Confession: How to make Satan shudder
There has been a radical decline in the use of the sacrament of Penance among Catholics . . .
by Peter Kreeft
We frequently hear of the value of positive self-esteem and confessing our worth today, but we hardly ever of the value of confessing our sins. In fact, there has been a radical decline in the sense of sin and even in the understanding of its very meaning.
There has also been a radical decline in the use of the sacrament of Penance among Catholics. Obviously these two phenomena are related as cause and effect. Those who think they are well do not to go the doctor. There are two extremes here: We can be overscrupulous or underscrupulous. If previous eras were often oversensitive to sin, our era is insensitive to it as few times or cultures have ever been.
We are wholly good in our being, our God-created essence. But we are not wholly good in our lives and choices and actions. We are made in God’s image, but we have marred that image. We are ontologically good — “good stuff” — but not morally good. In fact, we are better than we think ontologically and worse than we think morally. If we take God’s Word as our index of truth rather than our fallen human nature and feelings, we find a double surprise: We are so good that God thought us worth dying for and so bad that God had to die to save us.
We usually think we are morally pretty good because we measure ourselves, not against the standards of our Lord, but against the standards of our society — a society that is fallen not only from Eden and innocence but also from religious faith and the admission of guilt. Modern Western society is not even pagan, that is, pre-Christian: It is secular or post-Christian. The difference between the two is like the difference between a virgin and a divorcee.
Many people today are suspicious of talk about sin because of negative stereotypes from the secular media. But even if these were wholly true, although the sense of sin and guilt may have been badly overemphasized and misused in the past, the error of the present is more dangerous: It is living in denial. Rejecting one extreme does not justify embracing the other.
One powerful antidote to denial is the realization that we must die. British author Samuel Johnson wrote, “I know no thought that more wonderfully clarifies a man’s mind than the thought that he will hang tomorrow morning.” Satan, however, tempts us to deny responsibility for our sins. Our only defense is to take responsibility for them. The only weapon that can defeat the Prince of Darkness is light. That is the purpose of the sacrament of Penance. The priest in the confessional is a more formidable foe to the devil than an exorcist.
Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, is the best-selling author of over 63 books. This column is reprinted with permission from the book “Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Beliefs Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church” (Ignatius Press, 2001).
Individual, integral confession and absolution remain the only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile themselves with God and the Church, unless physical or moral impossibility excuses from this kind of confession. There are profound reasons for this. Christ is at work in each of the sacraments. He personally addresses every sinner: “My son, your sins are forgiven.” He is the physician tending each one of the sick who need him to cure them. He raises them up and reintegrates them into fraternal communion. Personal confession is thus the form most expressive of reconciliation with God and with the Church.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1484