Confession allows our sins not just to be made up for or moved past, but completely forgiven.
In the new Marvel TV show Daredevil, the first scene finds the titular superhero’s alter ego, Matt Murdock, in the confessional. The shadows play across his face as he muses about his father’s rage, the “devil inside” that he fears he’s inherited. The priest suggests it would be easier if he just said what he’s done. Murdock replies that he’s not asking for absolution, but for forgiveness in advance for what he’s planning.
“That’s not how this works,” the priest calmly informs him, and Murdock leaves still carrying his burden and his secrets.
It’s not clear yet how Murdock’s struggle to reconcile his vigilantism with his Catholicism plays out, but his confusion about Confession isn’t unusual.
Portrayals of Confession are common in popular culture, but Confession itself is becoming increasingly rare. For people my age the fact that I go to Confession semi-regularly is one of the weirdest things about my faith. Even a lot of young Catholics are uncomfortable with it. Many drift away from Confession before their mid-teens.
Well, I have a message for you: I think Confession is fantastic, and I’ll tell you why.
Let’s keep things light and start with sin and guilt. The Catholic Church’s doctrine of original sin is often seen as grimly repressive, as if humans were horrible creatures and a crippling sense of self-hatred is the appropriate posture.
This is pretty spectacularly wrong. The doctrine describes the human tendency to do bad things on purpose. We hurt other people or ourselves, we act selfishly and we are less than what we could be. Original sin asserts that each one of us screws things up and very often it’s our own fault.
And this seems, at least to me, to be obvious, undeniable fact. Anyone who doesn’t recognise themselves in the last paragraph is pretty seriously deluded. The Catholic writer GK Chesterton called original sin “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved”. The thing about facts is that they just are – what matters is how you respond.
So yes, there are and have been people that took the notion of original sin to some pretty anti-human places (Google “John Calvin”). But I’ve always found it liberating.
A friend was recently asked by another friend for advice. The advice-seeker wanted to know whether something she’d done had been wrong – she’d been agonising over it. My friend thought about it for a bit and concluded that yes, she had done something wrong. How did the advice-seeker react? With relief!
If sin is a fact, if we really all screw things up again and again and again, then facing up to that fact means that we can love ourselves and each other without falsehood.
Our ultimate worth isn’t dependent on moral perfection, but on being created in the image and likeness of God. It’s also healthy to realise that doing wrong is, well, wrong. Actions have consequences.
Guilt gets a lot of bad press, probably because it’s really unpleasant. But, in the context of a properly functioning conscience, guilt is just a handy reminder of something that needs fixing. It’s absolutely possible to be over-scrupulous, but getting rid of guilt would be like getting rid of physical pain: great until you put your hand in a fire.
It’s not about not feeling guilty, but of feeling guilty about the right things.
So what do you do about it? Well, if you’re Catholic, you make whatever amends you can to the people you’ve wronged, and then go to Confession.
Power to forgive
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is radical. Jesus shocked people by claiming the power to forgive sins, and he specifically passed that power to his apostles – which, by the way, is why you’re just not telling some guy your sins: the priest is acting in the person of Christ, just as he does at Mass.
Confession allows our sins not just to be made up for or moved past, but completely forgiven. And it feels fantastic (not that feelings are the point).
I’ve had friends worry that the priest is going to rake them over the coals. That’s never once happe ned to me. Priests are generally delighted that you’ve come to Confession: you’re already doing the hard bit – not just privately apologising to your God but facing Him through a flesh-and-blood-human – and they’re here to offer absolution.
It doesn’t matter how many times you sin – you can always, always go back, be forgiven, and try again.
We may never reach perfection, but that’s not the point: the point is to keep on giving Jesus opportunities to pick you up, embrace you, forgive you, and put you on your feet again.
So take a risk – take a chance on the love of your Creator, go to Confession and be healed.