The Bishops and their Confessions

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky (bio - articles - email) | Feb 26, 2019

Confession is good for the soul. A good Confession identifies every mortal sin (nature and number) to the best of one’s ability. The priest usually does not need to hear the details, unless certain circumstances are necessary for purposes of clarification. A penitent should provide reasonable precision in identifying a sin.

The Baltimore Catechism teaches that to receive the Sacrament of Penance worthily we must do five things:

  1. Examine our conscience.
  2. Have sorrow for our sins.
  3. Have a firm resolution never more to offend God.
  4. Confess our sins to the priest and receive the absolution.
  5. Accept the penance that the priest gives us.

Here is a hypothetical example of a confession that would need a wise and patient confessor to elicit the necessary clarity:

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last Confession was last month. Here are my sins: I don’t feel close enough to God. I was angry with my children. I got angry when I was cut off in traffic. I was judgmental. I was irritated when my husband came home late one night, without telling me the reason, and the dinner got cold. For these and all my sins, I’m truly sorry.

Unfortunately, the penitent here has merely confessed a catalog of (morally neutral) unpleasant feelings. A good confessor would have to ask:

  • Did you commit any sin-—such as failing to attend Sunday Mass-—that caused you to feel alienated from God?
  • Was your anger with your children unjust or excessive?
  • When you were cut off in traffic, did you allow your irritation to become reckless and threatening?
  • The human mind is made for judgments when you have sufficient evidence. Did you jump to conclusions (rash judgments) or were you uncharitable with the judgments you made with sufficient evidence?

Of course, when confessing sins—particularly the sexual sins—the penitent must exercise care not to go into too much detail. (A couple of appropriate examples: “I placed myself in the occasion of sin and committed one act of fornication.” “I viewed internet pornography and committed three acts of masturbation.”) Around the edges, the priest may ask discreet questions for purposes of clarification. The penitent may also make inquiries of conscience, expecting the priest to respond with the brevity appropriate to the confessional.

Much more can be said, of course, but this introduction to a good Confession may be helpful to evaluate the outpouring of sorrow on the part of bishops for their derelictions over the years in handling sexual abuse by the clergy. It seems that the bishops’ public expressions of remorse would not pass muster for a true confession of sins.

Consider this “Confession” by a penitent using a montage of actual phrases that have been recently (and repeatedly) used by ranking ecclesiastical authorities:

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last Confession was last week, here again, are my sins. After reaching out, I have responded to the cries. I acknowledge my mistakes. But words alone cannot heal the wounds. I accuse myself of failing in the past and causing enormous pain, anger, and confusion. I have agonized over the grave harm perpetuated. Mistakes were made. I apologize for this devastating and long-lasting crisis that is without precedent. I have listened to the profound pain and suffering. Feeling the power of sin, I resolve, as best I can to identify the causes and context of this breach of trust. I express great sorrow and profound regret from the depths of my heart. With faith in the discernment process, it is with a sense of gratitude that I contextualize my heartfelt love and sorrow in fulfilling this responsibility that is beyond any human capacity. I reaffirm, with a deep commitment, to sustain and strengthen pathways of reconciliation and healing. Going forward, I promise to renew my integrity in full collaboration to restore the bonds of trust. I am sustained by the wisdom and expertise of your fraternal guidance, in solidarity with our entire Church family to establish a code of conduct outlining appropriate boundaries in personal relationships within a clear structure of accountability. That’s all…

Father, are you there? Yoo-hoo, Father?

A good confessor, if he didn’t doze off, would recognize that the entire Confession fell short of the precision necessary for a penitent to receive the proper sacramental absolution. Particularly vexing is the new paradigm that pleads “mistakes were made.” Like the common non-apology, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” the line deflects, rather than accepts, responsibility.

For a priest to grant absolution, there must be a confession of an evil act—a sin of thought, word or deed—with reasonable precision. In this case, for example, a bishop might confess:

  • I am frequently motivated to seek the approval of men rather than God. Out of cowardice, I deliberately failed to investigate homosexual behavior among several priests of my diocese fearing a media backlash.
  • Out of avarice, I spend more time and attention to fundraising than to ensuring orthodoxy of preaching and the proper celebration of the Sacraments.
  • When members of the laity complain about the morally objectionable behavior of priests, with sinful contempt for their views, I have usually favored the clergy—unless those complaining are significant benefactors.
  • Because of my neglect of Catholic orthodoxy, I often fail to support priests when they have been criticized for their defense of the Catholic faith, always finding fault with the way they delivered the message.
  • Because I have allowed myself to favor worldly success rather than to bear witness to the faith, I have measured the success of priests by their fundraising abilities rather than their orthodox pastoral abilities.
  • With vainglory, I have cynically surrounded myself with chancery sycophants that insulated me from any effective criticism.
  • In sloth and with confidence that nobody would know any better, I have reassigned priests whom I knew—or should have known—would likely continue to commit sexual sins.

That sort of confession would have the virtue of precision. And, with appropriate sorrow and a firm purpose of amendment, it would be worthy of absolution. It is still important to remember that, as with any sin, the sacramental absolution removes guilt, but the obligation to repair the damage to the best of one’s ability remains.

Confession and expressions of sorrow are good for the soul—provided it is a good confession.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines.
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  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Feb. 27, 2019 11:23 AM ET USA

    One of the best essays I’ve read on confession in general and especially how it might apply to the current mess.