You have no doubt heard stories about folks who stayed away from confession for a quarter century or more. Well, my story is one of avoiding dental care for 26 years, give or take a decade. One night at a charity event my wife introduced me to a student parent who happened to be a dentist—a gentle, petite practitioner who owns a very successful practice on our side of town. So I swallowed hard and picked up the phone for an appointment. It took about a year with extractions and partials and caps and the like, but she got me back to normal and has kept me there for seven years. Today I spend more time during my visits with her associate but back in the “construction phase” a deep and abiding trust bond developed between us.
As a therapist I have had people tell me they waited months or years and were terrified to talk to me.(Sadly, one such prospective client called just recently and I had to break the news that my practice is closed.) In my psychotherapeutic profession, treatment tends to be more intermittent or one-time, compared to primary physicians and dentists who administer regular health care. (Therapists, alas, cannot bill insurance companies for routine check-ups as a rule.) But I did have many patients who would return every few years for refocusing or changes in their life circumstances or flare-ups of old griefs or mood disorders, and the bonds of safety and trust become well developed.
Ideally this is the kind of relationship we hope to arrive at in the Sacrament of Penance. Within the boundaries of the Confessional a penitent is free to discuss the moral breakdowns in one’s life, the circumstances of those sins, and ongoing consequences and the need for reparation, when possible, to those who have been injured. In truth, the “Seal of Confession” is more absolute than the confidentiality of mental health practitioners, who must act to protect minors, the elderly, and others in imminent physical harm, as well as a patient with the intent and means of imminent suicide. It has long been a practice that the Catholic confessional is sacrosanct.
When I would preach on the need for individual confession, in fact, this was one of my strongest arguments. The walls of the confessional are inviolate. A penitent need not fear confessing anything. I would joke—although it was in fact true—that I had “heard everything before” and was immune to shock from anything that anyone would tell me. I had on a number of Christmas and Easter seasons heard confessions in the downtown confessional “service churches” of major cities in the northeast, and it was not unusual to hear the confessions of “Tony Soprano” or “Pauli Walnuts” or “Christopher Moltisani” or “Johnny Sacks.” (These are fictional names from the HBO series “The Sopranos;” I feel a pressing need to emphasize that, lest you were getting nervous.) If you watched the show, you can imagine what I am talking about in terms of confessional matter. Appropriate penances presented something of a challenge to this green confessor.
But the longer I was a pastor, I began to realize that the problem was not so much confidentiality fears as what mental health professionals call “a dual relationship.” In short, I was the pastor and I was the confessor. I believe that this creates problems in the confessional process. In the 1980’s to be sure, and in parishes like my own today, the ideal pastor was one who became as close and accessible to his people as possible. In my first pastorate I had 250 families and it was pretty easy to get to know them well and to visit them in their homes. I played on our parish softball team (poorly, I confess); Bishop Grady, of happy memory, told us pastors to always try to attend wedding receptions. And of course over the years I acquired an outstanding staff of lay professionals and priests who would frequently have supper together at the parish house.
When a pastor is close to his people in such frequent and familial or supervisory settings, is there an unintended but real (and very natural) reluctance on the part of the parish family to seek a kind of healing intimacy from the pastor that is even more intense in some ways than the psychiatrist’s couch. (My assumption, of course, is that the Sacrament of Penance is celebrated with enough intensity and candor to do some good.) Mental health professionals are drilled in the inherent dangers of dual relationships—not just the sexual ones, which is what most people immediately think—but many others, such as doing business with patients, socializing outside the office, having patients as students in college or other learning environments. A therapist who hires a patient as, say, a receptionist needs to have his head examined. What happens in job evaluations and salary negotiations?
With fewer priests and more one priest parishes, this kind of stress may become more acute, or it may lead to a superficial communication in the confessional that simply meets the bare minimum of liturgical requirement for absolution. One thing I attempted as a pastor was to make other priests available to my parishioners for confession and let them know in advance. I would say, though, that those of you who work closely with your priests may wish to address your confessional situation in your own way. Perhaps you may want to cultivate the custom of having a regular confessor in a neighboring parish, school, or monastery or religious community. In the best of all worlds, it may give you distance to examine your conscience regarding your own ministerial qualities and provide the freedom to confess what might be very hard to say to your boss.