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'The Floating Sacrament'

In the March 23 issue of Commonweal, three writers approach the subject of confession from three very different angles. Thomas L. Kuhman, a clinical psychologist, asks whether the sacrament, as currently practiced, does not often serve as an instrument of evasion or self-deception:

The way the sacrament of reconciliation is often practiced may be reinforcing bad habits rather than curbing them. It may be encouraging people to treat confession as a device for the easy relief of guilt feelings, rather than as an occasion for true reconciliation with God. When penances are mechanical and easy, going to confession can easily become what psychologists call a neutralization techniquethat is, a way to defuse the negative emotions one experiences as a result of ones actions. [...]This iatrogenic aspect of confessional psychology can be reduced without threat to Catholic sacramental theology by putting more emphasis on the relationship between penance on the one hand and both a purpose of amendment and the making of amends on the other. A confessional practice that took both justice and psychology more seriously would be more concerned with redressing the real effects of sin, the habits it forms, and the suffering it causes its victims. How few confessors insist that we apologize to those our sins have hurt if we havent already, and try to make amends insofar as thats possible. Too often, reconciliation becomes something between the sinner, God, and the churchs appointed intermediary. The persons sinned against are left out of the picture. I think of my own sins and the people they have hurt: the people I bullied as a child, for example. Why did no confessor ever instruct me to make amends to my victims? Nothing that happens at confession seems designed to reduce the likelihood that one will hurt the same person againor a different person the same way.

John F. Desmond, a professor of English literature, reminds us how difficult it has always been to be truthful about oneself. No matter how lucid we may think we are, no matter how self-aware, our own motivations remain obscure to us -- until they are revealed by Someone who knows us better than we know ourselves. Augustine and Dostoevsky knew this. So, in our own time, did Walker Percy.

Percy, a Catholic convert, recognized the same difficulties of honest confession and confessional writing that interested Dostoevsky a century earlier. Using the language of semiotics in his satiric parable Lost in the Cosmos, Percy stressed the problem of isolated self-consciousness: From the moment the signifying self turned inward and became conscious of itself, trouble began as the sparks flew up. The exile from Eden is, semiotically, the banishment of the self-conscious self from its world of signs. Percy believed it is impossible for one to know and say the truth about oneself by means of self-reflection alone. He arrived at the same impasse of secular confession that Dostoevsky had run into. And so Percy came to affirm Kierkegaards belief that the self can only become itself transparently under God.

Finally, Fr. Kevin Tortorelli, OFM, who hears confessions throughout the week at St. Francis of Assisi Church in midtown Manhattan, is struck by how much the sacrament has changed in the last few decades. "In the days after Vatican II," he writes, "confession slipped its old juridical moorings, with its distinctive laws, regulations, judgment, and penance." It became what Fr. Tortorelli calls a "floating sacrament": "At the moment it is searching for new moorings." Meanwhile, the sacrament remains "full of grace" -- for both penitents and confessors:

The sacrament is not really about you and your sins, much less me and my power to forgive them. It is about the Lord and his love. That is why he has the last word. I remember a young man who would kneel during the absolution and begin to speak in tongues. It was a kind of chattering (I dont know how else to describe it), and it roughly coincided with the prayer of absolution: we both spoke at the same time. At the end, there was a brief silence. The air felt charged. He would smile and stand and go his way. I mention this as an example of what the confessor receives from penitents. It is the constant and repeated witness of a holy people who come to this floating sacrament and who, in their great kindness, allow me a share in their love of Jesus the Lord. Witnessing their faith, I ask the Lord to keep me out of his way.

You can read all three articles here.

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Thanks for the heads up, Matthew. I really like it when the magazine offers several different perspectives on a topic.

Marvelous! I haven't time to read all three articles in full at the moment, but as excerpted here - this is REALLY exciting.

Matthew this is an enormously important subject and I will have much to say about. However, I wonder why you or your associate contributors did not pick up the seemingly story of the day of the constitutionality of the health care law which has its biggest opponent in a Georgetown law professor. Notwithstanding the apparent opposition of some sitting judges today. The big news to me is that apparently most reputable legal scholars think that the health law is clearly constitutional and the decision will be 8-1 in its favor. The second big story you guys have missed was the victory by church lawyers to get access to the records of Snap which may be unconstitutional. Or am I misguided in this?

While I agree with Bill that much is happening that we're not talking about (e.g. on the mandate and a Masachusetts ruling at America blog, or Melinda Henneberger's piece(s) pn sexual assault at Notre Dame -generating lpts of buzz at NCR), this topic is a biggie today with many not using private confession much if at all.Coupled with decline in numbers of sacraments of orders and matrimony,I think we're seeing a change that will need a response that will trsonate broadly in the Christian community.

"A confessional practice that took both justice and psychology more seriously would be more concerned with redressing the real effects of sin, the habits it forms, and the suffering it causes its victims. How few confessors insist that we apologize to those our sins have hurt if we havent already, and try to make amends insofar as thats possible. Too often, reconciliation becomes something between the sinner, God, and the churchs appointed intermediary. The persons sinned against are left out of the picture. I think of my own sins and the people they have hurt: the people I bullied as a child, for example. Why did no confessor ever instruct me to make amends to my victims? Nothing that happens at confession seems designed to reduce the likelihood that one will hurt the same person againor a different person the same way." KuhlmanBernard Haring wrote over forty years ago that confessors should tell the confessors to make amends to the person/s they injured by doing some act of kindness to them. Haring also said marvelous things about sexuality in marriage, mainly that the sexual love also extended into the way the spouses treated each other during the day in so many acts of tenderness. Haring also knew that masturbation, especially in youth, was mostly an act of frustration and isolation. He advised encouraging youth to get more involved in activities, developing interests etc. Many confessors used Haring at the time with marvelous results as parents came to inform of the positive influence certain confessors had on children. The fact that Kuhlman never heard of this is perhaps a victory for EWTN, Opus Dei and other remnants of the Crusades and Inqusition. Profoundly disturbing is the info that Kuhlman relates of hearing priest's confession. "In March 2010, a regent of the Vatican court that handles issues related to the sacrament of penance told the Catholic News Service that a priest who confesses sexual abuse in the sacrament of penance should generally not be encouraged by the confessor to disclose his acts publicly or (even) to his superiors. The bishop was also quoted as saying that when a priest confesses such acts, the confession can only have absolution as a consequence and one cannot provoke mistrust in the penitent.In other words allow him to keep abusing children. I wonder if the penitent told the confessor that he was going to kill him whether the confessor would call the police. At any rate the word (if quoted correctly) is "encourage" which makes it even worse. Especially since others will be further harmed by the pedophile's action.

The articles are interesting, but given that so few people go to confession anymore, I'd like to see a compelling argument for why people should go, instead of simply talking to God directly about their worries (or going to a shrink if they need advice with interpersonal relationships).

With so much evil being done by religious leaders today a strong argument seems to be made for confession. Vatican II attempted to place confession or reconciliation in the Eucharistic ceremony where forgivenss of sins is couple with confession in front of the entire congregation leads to reconciliation. This practice can be useful if the congregation realizes its sinfulness in front of each other and promises to love and build up one another. This can be very effective but is lost because the diocese is more focused on money, finances and currently in misplaced politics. If the bishop placed more emphasis on this and actually came around to participate confession can be quite powerful and beautiful. This is the trouble when confession turned into magic and instead of playing a pro active role priests sit and wait for people to come to them as if it is the people's fault and not theirs. We have to de-emphasize the useless shame of Augustine over the pears and stress the overwhelming mercy of God.Although auricular confession is not necessary one can see the powerful healing effect when it is done well. There is no psychiatrist/psychologist in the world that can do that. We have to continually remind each other of the powerful effects of forgiveness in the Eucharist where we forgive each other as fellow sinners befpre God and renew our vows to love each other as Christ loves us.

Can someone please explain the very basic and fundamental Catholic concept of the why of the Sacrament of Confession? Or the why of the Sacraments in general?

BenderFrom the Catechism1131 The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.I think of them as a physical way for our material being to relate to the immaterial God. And I think confession permits us to name our sins and receive absolution in the hope that we will focus on the future rather than dwell on righting past wrongs, which, of course, is impossible.

More on other topics: America has two more blog posts - one on the Trenton exercise on wh ypewople leave and one on the Jesuit Post response to santorum's complaint about young leaving the church due to colege.A common thread is that answer men who don't allow questions (or change) drive people away.So repeating CCC and saying we can't set things right - boy that really solves the problem of confession, or other sacramental use decline.I weonder how much we are encapsulated in our Church;s tradition to not see the "disintegration" going on and perhaps overreach in trying to reclaim a time that has gone.

Perhaps Bob, the problem is a society which believes: 'I'm a good person and dont sin; you belong in jail for your crime.'

In the Mass we frequently ask for forgiveness: in the Penitential Rite, the Gloria, the Lords Prayer, the Lamb of God. At the very heart of the Eucharist, Jesus is quoted as saying at the Last Supper: Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 20:28).Eminent theologians have argued these words from Matthews Gospel were included in the Eucharistic Prayer by the early Church to remind us that when we celebrate the Eucharist with sincerity, our sins are forgiven.For Matthew, the forgiveness of sins was a primary purpose of the Eucharist. (Eugene LaVerdiere SSS, The Eucharist in the New Testament and the Early Church, The Liturgical Press, 1996, p.66)The doctrine of the remission of sins conferred by the Eucharist has had a long and varied history of use and neglect in the Church. Granted that the forgiveness of sins is not the chief object of the Eucharist Christ made the forgiveness of sins an essential dimension of it. (John Quinn, SJ, Worship, Vol. 42, No.5 1968).The Council of Trent (1545-1563) made the following statement, which sounds very foreign to todays Catholic ears: The holy Council teaches that this [Mass] is truly propitiatory and has this effect that if, contrite and penitent, with sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence, we draw nigh to God, we obtain mercy and find grace in seasonable aid (Heb 4:16). For, appeased by this sacrifice, the Lord grants the grace and gift of penitence and pardons even the gravest crimes and sins. (Cited in W. Bausch, A New Look at the Sacraments, Twenty-Third Publications 1977, p.157.)Catholicism has a rich history of Eucharistic theology that supports a different approach to the necessity of confessing to a priest for ones sins to be forgiven.

Bender, Applying the quote from the catechism the first article is questioning whether the proper dispositions are promoted since the sacrament bears little fruit.The second article's focus is on "the divine life dispensed" to us, and how that can free us from our personal blindness.The third reiterates the message of grace and testifies to how present it is in the celebration of Reconciliation.Collectively I suppose we could say in Reconciliation God is present for us, to convert us from lives that can hurt us. And similarly for the other sacraments.

I must say Kevin Tortorelli's article seriously impressed me. I felt blessed to read it. Years ago there may have been two or more priests at this church hearing confession. But it is still impressive to see how many still go. When confession/reconciliation is done right no psychiatrist/psychologist can match it as I noted above. This conversation should take place in the Eucharistic gathering where we all stand sinful before God in gratitude for our redemption and loving God with all our hearts and each other as ourselves. That mutual forgiveness should take place at the Mass in which the people of God celebrate their freedom and joy as the children of God. Tortorelli rightly notes that the reconciliation is mutual and that we are vehicles of mercy rather than condemnation. His words are worth repeating again: "In the future, even more perhaps than in the past, humility will be the confessors most important virtue. He will not wish to control the conversation, preferring instead to welcome the penitent and listen with his heart. He will listen to the Spirit of God already speaking in the confession of sin. It is humbling to hear members of the church confess their unworthiness to the Lord, confident of his forgiveness. As for the confessors authority to bind and loose, it must always be distinguished from the priests fundamental identity as a fellow sinner in need of Gods grace.This sacrament is full of that grace. The people whose confessions I hear teach me again and again that the Lord is greater than our hearts. The sacrament is not really about you and your sins, much less me and my power to forgive them. It is about the Lord and his love."It is about the Lord and his mercy and that mercy is always best expressed in the redemptive banquet of the Eucharist where people should be known for their love for each other.

Bender --There are many kinds of graces, but I think of the main grace of the sacraments as a sort of spiritual energy given to us by receiving the sacrament that we can use to do what needs doing. It is an empowerment that is not part of our natural self that makes our natural self capable of doing what we otherwise couldn't or wouldn't do. Often this is a matter of giving us the power to love when we don't want to love.

Let me echo Bill Mazzella's comments about Fr. Tortorelli's article. For a short time about twenty years ago, Fr. Tortorelli was stationed at the University of Georgia Catholic Center. At that time I was on the Georgia faculty. What a pleasure it was to have his kind, erudite presence there. I don't recall having gone to confession to him, but what his article says shows why he is such a good priest.Kuhlman's piece, on the other hand, sounded like he listens too often to Judge Judy.