by Fr. Garry Richmeier, C.PP.S.
Recently a friend of mine asked if I could help with a communal reconciliation service she was planning. My schedule wouldn’t allow it, but I said half-jokingly “When I’m retired and can do anything I want to do, I won’t be ‘hearing confessions.’” It’s not that I have anything against people celebrating God’s forgiveness in a ritual way. It’s that the traditional church teaching on Confession tends to perpetuate the idea that the human person is naturally inclined toward evil (has a sinful nature), and is basically helpless in avoiding sin. I cannot subscribe to either of these premises on which the need for Confession is based.
The premise that humans are naturally inclined toward evil begins with the idea of Original Sin. The idea is that there is something wrong with us at birth, which baptism is supposed to fix. But we still have our sinful human nature from which we cannot escape. This means we are basically helpless and can only rely on God’s mercy granted through the Church’s Sacrament of Reconciliation to be saved.
Of course, we always have to rely on God’s love and mercy. The underlying message that people often hear in this is: “I am bad, weak, broken, flawed.” I encounter this thinking daily in my counseling work when people say things like: “There’s something wrong with me,” or “I’m a lousy parent,” or “I’m afraid to interact with people,” or “What I do is not that important.” The Church may not be the author of the negative self-image commonplace among us as human beings, but its teaching on sinfulness powerfully perpetuates the notion. Catholics especially have learned this lesson well.
When people see themselves as broken, bad, or flawed, helplessness follows, and they have little hope they can effectively change things. However, if a person recognizes that they have strengths, abilities, and virtues, there is hope, and they are more apt to use these gifts to make a difference. That is why any good counselor will refrain from joining a client in their negative view of self. Instead, the counselor will help the client focus on the strengths that enable them to manage, to survive, to make things better. This is why I would much rather do counseling than hear Confessions.
The traditional view is that sin involves evil intent. It is painfully obvious that people do awful things to themselves and to each other, which is evil. But in my work with many people over the years I have yet to hear someone say, “I did that awful thing because I wanted to do something evil.” The primary reason people do what they do is that they think it will help them survive in some way.
I often use the image of a person coming in from the desert after being without water for a couple days. They come upon a puddle of stale, green, rancid water. They will likely drink from that puddle even though it will make them sick because their survival is at stake.
In a similar way, people will drink from the puddle of promiscuity, for example, because they see that as the only way to ensure their self-worth survives. Of course, Sin has many sickening side effects, but people will do all kinds of awful things if they think their survival is at stake. People will ruthlessly step on others to get to the top because they think their importance as a human being is at stake. People will kill in the name of their religion because they think their being acceptable to God is at stake. Telling people not to do such things because it is sinful is like telling them not to protect themselves, or telling them to give up what they think will help them survive. It just doesn’t work.
Again, what works better is helping people recognize their basic goodness as precious creations of God, and that nothing can threaten that. It is also important to help people identify their innate strengths, virtues, and abilities that make them who they are despite other’s opinions or anything else outside themselves. If people see themselves like this, they will recognize that there is not much out there that is a threat to who they are as a person, so there will be less need to defend themselves in ways that hurt themselves or others.
As people of God we must be honest in admitting that our actions are hurtful sometimes, that we sin. But if we simply point the finger of blame and threaten evildoers with punishment, we won’t be much help to each other in figuring out how to be less hurtful, and how to live the life God created us for.