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Ego Te Absolvo



In this essay I hope to elucidate the role that the sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation or Confession) should play in the life of the Catholic. I do not address the matter of "spiritual direction" or "asceticism" or "mortification", but constrain my subject matter to the sacrament itself and its proper context. I recommend that my reader reviews my essay on Baptism before proceeding further.

I first review of the dogmatic tradition and also the traditional practice, both recent and ancient. I proceed to point out an unhealthy Conservative-Authoritarian vs Liberal-Licensionist divide present in the typical analysis and advice. I conclude by proposing a more balanced and wholesome understanding and practice. Appendix II is the moving personal testimony of a friend.

For more doctrinal detail, written in a surprisingly inspirational tone, I would refer my reader to [Ott: "Fundamentals of Catholic Doctrine" 2.IV.9-13 (1955)].

What is repentance?

The following saying appears in the Anonymous Series of the Apophthegmata Patrum :
Two brothers who were attacked by lust went away to get married. Later on they said to one another, 'What have we gained by leaving the angelic order and coming to this impurity? In the end we shall suffer fire and punishment. Let us then return to the desert and repent. So they, returned and asked the Fathers to give them a penance, confessing what they had done. The old men imposed seclusion for a year on them, giving each one the same amount of bread and water. Now they were alike physically. When the time of penitence was fulfilled, they came out, and the Fathers saw the first was pale and humbled while the other looked well, with a clear countenance. They were surprised, for they had had the same food. They asked the one who was humbled 'How did you get on with your thoughts in the cell?' He said, 'I thought of the evil I had done and the judgement to which I was going, and the fear of it made my bones cleave to my flesh.' Then they asked the other, 'What did you think in your heart in your cell?' He said 'I thanked God for having taken me out of the impurity of the world to judgement, and for having led me to this way of life in Jesus Christ, and I rejoiced in the remembrance of God.' Then the old men said, 'In the eyes of God, the penitence of the two men is of equal value.'
[The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, (Fairacres: SLG Press, 1975)]
Leaving apart the statement that the reason that the two monks decided to get married (to each other?) was because of "lust", the point of this text is to compare and contrast two responses to a self knowledge of sinfulness. The first monk responded from his consciousness of his own failing: his repentance was backward looking and self-centred. It was barely a true repentance, but one that was centred on regret rather than Love. For this reason it bread fear. The second monk repented at a deeper level. He immediately gave up on the past and centred his whole being on the object of his faith: the God who is Love. He could do nothing else but rejoice, and suffered not in any way as a result of his sin: for his perfect love cast out all fear. While the penitence of each monk served its purpose in discharging the temporal debt due to sin, the second (which was painless) was a more authentically Christian response.

Though to the outward observer the repentance of the second monk might seem too easy and superficial, in fact it reveals a deeper commitment to Love. Both monks were contrite for the sin of which they judged themselves guilty, but the first monk's contrition had more of attrition about it, whereas the second was pure contrition of the most meritorious kind.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here,"

Love said, "You shall be he."
"I the unkinde, ungratefull?
Ah my deare I cannot look on thee."

Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I:"

"Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them:
let my shame Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," sayes Love, "who bore the blame?"

"My deare, then will I serve."

"You must sit down," sayes Love,
"and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.
[George Herbert: "Love"]

The Purpose and Utility of the Sacrament

Obviously, the purpose of the Sacrament of Confession is "the forgiveness of sins", more accurately the restoration of a state of grace lost by post-baptismal mortal sin. However, given that I have argued forcefully elsewhere that true repentance (contrition: which inevitably involves a sincere desire to change one's behaviour pattern) re-establishes the sinner as a friend of God, what is the point of the Sacrament?

Now, in answering this question, it must be kept in mind that the Sacrament cannot possibly be some kind of extra hurdle that God puts in the way to make it more difficult for someone to be reconciled with Him [Ott 2.IV.2.11.3]. This would tend to contradict the Divine will that every person that possibly can be saved should be saved. The Sacrament of Penance can only be rightly understood as an aid and help to forgiveness and the re-establishment of amity between a (wo)man and his/her God.

Bearing this in mind, the following can be said:

  • All sin has a social dimension. Even sins that seem only to degrade the character of the individual committing them: for they hamper and corrupt the contribution that such a person can make to the life of the community.
  • In order for a priest to be able to absolve the penitent of the public aspect of his or her sin, he has to have the right to do so. This is called "having jurisdiction".
  • Traditionally, sins have been classified as " venial" [Trent VI Ch XI] and "mortal" [Trent XIV Ch 5,14,15].
  • Unfortunately, a different classification: that of " grave" and "not grave" sin features in the New Code of Canon Law [CIC 988-989 (1983)]
  • Surprisingly, the New Catechism [CCC 1854-1864 (1994)] reverts to the traditional classification.
  • Venial sins never have to be dealt with via the Sacrament, as they do not involve a loss of Sanctifying Grace, the restoration of which is the business of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
  • Nevertheless, given the social dimension of even venial sin, it is appropriate that every Catholic makes use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation occasionally, even when not conscious of mortal sin [Ott 2.IV.2.13.2].
  • As well as formally discharging the social aspect of reconciliation, the Sacrament is an effective help to the penitent.

  • Contrition and Sacramental Forgiveness

    It is important to elucidate the relationship between contrition and the sacrament. There is a longstanding dispute among theologians as to whether contrition is necessary for absolution. Many early scholastics wrongly taught that contrition was a necessary precondition for the celebration of the sacrament [Ott 2.IV.2.11.3]. Such a position implies that either
    "God in His abundant mercy has provided two main remedies for the sins of men: that they may gain eternal life by the grace of Baptism, and also by the remedy of Penance. Those who have violated the vows of their Baptism may obtain the remission of their sins by condemning themselves: the divine goodness has so decreed that the pardon of God can only be obtained by sinners through the power Jesus Christ Himself has conferred upon the rulers of the Church .... Every Christian, therefore, must examine his conscience .... It is dangerous for a weak and ignorant man to put off conversion to the last uncertain days of his life, when he may be unable to confess and obtain priestly absolution ...." [Pope St Leo the Great]
    On a related matter, Trent taught, with studied ambiguity:
    "And as to that imperfect contrition, which is called attrition .... it is even a gift of God, and an impulse of the Holy Ghost, (who does not indeed as yet dwell in the penitent, but only moves him) assisted by which the penitent pepares a way for himself unto justice. And although it cannot of itself, without the sacrament of penance, conduct the sinner to justification, yet does it dispose him to obtain the grace of God in the sacrament of Penance." [Oecumenical Synod of Trent, Session XIV, Ch IV]
    Yet the question remains as to whether at least some positive love of God is necessary for absolution. In 1667 AD, a century after Trent closed, Pope Alexander VII had the Holy Office issue the following statement:
    "Concerning the controversy:
    'Whether that attrition, which is inspired by the fear of hell, excluding the will to sin, with the hope of pardon, to obtain grace in the sacrament of penance requires in addition some act of love of God',
    to some asserting this, and to others denying it, and in turn censuring the opposite opinion ....
    His Holiness ... orders ...  let them not dare charge either opinion with a note of any theological censure or contumely ....  until something has been defined by the Holy See concerning this matter." [Denz. 1146]
    Moreover, the Catechism of the Council of Trent makes no mention of attrition sufficing for absolution. It says that a contrition that is "not perfect may be true and efficacious" but the context makes it clear that it is speaking of a contrition that is not supreme in the intensity of its sorrow, rather than of one that is wholly devoid of the love of God.

    I believe that this dispute is so much noise about very little. The question at dispute is ambiguous. Does "necessary for absolution" mean:

    To the first question, the answer must be emphatically "no!" As to the second possibility, I am aware of two theories as to how the sacrament effects the forgiveness of sins. Either:
    1. The sacrament forgives sins while the penitent has only attrition for them. This forgiveness implies the restoration of the state of grace (charity: friendship with God) which necessarily involves a turning away from sin and towards a love of God, which is contrition.
    2. The sacrament elevates the attrition with which the penitent approaches it into contrition, which immediately brings about the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God.
    Arguably, these are two ways of saying the same thing, as contrition and forgiveness are the human and divine sides of the same process of reconciliation. In all this the initiative comes from God: but this is equally true in either account of the matter, so I do not see how to decide between the two forms of words, or even that it is sensible to try to do so.
    What's the matter?
    In passing, I wish to remark that it seems to me that the standard account of mortal sin as involving grave matter and full consent is inadequate. I think that an abstract hatred of another human being; with no specific intention of particular harm: but just a general willingness to effect such harm could easily amount to mortal sin. In this case there is no clear matter, grave or otherwise. The matter cannot be "the other person", as then all offences against another person (e.g. stealing a negligible sum of money from them) would involve grave matter (that is the person offended) and so be mortally sinful if the specific act (in this case that of a trivial theft) was fully consented to. Rather, it seems to me that the mortality or otherwise of the sin must be judged on the basis of the degree of animosity towards the other person: either in the general and abstract or particular and concrete. It is possible to wish some person (or class of persons) great (or indefinite) harm without doing anything in practice to damage them or their interests. Examples would be racism or militant homophobia. Objectively, this would be mortally sinful, though there seems to be no matter whatsoever. Equally, it is possible in practice to do some person great damage without any feelings of personal animosity towards them whatsoever: perhaps out of recklessness. This would be mortally sinful, though there may be no "consent" to the particular positive harm.
    Non-sacramental confession
    As well as sacramental confession, there is a rich ecclesial tradition of non-sacramental confession. While it is true that the sacrament is powerfully able to effect reconciliation when the penitent is only half willing (only has attrition for sin), it may be the case that other sacramental practices and forms may serve a similar purpose in the case of those who find it difficult to achieve contrition but not overwhelmingly so. For such people, confession to a lay person, monk or nun or deacon (all of which have been practised at various times in the church's history [Ott 2.IV.2.18.2]) may be helpful. Of course, in the case of grave mortal sin, this practice would not dispense from the obligation to discharge the "public" aspect of repentance through subsequent confession to a priest with jurisdiction [Ott 2.IV.2.18.3]

    The use of the sacrament in history

    In the Early Church, sacramental confession to a priest was only associated with the gravest of sins, such as apostasy [Ott 2.IV.2.13.1, CCC 1447]. Typically, the confession was not in private, but in full public view and associated with draconian penances. This practice was developed in the context of concerted and extreme secular persecution of the Church, where the maintenance of discipline and fortitude in adversity was of the highest importance.

    As time progressed, and conditions became easier, it became clearer to the Church that the sacrament could help people to repent of less grave sins,

    "I forgive the sins both of adultery and of fornication to those who have done penance."
    [Pope Callistus (218-222)]
    and at the same time the general requirement for public confession [Pope St Leo the Great, in Ott 2, IV.2.12.4] and public penance was abolished. The reluctance to be baptized (for fear of committing sins later on in life that one would have difficulty in repenting of) started to evaporate as part of the same process: the availability of sacramental confession, in private, with the prospect of more lenient penances undermining the misguided fear of figures as different as St Augustine and the Emperor Constantine.

    From this it is clear that it is not right to say that "all mortal sins must, of the nature of the case, be sacramentally confessed". However, the subtly different proposition "in the sacrament of penance it is required .... to confess each and all mortal sins which are recalled after a due and diligent examination" is defined doctrine [Trent XIV canon 7]. The difference is that:

    Later on, the practice of frequent confession became popular, and was strenuously recommended by both saints and the Magisterium. It is to be expected that most sins that were confessed in this era were venial. 

    The misuse of the Sacrament by the hierarchy

    The increase in use of the sacrament, coupled with an enhanced perception of its necessity and an exaggerated view of the frequency with which Christians fell into mortal sin (driven by a much too wide drawing of its scope) led to the misuse of this sacrament by the hierarchy. Instead of a means of liberation, it became a mechanism for suppressing and controlling the laity.

    A common but naïve paradigm of the Church's role is "to forgive sins". Now, for this to be a marketable service, people have to be conscious of being sinful. Hence it is important to elicit within them feelings of guilt: whether objectively founded or not, it hardly matters! Sadly, the Catholic Church is renowned for inculcating low self-esteem, self-hatred and guilt.


    1. The perceived necessity of celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
    2. The certainty that all mortal sins must be confessed, else another mortal sin (of sacrilege) be committed.
    3. The knowledge that the Magisterium views X, Y and Z as mortal sins.
    It is difficult not to accuse oneself of "Y" even if one believes that "Y" is not sinful at all. Because it seems dishonest not to mention something that: the priest ought to judge as being sinful (because of his official role), whether or not he would in fact do so and whether or not it is objectively sinful. Such dishonesty would itself seem to be sacrilegious. On the other hand, to confess "Y" without believing it to be sinful is itself dishonest! In such a case, to say that one is sorry for and will not repeat "Y" is a direct lie. One cannot possibly be sorry for "Y" because one honestly thinks that it is not a sin. One may even be looking forward to repeating "Y"!

    The only entirely "honest" way to proceed as a Catholic, is to somehow work oneself up into believing that "Y" is sinful, at least for the time frame surrounding the celebration of the sacrament. The alternatives are to either "excommunicate oneself": continue to attend Mass but never receive communion, or to entirely lapse from practice and/or profession of the faith.

    The promotion of the Sacrament of Reconciliation can be a means to make people feel guilty for things that they would not otherwise view as sinful. Now, if in fact these things are sinful: this is a good thing, because they may then go on to repent of the evil that is objectively damaging their lives. On the other hand, if in fact these things are not sinful: then this is objectively a wicked enterprise.

    Of course, if the Magisterium was never mistaken in its official teaching on ethical matters, this would not be a problem. Neither would it be a problem if everyone who responsibly and conscientiously dissented from official teaching had sufficient courage of their convictions not to feel irrational guilt. Unfortunately, the Church regularly gets such matters wrong. Moreover, it is one thing being completely convinced that one is right about something: it is quite another to wish to make an issue out of it, even within the confines of one's own soul.

    This then is the Conservative-Authoritarian-Rigourist misuse of the Sacrament. In brief, it turns what should be a means of liberation and healing into a means of control and cultivating guilt.

    I ask myself sometimes, is not morality a worse enemy of spirit than immorality? Is it not more hopelessly deceptive and entangling? Those romantic poets, for instance, whose lives were often so irregular: were they not evidently far more spiritual than the good people whom they shocked? Shelley, Leopardi, Alfred de Musset were essentially children of the spirit; they were condemned to flutter on broken wings only for lack of measure and discipline; they were spiritual waifs, untaught to see the relativity and absurdity of their proud passions. The perfect spirit must be a patient hearer, a sober pupil, not an occasional automatic skylark. Yet when spirituality, as in Wordsworth, has to struggle instead against a black coat and a white choker, it seems to be more sadly and decisively stifled, buried alive under a mountain of human alarms and a heavy tombstone of sanctimony. The world, he sighed, is too much with us; but the hills and even the mock Tritons blowing their wreathed horns were not able to banish the world from his conscientious concern. Nothing is able to banish the world except contempt for the world, and this was not in him. It would even have been contrary to his Protestant religion: that so unspiritual determination to wash the world white and clean, adopt it, and set it up for a respectable person. The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded for ever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these the spirit blooms timidly, and struggles to the light among the thorns.
    [George Santayana "Platonism and the Spiritual Life"]
    The alternative Liberal-Licensionist misuse of the Sacrament is to deny that it has any application to real life: because there is no such thing as mortal sin. Now, I have much sympathy with the proposition that the overwhelming preponderance of what used to be thought to be mortally sinful in, say, the 1930's was not objectively so. For example:
    1. Missing Mass on Sunday or a Holy Day, with only a poor reason.
    2. Praying with Protestants.
    3. Neglecting to contribute adequately toward the finances of the Church.
    4. Use of profane language.
    5. Reading a book listed on the Index of Forbidden Books.
    6. Publicly disputing a decree of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
    Note that I do not mean to imply that any of the above are not sinful at all, or could not be mortally sinful: just that I think that the "matter" indicated is not sufficiently grave of itself  to alienate the sinner from God. Note also that I purposefully omit sexual sins from my list, in order to avoid one source of contention.

    On the other hand, I am conscious myself of having behaved particularly badly on one or two occasions in my life (once in pursuance of the Church's official teaching, in a manner that I suspect many in the hierarchy would approve of as virtuous!) I am very glad that on both of these occasions I was able to obtain forgiveness both from the person I offended and also absolution from a priest. I am not sure that either offence was mortally sinful, but neither am I confident that they were not.

    What is sincerity? It is something more than a refraining from lies and dissimulation: something that can only be achieved by a drastic purging of oneself, We are too ready to pander, even in the quiet of our private mind, to our moral vanities and false shames. True sincerity begins at home, in one's own heart. Without self knowledge it cannot exist, and self knowledge is not easily won by minds in which a diseased notion of what constitutes 'sin' has found a breeding place. Modern psychology, though it is the source of some new confusions as well as of much enlightenment, has at least left us with no excuse for supposing our ostensible motives and our real motives to be always identical. Self deception, the first and last enemy of the good (which is the reasonable) life, has always been the favourite resort of the maladjusted psyche. [Gerald Bullett "The Testament of Light" (1948)]

    Sexual sins

    So far as sexual sins are concerned, I will limit myself here to pointing out that because any "sex act" is conventionally considered to be grave matter (because of its finality), all sexual sins are liable to be mortal. This means that there is a great tendency for sexual mores to be concentrated on by the Church, to the neglect of what - I would say - are much more heinous offences against justice. Moreover, according to contemporary official teaching: all genital activity apart from vaginal intercourse between spouses leading to ejaculation is sinful. All other species of sin differ from this: modest avarice or jealousy or sloth or conceit or envy or hatred are not grave matter. It is possible to be venially sinful in all these regards, even if full consent is given to any act. Betraying a promise made to a friend, even one of great significance to both parties is liable to be dismissed as a venial offence. A single act of adultery is not. Only an official vow, such as made in marriage, would count as grave matter. No confessor is going to say that in general the neglect of almsgiving, or smoking tobacco, or lying, or gambling is mortally sinful: the view will be that these are "weaknesses to be overcome" not "grave offences against justice that if fully consented to set their perpetrator in antagonism to God". 

     Doctrinal and Disciplinary Summary

    I contend that:
    1. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is always an aid, never a hindrance to forgiveness.
    2. It is not strictly necessary to confess any sin, sacramentally: though it is necessary to have the sincere intention of eventually doing so in the case of grave mortal sin, involving the most public kinds of offence.
    3. It is highly to be recommended that all sins, venial as well as mortal, be confessed sacramentally. Generally speaking, there is no reasonable motivation for not doing so. To exhibit reticence in this regard would normally be a sign of spiritual immaturity at best and be incompatible with charity and contrition at worst.
    4. The Church has exercised the right to enact positive law to further regulate matters:

    Contemporary Difficulties

    The main difficulty facing any Catholic today, with regards to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is finding a suitable confessor. Although the issue of spiritual direction is not part of my subject, it is bound to impinge. The presbyter or bishop hearing sacramental confession has the role of judge, and of necessity advises and or admonishes the penitent as to both the objective and subjective sinfulness of the supposed failings that (s)he confesses. It is then necessary for the penitent to accept this judgement. Now if the confessor is either so liberal as to discount all of the offences that trouble the penitent's conscience as of no account and not worth troubling him with, or so strict as to attempt to force the penitent to accept that some venial offence is gravely mortal: this is a further trial for the penitent's conscience. The temptation is to seek out, by trial and error, a confessor whose moral analysis is congenial to the penitent: whether that be rigourist or a lax!

    Those Catholics who are so disenchanted with and alienated from the contemporary Church as to associate themselves with groups with doubtful, disputed or impaired Catholic Communion face an additional problem. The priests of any such organization, whether it be the Society of St Pius Xth (who have no positive wish to be separated from communion with the Holy See) or the Traditional Catholic Church who, regretfully, do: have no jurisdiction and hence cannot give valid sacramental absolution, except in emergency. It would therefore seem that such people have no choice but to approach a "non-traditional" priest in order to make sacramental confession, and such a presbyter would want to be told that they have habituated "schismatical" Masses, celebrated by "non-Catholic" or at least "excommunicated" hierarchs. Once again, the question of personal integrity already sketched out arises: quite apart from the awkwardness of confessing to a priest suspected of heresy!

    Practical Advice

    1. Seek out a regular confessor whose orthodoxy you do not seriously doubt.
    2. Regular and even frequent confession is a good thing,
    3. Don't receive Holy Communion before receiving sacramental absolution, if you think you have committed mortal sin.
    4. Keep well away from penitential services involving "General Absolution".
    5. If you are gay :

    Appendix I : Temporal Punishment and Indulgences

    While the Sacrament of Penance reconciles the sinner with God, it does not of itself necessarily heal the sinner of all the harm inflicted by his/her sin. Neither does it make any restitution to any injured parties, nor "sort out the mess" caused by sin: technically, "the temporal debt due to sin". These matters remain to be dealt with: by voluntary works of penance; restitution to victims, where possible, and others in need where not; pious resignation to unavoidable suffering in this life; or through the painful sanitization of purgatory after death.

    Many members of the Church have lived virtuous lives whose worth far exceeded whatever punishments were due to their sins. Their merits, taken together with the infinite expiation of Jesus' life and death, is sufficient to make good and heal the harm due to every sin that is committed. In these merits all participate who belong to the communion of saints. Since Christians form one body among themselves, they can help each other. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that what friends do for us we do in a measure for ourselves, since by reciprocity of affection two are made one.

    In the time of the great persecutions, the Church used to lay upon repentant sinners severe public penances. Penitents were excommunicated: only allowed to participate in the synaxis, like the unbaptized catechumens, but unlike the catechumens they were required to kneel in the vestibule of the Church! During their period of penance, they had to regularly fast on bread and water. Public penance usually lasted seven years; it was only imposed for grave offences, such as apostasy or giving the Holy Scriptures or Eucharistic vessels into the hands of pagans (being "traditors"). For even more heinous crimes such as murder, the period was still longer. For lesser transgressions a fast of forty days was the usual penance.

    As a rule, the penitent was not absolved until the expiration of his/her term of punishment, when it was presumed that pious resignation to ecclesial discipline would have brought them to a full repentance. This "temporal punishment" was part of the process which evoked contrition for sin: this process culminating in sacramental absolution. Now, the design of God is not to exact vengeance, but rather to lead the sinner to amend his/her life. Hence, once a penitent manifested a firm amendment of life, and in particular if a martyr agreed to vouch for him/her, the canonical penance was mitigated, or remitted altogether: an indulgence was granted. Of itself, this wouldn't remove any obligation to make restitution to an offended party, of course.

    In later, more gentle, times penances were imposed to be discharged after absolution. They were no longer seen to have any role in producing contrition. Their purpose was to reinforce and support repentance and to make amends for the social and cosmic effects of the sin that had been committed: the "temporal debt" arising from sin.

    In the tenth century, pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome and Compostella were sponsored as alternates to canonical penances. In 1095 AD, the Council of Clermont granted a full (plenary) indulgence to all who took part in the crusades. Whereas the penitent had originally to apply for the mitigation of punishment, now a similar mitigation of debt (an indulgence) was offered by the Church to the faithful on the basis that certain conditions were fulfilled.

    In the Middle Ages, post absolution penances came to be remitted on the payment of a sum of money. Because pilgrimages could no longer be made to Jerusalem, in 1300 AD Pope Boniface VIII granted a plenary indulgence to all who visited the basilica of the apostles in Rome on fifteen successive days. This was the origin of the Jubilee indulgence. It was later decreed that the same indulgence might be gained by the inhabitants of certain large cities, provided they visited their cathedral church and donated a sum of money equal to the cost of a journey to Rome. The money collected by the sale of indulgences was expended in the erection of churches and cathedrals for the most part. This is how the funds were raised to rebuild St. Peter's at Rome. The Council of Trent saw fit to suppress this corrupt practice [Trent  XXI, 9].

    In modern times the Church has made various prayers and pious practices, together with the reception of the sacraments, the typical means of gaining indulgences.

    Some questions

    Appendix II : A personal testimony

    This is a true first person account of first a terrible and then wonderful experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It has been depersonalised, is unattributable, and published with permission. My comments are in purple.
    As a Catholic who has often struggled with the sacrament of Reconciliation, I would like to share two recent (and widely differing!) experiences in the confessional that both centered upon my sexual orientation. I offer my experience and the lessons learned in each in hopes to provide some help and hope for LGBTI Catholics who struggle to balance their need for this most beautiful sacrament with their personal integrity: and with a clergy that can sometimes misunderstand and mistreat us if and/or when our sexuality is revealed to them. Before I do so, however, I feel my readers would benefit from some pertinent (if impersonal) facts about the situation that lead me to the confessional in the first place.

    I am a convert to Catholicism who was baptized in 1999 at the age of 18. Four months later, I faced up to the fact that I could no longer deny or explain away my attraction to others of my own sex. Unable to live with the confusion and with my belief that God was punishing me for some unknown transgression, I came out to my pastor during my first confession since baptism. Although my pastor was accepting and affirming, I could not reconcile official church teaching with my own integrity. I left the church a few months later and did not return until Pentecost 2003, when I came to the realization that I could no further postpone the attempt to reconcile my sexuality and spirituality. The two confessions I am about to relate are part of this continuing struggle.

    In August 2003, a new permanent priest arrived at my former parish. I decided to make my second confession to him. Despite my reviewing Pharsea's paper on Reconciliation, it didn't go well.

    My cross had slipped beneath my sweater, but another pendant I usually wear had not. “What is it you are wearing around your neck?” he asked me. I think he may have mistaken the pendant for a Miraculous Medal. When I explained it was "a gift from a friend" he shook his head. “I’d prefer it if you wore a cross,” he told me.  I then showed him that I was indeed wearing a cross too, and the confession continued.

    “Why did you leave the church for so long?” he asked me. “Was it some trouble with church teaching?”

    Believing the confessional was the last place to lie, I answered him honestly, after much hesitation. “I’m gay, father.” Though I will never forget the look that crossed the priest’s face at this revelation I fear I cannot
    adequately describe it, either. It was at once horrified, shocked and — uncertain?

    “Do you think you were born this way, or did you choose this?”

    “B—I think I was….born this way,” I stammered.

    “Ah,” the priest said as he leaned back in his chair. “I am not going to get into your past…your relationship with your father, how that effected you. But I am going to tell you what Catholic teaching is,” he leaned forward. “Love the sinner, hate the sin. Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I could only nod, dumbstruck.

    I got a half an hour lecture despite the fact I tried to tell him that I have not violated any of the Church's teachings on homosexuality. I think I was too shocked and hurt to say anything effective, though. In father's defence, he is from Eastern Europe and doesn't speak English very well, and he probably had no idea how to handle this kind of pastoral situation.

    [In which case he shouldn't have faculties to hear confessions.
    There is no excuse. It seems to me there are grounds here for
    a  complaint to the Bishop: not that it would do any good.]
    I was then and am now completely celibate. I had done nothing to violate the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality! How could this be happening to me? It is often said that, in times of great crisis or great joy, human memory works like a flashbulb, capturing a traumatic or joyful picture indelibly on the psyche. So this memory is fixed in my mind. Yet I can remember only specific points the priest mentioned during this confession without any respect to the order in which they were brought up, or to what purpose. I can only list them for my readers. During the rest of my ‘confession’, I was told the following:
  • “There are some relationships God does not approve of. God made man and woman for each other.”
  • He mentioned the story of Narcissus. I could not fathom why he mentioned this, but I believe he was attempting to tell me that an attraction to one’s own gender was somehow selfish and/or solipsistic.
  • He mentioned visiting the gay community in San Francisco. I believe he was rather taken aback after seeing some of the people there, and I suspect he imagined that many (if not most) gay folks act like those he saw in the Castro District.
  • He said that I would receive absolution “today”…despite my not having confessed anything.

    Despite having a few more things to confess, every fibre in my being was screaming for me to get out of this situation immediately, so I told him that I had nothing more to say.

    [You did the right thing.
    That was spiritual rape.
    You should not try to think well of this priest.
    He just abused you.
    You didn't lie.
    You simply got yourself out of a terrible situation.]
    I was absolved and I left the church in tears. This was possibly the most dreadful experience I've ever had in any situation.

    That day at Mass, I said goodbye to my friends in the choir and told them I would not be returning. That night, I told my mother everything. She and I both cried for hours. She said she felt guilty for taking me to the Catholic Church in the first place because I'm now going through problems with the faith similar to ones she suffered with at at my age. When she asked me if I still wanted to attend church, I told her that I did - only I could never look this priest in the eye again. I felt that I had little choice if I wanted to remain a practising Catholic but to continue to lie and hide: and I am unable and unwilling to do this anymore. It seems contrary to Jesus' teachings and a stumbling block to living a Christ like life. I do not feel comfortable hiding my orientation in the confessional.

    [Unfortunately, this is the game that the Church forces people to play.
    Not just gayfolk, but heterosexuals too - in other situations.]
    “This Church hates me,” I told my mother. “I am forced to lie in the confessional or leave! Maybe I just shouldn’t bother.”

    We decided to attend a parish closer to my apartment uptown. One week passed, and I decided that I should re-do my confession, as I considered the previous one invalid. Nonetheless, I almost didn’t have the nerve to go.

    [I suspect that your confession might even have been valid,
    because it was morally impossible for you to confess the rest of your sins!
    Even so, you were wise still act on the basis that it was not valid: out of prudence.]
    Nonetheless, something deep within me urged me to put my trust in God. At last, I swallowed my fear and
    drove the mile to my new parish – the same one (ironically) I had walked out of three-and-a-half years earlier. I found an unfamiliar priest placing envelopes on chairs in the chapel. When I asked him if he would hear my confession, he happily agreed and put the envelopes aside. As we made our way into the confessional, I vowed I would not bring up my orientation. I would simply confess the sins I had wanted to a week earlier, go to mass, and go home.

    “I confess that I am often jealous of others in my profession,” I told the priest. “I am jealous of those more creative, talented and successful than I.”

    “That must be difficult,” he said. “What is your profession?”

    “I’m a writer and a theatre student,” I told him.

    “Wonderful! You know, when I was your age, I studied theatre, too! So I know how difficult it can be to overcome jealousy in this profession.” Father than began telling me about a movie he had just seen, in which “this adorable young gay man” falls in love with a theatre student and helps him overcome his jealousy of his fellow students. I nearly fell out of my chair. A priest mentioning homosexual love as if it were something positive!

     “Father, I have to tell you something,” I said when he was done. Somewhere, deep down I wondered why I was
    doing this, why I was opening myself up for potential abuse and ridicule yet again. Nonetheless, I trusted him. I felt he would understand. “I’m gay.”

    The priest looked at me for a moment, and then his face broke into the most beautiful smile I have ever seen. “Oh, how wonderful!” He said.

    “Not wonderful,” I then told him about my previous experience. He looked angry when I had finished.

    “Don’t you even think about that again,” he said gently. “That priest was wrong to say that to you!”

    “But I don’t know what to do,” I protested. “I can’t reconcile these teachings with my identity…I can’t believe in them.”

    The priest looked quickly, puckishly, to his left and right. “They’re WRONG!” he whispered dramatically. “I mean…the teachings are incomplete. Being gay is a gift from God…but it is not a gift that is well understood.
    And you need to be careful with whom you share this gift, or they may give you a lecture like that again.”

    “But what if I find a partner some day and…”

    “Well, you should be so lucky!” he exclaimed happily.

    “I…sometimes I think I should just leave.”

    He removed his glasses and looked at me sternly. “The people who say these things…these things about gay and
    lesbian relationships. Maybe they should leave. My dear, the thing is, they have all the money and the power, and they just don’t understand.”

    "I'm afraid," I told the priest. "Of what will happen next in the Church."

     He smiled at me. "I'm kind of excited," he replied.

    We finished, I prayed, and we left for mass. He gave such an incredible homily that I came back on Sunday evening to hear him speak again! It's a pity he was only visiting our parish for the weekend, though.

    [Indeed, but he was able to provide what you needed.
    God gives sufficient grace so that everyone may be saved.]
    I could have hugged him. In fact, I did before I left the church that day. Yet the full significance of my meeting with this priest did not become clear to me until well into his guest sermon during that day’s Mass. Like me, Father had almost not turned up in the parish that weekend. In my case, I did not know if I could handle another spiritually abusive confession. In his, he almost put his trip off because the recent blackout in New York City almost left him stranded without transportation. In the end, however, we both went to church hoping that Our Lord would get us there safely. Had it not been for our faith that things would somehow turn out all right, we never would have met one another, and I never would have heard the answer to the question I had asked God nearly every night since Pentecost:  “Lord, please tell me Your will for your gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and intersexed children."

    I would advise that all LGBTI Catholics keep this good priest’s advice in mind when in the confessional; your orientation is a gift from God, but it is not a  gift that our faith can, in general, understand or appreciate at the moment. Therefore, use discretion when revealing it to clergy or lay people – particularly if you have no immediate need to do so. When in the confessional, it is wise to remember the suggestions Pharsea has posted for gay Catholics. To whit, do not bring your orientation up if you do not know and trust the priest. If you need to confess a sin against your partner, or against someone whose relationship to you can only be explained in terms of your orientation, be sure to do so only to a gay friendly priest.

    Finally, never doubt or forget God’s tender love and care for you. Though some in the church hierarchy may be against us now, God is not. And if God is for us, then whom on this earth shall we fear?

    [God's providence is wonderful!]

    Appendix III : Another one

    I confessed and took Communion for the first time in twenty-one years last week (I left the Church twenty-one years ago over gay issues but perhaps more correctly, over authority issues). For several weeks I had been thinking about confessing to a Catholic priest since the Anglican church offers very few opportunities for anonymous confession (in a metro area of one and a half million there is one per week for ten minutes), and also because my experience of Catholic confession has generally been better than Anglican confession - the priests seem to believe in sin instead of psychology and they just have more experience in giving counsel.

    Anyway, I had been thinking about confessing to a Catholic priest since around Christmas. When Lent began, I decided to attend Catholic Masses in addition to my regular parish on Sundays and then things started to happen:

  • I saw the Cardinal, who seemed to stop in the procession to look straight at me and look into my eyes as he blessed  me with a look of pure love and compassion that almost overwhelmed me (I don't know if he really noticed me or if he always looks that way);
  • I attended a very progressive, socially active parish that reminded me of my time with the Catholic Worker movement;
  • I began to remember all the good things about the Catholic Church;
  • I began to feel at home in the churches I visited.
  • When I finally went to confession, I experienced extravagant, unconditional mercy and forgiveness. The effect on me was profound and I spent a long time crying in the church before mass when I took Communion. I am rather surprised at all this. I wasn't expecting to be converted but that seems to be what is happening. I am not fighting it and it is beautiful.

    Appendix IV : Sex and Sin

    First some advice courtesy of "Alcoholics Anonymous" (slightly edited).
    "We never apologize to anyone for depending upon our Creator. We can laugh at those who think spirituality the way of weakness. Paradoxically, it is the way of strength. The verdict of the ages is that faith means courage. All men of faith have courage. They trust their God. We never apologize for God. Instead we let Him demonstrate, through us, what He can do. We ask Him to remove our fear and direct our attention to what He would have us be. At once, we commence to outgrow fear.

    Now about sex. Many of us need an overhauling there. Above all, we should be sensible on this question. It's so easy to get way off the track. One set of voices cry that sex is a lust of our lower nature, a base necessity of procreation. Then we have the voices who cry for sex and more sex; who bewail the institution of marriage; who think that most of the troubles of the race are traceable to sex causes. They think we do not have enough of it, or that it isn't the right kind. They see its significance everywhere. One school would allow man no flavor for his fare and the other would have us all on a straight pepper diet.

    We all have sex problems. You'd hardly be human if you didn't. What can you do about them?

    You can review your conduct over the years past.

    Get this all down on paper and look at it. In this way, tried to shape a sane and sound ideal for your future sex life. Subject each relationship to this test - was it selfish or not? Ask God to mold your ideals and help you to live up to them. Remember that your sexuality is God-given and therefore good, neither to be used lightly or selfishly nor to be despised and loathed.

    Whatever your ideal turns out to be, you must be willing to grow toward them. You must be willing to make amends where you have done harm, provided that you do not bring about still more harm in so doing!

    Treat sex as you would any other issue. In prayer, ask God what you should do about each specific matter. The right answer will come, if you listen for it. God alone can judge our situation. Counsel with persons is often desirable, but let God be the final judge. Realize that some confessors are as fanatical about sex as others are loose. Avoid hysterical thinking or advice.

    Suppose we fall short of ideal we have identified, and stumble? If you are sorry for what you have done, and have the honest desire to let God take us to better things, you will be forgiven and will have learned something from the experience. If you are not sorry, and our conduct continues to harm others, things will go from bad to worse and you will yourself become deeply unhappy. We are not theorizing. These are facts out of our experience.

    To sum up about sex: earnestly pray for the right ideal, for guidance in each questionable situation, for sanity, and for the strength to do the right thing. If sex is very troublesome, throw yourself the harder into helping others. Think of their needs and work for them. This will take you out of ourselves. It quiets the imperious urge, when to yield would mean heartache."

    Now a plea for help from a friend:
    "I've been in a romantic relationship with my best friend since July - a relationship which is becoming increasingly serious for both of us. However, I see a few potential problems that may really trip us up if I don't figure out how to at least address them. I'm not really sure who to speak to about these issues, because most of them are religious in nature. So who better to ask than Catholics?

    Okay, first of all I've never had sex before. And until this December I'd never kissed anyone, male or female. I'd never done anything but a few chaste hugs and hand holding. After we spent some time kissing I began to feel a bit overwhelmed and guilty. I am sure that some of this has to do with having been molested as a child, but I think more of it has to do with a fairly Calvinistic attitude towards sex and sexuality which I've held since childhood. I know that I'm very much in love, but the idea of having sex with anyone is upsetting on some level. I can't get over the idea that it's dirty and shameful. Though I think I'd have this problem regardless of my partner's sex, I don't remember feeling quite this guilty and paralyzed when I thought I was exclusively heterosexual.

    The other confusing thing is the idea of lust. I've been thinking a lot about sexuality for the last two years or so, and I'm not sure where the line between lust and love is drawn, particularly when actual sex is involved. Is it lustful to want to have sex only if you're using your partner as a means to gratification? Is sex something I should postpone  until we're 'married'?

    Basically, how do I make sure I'm not committing any sins here?

    I haven't had what anyone could call a normal sexual development - it involved a lot of abuse and basically ignoring the issue untilI was in my late teens. So, I tend to get really uptight and obsessive about anything involving sex - particularly if it's something the culture around me frowns upon (I am in therapy for this, but as there are years of damage yet for me to undo and work through, it's slow going...)

    I hope this is making sense. It's difficult for me to really share these thoughts with anyone, even when I'm typing them out, so I don't know how easy they are to follow."
    [An email list member (April 2005)]

    A priestly response to this:
    "I too am confused by sex issues, but much less so than in my youth. I am fourty-nine years old, and am free from alcohol-addiction the last eight and a half of those years. With the progression of my sobriety, my insights into all areas of life have also been progressing. Before then, my attitudes and beliefs had been frozen by alcohol in an juvenile state of affairs that reflected the sick influences that had moulded them: the alcoholism of my birth mother and of both my adoptive parents, long-term sexual abuse by my adoptive mother, and a deep dread of my own sexual orientation.

    For many years I was not active in the priesthood, but because of my alcohol addiction and other personal issues, and the homophobia of the countries in which I lived, I had never the luck to have a relationship. For the past few years I am again active in the priesthood, but am not at all happy that I am expected forego the possibility of a relationship. Though interpretations abound as to what that means.

    Unfortunately the Church hierarchy is as confused by sexual issues as you and I are. This is the one big moral issue - sex, with all its related sub-issues including obligatory celibacy, divorce and remarriage, birth control, homosexuality - where the Church's teaching and policy are faulty. Thus, we gay catholic people have to fall back on the general christian ethical principles, try to draw from them a coherent personal sexual morality that will work for us. St. Augustine said: Ama et fac ut vis (Love, and do as you wish).

    The Church Hierarchy does not recognise the legitimacy of our love, our friendships, our romantic and sexual feelings, our needs for stabile supportive relationships, nor does She provide us with a 'remedy' as she does for straight couples: marriage. So, in the case of two women or two men, how does one know at which moment to begin to crown one's feelings of love and respect for the other with physical intimacy? At which moment does one consider oneself married? I think it best that the two persons involved discuss that and decide that themselves.

    In the days before Paulus VI and Johannes Paulus II, there was no written policy on same-sex love and relationships. But priests often applied truly pastoral solutions to the concrete situations of their faithful. I know of pre-Vatican II pastoral solutions, where same-sex couples were advised by the priest to live together as married persons including physical intimacy, and not to confess this, but only try to be discreet about it in public. The couple themselve of course determined that they were now a couple in God's eyes.

    St. Thomas said: God does not take offence by anything we do, except by that which does harm to ourselves. To love another human being is not to harm ourselves, but to fulfill ourselves by imitating the Three Divine Persons' love for each other. The Church does not yet feel that She can marry same-sex couples, but God - Who is greater than the Church, and Who works also outside of the bounds of His sacraments - can do anything, including recognise and bless your relationship. Perhaps you will find yourselves marrying each other little by little, until one day you will just know intuitively that you are indeed now a married couple.

    The only reason that I can see that one should wait to be intimate physically until 'marriage' is that this is probably
    psychologically healthier for the persons involved. Security and stability should ideally accompany human romantic-sexual relationships. But again, that might not be true for all of us.

    Please keep in mind that the general principles which seek to safeguard our romantic and sexual lives, can be easily confused with negative voices of puritanism, or incest, or other sexual molestation, or internalised homophobia, and it is good and proper to sort this all out with help if necessary, as I did. Since I am sober, I have been to a coming-out weekend for christian gay people, I went six months long to a weekly coming-out group for men, I went a half-year to a weekly group for men with incest experience, I went to a couple of therapy weekends for men with incest experience. I have read several books on homosexuality in the light of the scriptures and tradition and the magisterium, favourable to homosexuality. I have done very much to try to sort out all the issues and to give myself as sound as possible basis for friendship, love and sex.

    I think that calvinism, jansenism, puritanism and islam have this in common: they despise images of God and of the Saints, of external ritual, and of the created world in general, and have as a result an abhorrence of the body and its sexuality. This attitude is - or at least SHOULD BE - foreign to catholicism."

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