Like many people growing up, I believed in God but didn’t have a strong personal faith. I didn’t pray much outside of church, except before mealtimes and in special emergencies. I never read the Bible on my own. I didn’t know it was possible to have a relationship with God. For me, God was a loving, wise, but distant being—a sort of cosmic grandfather who was there when I needed him but otherwise remote.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had embraced what sociologists call “moralistic therapeutic deism.” It’s today’s most popular view of God. This view holds that God is concerned with two basic things: making sure we behave the right way (moralistic) and helping us feel better about ourselves (therapeutic). The last term (deism) adds that God does not personally interact with the world but only pops in on rare occasions, otherwise content with letting the universe run on its own.
In college, as I studied and learned more about God, I discovered two glaring problems with that view. First, it doesn’t demand anything of us, and second, it offers nothing significant. For the moralistic therapeutic deist, God is just there, without consequence or reaction. And that sort of God didn’t compel me at all.
People don’t want mediocrity. All of us—you, me, everyone—we want greatness; we want excellence. For evidence, ask yourself this question: are you happy with where you are, or do you wish were a better person? Are there virtues you wish you had, or vices you wish you didn’t? When we’re serious with ourselves, we know, deep down, the answer is yes. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “We men and women are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea.” Catholics have a word for this seasickness: sin. It’s a spiritual disease and we’re all infected.
Catholicism isn’t the only religion that promises a cure. But Christianity offers a radically different answer. It says that the only way to become free of sin is not by doing something but by accepting God’s forgiveness, which was achieved through Jesus’ death on the Cross. Jesus died to heal us of our sickness.
But how do we receive that forgiveness? Christians have different answers to this question. For most Protestant Christians, the answer is to pray to Jesus, privately with a sincere heart, and then he’ll forgive you. It’s quick, easy, and painless to receive forgiveness.
But there are a couple problems with this solution. I recognized one of them while Protestant myself, namely, that it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you aren’t really forgiven (when you actually are) or that you are forgiven (when you actually aren’t).
That leads to the second problem—a problem that Catholicism solves: it’s not what Jesus prescribed. Jesus never suggested that people could accept his forgiveness through private prayers. Instead, he turned to his disciples, giving them authority to forgive sins in his name. Obviously this would require people verbalizing their sins to the apostles or their emissaries.
To me, this all made sense. Through this practice we could know with objective certainty when we were forgiven because, after confessing our sins and expressing remorse, the apostle, who has God-given authority to forgive sins, could verify that the sin had indeed been forgiven—no feelings, no guessing, and no waffling back and forth. The sin was objectively gone.
As it turns out, Jesus’ way of forgiving sins is far better than the private prayer method I wrestled with as a Protestant. It brings objectivity to the equation and an assurance that you really are forgiven.
The Font of Forgiveness
I remember the first time I went to confession. It was during my last semester in college, at the end of my long study of Catholicism. I felt drawn toward confession, even while it confused me. A few friends told me how refreshing they felt after sharing their sins with the priest, which struck me as odd.
So one afternoon, I summoned the courage and headed to a nearby parish. There was a line of people waiting inside, inching forward. When it was my turn, I still hadn’t decided what to do. I knew a few sins for which I needed forgiveness, but I wasn’t sure about others. Still, when it was my turn, I opened the confessional door and walked in.
The priest nicely welcomed me. I explained that it was my first time going to confession, but he said that wasn’t a problem and that I shouldn’t worry—he would walk me through everything. He first asked me to confess my sins, all that came to mind. At first this was hard and unnatural. But as each sin rolled from my mind to my tongue, I felt strangely lightened. The priest never displayed shock or repulsion. In fact, the whole time he kept his eyes shut and his head bowed down, deep in concentration. I never once felt as if he was judging me for my sins or measuring me up. I had the real sense that he was on my side, that as God’s representative, he was praying alongside me for my forgiveness.
When I had finished my litany, he nodded his head and offered me a few words of counsel, including an act of penance (typically, this will be a prayer or some charitable work meant to counteract the sins just confessed). Finally, he invited me to offer an act of contrition. I didn’t know what that meant, but he explained it was an expression of my sorrow for committing those sins and an intention, with God’s help, not to commit them again. The act of contrition ensures that in order to be truly forgiven, you have to both be genuinely sorry for your sins and have a firm resolution not to commit them again. If you lack one or the other conviction, the sins remain unforgiven.
I awkwardly gave my own act of contrition and then the priest extended his hands over my head and spoke these words:
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself, and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
It’s hard to express how liberating that felt.
God gave his priests the remarkable authority to forgive sins in his name, offering penitents an objective way to know his forgiveness. Sometimes that experience is amplified by good feelings, as it was at my first confession. Other times it’s not, as I later learned. Feelings of freedom and weightlessness can become dulled over time. Nevertheless, there’s almost nothing that can match the comfort of knowing, objectively, that when you go to confession in good faith and hear the words of absolution from a priest, you’re assured that your sins are wiped clean.
Extreme Demand, Extreme Mercy
This is what warmed me up to the Church’s admittedly strong moral demands. The Church’s standards are high. Catholicism isn’t out to just create good people, those who are morally mediocre. It aims to accomplish Jesus’ own goal: for us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
The Church wants perfection for us. No, the Church demands we strive for the moral ideal, whether we attain it in this life or the next.
That may sound harsh and impossible, but that’s precisely why confession is so needed. Coupled with these extreme moral demands is the Church’s equally extreme mercy. No matter how many times we miss the mark, or come up short, the Church is ready to offer God’s forgiveness and pick us up so we can try again.
Stop for a moment and consider your own life. Have you done something bad, maybe years ago, that you still drag along? Something that still haunts you and makes you feel guilty? Maybe you betrayed a friend or spouse, or hurt someone in serious ways. Perhaps you’ve lived selfishly or used people for your own gain. Whatever the case, the Church wants to free you from that guilt. It’s the only place to find true and complete healing.
You might also try to just lower your moral standards and pretend the wrong things you’ve done weren’t really so bad, that in the end, you’re basically a pretty good person. But this doesn’t work in the long run either. What you need is to stop playing those games. You need the one real antidote to sin, the one way to vanquish your guilt, and the one chance to make amends and receive real and lasting forgiveness. You need the extreme mercy found in confession. In the years since becoming Catholic, I’ve had the joy of seeing many people who stayed away from confession for decades return to the sacrament. One man hadn’t been in over seventy years! Yet when they return, ask forgiveness for their sins, and hear the priest speak those words of mercy—”I absolve you of all your sins”—they leave walking on clouds and often in tears. Their lives are never the same. Whether you’re not Catholic and have never been to confession, or perhaps a former Catholic who hasn’t been in years, stop searching for false solutions, and find the objective relief that only this encounter can provide.
The Church is not an evil force out to condemn the world. It’s a beacon of mercy, offering pardon and peace even to the worst failures among us. If that’s not good, I don’t know what is.
This excerpt of Why I Am Catholic (and You Should Be Too) is reprinted with permission of Ave Maria Press.