I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have… not partaken of the Sacrament of Confession in something like four years.
I was reminded of this because while I was on vacation this weekend, my father took the entire family to Confession. It’s a scheduled act; for some reason in movies there’s always someone in the confessional waiting to listen to you talk, but in the real world the boxes stay empty most of the time, except during the hours the priest puts aside once a week or a few times a month to sit in them and wait for people to walk in and talk about how bad they feel about shit. I wasn’t in town and so I didn’t go; even if I’d been in town, I’m not sure I would have felt able to go.
Confession is, for people who are raised Catholic, the second sacrament after Baptism, administered a year or two before First Communion. While the American Church enforces this less strongly than much of the world, Holy Communion is intended to be taken in as pure a spiritual state as possible (the more old-fashioned won’t take the Eucharist if they haven’t said confession at some point in the week preceding), and so we’re taught to find perfect absolution before we’re taught to partake of the body of Christ. We’re taught to perform these regular examinations of conscience, and more importantly we’re taught to meditate on our faults, admit them, explain them, and then work to make up for our failings.
On the whole, I think this is a very good idea. Being forced to examine yourself in that way is a painful, awkward, uncomfortable, valuable thing. A lot of Catholic Guilt (TM) comes out of the confessional in popular culture and literature, but it’s only rarely been my experience to associate guilt with the act of going to speak to a priest about my sins. Modern confession is very much an interactive process, a tiny counseling session in which the priest listens, and gently advises, and instead of correcting, often tries to heal. I have good memories of confession as a kid and as a young adult, confessing my small, petty transgressions (“Good afternoon, my child. Robbed any banks? Beat up any old ladies?” a priest cheerfully greeted me once) and being given not only an hour of prayerful meditation as penance, but an instruction to make good with whoever I had offended. Confession wasn’t just a way to feel personally better about the stupid shit I’d done; it ended not with my absolution before God, with the muttered act of contrition and the hand waving in the sign of the cross over my head, but with the moment I found forgiveness from the people I’d wronged.
All of this to say: Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; my last confession was four years ago, and I have not yet found my way to the bottom of the reason that I won’t go.
In my very last confession, I tried to confess to the priest that I was attracted to women. It was late high school, and guilt over this had been eating me up for a year or more at that point. I’d done some fooling around with girls in the terrible depressed aftermath of the explosion that had followed my coming out, and that was the angle I took my awkward, stumbling confession from – Forgive me, Father, for I lied to my parents, I was cruel to a classmate, my friend texted me because she was upset but I was having a nice evening so I pretended I didn’t see her message, I kissed a girl and I liked it, and I’m not sure it was a bad thing to like it but it has to have been a bad thing to do it, right? Right?
The priest didn’t know. This wasn’t his fault. Teenage girls coming in and confessing their sexual transgressions can’t have been something he ever got used to, or felt particularly equipped to discuss; he was about eighty, and worked for the most conservative parish in the diocese. In the end he glossed over it, mumbled that, well, as long as I was conscientious, and focused his brief sermon on a different sin. He absolved me of all of them at once, and I left feeling cold and uncomfortable and unforgiven.
Look– there’s this light feeling, after confession. When you’ve done it right, you feel buoyant– like you’ve done a really, really good thing. It’s powerful, to give someone else the right to decide that you’re an okay person even though you just poured out the uglier side of your guts to them. It’s powerful, to hear, “Well, you know, the creator of all that is has looked at your small list of personal idiocies and torn it up; he’s okay with you. It’s going to be okay.” I felt none of it as I left the church that day; I wanted to, but I couldn’t find it.
In the end, I realized it was because I still wasn’t convinced I’d sinned.
I was blessed in this, as a teenager coming to terms with her sexuality – I never believed myself to be less in the eyes of God because of it. It’s probably the reason I managed to cling so doggedly to religion at all. I wasn’t sure for a while where my undeniable homosexual leanings lay on the list of venial and mortal sins; but I’d grown up going to confession. I knew, if nothing else, that God forgave. That, even if it was wrong, it was going to be okay.
Problems only began to arise when I realized the extent to which I disagreed with the institution whose job it was to tell me what of the things I was doing was wrong. I realized that confessing every time I’d slept with someone would do nothing for me, because I didn’t feel the slightest bit contrite. There was no defiance in the feeling – no “I know it’s wrong, but I’ll do it anyway” – there was an absolute absence of negative feeling of any kind. I knew it wasn’t wrong, and I could not and would not confess it as though it was. I didn’t consider premarital sex inherently sinful. There were, I realized, many things I didn’t consider inherently sinful– there were many things that, given the opportunity to confess, I wouldn’t.
(Fun fact: The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that there is nothing inherently sinful in homosexual attraction of any kind. The sin lies in the physical act of homosexual sex, which, because of Church strictures on marriage, can only occur outside of matrimony – the transgression is in the inherently premarital nature of the consummation, not remotely the attraction itself.)
I’m not jaded with religion as a whole. There’s still no defiance in my lack of confession. This is in no way an act of protest; it’s… it’s that I’m still Catholic, and I’m not sure that an incomplete confession has a real point. How arrogant is that, right? To go up simultaneously before the God of the universe and the institution that I have decided to allow to guide me in His worship, and to sit down and say, “We’re going to do this on my terms”? Christ! Every asshole can’t just decide what’s a sin and what’s not! “Welp, I just don’t feel that that murder is something I need to talk to God about; other murders, maybe, but this one was its own thing. Clearly.”
I know that gay sex isn’t murder. I know that’s a false equivalency. My point is… my point is that confession has power because I’m Catholic. I can totally kneel down and ask God for forgiveness and expect it at any time. I don’t have to go to God through a human mediator. But no one’s making me be a Catholic – I decided, and continue to decide again and again (because that’s what having a religion is, that’s what faith is) to believe in, for example, the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. I continue to believe in the saints, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the eventual transformation of the world and the forgiveness of all sins and the baptism of the entire world. I know that the Church is a human institution, and fallible; I know that disagreements will happen, and that I can’t be a fulfilled and happy person and also allow the Church to dictate my every belief.
But Holy Confession is a big one. It’s a sacrament. You only get so many of those, and it’s one of the ones you need to be a Catholic. I can’t just let it go as a disagreement – everyone, every Catholic in the world disagrees with the Church about something. This feels bigger. This isn’t just me frowning at a piece of doctrine among thousands and going “Mmmm, honestly, nope.” This is the outright rejection of one of the Seven Really Big Important Things. It’s not something I can simply put up with in the hope that the Church will get around to changing it or forgetting it eventually. I joke about being a shit Catholic a lot, but confession is something I need to find a way to deal with, because not being a shit Catholic is actually kind of important to me.
In conclusion: I don’t believe I’m sinning about the things the Church thinks I’m sinning about, is the thing, and for that reason it’s not guilt keeping me away from the confessional – it’s the nagging conviction that it could only be a waste of time. That I can’t go to my chosen institution for this one part of my religion. It’s an ugly stalemate, the unstoppable force of my flagrant sex-positive bisexuality against the immovable object of Church doctrine. Forgiveness is about me and God, but Confession is about me and God and the Church – and I don’t feel I can engage with the Church in this particular way.
I’d talk to a priest about it; but I’m afraid I know what answer I’ll get.