We often speak of guilt being particularly associated with certain groups of people. Garrison Keillor has made Lutheran guilt famous and humorous. We may be more familiar with Irish guilt or more generally Catholic guilt. Of course there were our religious forbearers known for Jewish Guilt. So why is religion so identified with guilt? Is Guilt the point of religion? Does God want us to feel beaten down and evil? Did Jesus come to make us feel guilty?
The guilt which is the butt of jokes is an excessive sense of our own moral responsibility for many things some of which are not even wrong. That kind of guilt is neither healthy nor pious. Guilt is however as old as humanity and like some pain serves a purpose. Pain can tell us when there is something wrong physically, which if we listen to it can lead us to proper medical care and health. A pain in our conscience should lead us to see what is wrong and do something about it.
Guilt is simply the awareness that we have done something morally wrong, or that we think we have. It is of course important to know whether it indicate a real or imagined fault. Unfortunately pain that helps us to discover a disease of the body, does not always lead to health, sometimes it is too late or incurable. Real moral guilt should lead us not to death but life. First we have to recognize that the cause of the guilt is real and then we must address that cause. Can we make up for the hurt we have caused, can we return what was taken, or can we at least demonstrate contrition for what we have done if the situation is beyond fixing? Because a religious sense of guilt rests ultimately in an awareness of offending God, we need to seek God’s forgiveness. God came into our world to bring us forgiveness we need to accept that forgiveness and by so doing give up our guilt. Revisiting long since forgiven sins is not spiritually healthy. We should learn from our mistakes and God’s mercy, but holding onto guilt ignores God’s transforming love. The Sacrament of Reconciliation does not exist to dredge up guilt, but to release us from sin and guilt, so that we can again experience the love of God without fear as God’s children.
Confession properly called the Sacrament of Reconciliation has long had a central role in the spiritual life of the Faithful. If one looks to our Lord on the cross, who took on our sins that we might be free of them, we naturally moved to sorrow as we reflect on our sins. This should not produce a sense of hopelessness or a conviction of the depravity of humanity. Rather it should call forth the love of our God in our hearts.
Oral confession is a later expression of Jesus’ mandate to the Church, “whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, whose sins to retain are retained.” (John 20:23). In the early centuries the Lenten season was often the time for those who had been excommunicated for sins of adultery, murder and apostasy (the total repudiation of the Christian faith) might be reconciled with God and the Church. The sinners was publically accepted into an order of Penitents and followed a mandated process of penance and purification.
In his first major teaching document Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis wonderfully addressed the role of confession in renewing our lives of faith. Moreover, pastors and the lay faithful who accompany their brothers and sisters in faith or on a journey of openness to God must always remember what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches quite clearly:
“Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors”. Consequently, without detracting from the evangelical ideal, they need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively occur. I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best. A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties. Everyone needs to be touched by the comfort and attraction of God’s saving love, which is mysteriously at work in each person, above and beyond their faults and failings.
If we own our sins, then we can better know God’s mercy and develop confidence in the face of future temptations.
The Catholic Catechism is a guide to the Church’s self-understanding as it has developed over the centuries under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which we believe continues in the Church to this very day. From the Catholic Catechism found at http://www.usccb.org/catechism/text/
1447 Over the centuries the concrete form in which the Church has exercised this power received from the Lord has varied considerably. During the first centuries the reconciliation of Christians who had committed particularly grave sins after their Baptism (for example, idolatry, murder, or adultery) was tied to a very rigorous discipline, according to which penitents had to do public penance for their sins, often for years, before receiving reconciliation. To this “order of penitents” (which concerned only certain grave sins), one was only rarely admitted and in certain regions only once in a lifetime. During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the “private” practice of penance, which does not require public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the Church. From that time on, the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and priest. This new practice envisioned the possibility of repetition and so opened the way to a regular frequenting of this sacrament. It allowed the forgiveness of grave sins and venial sins to be integrated into one sacramental celebration. In its main lines this is the form of penance that the Church has practiced down to our day.
1448 Beneath the changes in discipline and celebration that this sacrament has undergone over the centuries, the same fundamental structure is to be discerned. It comprises two equally essential elements: on the one hand, the acts of the man who undergoes conversion through the action of the Holy Spirit: namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction; on the other, God’s action through the intervention of the Church. The Church, who through the bishop and his priests forgives sins in the name of Jesus Christ and determines the manner of satisfaction, also prays for the sinner and does penance with him. Thus the sinner is healed and re-established in ecclesial communion.
1455 The confession (or disclosure) of sins, even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible.
1456 Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance: “All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret and have been committed against the last two precepts of the Decalogue; for these sins sometimes wound the soul more grievously and are more dangerous than those which are committed openly.” When Christ’s faithful strive to confess all the sins that they can remember, they undoubtedly place all of them before the divine mercy for pardon. But those who fail to do so and knowingly withhold some, place nothing before the divine goodness for remission through the mediation of the priest, “for if the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know.”
1457 According to the Church’s command, “after having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year.”56 Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without having first received sacramental absolution, unless he has a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession. Children must go to the sacrament of Penance before receiving Holy Communion for the first time.
1458 Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as he is merciful: Whoever confesses his sins . . . is already working with God. God indicts your sins; if you also indict them, you are joined with God. Man and sinner are, so to speak, two realities: when you hear “man”—this is what God has made; when you hear “sinner”—this is what man himself has made. Destroy what you have made, so that God may save what he has made . . . . When you begin to abhor what you have made, it is then that your good works are beginning, since you are accusing yourself of your evil works. The beginning of good works is the confession of evil works. You do the truth and come to the light.