In John 20:22-23 we find the record of the origins of the sacrament of Reconciliation:
And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
When Jesus empowered his apostles to forgive sins in His Name, he did so with the deep awareness of, and compassion for, our predicament as fallen human beings. Quite simply, we are the only creatures on planet earth that feel the compulsion to confess (and have need to do so). Your cat feels no compunction about the mouse corpse he left on your doorstep as a present. The alligator does not reflect on the tragedy of the tourist he just ate. But all over the world countless millions of people spend their lives wrestling with guilt for the various secret sins we all carry about in our guts, both wishing and fearing to tell someone. It’s not enough for us to think good thoughts about these sins. Something in our very nerves and bones demands that the thing be spoken. As the psalmist puts it:
When I declared not my sin,
my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up* as by the heat of summer.
I acknowledged my sin to thee,
and I did not hide my iniquity; I said,
“I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”;
then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:3-5)
And our present culture, filled as it is with all manner physiological offspring of unconfessed sin ranging from ulcers to suicide bears witness to it. (That’s not to say that all physical sufferings are due to unconfessed sin, of course. But it is to say that pretty much all of us have known what it is to have our sins weigh heavily enough on us to deprive us of sleep or appetite, or to give us royal headaches, hypertension and sundry other bodily pleasures that weren’t in Hell’s “Sin is Fun!” Brochure.
The point is this: you don’t have to be an expert in the Church’s theology of the sacraments to understand the answer to the oft-asked question, “Why confess your sins to men? Why not just confess to God?” The answer is, as ever, the Incarnation. Jesus is not the Word made word or the Word made abstract theology or the Word made warm fuzzy feeling. He is the Word made flesh. And so, He commits His gospel into the flesh and blood hands of flesh and blood people and gives them the power to forgive sins in His name by the power of the Holy Spirit. For we are creatures, not only of spirit, but of skin and bone. We need somebody with skin on to say “You are absolved of all your sins.”
The proof of this is seen precisely in the fact that if prayer in your prayer closet was really enough to deal with the depths of our sin, we’d all have done that years ago and gotten on with life. Indeed, if you don’t require, as a normal part of your humanity, to speak your sin aloud then you wouldn’t even need the prayer closet. Just think good thoughts about repentance and you’re good to go. But it is, quite obviously, not enough, is it? The drive to confess comes, not from some top down guilt trip imposed by the Church, but from within. Confession answers that need, a need that will find expression even if the Church did not exist, as multiple websites devoted to making anonymous confessions of sin attest.
Of course, as our therapeutic culture demonstrates, there can be confession and confession. We have, of late, perfected the art of the non-confessional confession (“I’m sorry you are offended”) as well as the content-free confession (“It was a mistake.”) as well as the confession of other people’s sins (“Our culture made it so easy for me to do X.”) as well as the transmogrification of confession of sin into justification of sin as an act of courage (“Yes, I had an abortion! And if somebody is going to condemn my right to choose then all I can say is I go to hell with a clear conscience and my head held high.” Lately right wingers like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove have adopted the same strategy by saying stuff like “If it’s a sin for a guy to love his country so much that he’s not afraid to do the hard and dirty work of enhanced interrogation, then so be it! I’m proud of our record on so-called ‘torture’!”)
And of course, there are a myriad of other strategies for avoiding coming out and saying “I committed this sin against the Living God through my fault, through my fault, through my own most grievous fault.” That’s why, while confession is crucial to the sacrament it is not sufficient. Along with it must be true contrition. The words must be the sign of broken and contrite heart, not merely a clever work of plea-bargaining or a weepy play for sympathy on Oprah. The contrite heart seeks, not to finely parse the meaning of the word “is” or to play games with legal definitions of just what, precisely, constitutes “theft” or “fornication” or whatever sin is being cherished and guarded, but to crucify and put the sin to death with a hearty will.
Such contrition is at the very core of all true acts of repentance, and is always a work of the Holy Spirit. It can’t be faked, but it can be chosen and received, to the extent that we are able to do it. Of course, lots of us (yours truly emphatically included) stink at this and so can often only muster the bare bones beginning of contrition, struggling even to feel sorry for our sins, much less desire their eradication from our lives. Mmmmm, those delicious sins. Surely they’re not all bad. Just bad in excess, right?
The Church gives us tools for thinking about that when she speaks of “perfect” and “imperfect” contrition. In essence, what the distinction means is that God is incredibly humble in receiving our repentance. The penitent adulterer who goes to his wife and says, “I came back to you because I was afraid of what would happen if I lost access to your Daddy’s fortune” is not likely to be received back by his wife. But the penitent prodigal (Luke 15:11-32) whose first act of contrition consists of “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger!” is received back by the Father, even when the motivation is pretty plainly not, “I’ve done you grave wrong, and I now love you above all things” but merely, “If I grovel, can I have something to eat?” God is willing to meet us there, when any self-respecting human father would roll his eyes and tell the kid to lie in the bed he’d made for himself.
The point is: God knows our weakness and is pleased even with our stumbles. Indeed, he loves us so much that he’s not in need of our grovels, nor even of our love. God needs nothing from us. He is full and overflows with love for us: a pure gift-love that intends our perfect happiness, not our spaniel-like lickspittle humiliation.
So then why contrition? Not because He needs it, but because we do. We have to die, to be broken, before we can be raised from the dead with Christ. So we have to confront, and really decisively turn away from, our sin with the help of grace. For most of us, that’s like quitting smoking: you do it thousands of times. Our lives are a long struggle with sin, and contrition is very much like peeling an onion: you cry and then you discover a new layer beneath the one you just peeled away. Unsuspected roots of selfishness, deeply embedded habits you didn’t even know you had, old and buried patterns of nastiness you always defended as “just being funny”—all the zillions of strategies we have for fending off change—all these yield over time before the continual waterfall of grace that wears away the rocks in our hearts and heads as we keep bringing ourselves before the Throne of Grace and presenting more and more of our hearts to Jesus in the sacrament.
All this is, again, part of the typically Catholic insistence of a marriage between word and deed, spirit and flesh, inner and outer. If you confess but don’t mean to change, your confession is just a show. If you claim to have undergone a change of heart, but then refuse to confess your sins or change, you’re just kidding yourself. Of course, in extreme situations, like on the beach at Normandy, perfect contrition will be sufficient. As we have already seen in the case of the unbaptized Good Thief, though we are bound by the sacraments, God is not bound. So if you are truly and fully contrite for your sins, but get killed in battle, or run over by a bus, or struck by a meteor before you get a chance to go to Confession, you are still fully forgiven by God. But, of course, if you are seriously contrite and none of these somewhat improbable occurrences befalls you, then you will, of your own accord, hie yourself to the sacrament, precisely because what you want is not merely a Get Out of Hell Card, but union with the God who is the love of your life and the center of your existence. Indeed, once the sacrament has been received, the deepest desire of the perfectly contrite heart will be to receive Jesus in the Eucharist and to set about making satisfaction with an eager will.
“Satisfaction” is one of those terms that scares many non-Catholics to death because it sounds to them as though it must mean something like “stuff you do to earn God’s forgiveness”—as though the absolution pronounced in the sacrament is a sort of contract awaiting your signature. If you do the penance, then the heavenly contract is signed and you are “really” absolved. If not, then the absolution doesn’t stick and you are still in your sins.
All this is rubbish, of course. In reality, “satisfaction” is simply the conclusion of the natural process of enfleshing what lies in the heart. When what is in the heart is eros, that eros demands to be enfleshed in kisses, marriage and sex with the beloved. When what is in the heart is grief, that grief demands to be enfleshed in tears and cries of anguish. When what is in the heart is true joy at being forgiven for sin, that joy at being forgiven demands to be enfleshed by some act which repairs the damage done for the sin and which marks the embarkation on a new path in life. That’s exactly what we see, for instance, in the beautiful gospel tale of Zacchaeus the tax collector. When he repented his sins and found forgiveness from Jesus he stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:8-9) Luke, of all people, knows that to be a “son of Abraham” mean, not merely to have Abraham’s DNA floating around in your veins, but to have the faith of Abraham. That’s because Luke’s teacher is none other than the apostle Paul, who tells us that Abraham is
the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but also follow the example of the faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants—not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all. (Romans 4:11-16)
In other words, the satisfaction Zacchaeus makes for his sins in paying back his debts fourfold is not regarded by Jesus as an attempt to earn forgiveness apart from grace, but as the logical extension of the fact that he has received forgiveness and is overjoyed about it.
The idea, then, is that satisfaction—the desire to do something to right a wrong we have done—is the natural outworking (and reward) of penance just as the desire to kiss the beloved is the natural outworking (and reward) of falling in love. A really penitent person does not approach satisfaction as an onerous task, but as something that wild horses couldn’t restrain him from doing. Zacchaeus cheated a great many people out of a good deal of money. When he repented of his sin and found forgiveness, he couldn’t wait to pay back the people he had cheated. And Jesus did not scold him saying, “My grace is free. You don’t have to do that.” He rejoiced that Zacchaeus had found salvation and that his salvation had burst out of him in an act of love rooted in the faith of Abraham.
Confession, contrition and satisfaction, while distinguishable, are not separable from one another any more than body, soul and spirit can be separated. The healing power of the sacrament of Reconciliation is addressed to healing the whole person and therefore involves the whole person in the incredible mercy of God.