Why is confession sometimes a torture chamber?

By Fr. Basil Cole, O.P.

When Pope Francis said in a footnote of Amoris laetitia (351), “The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better,” what did he mean?

From the point of view of the faithful, he was trying to say to priests that we need to be kind and benevolent to sinners who come to Confession lest overly severe priests make the sacrament odious, and thereby keep people away from this sacrament. It is obvious that the Christian faithful prefer to confess to a priest who is either hard of hearing or does not know the language and its cultural signs. Penitents do not like to be brow beaten by cranky, fiercely curmudgeonly priests. Unfortunately, it may happen now and again.

Nevertheless, we priests do sometimes get somewhat impatient when someone comes to confession and confesses the sins of their husbands, wives and children, supervisors or their bishops. Likewise, it is sometimes difficult to communicate gently with someone who claims they have committed no sins in ten years, not even a tiny venial sin. Sometimes, after several hours in the confessional, someone comes into the confessional and says it has been eight hours since her last confession. She either feels the previous priest did not give absolution correctly, or she forgot to confess a small sin and demands more advice while there may be thirty penitents waiting to go to Confession. Sometimes, people come to the confessional because they are lonely and want to talk to someone about themselves. These and others penitents like them can cause some tension in the priest leading to impatience with people unless he is a saint.

The Sacrament of Penance can also be abused by some few of the faithful who often commit sin with the intention of going to confession afterwards for forgiveness. What does that mean? They use the sacrament to aid in their sinning because they think just getting absolution and doing a token or moderate penance is all that is required to be forgiven of sin. This and the above experiences sometimes make hearing Confession a torture chamber for the priest.

On the other hand, there are Catholics who wait for Christmas and Lent to go to Confession after committing serious sin and all the while going to Mass and Holy Communion because they have felt sorry for having watched porn, or committed adultery or got drunk. Often that sorrow is not because they have offended God but offended their sense of moral excellence or superiority. The thought of going to Confession as soon as possible became a personal “torture” for these persons. Sometimes Christmas and Lent may go by for years and the tension of guilt builds up and getting the nerve to go to Confession becomes burdensome because of the embarrassment of having waited so long. Unable to face the facts of their empty spiritual life, they prefer the false peace of procrastination instead of purging themselves before another sinful human being as the representative of the Lord Jesus. And the thought of receiving a potentially harsh correction from a priest is repellant because they have such a high or low esteem of themselves. For these, Confession is a kind of torture chamber as well.

I remember a young child who was absolutely fearful of first Confession that she left the confessional unable to confess. Her mother thought that I, being a parish missionary at the time, might be the solution. So, she brought her daughter to see me for nice chat. Then we went to the confessional to show her what it was so that when she would come in two days later for her first Confession, all fears and anguish would be banished. Two days passed and with a special appointment, her mother brought her to the confessional, face to face. And before she could begin, she started to cry out of fear. So, I said to her “Do I look like a mean ole grizzly bear?” She meekly said “No.” Then I said in reply, “Just think of me as a big, old fat pussy cat.” She laughed and made her first Confession!

It seems that Our Lord gave this Sacrament of Mercy to motivate his followers to aim for the excellence of holiness, but it is not always an easy sacrament to receive because sometimes the Lord Jesus talks back and the words might sting. There are stresses and strains that one normally undergoes from time to time receiving this sacrament because not everyone is fervent or given to a daily regime of prayer. The Council of Trent warns of “cheap mercy” when approaching the sacrament when it teaches (DS 1549):

And since “we all offend in many things” (Jas 3.2 vulg; can.23), everyone ought to keep in mind not only God’s mercy and goodness but also his severity and judgment. Neither should anyone pass judgment on himself, even if he is conscious of no wrong, because the entire life of man should be examined and judged, not by him judgment but by the judgment of God, “who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will received his commendation from God [1 Cor 4.4-5), who as it is written, “will render to every man according to his works” (Rom 2.6).

When someone has been unfaithful to his or her spouse, and truly repents, he or she necessarily tries to make up for harming the relationship by breaking their promise of fidelity. This is what repentance means in ordinary life. Now every grave sin disobeys God and so ruins a relationship with Him. Unity within oneself between reason, faith and the emotions becomes more severed. Often human bonds are deeply wounded and one’s relationship to the universal Church is likewise harmed. People do not always think of these ramifications, because the illusory goods suggested and chosen by the capital vices such as vainglory or lust outweighs these deeper relations we have with God, self, others and the Church. The latter seem so foreign because often they are invisible save for the psychological harm done to self and possible injustice done to others. Being deviant and evasive due to original and personal sin, it takes time for repentance to enter a sinner’s soul. And because sin has deleterious consequences, this is where the virtue of ongoing penance must take over. Instead of running away from God and his demands known through responsibilities and promises, taking up prayer, fasting and works of mercy keep us sinners on a steady road of humility and keeps us dedicated to living the way of the Lord Jesus.

Without this virtue of penance, life itself can become a torture chamber.

The Second Vatican Council spoke of the Christian life as a journey and a pilgrimage. While not denying any of this, the early Fathers of the Church and many saints also reminded us that discipleship is an ongoing battle against the world, flesh and the devil. When we lose the battle from time to time, it is good that we have a place to “regroup” where we can meet the mercy of Christ. However, it will often be somewhat uncomfortable because we deleteriously took comfort in sinning, and so, we need to turn around from that road to get back “on track” and recover from our self-inflicted mutilations flowing from sin.

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
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