At some point in the life of every catechist, someone will ask, “Why do I have to go to confession to a priest? Why can’t I just talk to God in my heart and ask him for forgiveness?”
Well, a new phenomenon is begging this question. I read that “confession websites” are becoming all the rage…places where people can anonymously post their sins (and, of course, read about the sins of others). The hope is that, by sharing one’s sins anonymously in cyberspace, one will experience some degree of healing.
Although the word “confession” is most often associated with Catholicism, these confessional websites are not Catholic. So what’s going on here? People seem to feel a need to articulate their sinfulness to others, even if done anonymously. Some people see this as a catalyst to have people open up to others whom they have hurt. The host of one such site says that “it is easier to tell the truth in complete anonymity.”
If this is helping some people to come to terms with the truth, that’s nice. However, from a Catholic viewpoint, here are some problems:
- Although anonymity can make it easier for some to tell the truth, it also can delude us from the truth. It is easier to live in denial unless we name the sin to another human being.
- Anonymity does not recognize the true social nature of sin. No sin is truly private. Even if shared anonymously with millions of people, in essence, the sin remains private.
- The wisdom of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is that sin, in order to be truly healed, must be named to at least one other human being, namely, to a priest. This is the same wisdom that forms the foundation of all Twelve-Step programs.
- Naming the sin is only half of the story. Receiving absolution is what truly heals. In the Sacrament of Penance, we hear the priest say the words of forgiveness and absolution.
- Sacraments are always about what God is doing. “Confessional websites” are strictly about what we do. Again, that may be a good step for some people to take, but the main point is being missed: forgiveness comes from God through Jesus Christ. Our naming of the sin is in response to the loving invitation that comes from Jesus to turn our lives over to him.
- Finally, the anonymity of confessional websites removes the sacramental nature of forgiveness that is present in the Catholic Tradition. What makes Penance and Reconcilation “sacramental?”
- The sign value of articulating the sin to a human being and asking for forgiveness
- The sign value of the priest representing Jesus and the Church
- The sign value of the words of absolution being spoken aloud
- The sign value of penance being performed afterwards
All of these things make Jesus’ forgiveness a tangible reality in the life of the penitent. Most importantly, the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation reminds us that true healing and forgiveness come from God. We cannot earn it on our own. The “danger” of confessional websites is the implicit message that we can heal ourselves.
The popularity of confessional websites shows that many people are eager to experience healing and forgiveness in their lives. As Catholics, we are blessed to have a means available to us by which we truly experience the healing and forgiveness that can only come from God. As catechists, we are blest to have opportunities to teach others about the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, inviting them to embrace God’s loving invitation to turn away from sin and to enter into a deeper relationship with him.