Confession Is Not Therapy – A Spiritual Reflection
People often say that they don’t like Confession. Those who do not go often have much to say against it and provide plenty of excuses why they don’t go. It negatively impacts their human freedom. It compromises their legitimate pride. It is an antiquated, anachronistic, medieval practice. “It makes me feel bad. I feel lower class.” “I don’t need any interloper. I can confess my sins directly to God – I don’t need to tell my sins to any man.”
We’ve been looking at Adrienne von Speyr’s book Confession and The Light is On for You by Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Both authors discuss why people are reticent to go to Confession. They examine two types of groups who avoid the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The first group includes non-confessional types who say that human disciplines like therapy and counseling are valid, effective and adequate. They can handle any difficult issue themselves. They can simply talk to a friend, family member or professional counselor or therapist about any issue. Von Speyr writes that this is true – but only to a point. Peripheral matters can be dealt with quite adequately with peripheral means. She writes that, “As long as aid for the human being is offered by other human beings, within a human context, it can utilize human means and techniques.” However, it will only remain and be effective within that human sphere.
The problem is that talking to others won’t work if you’re dealing with sin. Any therapeutic approach of people who need to go to Confession will be ineffective. The reason is that Confession is not psychoanalysis. First, Confession is both personal – and social. Confession comprises something bigger than the individual alone. It involves the totality of the entire world. Second, Confessions does not just involve the truth about this human person in the confessional. It does not encompass their reason for existence or the truth about his or her soul. The truth of God is involved. Human techniques do not take this transcendent truth seriously and cannot address it adequately.
Von Speyr examines the second group of “non-confessors” by digging deeper into the difference between transcendent truth and human truth. Her analysis is fascinating. Von Speyr says that this group of people search for a reason and a solution when things aren’t working well or when life is not the way they had hoped for. They perform some kind of analysis to get to the root of the issue. The problem is that they deny that they are responsible for their current condition. They will claim that it is not their fault. It can’t be. They’re “nice people.” Thus the only explanation is to claim that forces other, or greater, than themselves are responsible. Now they can rationalize that they can do little or nothing to change their circumstances.
This will inevitably be unsatisfying. So these people will seek a dialogue with someone else. Now they can claim that they are doing the right thing by discussing the situation with another friend. They have found someone to help them along. The time spent talking with the other person is considered a “success.” They “are dealing with the issue.” The problem is that their goal in such a dialogue is not to listen to any advice or counsel that the other person might offer. Their goal is self-justification. They simply want to receive consolation. They want to pitied and want others to confirm how bad – and unassailable – “the situation” is. The words of the friend or family member or counselor strengthen the opinion that, “This is simply the way things are. I’m not responsible for this situation. Nothing that I can do can change anything.”
Von Speyr says that this analysis is false on two counts. First, in terms of a pure, human, therapeutic solution, if you want to change the situation – change your approach. Second, if you insist that forces outside of you are causing your problem – you’re right! It’s called Satan and sin. One of the reasons you find yourself in a bad situation is because of sin in your life. Since “grace builds on nature,” if you want to be happy and healthy, you need to cover both human truth and transcendent truth. You have to address the human dimension and you have to tackle the spiritual dimension as well.
The bottom line is that they don’t want solutions because they don’t want to change. They especially don’t want to go to the trouble of any kind of inward reflection in order to understand their lives and determine their deeper motivations. That would involve engagement with transcendent truth. That would mean an engagement with God. That might mean admitting they are sinners. And that is frightening to them.
Wuerl writes that not every conversation outside of the “Office of the Church” (i.e., the Sacrament of Confession) is useless or harmful. However, these approaches can view, comprehend and cure only a very limited side of the human person. If we’re dealing with spiritual issues, human approaches will remain ineffective because they are merely human techniques. They don’t get into the deeper, heart of the matter. Only “The Creator” of the human soul can treat what the soul needs (Isn’t that a great line?). And in the non-human, transcendent realm, God has decisively pointed out the locus where He intends to practice psychoanalysis on sinners – the Cross and the Confessional.