November 2012 Print

A Psychologist Looks at the Practice of Confession

Randall C. Flanery, Ph.D.

For there is no other religious system that does really profess to get rid of people’s sins. It is confirmed by the logic, which to many seems startling, by which the Church deduces that sin confessed and adequately repented is actually abolished; and the sinner does really begin again as if he had never sinned.—G. K. Chesteron, Autobiography

Confession is a most humbling sacrament, which might explain why so few Catholics avail themselves of it. Currently in the United States, only a quarter of self-described Catholics receive the sacrament of penance annually.2 Those who attend Mass weekly believe you can be a good Catholic receiving the sacrament less than once a year. The less frequently you attend Mass the more likely you are to believe that good Catholics need not confess even annually. The same survey indicates that the pre-Vatican II generation is more likely to go to confession (42%) than the Millennial (young people) generation (27%), hardly an impressive availing of a grace-filled sacrament.

Regrettably many avowed Catholics, even traditional ones, do not confess with anything like the frequency that the status of their souls would suggest is necessary. Since Vatican II the sacrament of penance, or reconciliation, if you prefer the post-conciliar terminology, has been greatly underutilized. As an adult convert, married to a definitely traditional cradle Catholic, both the sacrament itself and the decided changes in its significance have been a puzzle to me. Raised as Southern Baptist, I was acquainted with the notion that I am a sinner and that it needs to be acknowledged, but the ritualized, frequent, almost bureaucratic practice was a bit difficult to grasp. It seemed somehow lacking in sincerity as well as being deliberately demeaning. The Protestant notion of personal conscience in religious matters can hardly allow for the sacrament. I would hazard that similar difficulties exist for contemporary Novus Ordo Catholics for whom numerous modifications have been made to make the sacrament more palatable. For many, the barriers to the sacrament have more to do with confronting one’s nature, or more accurately, one’s behavior, than with any doctrinal issues.

Psychologically, going to confession is an act of courage. If I confess properly, I confront my true nature by reviewing my life since my last confession, identify my sins, distill them to their concrete essence: “In the last month, I used profanity 13 times, gossiped 25 times, got falling-down-drunk twice, missed Mass once because I got tickets to the football game.” I voice it to the priest, as quietly as possible and yet still be heard, vowing that I fully regret my sinful actions including those I don’t remember. Saying it in your heart of hearts, sincerely, is not sufficient, nor is meditating on it privately. It must be said and to a priest. If you are a traditional Catholic, you confess your sins on your knees. Is that not humbling to a modern man? You then allow someone else to judge your actions and assign penance, some sacrificial act; no negotiating, no face-saving, no excuses. Having vowed to mend your ways and agreeing to do penance, you also have to acknowledge that you are so flawed that you couldn’t have done any of it without the grace of Our Lord. Amazingly you are now sinless. You leave the confessional, suspecting that you will need to return before too long. Or, you just might not think about it at all.

Negative Emotions

Acknowledging one’s sinfulness will invoke some guilt and shame, negative emotions familiar to all humans. Psychologists distinguish between primary emotions, such as disgust and pleasure, which are present from birth and appear to be hard-wired into our nervous systems, and secondary emotions which develop out of the primary emotions, and require intellectual development and human experience to become manifest. Part of becoming a fully mature human is realizing that others exist separate from yourself, that they have the capability of affecting you, making you happy or sad, and helping you understand your own qualities better. The process of intellectual development and the experience of other humans makes it possible for us to have satisfying relationships. It also makes us susceptible to emotions such as guilt and shame. Secondary emotions, despite their later development, can be every bit as potent as the primary emotions.

The stench of garbage, an external physical reality, will invoke disgust in everyone. You do not need the experience of others to feel disgust at a foul smell. In contrast, secondary emotions such as guilt or shame are meaningful only in the context of personal relationships. You do not typically experience shame smelling rotten fruit, unless you have been powerless to keep another person from thrusting your face into it. All human beings desire to be valued and accepted by other important people, not demeaned. When the communication that I am not good enough is persistent and severe, the dislike of oneself or the other person can be very much like a primary emotion such as disgust, although contempt is the more accurate word. Guilt cannot be experienced until the intel­lect has developed enough to recognize that I have harmed someone else, “I did something wrong.” To experience guilt requires empathy, the capacity to see yourself in someone else’s position, to take responsibility for the harm you have done to another person.

Shame, another secondary emotion, is akin to guilt but with some crucial distinctions. Shame is “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming or impropriety.”3 In other words, “I have failed to live up to some standard” or “I am not good enough.” While guilt occurs in recognition of specific acts that have harmed, shame entails a global, negative judgment of one’s essential character. With shame, we know our flaws and inadequacies, but would be mortified if others knew. The assumption is that I would be rejected if the other person really knew me. To simplify, guilt means “I did something wrong, and I know it.” Shame means “I am bad, because I did wrong things, and others might find out.”

Shame and guilt are experienced by all humans and are not intrinsically harmful. At times we appropriately feel shame or guilt; each of us does shameful things, morally transgresses. Emotions, positive and negative, are essential to being human; that is how God made us. The problem is what we do with them. While negative emotions are necessary and useful, their immediate experience is aversive. As with any noxious event, we seek to escape the emotion, or better avoid the negative feeling altogether, which causes us humans even more trouble.

Avoiding Unpleasant Experience

Humans, by virtue of their intellect, have an impressive array of methods for avoiding unpleasant experience. Some highly effective methods entail not knowing, by avoiding exposure to information that would indicate you did wrong, or simply by not thinking about things that make you feel bad. Alternatively you can justify the actions, reducing culpability. Failing that, you can “correct” the information that wrong has been done, i.e. the person wasn’t really harmed or if harm was done it is not really my fault. The human intellect that makes us very skilled at fooling ourselves and others is also the foundation for guilt and shame, which makes us want to correct our behavior.

The most effective method of avoiding shame is follow Christ’s example, thus never have wrongdoing to acknowledge. Sadly, we are flawed and can’t keep from sinning; we can deny that wrong was done, or make sure no one knows. But unlike escaping a foul smell, we cannot simply remove ourselves from negative emotions or from the knowledge that is connected to the negative feelings we experience.

Attempting to avoid guilt and shame is what is ultimately damaging to the person and to personal relationships. For the shameful truth to not be known, the person must withdraw physically, by avoiding others, or psychologically, by concealing the flaws, actively preventing the failings from being known. The recognition that I sometimes come up short in doing the good, that is, I sin, leads erroneously to believing I am in my very nature horribly bad and thus unacceptable to God and man. Since I have done sinful things, I am totally sinful. Furthermore, no one can know. This is a prescription for isolation and despair.

Ironically, the harmful power of shame dissipates once the person tells others of the shameful acts. It reveals not only am I still acceptable, but others struggle with the same flaws. We may even learn our judgments are much harsher than those others would make. Sadly, the fear of disclosure and lack of trust prevent us from learning these merciful truths.

Confessing one’s transgressions in the confes­sional can evoke guilt and shame. Recognizing that we have harmed another human is unpalat­able, hence the guilt and shame. On the supernatural level, personal failings are infinitely more noxious to Catholics because not only have we harmed another human being, we have offended God. While we might be able to hide our transgressions from others, we can’t very well conceal the truth from God who is omniscient.

The Church requires the sacrament of penance and accommodates the operational details to our human nature that we might more readily accomplish it. By mandating confession, Catholics will do it, at least once in awhile. In confession the immediate recipient of the awful truth does not know you; you are anonymous. Personal details are disclosed only to clarify what the sins are. The enumeration of sins is reduced to the bare essentials. What is disclosed is obliterated when the priest leaves the confessional box. Limiting confession to matter-of-fact statements of sins, a ritual of prayers and declarations, and acceptance of minor sacrifices, my weaknesses are overcome, and my relationship with God and Church is repaired. However difficult it is to grasp, the supernatural reality is that I am forgiven.

 I am always surprised how much better I feel after confession. I know it will happen, yet I actively avoid it until finally with God’s grace, I invoke all my will and intellect. And what do I get in my relationship with God when I do expend a few minutes of human effort, a little well-earned humbling, a few acts of reparation? An undeserved gift that cannot be measured or earned—the peace of forgiveness, once and for all. Well, at least until I sin again. In justice, I should not be given it, and yet mercifully I am.

Randall C. Flanery, Ph.D. obtained his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Wisconsin in 1983. He is an adjunct associate professor in Family Medicine at St. Louis University School of Medicine and is Director of Webster Wellness Professionals, St. Louis, MO. Despite being an adult convert and a child psychologist, three of his 10 children are currently pursuing religious vocations.

1 I wish to make it clear that I am speaking of the sacrament of confession from the perspective of a psychologist practicing in the natural sciences; I am not speaking as a moral theologian.

2 Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate, Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice Among US Catholics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University, 2008).

3 Miriam Webster Dictionary online.