More than one perplexed priest has asked me: What should I do when people come to confession and say they have nothing to confess? It used to be that when people had not been to confession in years, they would offer a lengthy list of sins. Or longtime sinners would say, You name it, Father; I’ve done it. Now, surprisingly often, people who have not received this sacrament in 5, 10 or even 20 years say that they cannot think of any sins to confess. Our church teaches that God preserved Jesus and Mary from sin, but Vatican II seems to have created millions of people without sin.
Many explanations, some good and some bad, have been given for why today’s confessional lines are so short. But certainly one among them is that we do not sin any more. Or, better, as Pope John Paul II has lamented, we have lost the sense that we all sin daily.
My seminarian students are startled when I tell them that during my early years of training as a Jesuit, we used to go to confession once a week. They are shocked when I add we were told that, once ordained, we might go to confession two or three times a week. It was expected that by then we would have developed a healthy sensitivity to our own sinfulness, which would become evident through the practice of our twice-daily examination of conscience.
Why do good people need regular confession? I will focus here on one reason: to discover that we are sinners. Put simply, the sacrament provides an occasion and a stimulus for discovering the deep truth that we are sinners. Put paradoxically, confession makes us sinners. Penance is the sacrament of honesty.
St. John states this theme with exceptional clarity: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins (1 Jn. 1:8-9). My thesis is that we good people need the sacrament of penance in order to overcome self-deception. Otherwise, it is only bad people who, acknowledging their sin, walk away justified (Lk. 18:9-14).
The problem for us good people is that most of our day-to-day sinning occurs under a shroud of self-deception. This is convenient, since traditional theology said we are not guilty if we do not have adequate knowledge. Self-deception is a clever way to avoid guilt.
The trick I (and most of us) use to commit ordinary sins is to focus on something good in what I am doing and to push out of my mind whatever evil is present. This is like the excuses we may make, for example, while dieting. I finish my dessert and say to myself: One more piece of pecan pie won’t hurt. Besides, this is a party, and the hostess will feel appreciated if I take another. Everyone is having seconds. And pecans are good for you. In fact, I don’t know if pecans are good for me, but that sounds plausible enough to get me past any lingering reservations that I haven’t already doused by focusing on the festivity of the social occasion and the compliment to the cook. At this point in my hasty deliberation, the morning message I have been getting from the bathroom scale doesn’t stand a chance of being recalled.
In other words, our inventive minds can find good reasons for just about any act that we want to perform. In ordinary living, we usually begin with our wants and then introduce reason and planning only to the extent needed to sort through those wants or to plan how to satisfy them. In the process, our strong desires can push out to the edge (and perhaps over the edge) most reasons against what we want to do.
We rarely tell ourselves: This act is petty, selfish and unfair, but I am going to do it. Rather, we usually keep ourselves from clarity about any questionable act. We may vaguely give ourselves reasons that support what we want to do, and we dim the lights on dissenting reasons. This process often is exposed when someone explicitly confronts us. We may then think more clearly and may even become embarrassed by our previous lack of good sense. But if no challenge arises, either from our conscience or from other people, the act may soon fade from memory, and we feel no sense of sin.
Self-deception takes a certain amount of skill. As we mature, this skill can develop into a fine art. It is not the same as ignorance. To deceive ourselves, we must, so to speak, know in one part of our brain that something is not quite right, while in another part we do not know. In order to do what we want, we keep that first part of our consciousness outside of our focus. At times we push it away. This ability often serves us wellfor example, we push out distractions when we are trying to read a textbook. But it serves us ill when, confronted by the hungry beggar, we turn our attention to the importance of our lunch-meeting around the corner. More often, we are only dimly aware of some dissenting part of our consciousness; but we are also aware enough that, if we paid attention, we might have to make a different decision than the one we want to make; so we pay no heed to the niggling whisper of our conscience.
To counteract our well-developed ability at self-deception, we good people need confession. Indeed, we should want to confess because, in effect, through the sacrament, God says: You name it; I’ll forgive it. With this offer in mind, it is to our advantage to face up to our sinfulness. While self-deception keeps us crippled, honesty heals. Just as a desire not to think of ourselves as sinners fosters the skill of self-deception, so too a desire to know ourselves as forgivable sinners leads to self-discovery and then to liberation. We feel safe enough to bring our sins out into the open because we trust that God wants to heal, not humiliate us.
Usually we speak of conscience as the reflection we do prior to action. And indeed that is its primary meaning, a meaning restored by the Second Vatican Council. But an older meaning of conscience is still operative. Conscience tells us retrospectively whether what we did was right or wrong. Our conscience confirms us or bothers us. This consequent conscience tends to be more honest, because we no longer need to deceive ourselves that the third piece of pecan pie was good for us, especially if we are now feeling painfully full. Our conscience is less pressured to deny that we wanted something bad.
Preparation for confession gives us another opportunity for the work of consequent conscience. When we have been successful at self-deception, we are not likely to re-examine what we have done. If, however, we get caught, say, in a lie, or if somehow the lie backfires and we are worse off, we are likely to reconsider. In the sacrament of penance we have another opportunity to catch ourselves and look at the harm we have done. Our criterion is no longer whether we were successful in getting what we wanted. Confident that God already knows our sins and hence is inviting us to the sacrament of reconciliation, we do not have to be afraid of being caught and punished. Rather we are freer to be honest with ourselves because of the promise that God will explicitly forgive whatever we name. Any humbling we do in this scrutiny lifts us up.
Jesus condemns the Pharisee who trusts in his own sinlessness (Lk. 18:9-14). The Pharisee honestly names the sins he does not commit. And he truthfully recounts the good things he does. He even gives thanks to God for what a good person he is. In contrast, the tax collector bemoans his sinfulness. Yet it is the guilty tax collector who goes away justified.
Most of us good people are more like the Pharisee than the tax collector, since we ordinarily think of ourselves as basically generous and honest people who thank God for our successes. We need confession so that we can be more like the tax collector who lamented his sinfulness...and who thus was right with God. Armed with the knowledge that we are good at pharisaical self-deception, we need confession as an opportunity for a search and be rescued mission.
Rather than vaguely accuse ourselves of being sinners, we Catholics search for particular enactments of sin because we have a sacramental mind. We see deep religious issues such as sin in terms of particulars. There are at least three areas for this search.
In the first area, we check ourselves out on some typical sins. The sin-lists found in old prayer books were remarkably helpful. They asked whether we had made nasty remarks, cheated, had lustful thoughts, refused to forgive, told a lie, were jealous and so forth. All of us could find ourselves somewhere on the list.
But such checklists cover only the dark side of the moon, a moon whose bright side may nevertheless be lifeless. The underlying purpose of sin-lists like the Ten Commandments is not only to forbid certain actions. The purpose is to promote the goods protected by each commandment. A friend once took me to the top of Pilot Mountain in North Carolina. There I saw two signs. Next to a dangerous path, one sign warned, Stay on the path or you may be injured or die. Now that is a clear prohibition. Next to the path, however, another sign read, Be careful of the flowers and let others enjoy them. One sign says avoid harm; the other says protect and foster the good.
Even if we never did anything wrong, we would still have far to go in fulfilling the positive point of the commandments. For example, the Fifth Commandment tells us not to kill. (That should include the sort of killing we do by our backstabbing criticisms and cutting remarks, even when what we say is true.) But this commandment also implies that we are obligated to keep people alive. Now, can any of us say we have done enough to help the billions in the world who are malnourished right now? The 3,000 who died in the World Trade Center pale in comparison to the 24,000 who die of starvation each day. As a nation we have already spent billions to attack the first problem, but we have collectively learned not to pay much attention to the second. As the philosopher Peter Singer argues, we would feel guilty if we walked by a child drowning in a one-foot pool of water. But we daily walk on without noticing the millions of children who needlessly die each year. If we did notice, we good Americans might realize that we are seriously guilty of violating the Fifth Commandment.
Most of us good people probably have asked ourselves what we could do in the face of world poverty. Not knowing a good answer, our conscience is eased, since we reckon that if we do not know, then we are not guilty. We quietly absolve ourselves from pressing ourselves further to find out what can and should be done. We stay away from the piercing demands made by St. John: We ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? (1 Jn. 3:16-17).
Of course, no one of us can solve the problem of poverty. But who of us in face of such dire needs does something even as often as we conveniently might? Have any of us seriously considered obeying Jesus’ command that we give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you (Mt. 5:42)? Self-deception protects us from such demands, even as it keeps us from protecting others.
The second area for honestly facing ourselves is to reflect on the ways we are growing, stunting our own growth or even killing ourselves. A few years ago, my Jesuit community had an influx of mice. I bought some mouse poison. When the mice were gone, I put the remaining poison in a box inside a plastic sack. About a year later I discovered that another mouse had eaten through the plastic and the box to get to the poison. The mouse thought it was getting away with something, but in fact it was killing itself with stolen food that would rot its insides. That is a good metaphor for sin. We think we are just doing what we want or getting what we deserve, but in fact we are rotting away the guts of our souls.
When we try to discover what kind of person we are becoming, we look at our tendencies, our dispositions, our habits, our attitudes and our emotions. We have tendencies to do good, but they likely are not as spontaneous as they should be. We have tendencies to evil, and we may accept them as just human or just who we are. Consider anger, which, although often a virtue, can be a vice. Some people go around looking for something to be angry about. The evils they see are often real, so they feel justified in being angry all the time. In analyzing their character, however, they may learn that they see evil everywhere because their own scarred souls filter out the good and feed on the bad.
Many of us good people cleverly practice self-deception by renaming our vices as virtues. When others spend too much on themselves, that is selfishness or ostentation. But when we spend too much on ourselves, that is proper self-love. A further trick we use is to focus on the good we do, while hiding our less-than-good motives for doing that good. We give generously to others, for example, because we want othersand, of course, ourselvesto think of us as a generous person. Still another trick is to blame others for our own faults, a point put well by the cartoon in which a teenager lambastes her mother with the retort, So I blame you for everythingwhose fault is that?
Another popular form of self-deception is to let good and noble thoughts substitute for concrete action. This trick goes back a long way. St. John pleaded, Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action(1 Jn. 3:18). All of us good people commend simplicity and justice, but then we add another shirt to our wardrobe or another whistle to our computer. We think ourselves good because of the virtues we praise, not the virtues we practice. We think ourselves good because of the vices we condemn, not the vices we exert ourselves to overcome.
Uncovering self-deception is particularly difficult, but all the more important when it comes to understanding the kind of person we have become. We are usually at least partly responsible for our blindness and can choose to see selectively. An entrepreneur, for example, learns how to see another’s dire need as a business opportunity, whereas a saint learns to see this same need as an opportunity for giving a gift. Overcoming self-deception includes discovering why we see as we do.
We good people need the sacrament of honesty to expose such tricks and blind spots. This sacrament insists that we bring to it not only our deeds but also ourselves. We cannot just mail a list of misdeeds to our confessor, asking for absolution by return mail. Rather, we speak to a flesh-and-blood human being whose role is to be interested in us as persons and not just as doers of deeds. Such an encounter encourages us to focus on who we are becoming and asks us to deal with the ways we are sliding by. Doubtless, self-examination, confession and God’s forgiveness can take place with a therapist or with a close friend. But the divine invitation to deep honesty and the divine offer of forgiveness are rarely as explicit in such encounters as they are in the sacrament of penance.
The third area for facing ourselves is to look at our relationships. Our moral lives begin and end in relationships. In our roles as friends or citizens, as colleagues or family members, we are never more than relatively adequate. I once had a parishioner who used to wax eloquent about his friendship with a man I will call Stan. I got the impression that he and Stan shared almost everything. Subsequently, I learned that the two of them got together only once every few years to go to a basketball game. This is not enough for a best friend. Self-deception dulls the awareness of our inadequacy. It also prevents us from becoming more adequate.
Most fundamentally, all of us good people neglect in greater and lesser ways the basic relationship of our lives, namely, our relation to God. We need confession in order to make clear to ourselves that we forget God. If we find ourselves feeling no need to receive this sacrament, we can be fairly sure that this apathy is due to our lack of a vibrant, compelling love for God. If a spirited relationship of love for God were burning in our hearts, we would never be content to just forget the past and do better next time. Indeed, if we were in a love affair with God, we might be inclined to go to confession at least two to three times a week.
Psychologists have rightly taught us how important it is to think positive thoughts about ourselves and our deeds. But if that is all we do, we live in denial. Confession is an opportunity, a gift from God, for us to admit that we are also sinners. The prior knowledge that God will forgive us frees us to be honest. The subsequent experience of God’s forgiveness frees us to live honestly.