religious education, while at the same time growing up in societies that have jettisoned any traditional Christian moral standards. What frequently can happen is that the contrite Catholic now realizes for the first time that his past behavior did indeed involve objectively grave sin, although there was no personal awareness or understanding of the gravity involved at the time of the behavior. Randolph offers a relevant example: “Someone brought up in the modern world who takes to casual fornication because everyone else at school is doing it is not entirely to blame. He may not know clearly that it is wrong, since the whole of modern society appears to take it for granted…. But being a material sin, fornication will still cause unhappiness. The bitterness, jealousy, and hatred caused when a “relationship” breaks up, the cruelty and treachery that result from casual fornication, are unavoidable. Disease, both physical and mental, all too often follows. Far too many people now come to adulthood with their capacity for love and true human relationship permanently marred.”
Randolph’s crucial point is that whatever the technicalities, a past involving serious sin, whether or not there was enough knowledge or consent to call it mortal sin, is so destructive and wounding that the penitent needs to go to Confession and accept God’s forgiveness and ask for His healing. Instead of a spirit of anxiety, the penitent approaches the sacrament eager to put all his actions and omissions in God’s hands, while being committed to preventing future repetitions.
As to the question of frequency of confession, our authors differ in emphasis, with Wilson (1948) suggesting weekly confession and Randolph (2001) recommending monthly confession “for those in a reasonable equilibrium of life.” Nevertheless, Randolph does remark, surprisingly, that in his experience young people like to come on a weekly basis, and that in modern post-Christian societies with “relentless pressure from newspapers, televisions, advertisements, and websites to pull us down into the pits of greed, lust, anger, and pride: it is not surprising that most decent people feel the need to clean themselves up more often than they did in the past.” Yet both writers espouse the same fundamental idea: Frequent confession is a means to grow closer to God that we should not neglect.
Related to the concern over the appropriate frequency of confession is the anxiety that, because we keep confessing the same sins again and again, we are therefore not genuinely contrite and do not really have a firm purpose of amendment. Both authors label this anxiety as baseless. They maintain that our temperaments, personalities, and circumstances will often yield their particular habitual faults. This reality of our human nature is another reflection of our original damaged condition — Original Sin. Randolph makes a needed practical point by noting that if “we gave up and stopped coming to confession because we did not seem to be improving, then the habitual sins would grow and flourish and gradually take us over altogether.” Moreover, as Randolph points out, as Catholics we hope that our “unfinished business” will be completed in Purgatory.
Not surprisingly, in view of the constancy of Church teaching, these books are in virtual agreement in the insights and counsel offered for readers over the span of fifty years. Yet, we all know that the moral atmosphere, at least in the West, is quite different from that in the 1940s. In discussing conscience, Randolph remarks how we have gone from societies where there was much agreement on what constituted sin to societies where even different Christian communities espouse widely differing moral practices: “The late twentieth century was the first period in human history when significant bodies of people challenged and denied commonly accepted moral norms. In this area the differences between Catholics and non-Catholics have become far wider than they were before. As well as doctrinal differences, we now have moral differences to separate us.”
Consequently, the threshold question for the contemporary Catholic approaching Confession is who will be his authoritative moral guide — a role many aspire to fill. Is it the accommodating theologian at a Catholic university who refuses to apply for a mandatum? Is it the conventional practices and customs of his neighbors? Or is it the official teaching of the Church? Randolph points out how the same Church that remits sins is the same Church that tells us when we have sinned. It would be absurd to seek absolution from the Church while ignoring the same Church’s teaching about which behavior is in need of absolution.
Randolph notes: “Until the cultural revolution of the 1960s many devout Catholics still went to confession once a week and Communion as often as they could. There then was a period of chaos, during which some priests and people abandoned the use of the sacrament altogether. The situation has improved somewhat since the 1980s…. [and improvement] became even more noticeable during the Holy Year of Jubilee in 2000.”
Thus, it is singularly appropriate that a successor to the earlier version of Pardon and Peace has been published at the beginning of the third millennium.
The foregoing review article, "Why Pay a Shrink for What the Catholic Church Does for Free?" was originally published in the April 2002 issue of the New Oxford Review and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.
[Hat tip to JM]