Home > philosophy, religion > The Road to Atheism Part XIII: Confessions regarding Confession.

The Road to Atheism Part XIII: Confessions regarding Confession.

The first openly defiant action against religion in general, or Catholicism specifically, was a childhood friend’s refusal to participate in Confession during highschool. As I have stated, I attended a Catholic high school, and during Lent we would be excused from our religion class to go to the school chapel and participate in confession. For the unfamiliar confession is the second of the holy sacraments, that you first attend around second grade of elementary school. I term it “the wash” and that is not meant to be perjorative, but rather descriptive. By participating in the sacrament you, the penitent, are given a clean slate. The sin is gone, in some ways as though it was never committed, but in all other ways it can no longer be held against you as the completion of the sacrament means that even God has forgiven you. It’s like when McCoy on “Law and Order” asks that something be stricken from the record, the jury can no longer consider that statement. It doesn’t exist, sure it happened but it can bear no effect on the future (this works better in theory than in practice). So the lies I told, the things I stole, etc. are all washed away and as long as I was truly sorry and truly repentant they were all forgiven. It’s between God and the applicant, no one else (the priest is just the medium here) and you know what? I’m not going to argue against it, believe it or don’t it’s entirely subjective.

At least now…as a kid this wasn’t subjective. It had objective consequences, or it seemed to. This is probably one of those situations in which you can tell right away how religious a person is going to be based on how they resolve the battle that occurs in the mind. The war between what you know to be the truth and what you know you are supposed to believe to be the truth. Since there will be a not insignificant number of people who are unfamiliar with the process of Confession here’s how it works: you wait in line. This is probably the first instance in my life where I encountered the “hurry up and wait” phenomenon that plagues all of us. Once you are waiting, you stand (or sit, depends on the place) and are supposed to be contemplating the sins that you have committed since either your last confession or Baptism. Essentially you are to come up with a list of the things you did that were immoral and prepare to tell them to another person.

This was difficult for more practical reasons. As a kid we were confessing to the local Parish priest, kind of obvious right? Now, part of the sacrament is that the priest is never supposed to divulge this information to anyone, ever. Law and Order (most versions), Oz, that movie with Edward Norton, have all used this as a turning stone for the plot. But just because he is not permitted to tell anyone doesn’t necessarily mean that he isn’t going to treat you differently and when its the parish priest its a tricky. We were taught to respect the priest as he was in charge of the parish. By proxy this meant he was in charge of the school that was literally attached to the church. So, if you cheated on a test at the school it might occur to you to consider that the priest would now treat you different. Furthermore, if your family was involved with the church in some way in which you had frequent contact with the priest you might feel skittish around the person that knew exactly how you were lying to your parents.

After a period of time it becomes your turn. Now, to its credit, Rome offers a choice for people that doubt the objectiveness of the priest. When you approach the confessional you are given a choice, the face-to-face confession or you can kneel behing a screen. Now, I always viewed the screen as being cowardly. If you were truly sorry for your sins it shouldn’t matter whether or not someone can see you explaining what you did. Further the screen only shielded your face (and not that well either) not your voice. I used to do the face to face thing, because why the hell not.

ONce in the box though, you begin by explaining when the last time you attended confession was, and why, usually, it was so long. My family never took us to Confession, the only time I ever went was when school made me. So I just usually explained that, which was nice, because it took the heat off of me. Yet, I always wondered why this question was asked. It made as much sense to me as asking what grade a student expects on a teacher evaluation form. Is he asking because he wants to know how long he will ahve to listen to you prattle on or because he wants to know how good of a Catholic you are?

Anyway, the next step is to do the actual confessing. You being with the mortal sins, the sins that cleave the bond between your person and god. Breaking one of the ten is usually considered mortal, committing one of the seven, etc. Although the church does allow for some exceptions but it gives a lemon test on whether you performed a mortal or a venial sin. For something to be considered a mortal sin it must meet all of the following criteria:

1) You have to know that your action was sinful. 2) You had to perform it with full and deliberate consent (i.e. you can’t have been tricked or forced into it). 3) It must have been a serious subject matter (white lies don’t count, stealing bread to feed your starving child, etc.).

At the grade school age the most common sin was lying, petty theft, and cursing. This was probably not due to our sacrosanct nature but rather to the fact that the other sins weren’t available to us. If we didn’t go to church on the Sabbath that wasn’t our fault, because we weren’t in charge of where we went, girls were kind of yucky at that age so that rules out a good number of them, so more often than not confession must have been pretty boring for the priest involved.

As kids we just kind of went through the motions until it became routine. Yet, I took it seriously, very seriously, to the point where if I couldn’t think of anything bad that I had done, I would get nervous. I was a sinner, I had to be, there was only one person that was free of sin and I wasn’t her. To me, looking back I’m appalled that this could even be thought. If a person took a child and constantly reminded them that they were sinful and bad, that they couldn’t possibly live up to some standard of perfection it would be child abuse. Do it for two thousand years out of some book that no one knows who wrote and it’s not only helpful but apparently necessary for the maintenance of the moral compass of civilization. It’s not abuse, it’s religion.

After long enough, even the devout get bored. You start telling the priest “just the usual.” I began to question what I was doing, what I had done, and why it was considered wrong. I spent time in the halls for that, but even that got to be routine. I was still at the point where my questions had the point of me wanting to know why things were, but I accepted the truth of it. I just wanted the middle part of the syllogism. If lying brought about good results was it still wrong? Those kinds of things.

Then, in high school, was where I saw the first openly defiant action (getting back to our original subject) against the church. I had a friend, “Tim,” who was as Irish Catholic as Irish Catholics get tell us that he didn’t do confession. It was brought up because one of the things we realized was that while we were in school, it was still Catholic school and if you notice that “C” is capitalized. During Lent, all good Catholics are required to participate in Confession at least once lest they are unable to receive the holy Communion so they weren’t going to rush a sacrament to get us to math class and if we took a long time in Confession we could skate by a class. Tim wouldn’t play ball. Like me, he took it seriously, I was just willing to list all of the lies. He wasn’t being bad in the rebellious sort of way, the teachers and priests at the school couldn’t make you go in, they could only make you go to the chapel. Like sinning, confession cannot be done at the point of a gun.

Tim’s point was that he didn’t see the reason for the mediator between him and god. He didn’t think that the priest added anything to the equation but assigning penance, which was usually kneeling for thirty minutes while reciting some prayers. His question was how repeating the “Our Father” twenty times was going to erase that time he stole a candy bar from the grocery store. His main issue of the mediator, really took hold. This was the first time someone openly questioned the religion and it was different from my delving into the Trinity, this was a sacrament. It was a big deal, it was like questioning whether Moses was a real person or not.

I don’t know what the official recommendation for the number of times a penitent is supposed to go to Confession a year, but I will repeat that if the schools didn’t make us go I would never have gone. Most of the Catholics I know haven’t gone to confession since they were made by either working at a church/school or being guilted into it at a relative’s first Confession. Almost all of them give the same explanation that “Tim” did when we were 15 in high school, what exactly is the point? I can be sorry without the local duke forgiving me. It’s like the Jewish notion of the scape goat, the sins are gone from the person now and left out in the desert, but did we need to kill a goat for it in the first place?

If pressed, I would guess I would have to confess that I felt a little better after confession than before it. Although I would attribute that to being similar to the same sense of relief one feels after revealing a secret. The worst part of confession is that you get forgiven by the person you haven’t wronged…in two ways. If I lied to “Tim” and then confess it to the priest, he forgives me, but I have still wronged “Tim,” but “Tim” hasn’t forgiven me, yet somehow it’s all better?

The same goes with God. The priest is forgiving me in place of God, but again this makes no sense. They can’t guarantee that God has forgiven me because they don’t have that power. If I wrong person X, and then ask Y to forgive me, can we seriously assume that Y’s absolution is going to be an expression of X’s will? One might say that the latter example is different than the former because it deals with god, but that just begs the question. How do we know?

I get a lot of crap for being an Atheist. Yet one thing is certain, if I wrong a person, I can only be forgiven by them for what I did, not from someone else who has no knowledge of that other person. Responsibility is solely on me, and no amount of hand waving or unconscious recitation can make it go away.

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Categories: philosophy, religion

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