Sacrament of Penance by Fulton Sheen – Part One

The Sacrament of Penance – I

Fulton J. Sheen

The Sacrament of Penance is for spiritual wounds received after Baptism. Original sin was washed from the infant in Baptism, and in the case of the adult, personal sins as well. But the Lord is “practical.” He knows that the white robe given in Baptism is not always kept immaculate; that the “just man falleth seven times a day,” and that the offenses against us should be forgiven “seventy times seven.” Therefore, in His mercy, He instituted a sacrament which is a tribunal of mercy for spiritual healing.
There have been those who say that there is no difference between the Sacrament of Penance and psychoanalysis because, in both, the human mind, when disturbed, seeks to throw off its burden. True it is that as the hand will go to the eye to provide relief from a speck, so the tongue will come to the aid of the heart to secure relief. As Shakespeare put it: “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart; Or else my heart, concealing it, will break.” We are not here criticizing the psychoanalytic method, but only the error of saying that there is no difference between it and the Sacrament of Penance. But the differences between psychoanalysis and confession are enormous.
Contrast of Psychoanalysis and Confession
Psychoanalysis is the avowal of an attitude of mind; confession is an avowal of guilt. The first comes from the subconsciousness, the other from conscience. A person can be proud of his state of mind; some are proud of being atheists, or immoral, or gangsters. Many a patient will tell a psychiatrist, “Have you ever heard a case like mine, Doctor?” On the contrary, no one is ever proud of his guilt. Even in isolation, the sinner is ashamed. It takes no courage to admit that one is “mental” but guiltless; but it takes a tremendous amount of heroism, of which few are capable, to take the burden of one’s own guilt to Calvary and lay one’s hands at the feet of the Crucified and say: “I am responsible for this.”
Psychoanalysis proceeds according to a theory, and not always one theory. Confession, however, is based upon conformity or non-conformity to the absolute standard of the law of God. Psychoanalysis does not agree on a particular theory by which a mental state is to be judged. There are three main theories: one attributes mental disturbances to sex (Freud); another to an inferiority complex (Adler); and the third to a drive toward security (Jung). The analyst, because he is guided by a theory, is never required to have any moral fitness for his task; his personal ethical right to receive confidences is never raised. He may be living with his sixth wife, and yet advise people how to be happy in marriage.
But in confession, it is different. The deliverances of the penitent are always on the moral plane—not on the psychological. The penitent knows that he is before a judgment, not a theory, and that the confessor who hears his sins stands in the place of God. Because the priest is the mediator between God and man, the Church always asks that the priest who absolves the penitent be himself in the state of grace; that is to say, a participant in divine life. The avowal of guilt, therefore, on the part of the penitent is not subject to the individual whims, theories, idiosyncrasies, and kinks of the one who hears it, but to the divine law, and to the order and the moral standards of Christ Who taught that one must be holy to make holy.
A third difference is that in psychoanalysis, there is the probing by an alien or outside mind; in confession, it is the penitent himself who is his own prosecuting attorney and even his own judge. In analysis, there is often a seeking out of attitudes to bolster up a theory; but in a spontaneous confession, the penitent analyzes his own faults and confesses them without having them wander and riot in “free association” and then be submitted to “private interpretation of the subconscious” which took the place of private interpretation of the Bible. Man naturally accords pardon to others who have done injury by a simple avowal of faults, without someone else dragging them out. One indispensable condition of receiving pardon in the sacrament is this open avowal of guilt, such as the prodigal son made when he returned again to the father’s house.
Another difference is that what is told in the confessional is absolutely secret, and may never be divulged, or made part of a book, or turned into a case history, such as is often done with the material that is brought out in a psychoanalytic examination. The offenses man commits against God do not belong to any man; hence, he may not make use of them. The material of confession belongs to God, and sins may never be revealed by the confessor until God does so on the Day of Judgment. The confessor’s ears are God’s ears, and his tongue may never speak what God has heard through his ears.
Another difference is in the attitude that a person assumes in confession and psychoanalysis. In one instance, the mentally disturbed person is on a couch; in confession, he is on his knees. There is a passivity about the admission of a mental state on a couch; but there is a humble activity on the part of one who admits moral guilt while on his knees. In the psychological examination, there is never any such thing as contrition or satisfaction. In confession, sorrow and the making up for our sins are integral parts of the sacrament. When one sees a string of confessional boxes in a large church, with feet protruding from under the curtains like wiggling worms, one realizes that man has reduced himself almost to the humble state of the worm, in order that he might rise again, restored to the glorious friendship of the Christ Who died for him.
A final and important difference between psychoanalysis and confession is this: in psychoanalysis, the admission of mental states comes from ourselves; in confession, the impetus or the desire to confess our sins is from the Holy Spirit. The night of the Last Supper, Our Blessed Lord said that He would send His Spirit to convict the world of sin (John 16:8). It is only through the Spirit of Christ that we know we are sinners, as we see our lives in relationship to the Cross. The Holy Spirit summons the soul to find its way back to the shelter of the Father’s arms. When a person is in sin, he is in exile from home, a dweller in a foreign land who looks forward to the joy of return. It is an urge to share in the joy of the Good Shepherd as he carries back the lost sheep and the straying lamb to the sheepfold of the Church.
The reason this summons must come from God is that we are captives of sin. Just as a prisoner cannot release himself from the chafing bars or chains, so neither can the sinner without the power of the Spirit. To God alone belongs the initiative in this sacrament. It is His voice which calls us to repentance. We may make our confessions because our conscience urges us to do so, but the voice that speaks to us is the voice of the Holy Spirit telling us of God’s mercy and love and righteousness. Under the impetus of the Holy Spirit, the soul feels like Lazarus risen from the dead.
Two Basic Requirements for the Sacrament
In order that there might be a Sacrament of Penance, two things are required, both of which are, from a human point of view, almost impossible to find. First, one must create the penitent and, secondly, one must create a confessor. To create a penitent, one must take a man in his pride, enveloped in a glacial silence, which refuses to unburden its guilt, and say to him: “Thou shalt come to a man and kneel before him—a man who is perhaps no better than you are—and you shall tell him what you hide from yourself and your children. You shall tell him that which makes you blush; and you shall do all of this on your knees.”
However difficult it may be to create a penitent who will confess everything with a firm purpose of amendment, it is even more difficult to create the confessor. Where find one empowered by God with authority to forgive sins? How train the human heart to heal the wounds of others, and then seal his lips forever that what he has learned as God’s representative be never revealed to men?
Only God could bring these two creations together, for outside of His power and mercy, we would say: “Humanity is too proud, you will never have penitents”; “Humanity is too indiscreet, you will never have confessors.” And yet the sacrament exists. There are penitents because there are confessors, and there are penitents and confessors because Christ is God.
The Sacrament Deals with Sins

When a baby is born, it is generally healthy; but as time goes on, it becomes subject to diseases and organic troubles which oppress and torment life. In the spiritual order, too, though the soul is made clean and free from all sin by Baptism, it nevertheless contracts stains and spiritual diseases during life. These are known as sins. If the sin is serious enough to rupture the divine life within, then it is called “mortal” because it brings death to the life of Christ in the soul. If the wrong done does not destroy the divine life, but only injures it, it is called “venial.”
A serious sin always produces in the soul a three-fold effect. The first is self-estrangement. A sinner feels in his inmost being like a battlefield where a civil war rages. He no longer is a unit but a duality in which two forces within him struggle for mastery.
Serious sin estranges the sinner from his fellow man, because a man who is not at peace with himself will not be at peace with his neighbor. World wars are nothing but the projection, into great areas of the earth’s surface, of the psychic wars waging inside of muddled souls. If there were no battles going on inside of hearts, there would be no battlefields in the world. It was after Cain’s murder of Abel that he asked the anti-social question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The most serious effect of sin is not alienation from self and from fellow man; it is the estrangement from God. Inasmuch as grace is the divine life within the soul, it follows that a serious sin is the destruction of that divine life. That is why the “Epistle to the Hebrews” asks: “Would they crucify the Son of God a second time, hold Him up to mockery a second time, for their own ends?” (Heb. 6:6) Sin, therefore, is a second death. The merits we gained are lost; but those merits can be regained, thanks to the mercy of God, in the Sacrament of Penance.
Instituted by Christ

The Sacrament of Penance was instituted by Christ in the form of a judgment, for the remission, through sacramental absolution, of sins committed after Baptism and granted to a contrite person confessing his sins.
All through the Old Testament there was a preparation for this sacrament, inasmuch as God strove to induce men to acknowledge their sins before Him. To elicit a confession, God said to Adam: “Hast thou eaten of the tree?” God said to the first murderer: “Where is thy brother?” In Mosaic legislation, a sinner brought a sin offering, which was burned in a public place, to show that the sinner was not afraid to admit his guilt. The prophet, Nathan, heard David’s confession after his sin with Bethsabee, and assigned to him a penance. John the Baptist heard the confession of those who came to hear him preach. These were only types and figures of the sacrament that was to come, because forgiveness became possible only through the merits of Our Lord’s Passion.
No one questions the fact that Our Blessed Lord had the power to forgive sins. The Gospels record the miraculous cure of the paralytic at Capharnaum. Our Lord first told the paralytic that his sins were forgiven him, whereupon those round about laughed at Him. In response the Savior told them that it was just as easy to cure the man as it was to forgive his sins; so He cured the paralytic: “To convince you that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins while He is on earth” (Mark 2:10).
Our Blessed Lord was saying that God in the form of Man had the power to forgive sins; that is to say, through the instrumentality of the human nature, which He received from Mary, He was forgiving sins. Here is an anticipation of the fact that it is through humanity that He will continue to forgive sins; i.e., through those who are endowed with sacramental power to do so. Man cannot forgive sins, but God can forgive sins through man.
Our Lord promised to confer this power of forgiveness, first of all, to Peter whom He made the rock of the Church. He told Peter that He would ratify in heaven the decisions which Peter took on earth. These decisions were explained in two metaphors of “binding” and “loosing.” The power of jurisdiction was given to the one who had the keys of the kingdom. This promise made to Peter was followed up a little later on by one made to the Apostles. The second promise did not bestow the primacy, for that was reserved to Peter. Our Lord told the Apostles:
“I came upon an errand from my Father, and now I am sending you out in my turn. With that, he breathed on them, and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit; when you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven, when you hold them bound, they are held bound.” (John 20:21-23)
Our Divine Redeemer here says that He was sent by the Father; now He sends them with the power to forgive or not forgive. These words imply “hearing confessions,” because how would the priests of the Church know which sins to forgive and which sins not to forgive if they did not hear them?
One can be very sure that this sacrament is not of human institution, for if the Church had invented any of the sacraments, there is one that it certainly would have done away with, and that is the Sacrament of Penance. This because of the trials that it imposes upon those who have to hear confessions, sitting in the confessional box for long hours while listening to the terrific monotony of fallen human nature. Because it is a divine institution—what a beautiful opportunity it is to restore peace to sinners and to make them saints!
It may be asked, why did Our Lord demand a telling of sins? Why not bury one’s head in one’s handkerchief, and tell God that one is sorry? Well, if this method of being sorry is not effective when we are caught by a traffic policeman, why should it be effective with God? Shedding tears in one’s handkerchief is no test of sorrow, because we are then the judges. Who would ever be sentenced to prison, if every man were his own judge? How easy it would be for murderers and thieves to escape justice and judgment simply by having a handkerchief ready!
Because sin is pride, it demands a humiliation, and there is no greater humiliation than unburdening one’s soul to a fellow man. Such self- revelation cures us of many a moral illness. Hurtful things often hurt more if they are shut up. A boil can be cured, if lanced to release the pus; so too is a soul on the pathway to the Father’s House when it admits to its own sin and seeks forgiveness. All nature suggests an unburdening of oneself. If the stomach takes a foreign substance into it which it cannot assimilate, it throws it off; so it is with the soul. It seeks deliverance from that which troubles it, namely the unbearable repartee within.
Furthermore, when a sin is avowed and admitted, it loses its tenacity. Sin is seen in all its horror when viewed in relationship to the Crucifixion. Suppress a sin, and it becomes buried, and later on will come out in complexes. It is very much like keeping the cap on a tube of toothpaste. If one submits it to great pressure, the toothpaste will come out somewhere; one does not know where. The normal place for it to come out is through the top. So too, if we suppress our guilt or deny it, we put our mind under pressure and it creates abnormalities. The guilt does not come out where it ought to be, namely, in the sacrament. Thus it was that Lady Macbeth’s guilt came out in the washing of hands. It should have been her soul that was washed, and not her hands.

With special thanks to

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