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Queen of Proofs


It was a talk show -- you don't really need a name because there's only one talk show and it's on 168 hours a week -- and banality was reaching a crescendo.

The host was badgering his guest to confess to some domestic sin, only confess and your life will sparkle again. The studio audience chimed in with exhortations and catcalls. Soon enough, the guest crumbled into an admission and was rewarded with some Kleenex for his sobs. As he wiped, the host beamed and the audience cheered.

Mission accomplished. The only people who seem to be eschewing confession these days are Catholics and criminals, the very folks once thought to need it most. We have become what Michel Foucault calls "confessing animals."

Remember Monica Lewinsky? We as a culture badly wanted Clinton to confess and he, Clinton-like, desperately tried to confess without actually confessing anything. He even assembled a photo-op full of clergymen and together they prayed for forgiveness for a sin that no one conceded had actually happened.

Eventually, we as a nation seemed to agree that we had heard enough (or not heard enough) and turned it over to the lawyers. These days, few misdeeds have details so repulsive as to turn the American nose away, but the man from Hope found a way.

We want confession all right -- it's some sort of weird validation -- but we don't want penance. The au courant philosophy seems to be that the act of confession is mandatory and also is sufficient punishment.

This philosophy has quite naturally served to undercut the effectiveness of confessions in criminal cases. Confession is called the "Queen of Proofs," yet we have always been a bit suspicious of them. Maybe it's our collective memory of the Inquisition, with its dark cellars and hooded interrogators who believed confession is voluntary. If we need thumbscrews to remind us of our voluntariness, so be it.

Actually, the Inquisition required that any confession obtained under torture on Monday must be repeated without torture on Tuesday. If you recanted, however, Wednesday would probably be eventful.

Which brings us back to that old theological standby, the Fourth Lateran Council, one of the unchallenged highlights of 1215 AD. The Fourth mandated the sacrament of confession as an annual requirement among members of the Roman church and thereby made the practice of confession a touchstone of our culture, part of the consciousness of believer and non-believer alike.

Before this, the admission of sins and expiation of them was a public matter. Fourth Lateran (and the invention of the confessional box 400 years later) made it all private, with the sinner anonymously professing fault to a priest sworn to secrecy and imposing a penance.

Modern life places no value on anything that costs no money, of course, so modern life had to come up with psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is confession without anonymity, which means we know whose name goes on the check. The check, incidentally, corresponds to the penance. Only the pain is longer.

My own cultural background dictated that I subject my own guilt to the mea culpas of the confessional. In later years, curious outsiders would sometimes want to know if confession eased or sharpened guilt. The answer is the usual one about depending on the individual. For those with scrupulous consciences, the ancient ritual could well have encouraged a kind of obsessive guilt. Fortunately, no one in my immediate circle appeared to be burdened by a scrupulous conscience.

The full process began with what was known as the examination of conscience. In this you sat in a pew and mentally totaled up the exact number of times you had transgressed against each of the Ten Commandments. Nothing could be left out or else the sacrament was invalid and your tongue would permanently turn of the color of over-ripe grapes.

Ordinary sins would be ordinarily described to the confessor, e.g. "I sassed my parents three times since my last confession." But sins of a certain type were usually cloaked in formality; e.g. "I sinned against the Ninth Commandment twenty-eight times." The Ninth was the one dealing with impure thoughts and unaided impure actions. After a certain age, it was a popular sin.

An old tenet of Roman law was cogitationis poenam nemo emeret or "No man can be punished for his thought." Well, we could! I recall challenging our homeroom nun with the query that if mentally consenting to a sin was as damning as the sin itself, well then, why not opt for the real thing? I thought it was a brilliant theological argument, but it only netted me banishment to the cloakroom till lunch.

After examining our consciences, it was time to choose a confessor. Now we boys often argued over whether the priest could guess well at your identity. What if he recognized your voice? You would be like the Joycean hero Stephen Dedalus: "Shame covered him wholly like fine glowing ashes falling continually. To say it in words! His soul, stifling and helpless, would cease to be."

We could always rely on the secrecy of the confessional, which Mother Church assured us had many times been preserved by the blood of its priests. Around this time, there was an Alfred Hitchcock movie out named I Confess, starring Montgomery Clift and Karl Maldon. The plot was too Hitchcocky for me then, but the part that stuck was that the murderer had revealed his murder to Father Clift and was going to be forever protected by the "seal of confession."

Well do I remember choosing a confessor the first time I had a major ("mortal") sin to confess. Father Powers had the reputation of being both shell-shocked and dipsomaniacal, which described several adults in my orbit and seemed a good choice. The confessant ahead of me was the old-maid type and suddenly I heard -- the entire church heard -- Powers bellow: "That's not a sin! There are people out there with real sins! Don't waste my time!"

Not wanting to waste his time either, I swiftly sidestepped to Father Kelly's confessional.

Father Kelly was born soon after the Fourth Lateran Council. I quickly decided to turn a sacrament into a hearing test.

"Bless me father, for I have sinned," I began loudly, then dropped to half-volume. Now I would hide the big sin among many little ones. "I told four lies, forgot my night prayers three times, (fill in mortal sin here), was mean to my sister twice ..."

At the end, he gave me the puny penance of three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys. I grinned as I stepped out of the confessional. Absolution cheap at twice the price.

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