“And we go to confession to these guys.” So remarked my late grandmother, expressing a surprising moment of stern judgment in the midst of her dementia, while watching televised news reports of the first clerical abuse scandal in 2002. She was an Irish-Catholic New Yorker who never missed Sunday Mass in her life. Regarding the beleaguered and nearly forgotten sacrament of Confession, I am willing to bet that she was not the only one with this thought.
Now sixteen years later, this latest round of clerical and episcopal scandals again inflicts multiple wounds on the heart: the irreparable damage done to victims, the complicity with sin, the stench of the abuse of power. With the cut to the heart comes also a punch in the gut: those whose job it is to call us to live a moral life – and to call us to account if we fall short – have been preaching disingenuously.
Few things roil the blood of ordinary men and women more than hypocrisy, and abuser priests and bishops are, arguably, the worst of the worst hypocrites.
Why, then, should we go to Confession to a priest, when he very well may have much uglier stains on his own soul? Who is he to tell me how to live?
The answer: he is no one. And that is exactly why we can and should continue to confess our sins to priests, week after week, month after month, year after year.
When Christ built His Church on the foundation of his apostles, it was not their abilities as men that made the Church function and grow. From what we know of the apostles from Sacred Scripture, the Church never would have survived a single day if that had been the case. Rather, Christ gave His divine powers for these men to use: “He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” (John 20:23)
The infallible power of God entrusted to the Church by Christ transcends the limits of the fallible hands to which they are entrusted in the sacrament of holy orders. In the confessional, the priest acts not on his own authority, but on the authority of the Church he has been consecrated to serve. When we confess our sins, it is not the priest who forgives us, but Christ who acts through him. Who the priest is or what he has done does not inhibit the grace that God wants to give us through the seven sacraments that He has established.
That the sacraments transmit God’s grace to us regardless of the status of the transmitter is essential: it reminds us that ours is the Church of Christ and not a church of men. But at the same time, there is still disappointment on a human level. We do not just want to know that our sins have been forgiven or that we have received God’s grace, even though knowing should be all the confidence we need; we want to feel God’s love too.
There is no denying that Mass or Confession with a holy, devout priest is far more spiritually and personally edifying than Mass made into a folk show or confession with a curt or absent-minded priest. In the ordinary course of things, we cannot get to the divine without the human representative. Our challenge is not to allow the human to divert us from our path to the divine.
Our Lord seemed well aware of this conundrum during His ministry. He brutally chastised the Pharisees of his day for their hypocrisy, calling them blind fools, serpents, a brood of vipers, whitewashed tombs. But in the midst of this stunning denunciation, Jesus instructs us to obey them: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you.” (Matt 23:2-3)
We obey them because of their office, not because of who they are as individuals or how they behave. Jesus is clear: do what they say, not what they do.
So we are to obey Christ’s moral and spiritual commands that He left to His Church to hand on to the successive generations. We are to remain chaste, to confess our sins to priests when we have failed, and to receive God’s forgiveness through the sacrament of healing that priests administer – regardless of whether the priest in the confessional is a saint or a scoundrel, a celibate or a hypocrite.
But what about the human element in us that still struggles to get past the hypocrisy, the banal, or the rudeness that we might encounter? How ought we to respond to these frustrating, maddening externals that hinder our path to the divine?
Perhaps this is God’s challenge to the laity in these times: He is purifying our faith by showing us that faith is more than feelings, emotions, and pleasant human interactions. True faith consists of trust in God that hinges on our certain knowledge that He loves us and wants to bestow His grace upon us. True faith requires our acceptance of the Cross, and on the Cross there is no human consolation. There is only our faith that God is with us.
And regardless of how we feel, we know that our faith is not in vain.
*Image: The Confession by Alphonse Legros, c. 1865 [Victoria and Albert Museum, London]