Friday, May 21, 2010


Someone recently asked Fr Z about whether the penitent is bound by the seal of their own confession. He answered:
in general a person can reveal he contents of his own confession and what the priest says. That said, it is probably better for the penitent not to speak too much about what occurs in the confessional under normal circumstances. The less said about concrete instances of the sacrament of penance the better...

So, the long and the short is that a penitent in general can speak of his own confession and the advice and penance received, but in normal circumstances it is better to leave it for the most part in silence.
He's correct that the penitent isn't bound, of course, but what is with this attitude that "the less said about concrete instances of the sacrament of penance the better" ?!?

Another move to maintain the clergy's little monopoly on knowledge about people's sinfulness?

I think the interview I quoted the other day is relevant when it says that seminarians, novices (and probably Catholics in general), "don't feel they can speak openly and candidly about their experiences of their own sexuality, because to speak of their experiences might be to acknowledge their own sinfulness. And the church reserves such admission to the sacrament of Reconciliation, the only place where one should make a manifestation of conscience."

And also the article I posted about a few days ago when it says, "The confessional booth became a cockpit of mortal sins, with birth control emerging as the key control mechanism — the church’s control over every Catholic adult’s affections and actions." Not that I disagree with the Church's teaching, but the psychological dynamic of emotional manipulation and control that has gone with it very often is undeniable, as the article continues, "church authorities will pay any price to maintain a vestige of control over the inner lives of Catholics."

The fact is, the clergy loves secrecy, and this Fr Z attitude toward the Seal of Confession is designed to give them a deep-reaching psychological power over your guilt as much as to protect you from embarrassment (penance used to be public, remember). The Seal is meant to protect you from the priest. I'd be very suspicious of any advice that would prefer you not talking about your own confessions.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. The sort of spiritual blackmail these men in their dark boxes hold over people is best fought by full disclosure to friends and even the public, when you're comfortable with that. We're all sinners, and to compartmentalize that is unhealthy and isn't going to help you get any holier. Rather, glory in your infirmities, and in God's mercy. Sure, confess to the priests for absolution, but then confess, like Augustine, to the whole world as well. Don't let them use some sort of cloak of secrecy to shame you.

That whole attitude reminds me of how Scar manipulated Simba in The Lion King:

"What will your mother think?" Well, if Simba had just told his mother rather than submitting to the secrecy and shaming, Scar's reign of terror would never have taken place. Priests like Fr Z who would have you give them a monopoly over the knowledge of your sins...are vicious roaring lions out to devour your soul for the sake of their own power, all while seeming benevolent and understanding. Then they become like the auditors of Scientology I mentioned the other day.

Don't let them win.


Anonymous said...

I think this is an excellent point, I know on a personal level, confessing my sin to the priest alone does not often feel sufficient, though I know that it is sacramentally so.

While sin does create shame and therefore secrecy, I think a person in touch with their conscience will also feel the reverse: the urge to get it out in the open, the feeling that reconcilliation is only possible, even on the level of alienation within yourself, if you expose it to others; that the burden of shame can only be unloaded when the sin is spoken.

Often the priest alone is not enough for this,psychologically. I think Christians should be confessing their sins to many people, so that reconciliation is felt, not only between the individual and God, but throughout the members of the whole Body.

Penance, as a sacrament enacted between sinner and priest, I think, exists to secure that reconcilliation happens in line with the norms of Christian morality, that it unfolds in line with the person of Christ. In the Confessional, there is that objective element that is not attainable when when forgiveness is sought subjectively in our relationships.

A Sinner said...

An excellent comment!

I think that's exactly what I'm trying to get at, and exactly why I think the attitude among priests that would prefer you not talking about your own confessions, even when you are comfortable with that yourself, is very strange and, frankly, probably evil.

Whatever the "official" explanation they might give, it's very obvious to me where it comes from subconsciously, and that's in wanting to maintain the power of clericalism over people's inner lives.

A Sinner said...

That being said, I definitely would always keep Sealed one-on-one anonymous confession as an option (and probably the most common). You want to give people every opportunity and remove every stumbling block to approaching God's mercy.

Certainly, when I was younger, confession was scary even WITH full anonymity, and I don't think I could ever have done it in front of multiple people. However, getting used to private confession (and just growing up) I think made me more open with my own friends about my own frailty, less guilt-obsessed (and, thus, less self-righteous).

Then again, maybe if the facade had never existed in the first place, maybe if I had grown up in a community where people talked about these things candidly all the time in little "Sinners Anonymous" groups (which, like AA, would have an expectation of respectful discretion)...maybe I wouldn't have been so scared to begin with.

Small groups like that I think would be very helpful to people for talking about these things. Though probably informally is better, parishes should do more to facilitate small groups of Catholic friends forming in parishes and help network people like that to form a REAL community; though there is only so much you can do to foment organic, informal personal relationships. At the same time, I definitely wouldn't require it for anyone.

I might require (in addition to the private sacramental confession) a public confession of Heresy, Schism, or Apostasy for someone renouncing them and being re-united to the Church. Sometimes these people will even go through RCIA or make a public profession of faith before the community anyway, so I see these public sins as a good situation for maintaining the rituals surrounding public penance and the reconciliation of penitents on Holy Thursday, without requiring people to make private sins public. It only makes sense that someone would make some sort of public denunciation of apostasy, lest people be scandalized when they see them again approaching for communion. The community should know publicly that they are back in the fold.

Anonymous said...

Maybe there is more to things than some dark clericalist conspiracy to keep the layman down, just a suggestion.

Some things I can think of would be that maybe the advice given in the confessional was tailored to the specific situation and would not be necessarily (or at all) applicable to other similar situations. Thus, if someone is saying, "Fr. Soandso told me x in confession..." and they are misrepresenting what he said (even just unintentionally) the priest would have no recourse to defend or correct the misunderstanding. One could also run into problems manifesting their conscience to other people not bound by any sort of seal. One might think they are sharing something with an intimate and end up ruining their own reputation through the indiscretion of the person they thought they could trust. Some might consider themselves mature enough to be properly discretionary with other's sins but with no guarantee all such self-revelation outside the box is something to be done at your own risk.

Then, no one should feel obligated or pressured to share their internal forum issues, especially in detail. One of the beautiful things about confession is that its a "memory hole" of sorts for one's sins. If one wants to keep it that way, they should feel free to do so. Besides, if one feels the need to really let a burden off to a random confessor he is free to do so. The confessor really doesn't have some absolute control over a persons sins. Don't get me wrong though, its not a bad idea to admit to your sinfulness in a general way, not a bad idea at all. Keeps one humble and keeps the self-righteous BS to a minimum.

Lastly, he says you can say what you want about your own confession. He *suggests* that it is best to say little about concrete instances but does not forbid it. I fail to see the authoritarian clericalism you seem to see in this advice.

A Sinner said...

"He *suggests* that it is best to say little about concrete instances but does not forbid it. I fail to see the authoritarian clericalism you seem to see in this advice."

He suggests it because he knows that it is not, in fact, forbidden.

The clericalism I see is merely in his gut reaction. His instinct was to be uncomfortable with the idea.

And yet, if someone wants to...who is he to be uncomfortable with that? Who is he to have any feelings on the matter whatsoever?

This is Fr Z we're talking about. His whole life is clericalism (for example, this recent post:

You're other points are very good, yet I simply have no reason to believe that the man in question had any of those as his motives. It is much more consistent with his whole ethos to believe that his uncomfortability with the whole thing, his "less said, the better" attitude comes from a worldview where people whisper their sins in secret to priests only, and then in the outside world maintain a 1950's facade.