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The Great Gift of Confession

June 16, 2016


I once met an Episcopal minister-in-training who wants to invite “the great gift of confession” into her own circles. In its way, this is lovely. But Confession the way I understand it–and there’s a world of difference between that small “c” and a capital “C”–is a Sacrament, the only possible two authentic participants being a Catholic priest and a penitent.

Now I find it very interesting that left to our own devices we do have a moral compass, a conscience, for it very much goes toward the idea that deep inside every man, woman and child is the fundamental idea of God. For years, in fact, I’ve availed myself of fellow sober alcoholics with whom to do general moral inventories on resentments, fears and sex. On that level—one broken human being to another; one sinner if you like to another—this works beautifully. In fact, this kind of being heard by (and in turn, listening to) a fellow alcoholic in large part led me to Christ and the Church. But the personal conscience, formed by nothing higher than its own lights, has limits. It’s one thing to tell another human being, for example, that you’ve had an abortion, if for no other reason than to get it off your chest, to say This is who I am and what I’ve done; to get in the habit of rigorous honesty; to cultivate the discipline of examining one’s conscience. It’s wonderful to find no judgment—in fact, maybe the other person’s had an abortion, too—to find, There, I said it out loud and I haven’t been ejected from the human race.

But it’s another thing entirely to know that abortion is an egregious wrong and to want to be clean with God, to be absolved from it. That’s not going to happen in telling another person who may or may not see abortion as any kind of wrong. So early in my sobriety I saw there’s a general moral order and then there’s a specific moral order in which I was willing to be guided, to be instructed, to be obedient. Because once I got sober, I became very very interested in the truth: the deepest truth about myself, the world, the human condition. And I saw you can’t just make up the moral order as you go along. You can’t just go on your intentions, on what at first glance “makes sense.” Oh let’s just be free, we tell ourselves. Let’s do what we want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. Well, what does “hurt” mean for instance? If there’s no objective moral order, there’s no objective measure of what it means to hurt someone. One person is going to think promiscuity is fine and another person isn’t. One person’s going to encourage cheating on your taxes; another’s going to call that stealing. One person’s going to think guns are the anti-Christ and another’s going to want to arm every student and every teacher.

I suppose on one level that’s why I went into the law, but the law, man-made civil and criminal law, has its limits, too. I saw that in civil law we try to make people whole with money and in criminal law we try to make people whole by locking up the criminal and that no-one, on either side, in either case, was much made whole at all, though that’s another conversation. So you have to have a specific moral order and you’ll want to consecrate that order in time and space and thus we have the Sacraments. And we need people to guide us through and in the Catholic church those people are priests. The Sacrament of Holy Orders, in the case of Confession, protects the confessor from thinking he’s an oracle with some extraordinary or supernatural power of his own, and it protects the penitent from a priest who might otherwise interpose a moral code of his own personal devising.

Which means, and here’s another interesting thing, that the worst sinning ordained priest could validly hear Confession and offer absolution while the most high-minded layperson, male or female, could not. Because the operative fact isn’t that the priest is sinning; it’s that he’s pledged himself to an authority greater than himself; to dogma that plumbs to the depths of the human soul and that was devised not by him alone, that does not change from one minute to the next with fashions, moods, and/or political movements. Dogma safeguards mystery. Dogma is the Church’s way of saying, This is what love looks like: per Christ, via Christ, for two thousand unbroken centuries built on the Real Body and the Real Blood of Christ. We might waver but our True North is constant. 

I have many times sat across from, and told some of my darkest secrets to, gay ex-methheads, convicted felons, functional illiterates, and all sorts of other unpromising folks like myself, to truly great effect. I have become friends with many of these people; they have been deeply loyal and generous friends to me. But I’m not going to kneel before that person. That I want to kneel; that I want, with a humble and contrite heart, to be forgiven, to be made clean, to be born anew; that the Church is built, in a sense, upon that very desire, makes me know that my house is built on solid rock. I continue to fail and fall, but my house is built on solid rock. 

Which somehow has everything to do with why I don’t much concern myself with sexism, in or out of the Church. I love Christ, or I try to, and I find the people, men and women, who are drawn to me love him, too. That’s what interests me. That’s what sets me on fire

Here, for example, is a recent e-mail that came across my desk:

“Dear Ms. King, I am a Catholic priest on staff at ______retreat
and monastery in ______.

I like your reflections in Magnificat this Christmas and other times.

I often quote you when giving recovery retreats. I’ve read all three of your books and have recommended them to others, especially recovery people.

I am doing a day of recollection this May with a woman on staff here who has done much with alcoholic counseling etc.

A favor if you can….Could you send material relating to prayer and meditation? This is a new venture and I would welcome any suggestions etc.

Thanks you for your ministry…you have chosen the best part, the pearl of Great price.”

Damn straight.