Confession: No Longer Good For the Soul?

“WHAT?!  You lied?  To a priest?

Meg has really shocked me.

We’re chatting on the phone and I’ve shared that I’ve been reading John Cornwell’s “The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession”.

This led Meg and me to childhood reminiscences, and on to a discussion of Good Catholics versus Bad Catholics:

Bad Catholics

Pop Quiz: Which Do You Think THESE Are?

Good Catholics went to confession weekly, like we did. Bad Catholics showed up only once a year. Shame on those sinners, saving up all that dirt on their soiled souls!

“Ew!–Don’t brush up against us! Your dirty sins might brush off!”

We were on solid theological ground here:

Blessed is the person who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners… (Psalm 1:1)

I told Meg that while I waited each Saturday for my turn with the priest in the little confessional box, I used to do math to figure out my sin count: I’d estimate how many times each day I did something wrong to each of my siblings, and then multiply by seven days.

Lemmee see…I lie about once a day to Meg, twice to Paul (he was so young—it was just too easy). I don’t usually lie to Macy, ’cause I don’t really talk to her much any more…Then there’s the hitting…

The fact that I needed to go by number of times per day per sin gives a good indication of what a nasty little girl I was.

I seriously don’t recall that anything I did to the adults I lived with counted as wrong. Oh—wait! I DO remember something that I used to feel tremendous guilt about:

I would sneak food. Even emaciated as I appeared, and hungry as I always felt, my mom had weird rules about food and would make me feel guilty about eating. She would prefer I eat an entire box of Ring-Dings (non-food) than eat my preferred entire loaf of bread and quart of milk.

“I drank that quart of milk after school, God.”

My sin-counting was an arithmetic of anxiety—one which I took very seriously—because each week it re-emphasized what a bad person I was. And, if I missed only one sin, I would not be shriven [forgiven] of any.

Better to over-confess than under!

But now, here’s Meggy, confessing to me that SHE made up her entire confession!

“Meg! That means you actually would have told the priest a lie about lying!”


Wicked unrepentant chortles come from the other end of the phone.

“Well, I hope you remembered to add THAT to the list of sins you confessed, or you’re going straight to hell!”

We both laugh like demons.

Hyde Laughing Gif

I Look Different Minus Makeup, Don’t I?


Meg and I will have a lot of company down there. A lot of Catholic company. She and I are no longer Catholic, so of course we no longer worry about weekly or yearly confession, but, I just learned, neither do 97% of Catholics. In the U.S., you’ll only find confession going on in a bare handful of the biggest, best-attended cathedrals and churches.

Golly. All those important scenes in the movies inside the confessional box? Don’t happen. Not since the 1970’s.

Cornwell’s book had a bunch of interesting confession tidbits (as well as lots of other non-confession-related churchy facts not mentioned here). Warning: If you were born with normal non-nerd human genes, you may just want to stop right here, unless you’re hooked on catatonics.

Confession Is the Jews’ Fault

No—seriously. Ya’ know Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement? Even before that, for centuries, the tradition was that when you screwed up big time, you had to publicly show you were sorry by moaning and wailing, tearing at your clothes and yourself, and covering yourself with ashes.

Guess where the Catholics got the idea of Ash Wednesday from? Yup. THAT’s the Jews’ fault, too.

When the Christian church started out, there was no confession. Christ already died for everybody’s sins, except Adam and Eve’s original sin, and baptism took care of that. But over time, when Christians messed up big-time, by killing someone or doing something equally evil, like masturbating, the church needed a way to welcome them back. It had to be a big public something, or everybody would think masturbation, say, was no big deal.

(Of course I wouldn’t know, but I’ve heard that, in some cases, it CAN be a big deal. With inflatable embraces, or the proper electronic interfaces.)

So the Christians borrowed from their not-distant Jewish heritage and added a Christian twist: The ashy sinner had to walk up to the altar at the pre-Easter Lenten church service with a shaved head, and confess in front of everyone s/he knew.


Confession Is the Fault of the Irish

They’re the ones who decided it was better to whisper sins kneeling at the foot of a priest in private than to shout them out loud in front of your friends.

You’re thinking “That’s mighty thoughtful.”

Well, that’s where you’re wrong, boy-o. Or girl-o. Those private meetings enabled the charm o’ the Irish to apply itself in private. To privates.

A Little Too Much Closeness.  Interesting Sidebar:  Back Then, It Was Women, Not Boys, Who Were the Targets, And Not Girls:  An Average Age of 27

A Little Too Much Closeness. Back Then, It Was Women Who Were the Targets. And Not Girls: An Average Age of 27

The early church actually tried to address this. You’ll never guess how. Through designing a device which would keep priest and penitent apart while still allowing private, personal confession: The confessional box!

Pretty much backfired, didn’t it? Lots of diddling has gone on inside those boxes down through the years.


This post was gonna be longer–the book is good, and really deserves a read, and a more thoughtful post–but instead, it sorta peters out. And if you’re Catholic, or if you’ve ever been Catholic, or if you even have a friend who’s Catholic, you know whose fault THAT is. The same person whose fault EVERYTHING is:

“Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”

“My fault, my fault, my most grievous fault.”

Yes, the Bible was talking about the death of Jesus, but somehow Catholicism makes the guilt transferrable to every poor choice you or I ever made or may make.

Pardon me, while I go self-flagellate.

Ned Flanders Self-Flagellation

“One-Doodly-Ouch! Two-Doodly-OOO!”


Leave a comment


  1. I well remember standing in line with my siblings waiting to go into confession and running the “intro” through my mind to make sure I got it right…”Father, forgive me, my last confession was JUST LAST SATURDAY, and I’m only in fifth grade and I don’t think I sinned at all but we can’t say that, so OK, I hit my brother and disobeyed my mother and I LIED. (just now to you because actually I am a pretty good girl and didn’t do anything confession-worthy last week.) Then I would get my penance. Three Hail Marys and Two Our Fathers. I would sit in the pew and wait for brother, Mike, who inevitably had the same penance. And then we’d say, ” Ready, Set Go!” and speed-pray our way through those prayers. Devout little bunch that we were! LOVED this post!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ha ha ha!! So you were good even then! And I’m laughing in embarrassment, too: Cannot believe I left out the experience of receiving penance!! How the priest would invariably drone out the identical penance no matter what I’d confessed. I was tempted to confess I’d killed someone to see if my suspicion was correct that he would STILL say “Five ‘Hail Mary’s and an Act of Contrition”.

      Although I suppose one could argue relative degree of the Act of Contrition would count for a lot. Perhaps a murderer could demonstrate true contrition by going up to the victim’s family and offering himself as victim. Seems in tune with both the O.T. (blood sacrifice? no problem!) and New (a form of doing unto others? turning the other cheek? 😉 ). I’d buy that as contrite.

      The interesting thing is, no matter how automatic the penance, I took it seriously, and always felt cleansed when I’d completed it.

      Golly!! You know what, Barbara? I just realized: All those confessions and penances must have worked: I find that I lie, steal, and hit far less often these days. Do you think…? Gosh: I’d better make some phone calls to the Republicans in power, and add “Promote Confession–and Catholicism” to their national agenda!


      • I forgot to mention that in one of my last confessions, the priest asked me if I had any sins of “purity” to confess. I’m a virginal seventh grader with no clue about such matters, and so asked “What’s purity?” He hemmed and hawed and then said “sex.” I could have died. ” NO!” I said emphatically. Now I wonder what the guy was looking for…..


        • That is simply gross. My guess is that he was seeking a confession to masturbation. What a twit. No–I really shouldn’t have said that. Who knows what instructions or training he had received from Mother Church. The question may have made him every bit as uncomfortable as it did you. Ridiculous situation, all around. That Church really needs a kick in the pants in the ways it hands sexual matters.


          • Oh, yes, you’re probably right. Honestly, Babe, I’m almost certain my parents never brought me back to confession again. We moved from there to Massachusetts very shortly thereafter and my parents underwent a sort of schism with the church at that time. They didn’t return for many years. BTW, they both love Pope Francis who seems to be doing a lot to bring stray sheep back into the fold.


            • I admire the Pope in some ways, but his latest “Yes, don’t spew out kids like termites, but, basically, stick to methods that still make babies”–He’s not breaking any new ground there, is he?


            • No, he certainly is not which is a disappointment. I doubt the church is ever going to change on this one or if so, it will be glacier-slow.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, who ever understands the Catholics?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Okay, I laughed. But here’s my grownup answer:

      Now, now, Paul: I would never make fun of someone’s faith. (Unless I had a friend who followed it. In which case, I might never stop : ) God is God, and if you want to celebrate her/him/it by hopping on one foot around a toadstool ring widdershins, go for it.
      As long as your faith doesn’t :
      –promote physical harm to humans or animals, or
      –inequality of races or genders, and
      –you do not disturb the peace of others, e.g.
      (1)use bullhorns when pedestrians walk by;
      (2) picket funerals;
      Then I say, hang from the chandeliers in the nude and have orgies to worship.

      Or, perhaps you want to believe in burning stinky smoke at special ceremonies where powerful holy men wear robes embroidered by powerless cloistered women. And believe in a locked waiting room to heaven (“Purgatory”) and the ability of others to buy tickets (“indulgences”) that let you escape that room and finally pass through the pearly gates.

      Seems odd to me, but I’m sure my beliefs seem odd to others.


  3. This I found very hilarious O.B, and you and Meg……saucy, naughty lil minx you both are! I cracked up real good! I’m not Catholic, so I can’t lay claims to having firsthand information on this whole confession business! What I know is that I’d rather confess my sins directly to He, who’s Himself blameless, and by that I mean God Almighty, than to go squealing to a mere mortal, who’s himself a sinner like me! I don’t think they possess the powers to forgive sins! Dogs don’t eat dogs and only God can truly forgive! Little wonder why that tradition’s fast fading! How do they keep up?! Documenting every wrong doing and then ‘unleashing’ those at confession?! Must be exhausting and I do understand where Meg’s coming from, I’d probably tow same line as her! The horror! ROTFL!

    ‘All have sinned and have fallen short of His glory’! Moreover, our righteousness are as filthy rags, we only live through the righteousness of Christ! Dang, O.B; I just turned preacher! I blame you,Oh Men! LMAO!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m with you, Yemie: I don’t think a man or woman has the power to forgive me, even as a “conduit” for God, except of an offense I caused directly to that person. (I love the idea of Yom Kippur. What if we all practiced it? I wonder what ISIS members would feel sorry for? Interesting to think about.)

      I talk directly to God, these days.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Right on track Phoenix! My fellow man has the total power to forgive me of a wrong I did commit against him otherwise…no dice! Priests themselves are mere mortals and they aren’t infallible! So there, the ‘oracle’ has spoken! Case dismissed! LMAO!

    ISIS?! That’s a topic for another day! The world’s just keeps getting creepier and so much more wackier and twisted as the days go by! Can’t deal! Thanks for the laughs gurl, always! winksLOL

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The book sounds like a fascinating read, but I think if I read one more thing about Catholics, my head will explode. Being somewhat anti-religion, but desperately trying to be respectful, I have a hard time understanding some of these practices.

    I have a Catholic friend who once explained to me that she talked to her priest about the heavy petting she and her boyfriend engaged in – a 17 year old talking to a 32 year old unmarried man who was not her actual boyfriend. I found this astonishing and slightly gross.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I fully understand. I found that I was unable to finish the book, despite its fascinating stories (which is, partly, why the post petered out). There is that unfortunate inner recoil in me against Catholicism now that has been caused by (1) years of hearing about the Church’s longer years of covered-up abuses, added to (2) the persistent dedication of the Church to sexism and (3) its refusal to permit reasonable birth control.

      Regarding your last point: I have to say I don’t find it gross–I know that many in prior days who joined the priesthood did so after sexual experiences, but believe as well that even those with none can become qualified to counsel others who have it. Yet, of course there is this: Why the heck NOT let priests be married, as they were allowed to be in olden times? No solid theological argument agin’ it.


      • What I find gross is the supplanting of parental guidance by a relative stranger – that any religion would serve as an intermediary in intimate relationships. My sense of revulsion is more about my feelings on man-made, patriarchal, organized religion than it is about the priest’s experience. However, in any other scenario, a 17 year old virgin talking to a 32 year old single man about her sexual experiences is either a seduction or a situation ripe for exploitation.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hmm…Yes. While I am not as off-put as you are, it COULD be easily exploited. An anonymous phone line or website would be safer, and today’s easy availability of such would seem to reduce the need and the helpfulness of the role that was played by the trusted neighborhood priest of the past. (Although I’ve read that many of these sources hand out poor-quality–even wrong–information.)

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh tell me about it !
    Repulsive practice, designed to make little kids feel guiltier than they already did through being raised in Catholic homes. That’s the Jews’ fault, too ! [grin]

    Liked by 1 person

    • One of the worst parts was that one could SEE the priest through the screen, not caring a fig, whilst one had sweated and agonized over that list of sins. That poop.

      Haven’t yet thought of a way to blame THAT on the Jews. Let me ask my Jewish friends. They have their own decent supply of unmerited guilt and may be able to come up with something.


  7. Eda

     /  2015/02/07

    The closest I ever got to Catholic was singing in the Episcopalian church choir, which I only did because my friends did and we had a lot of fun playing around in the choir loft. But then one day I arrived too late to join the procession and instead sat in a pew and listened. Wait a minute. I can be rotten awful all week, come to church, say I’m sorry and all is forgiven?

    I never went back.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sounds like you were very logical. Check out Lutheranism: You don’t even have to say (or feel) “Sorry”–Just have faith that Jesus is God and Heaven is a-waitin’–and then “Poof!”, there it is.

      Well, you oughta be sorry–but you don’t hafta be. And those folks ran all over Africa and Asia as proselytizing missionaries! (Hmm…Could that explain some of today’s politico-religious quagmires there?)

      OTH, the Lutherans I’ve met personally are the closest to saints you’d hope to find on this plane of existence, so go figure. Maybe guiltless faith makes Agatha and Johann better girls and boys!


  8. Sorry, my Lutheran background leaves me woefully unprepared for this conversation. I can only state that I was shocked as an adult to discover that, in addition to nailing the 95 theses to the ?Battenberg? Cathedral (Googling…hold on…no Wittenberg…Battenberg is a type of cake. Go figure, I mixed up the theological with the confectionary practices.) So, Luther nails the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Cathedral–a list of the ways in which the Catholic church has misrepresented the gospel and perverted the intention of confession into a Ponzi scheme for the afterlife…and oh, by the way, the man was a raving anti-Semite and promoted actions that looked an awful lot like a Nazi playbook for hatred. Color me conflicted about my heritage on multiple levels here.


    • Hey, I taught ELCA Sunday School–but under my own personal added doctrine “First, do no harm.”

      I grew up learning about Luther as a total good guy, too: I mean, indulgences? Seriously?

      Only years later did I learn the acts vs. faith doctrine–my ex was a Lutheran confident of his salvation no matter what he pulled in this life–and long after that about his personal failings.

      But as one pastor put it at a Lutheran service I attended, once he finished remarking on the older Midwestern congregants casting glances at the newer, younger, browner casually-dressed attendees:

      “If we welcomed only non-sinners to our pews, they would be empty each Sunday.” (or words to that glass-houses effect).

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think that’s the hard thing about growing up…it can be quite disillusioning.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes. It was extremely difficult to accept that there would be no Weirdstone of Brisingamen for me. No magic rings, no fairy godmothers, no rescue. Just hard work. On the other hand, I got to drive a car, and go up in airplanes, and do programming and systems analysis, which I loved, so…not all bad : )


  9. I wasn’t aware of the Cornwell book, thanks for that info. I love this post. I join the group of those who had to make up a phony sin list for confession. I was not more virtuous than any other little kid, only incapable of feeling guilt for anything out of my control…like conventional do’s and don’ts. I went along with the whole abracadabra of Catholicism to avoid hassles, but didn’t. take it seriously, even as a small child….it was theater, incense, colored windows, mysterious language, haunting architecture, gorgeous music, and silence….it even had silence in those days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for coming by my place, Cynthia! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You were a wiser child than I not to absorb the guilt.

      Where do children experience silence today? I enjoyed the silent parts of service, too, and the beauty of many of the churches we attended (most particularly an absolutely freezing tiny stone church in England where I concentrated on the gargoyles and stained glass to avoid thinking about my encroaching gangrene).

      The loss of that music for children is also to be regretted.

      Minor funny aside: I was surprised when I grew older and learned that the Catholics had some of the worst hymnals–or they just avoided singing songs favored by Protestants. I’d grown up never hearing Martin Luther’s great hymns, or Southern Baptist standbys (Abide With Me, Nearer My God To Thee, How Great Thou Art). Those darned Catholics cheated me of part of what should be every child’s shared common cultural heritage!


      • I came later to those great hymns, too, and I love them, as well as the spirituals of the black slaves… that I’m in my dotage it’s all a lovely mix I can sing about the house, along with Panis Angelicus, Tantum Ergo, Benedictus Qui Venit In Nomine Domini…., etc..

        Liked by 1 person

        • I wish I could do that. I am a “first liner” type. That’s all I ever retain, and then come the “dum-te-dum”s. (Or, more appropriately, “dumb-te-dumb”s.).

          I tend to retain the songs my parents listened to: Mills Bros., Inkspots, Ken Dodd (!)… But i admit I don’t regret knowing all the verses to The Court of King Caractacus..


  10. Great post! I confess this made me smile and sent me on a trip back to my childhood and all those rituals and traditions that I have since relinquished. Confession as ritual was the first to go. Even as a child there were so many things that I found contradictory in the Church that did not make sense to me. What’s the point of confession if you just go out and do the same again and again? The biggest puzzle to me was that many of the priests and nuns that I knew then were some of the most un-Christian like people in my memory. They were mean to children as well as rigid and unforgiving, and now that the widespread abuse scandals have come to light it was even worse than suspected. So much for confession to induce remorse and reform.


    • Thank you for the “Great”!

      Your experience is/was a common one. Mine was different. Confession made me feel good–afterward. All the nuns I ever knew were the kindest, sweetest people one could hope to meet, with one exception, and she was still kind–just not sweet. Most of the priests were tolerable, although either boring, or crazy-intense. However:

      I will say that during practice for my Confirmation, I was roughly YANKED out of line and my hands wordlessly TORN asunder and CLAPPED together by one of those kind, sweet nuns. Have you figured out why?

      What a dumb child I had proven myself to be! I was holding my hands folded in prayer the LITTLE girl way: The interlocked curled-fingers “Here’s the church, Here’s the steeple” way. (Pre-steeple, that is.) We were about to become Soldiers of God! We needed to hold our hands flat and upright, like BIG GIRLS! (Perhaps, BIG GIRLS about to JAB SATAN with our stabby, upright praying hands!! Take THAT, Satan!! Get thee behind our shiny patent-leather shoes!)

      Oh, yeah: And I did have one rigid, unforgiving priest go all apesh#t on my #ss when I questioned a minor theological point (“But if some African has never heard of Jesus, how come he’s damned?”). It is mere coincidence that THIS was the day I left the Catholic Church.


  1. A Little Boy’s Too-Big Confession | The Last Half

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