“Your post answers many of my questions concerning penance. I was wondering, how detailed does one have to be about their sins when they confess them?”
This really depends upon the nature of your sin. In recent times, an emphasis has been placed on making confession more like spiritual counselling. When the priest asks you how many times you’ve committed a sin, the point is really whether the sin is a pattern in your life. You can confess general sins such as lust or obscene language without describing your lust or the types of words you use in detail. The most important thing is to identify what you are doing wrong in your spiritual life, and to lay this before God. On the other hand, you shouldn’t try to dodge around the issue in confession or omit sins you are embarassed about because this defeats the entire purpose of the sacrament. You have to be entirely truthful with both yourself and God.
“I can understand why Catholics might have a problem going to confession. The reasons are probably the same as why Protestants do not do them. However, the problem is that when we abandon the private confession and rely only on the congregational prayers of confession and pardon we neglect the need for forgiveness of the personal confession. And because our joys and concerns are made publicly in service, it is easy to pass on wanting to ask for forgiveness because, even though people are not supposed to, there is still the feeling of others judging and looking upon a person repenting of sin with shame. It’s not that I feel that the joys and concerns shouldn’t be a part of the service, but that there is still a need for personal confession.”
I agree absolutely. It is a natural tendency of people to want to gloss over their sins. People want to think that they are not so bad as the person next to them. In a way, you could say that this amounts to a sort of ‘works righteousness’ whereby people lose track of faith because they are constantly trying to make themselves feel better by comparing their deeds with others. Saint Maximos the Confessor said “He who busies himself with the sins of others, or judges his brother on suspicion, has not yet even begun to repent or to examine himself so as to discover his own sins…” Personal confession forces us to see the stark realities of our sinfulness.
Another important thing to note about confession is that the sacrament provides grace for resisting future sin. I have found that after confession I am often able to resist sins that prior to confession I was falling into. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the fact that you don’t want to have to confess those sins again. There is an old Catholic saying which goes something like “see to it that you aren’t making the same confession your entire life”. If we continue to commit the same sins after confession then the practice is of little value to us.
“Certainly, a conviction in the heart is a natural reaction to sin, but one of the problems Protestantism and its branches of Fundamentalism and the Baptist sects can have is that all are able to point out sin, but some are unable to deal with personal sin and how to be forgiving to those wanting to repent.”
If we can not forgive those who want to repent then we have fallen into the sin of condemnation. In Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans (Chapter 2: Verses 1-5) he says: 1 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things. 3 Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
Failing to forgive those who have repented is a severe affront to God’s grace. It is like smacking Him in the face, detesting the gift of forgiveness He has given to us.
“For this reason does the minister you speak about from the book ‘The Scarlet Letter’ hide his dark secret. After all, he is a minister and, in the days of the scarlet letter when they would mark such people for the sins they committed with a red letter, the minister in question would be considered an anathima.”
Yes, that is certainly a major reason for him keeping the secret. One of the things he convinces himself of is that his ministry will be useless if he confesses, as in fact it would’ve been because the Puritans ostracized such people. This is why confession in the Church is entirely private and confidential. In the sacrament of confession the penitent has a priviledge whereby whatever they say in the confessional dies there. The priest is never permitted under any circumstances to reveal anything a penitent confesses. Supposing under State law they were required to reveal a confession as evidence, a Priest is bound by their vows to refuse, even to the point of death. In the confessional, the Priest is supposed to be impersonal, a stand in for God. After confession the sin is blotted out as if it never happened, “though your sins be like scarlet”… well, you get the idea.
“The scarlet letter was an extreme use of the Pauline view that those who had done what is an abomination should be ‘handed over to Satan’, as in the spiritual judgement that Paul advised in I Cor. 5.”
I don’t think the Scarlet Letter was a proper application of Paul’s injunction. Saint Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, is referring to an obstinate sinner. He later refers to obstinate heretics in the same way. A penitent who confesses sin is entirely different from such people. I believe in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks about reinstating the sinner to the life of grace.
Herein lies a major problem of the Calvinist system, as carried out by the Puritans. It seems that the Puritans allowed for neither forgiveness, nor for grace. How can grace operate in a system where confessed sinners are to be branded forever without hope for being reinstated? Again, this is like the system of Law under which the Jews of the Old Testament were afflicted. Sinners, tax collecters, the unclean, ad infinitum were rejected. The Law pronounced judgement on such people and there could be no mercy. The difference in Christianity is that if people seek God’s mercy they can receive forgiveness through the blood of Jesus by confession of sin. The Calvinistic Puritans seem to reject this most basic part of the Gospel by permanently branding the sinner.
“However, because the minister did repress and not fully confess his sins, he became an anathema by his hypocrisy in preaching a holy life, but not living in the fullness of that life by being unforgiving and coveteous about his sins.”
This is exactly what happened. The minister made sub-conscious efforts at confession by speaking about his sinfulness in a generic way during his sermons, but this only made his congregants think he was all the more holy. In the system of confession though, public humiliation is not necessary. As I’ve said before, the sin is blotted out in the confessional. Priests do the same thing. A Priest is obliged to confess their sins to another priest. It wouldn’t be necessary for them to air their dirty laundry before all of their parishioners and thereby stain their name.
“I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be punishment, like pennance, the punishment should fit the crime. And once what has been considered a fitting way to repent has been fulfilled, then there should not be judgement passed on that person.”
I agree entirely. Part of the confession process is restitution for the act committed. If you stole from someone, then in addition to confessing you have to return the property. If you murder, you must confess the sin but also turn yourself into the police. In the case of sins which harm only your relationship with God, you essentially make restitution by ceasing to commit the sin. I do not think of penance as a punishment. In fact, I am quite certain that Church teaching does not consider penance a punishment at all, though I will research it if you like. The purpose of penances and indulgences are to bring graces upon your newly immaculate soul. Through penances, you obtain additional graces; giving thanks to God for His forgiveness, fortifying yourself against future sin, taking the steps to correct the abuse or to strengthen your spiritual constitution. Remember, we do not and cannot obtain forgiveness through a penance. We must rely solely on the blood of Jesus for forgiveness. If punishment is necessitated by the gravity of the sin/crime, this is seperate from penance. Concerning what kind of punishments should be administered for private sin, this is an interesting consideration which perhaps we can elaborate upon in the future. Perhaps you have some other questions, or I may have insufficiently explained something. Let me know. You bring up many good points though, which I believe really get to the heart of the Gospel and confession. I’ll leave you with some of the early Church writings on this topic. In the Didache it says “Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . . On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure” (Didache 4:14, 14:1 [A.D. 70]).
“[Regarding confession, some] flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness” (Repentance 10:1 [A.D. 203]).
“[A final method of forgiveness], albeit hard and laborious [is] the remission of sins through penance, when the sinner . . . does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine, after the manner of him who say, ‘I said, “To the Lord I will accuse myself of my iniquity”’” (Homilies on Leviticus 2:4 [A.D. 248]).
Hope this helps.