'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.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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