Bring Back the Box

Face-to-face Confession has become the norm. But I can’t help but wonder how many souls have been discouraged in the process. Confession is easily the most intimate spiritual thing imaginable. Is assumed confidentiality really enough?

The year was 1961. The confessional was dark, as it should be. A recalcitrant fifth-grade sinner, I had just poured my soul out to a family friend, the parish pastor.  As he finished absolving me for what I was sure were the worst sins ever, he added, “Tell your mother that…” 

I can’t recall the rest of the message; I only remember my deep mortification. The whole purpose of the box was anonymity. How was this okay? It was perhaps borderline prideful on my part to think my sins that exceptional. And, as a frequent Mass server, he probably just recognized my voice. Still, I felt violated. What was routine for him was a very big deal for me.

And still, I was compelled to seek the sacrament. In the end, it always seemed a journey from shadow to light. I was a repeat offender. My sins were monotonous, petty, and yet they oppressed me. Absolution was the light at the end of the tunnel. The confessional was repulsive yet enticing. 

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A few short years later, face-to-face Confession was to become the norm—one might say, the preferred mode. I can’t help but wonder how many souls have been discouraged in the process. Confession is easily the most intimate spiritual thing imaginable. Is confidentiality really enough? Clearly, the creators of the box did not think so. Wouldn’t anonymity help the cause of confidentiality? How is it that in the age of psychology we have forgotten so much psychology? 

Surely, there are those among us who prefer a face-to-face encounter. Good for us. But personality differences alone will tell us that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to something so intimate. 

To be certain, the Saturday morning lineup for the confessional is not what it was a generation ago. I seriously doubt that the reason is that the current generation is less sinful; it is much more likely that fewer of us actually believe that sin is a thing. When face-to-face confessing was introduced, there was an effort to make sure that maintaining anonymity was still an option. But now that seems to be less and less the case. 

I say, bring back the box. The face-to-face experiment has been a noble effort to make the Faith more engaging, more personable—no scary black box. It hasn’t worked. The black box is not scary, except maybe to second graders, but I didn’t find it so. The lack of anonymity is plenty scary for many. 

My non-Catholic readers may, of course, find no necessity, no utility whatsoever in this discussion because they have embraced a direct avenue to forgiveness. Of course, we Catholics understand that it is God who forgives in the confessional just as surely as He forgives us when we go to Him directly. That being said, Christ’s command to the apostles concerning sin—“Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain they are retained”—is entirely devoid of context without confession, unless we are attributing to all of the apostles the ability to read souls, something that neither Scripture nor Tradition has ever claimed. And if the Church assigns no necessity to the process of confessing, then Christ was wasting words. The Word doesn’t waste words. 

It is one thing to confess your sins to God, it is another to receive counseling and an objective perspective of the weaknesses in your life in Christ, a perspective that serves to assist a soul in embracing another of Christ’s commands: “Go and sin no more.” 

Though the Sacrament of Reconciliation is probably the least popular of the seven sacraments, there is nonetheless a human obsession with confession. It requires humility, something perennially in short supply, and yet there is something in the human psyche, some craving, some absolute need to unload, as witnessed by police officers who record statements from the accused that go something like this: “Why am I telling you this? I don’t know. I just had to tell somebody—anybody!” Face-to-face confession began at the local precinct. 

If you’ve offended your spouse, God will forgive your sin; but that forgiveness will not heal the relationship with your spouse. Similarly, a need to confess to another human being, one of the many we offend nearly every day, is a dimension of spiritual healing that cannot be ignored. Our sins offend both God and humanity; the priest is there as the representative of both. 

What’s that? You don’t offend people? Immaculately conceived, eh? God knows us and our nature much better than any of us ever will, and that’s why he instituted this terrifyingly wonderful sacrament. 

When the non-Catholic sects abandoned the sacrament, it left a void, a wound that has only deepened with fewer and fewer Catholics availing themselves of the graces of the sacrament. Substitutes have been sought, but such are largely an exercise in self-deception: most often, absolution by blame.

I’m talking, of course, about clinical psychology. Now, I fully recognize the potential good of that soft science, but the couch, as a replacement for the confessional, is often devoid of ample consideration of two irreplaceable elements: personal culpability and divine forgiveness. The blame game unleashes a spiritual and emotional tempest. If one is driven, by hatred of one’s own guilt, to confess sins, an obvious alternate approach is to hate the things or persons on which that guilt can be blamed: one’s virtual scapegoat—one’s sin offering. 

Father, mother, spouse, friend, sibling, teacher, supervisor, boss, lover—the scapegoats are legion. And that’s only the human ones. There’s another interesting blame vehicle; that is, a set of scapegoats that are not hated; they are embraced because they are ownable—ownable without guilt. 

They are one’s own genetics and life circumstances. Oh, and did I mention genetics? We instinctively know that we are different from the animals, and yet, as a race, we continue to think that we can play both sides of the court; that is, to be nothing more than animals when it’s convenient and to be the ordained custodians of the planet when it serves our purposes.

That is to say that, on a personal level, people will dismiss their humanity to placate their guilt. We know instinctively that animals do not sin; they simply follow their nature, a nature easily coveted by some of us in an effort to alleviate a guilty conscience. It is a delusion that becomes a get-out-of-jail-free card. We think, “Yes, I did that; but my behavior is only the result of my genetics and environment.”

Mysteriously, the same people who claim such are often the ones who play the opposite side of the court when they claim that humans are destroying the planet and the human population needs to be reduced. Does not such moralizing differentiate us from the animals? What animal moralizes? Or are we an invasive species? 

The amelioration of guilt wrought by such delusional mind games is, by its very nature, insufficient. Sinners still have a need to talk about their sins to someone. Self-justification never sufficiently quells the conscience, a reality that is brilliantly explored in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. To explore this subject further, I defer to Fulton J. Sheen. In a talk titled “Sin is in the Blood,” the good Archbishop starts by saying that, 

We are living in about the only period in the world’s history that there is a universal denial of guilt. This was foretold by Dostoevsky who wrote; “The time is coming where men will say that there is no sin, there is no guilt, only hunger. And they will come crying and fawning to our feet saying, “Give us bread.”

It used to be that we Catholics were the only ones who believed in the Immaculate Conception. Now everybody believes that he is immaculately conceived.

And concerning Macbeth, he goes on to say: 

…we have many complexes that are produced by sin without ever tracing the true cause, which is guilt. Take for example Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Shakespeare was born in 1554 as I recall, and died in 1616, long before there was any such thing as psychiatry; and yet in this tragedy Macbeth has a psychosis and Lady Macbeth has a neurosis. Both of them contrived to murder the King in order to seize the throne. Macbeth thinks that he sees the dagger before him, the instrument of murder, with the handle toward his hand. Lady Macbeth had the neurosis; she thought that she saw blood on her hands, spots.

As anyone who has read or seen this brilliant play knows, Macbeth—though a seemingly moral character at the beginning of the play—once he has committed his first murder to gain power, rather than seeking divine forgiveness, launches a personal crusade of guilt abatement, each more horrifyingly murderous act intended to quell the psychosis produced by the former. In short, at every turn more tormented, he becomes a despicable tyrant.

Who are the ones among us with heavily placated guilt? Observe them well, and watch them carefully, for they are tyrants in waiting. What they are already doing is tyrannical, but perhaps not in a way that directly effects our daily lives. That will change. Quiet tyranny never remains quiet. This is because guilt, if not forgiven from above, festers and festers until society drowns in its putrid puss. 

And what are these quiet tyrannies? They are mortal sins of lust and greed against the next generation, nature, neighbor, and God: pornography, fornication, adultery, contraception, abortion, infanticide, divorce, sodomy, pederasty, euthanasia, assisted suicide. They are sins against parent and progeny, nature and the supernatural, natural law and sacred tradition. The guilt load of our current culture is staggering, beyond the comprehension of the dulled minds of the guilty. In the short term, it will not end well. Thankfully, God will have the last word, for He is the first and the last Word. 

There is, of course, no evil that cannot be forgiven other than the proud refusal to accept forgiveness. We must dedicate our lives to prayer and penitence to obtain for ourselves and all other tyrants-in-waiting the gift of humility—especially for those who possess not the grace to see their own deep need for it. 

Bring back that dark, creepy, forsaken (but not God-forsaken!), magnificently enticing box. 

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]


  • Jerome German

    Jerome German is a retired manufacturing engineer, husband, father of eleven, and grandfather of a multitude. His parochial activities have included music ministry, faith formation, and spiritual direction/talks for men’s retreats. He contributes articles to Crisis Magazine and Catholic Stand.

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