Normalizing Confession for a Culture In Need

If the Catholic Church is a hospital for sinners, then the sacrament of reconciliation (aka penance, confession) should be at the top of the Church’s first aid kit as she treats fallen soldiers on the cultural battlefield. As a society, we’re obsessed with radical self-interest, DINKs, dogs in strollers and handbags, other pampered pets, 30-day challenges, fad diets, (often unused) gym memberships, and other cheap tricks branded to make us “happy.” But, riddled with anxiety and still seeking bigger and better things, we still aren’t satisfied. Enter the Church. She can use this moment to boldly preach radical reliance on Jesus Christ, through His Church and her sacraments, including the underutilized (and under-preached?) sacrament of reconciliation.

The benefits of confession have been noted even by giants in the field of psychology, such as Carl Jung. In an article published in the Journal of Religion and Health, The Value of Confession and Forgiveness According to Jung, author Elizabeth Todd writes that, for Jung, confession “not only had a beneficial effect but was necessary to psychological health.”  More recently, in the Psychology Today article, Why It Feels So Good to Confess, author Susan Krause Whitbourne recognizes, “Confessions clearly have a long history in the Catholic Church, but even in a nonreligious context, they seem to have a certain value.” Whitbourne continues, citing a 2022 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, “a no-excuse confession … can allow you to gain the kind of  self-acceptance that ultimately can lead to a more fulfilling, and honest, identity.”

The psychological benefits should not surprise us. St. James reminds us to confess our sins, “that you may be healed” (Jas 5:16 RSV-2CE). “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9). Beautifully, Christ shows us a model of God’s healing forgiveness in the well-known parable of the Prodigal Son. When the wayward son returned home, he repented and said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Lk 15:21).  Recall the father’s response. He celebrated! “Let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again” (Lk 15:24). So, too, Christ is calling us back into communion with His Church even after we’ve fallen away and no matter how far we’ve fallen, calling us to pass from death back into life. See Catechism of the Catholic Church 1470

Despite the outpouring of grace, Catholics have, by and large, simply stopped going to confession. Dr. Maria C. Morrow, in an article aptly titled, From Praiseworthy to Blameworthy: The Sacrament of Confession in Mid-Twentieth Century America, noted that the cataclysmic drop off began sometime circa 1965  (p. 81). Dr. Morrow acknowledged a number of “paths of investigation … for trying to understand this decline” (p. 102) However, Morrow also saw a clear correlation between the clergy and the confessional:

At those times when priests were positive about the sacrament, exhorting the faithful to go to confession because of its necessity or great spiritual benefit, the lines were long … When priests started to criticize the sacrament, questioning the efficacy of devotional confession, the lines began to disappear (p. 102).

 A 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that only about 40% of self-professed Catholics go to confession at least once per year. Predictably, those dismal numbers are even lower among ex-Catholics and non-religious/non-practicing Catholics.

But there’s a mismatch here. Ninety percent of Catholics (and a solid number of ex-Catholics and non-religious/non-practicing Catholics), believe in the reality of sin! Despite this, most are not seeking out the healing and grace present in the sacrament of confession.

Although they believe in sin, perhaps they simply think they have none? As Whitbourne notes, people have “a strong bias … to see themselves in a favorable light.”  Although I refrain from judgment and pray for the triumphant return of our fallen-away brothers and sisters, I can’t help but recall the Scripture: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8).

Frankly, isn’t it possible, these poor souls just have never really been challenged to go to confession? Enter the so-called “Peterson Phenomenon.” Evangelist extraordinaire Bishop Robert Barron (and others) have noted the effect that men like renowned psychologist Jordan Peterson and former Navy Seal Jocko Willink (to name just two) have had on the culture, in calling people to live according to moral principles, to take up the mantle of the virtuous main character in the story of their own lives.

The belief in sin combined with our current cultural moment opens the door for the Church’s evangelists to use the principles behind the so-called “Peterson Phenomenon” to its advantage. In a review of Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,  Bishop Barron writes, “One key to psychological/spiritual fulfillment is to embody this archetype of the hero, to live one’s life as an adventurous exploration of the unknown. So Peterson tells his readers … to throw back their shoulders, stand tall, and face the challenges of life head on.”

Church teaching paves the way by challenging us to approach the Lord worthily.  As Catholics, we believe that we must thoroughly examine ourselves and confess any serious sins before receiving Holy Communion. According to St. Paul, those who receive Communion unworthily (with unconfessed mortal sin) are “guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27). Similarly, St. John Chrysostom, in his Homilies on First Corinthians, wrote that unworthy receipt of Holy Communion “makes the thing appear a slaughter and no longer a sacrifice.” Consequently, one might say that the unworthy recipient is guilty of the murder of Christ.

This is a harsh reality, not the language of a participation trophy. The Church, rather, contemplates a thoughtful and contemplative reception of Jesus, only after a thorough examination of conscience and confession of any serious sin (CCC 1456-1457).  This is commensurate with the radical claims of our Catholic faith, that when we receive the Eucharist, we consume the bread of eternal life (Jn 6:47-51). Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (Jn 11:25-26, emphasis added). We must aid our fallen brothers and sisters in answering Jesus’ question with a resounding “Amen!”

We want to persevere through difficulty. We want to pursue something worthwhile, something of meaning—something transcendent. Even if some of us don’t know it yet, we want to meet Jesus in confession and then receive Him fully and worthily in the Eucharist. So we need people just like you and me—and like our bishops, priests, and deacons—to challenge our fallen-away brothers and sisters, to call them to repentance. By God’s grace, they can be the heroes of their own stories. We need to remind them of something that they’ve buried deep down and another that they may have forgotten. First, that sin is real and pervasive and harmful. And second, that there’s hope and victory and grace, and so much more, and it all starts in the line for the Church’s field hospital: the confessional.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Avatar photo


Brandon M. Grysko is joyfully married to his wife of almost 10 years, Bridget, and they have 4 children. A cradle Catholic born and raised in the Detroit area, Brandon was lukewarm for years until the bold preaching at his local parish, combined with the efforts of internet evangelists, lit a fire in his heart for the Catholic faith. Brandon is a full-time practicing attorney in the Metro-Detroit area. Brandon is well known for his work as legal counsel for trusts and charitable organizations, and he is on the board of nonprofit organizations like Protect Life Michigan and the Livonia Chamber of Commerce. When he’s not chasing kids or volunteering at his parish, Brandon studies theology and scripture at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage