It seems to me that in one of about every ten confessions people touch the heart of key issues in their union with God and leave the confessional determined to change detrimental attitudes and patterns in their lives. In the other encounters, penitents basically present a laundry list of behaviors that are merely symptomatic of what is toxic in their relationship with God and others (then go forth to repeat them). It’s no surprise: this is what we have taught people to do in their allotted time in the confessional. Of course, this cycle may not be helpful to their spiritual development.
Confessions that focus on personal sins (gossip, lies, sexual anomalies, missing Mass, or bullying behaviors…) instead of root causes, in some ways, reflect how ecclesial leaders tend to distinguish issues. We seem to focus on liturgical norms, litmus tests of obedience, and adherence to canon law—except when forced to deal with social sins like sexual maladies, clericalism, and subservient roles of women—without taking on their root causes: corporate protection of ecclesial sub-culture, institutional formation of hierarchy, and suspicion of those who challenge the status quo.
In social outreach ministries, we help people who are stuck in cycles of poverty or behaviors that keep them floundering; we attempt to help desperate people advance from lives of dependence, to temporary or periodic assistance, to independence, and ultimately to interdependence in which they give as well as receive through a culture of encounter. Here, it also seems that only about one in ten get to that better place. Fifty years ago, the Catholic Church established a Campaign for Human Development which, rather than directing money and resources to symptoms, targeted poverty by addressing root causes and fontal issues; its intent was systemic change. Similarly, when Bill W. popularized Alcoholics Anonymous, he utilized techniques from his Jesuit spiritual direction and incorporated them into the 12-Step Program. Included therein is belief in a higher power and realization that we cannot succeed on our own.
Whether battling addictions or sinful behaviors, or overcoming hardships we inherited or into which we were born, we benefit by dealing with the heart of the matter while we also confess bad choices and acts. As we contemplate the human condition of our sinfulness, we might also consider the spiritual poverty by which we can put some distance between us and our worldly longings and dependencies. In that distancing, we might get closer to the heart of Christ and better understand the heart of our issues—not just list the bad actions that they manifest. Frustration occurs in our personal lives when we focus on symptoms instead of root causes and it occurs in church and society when we fail to consider and reconsider systems that permit and even promote maladies that cause so much suffering.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation can be powerful, sacred, and life-changing when we go deeper. Like in A. A., via sobriety, sponsorship, group support, prayer, and admittance that we must depend on something greater than ourselves, it can help us stay anchored. Through our daily Examen (prayerful assessment of our relationship with God), faith community, Sunday worship, spiritual companionship, and reliance on Christ’s salvific love, we can go beyond the surface of our actions to impact our attitudes, perhaps even change toxic systems that harm us, others, and God. One in ten may not be bad but I’m optimistic that we can do better.