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What Catholic Confession Is Meant To Do And How It Goes Wrong

It has been observed that Catholics have a tendency towards excessive guilt, in the same way that Hindu practice devolves towards something close to OCD.

Like a lot of religious practices, the eye of someone familiar with actual spiritual cultivation practices can see what they were intended to do. Rosary practice and bajans, for example, are obvious forms of meditations (Hindus haven’t forgotten that, Catholics often do.)

If you’re riven with guilt or shame, you can’t pass beyond certain points in spiritual practice. A mind which doesn’t “let go” and move freely is an absolute barrier to progress, and as the Buddha noted, spirituality is about freedom. Being hounded by negative emotions is not spiritual.

This is one reason (though not the only reason) why almost all paths emphasize moral development at the start of the journey. If you don’t do wrong things, you don’t feel bad about them. It’s easier to avoid problems of guilt and shame than to fix them.

That said, I’ve never met anyone who never did anything which might be considered wrong, and other than psychopaths and certain types of enlightened people, everyone feels shame and guilt occasionally, and often without any or much justification.

If people are to be happy, forget enlightened or spiritually advanced, they need to be able to put guilt and shame aside.

Confession: where you tell your sins to someone, they tell you what to do to expiate your sins, and then they say God has forgiven you, is a pretty bright idea and it works for a lot of people.

But often it goes wrong. People start looking for things to be ashamed and guilty. Emphasis on examining oneself for bad actions, thoughts and feelings leads to excessive feelings of guilt and a treadmill. Instead of getting over it, people wallow in it. I suspect that for many the lows followed by the highs of relief after confession are like a merry-go-round of feeling, and rather addictive and the Church often makes it worse by its emphasis on perfectly understandable feelings and thoughts as bad.

This isn’t a total diss: studies generally find that Evangelicals, Buddhists and Catholics are the happiest faith followers and happier than secular folks. But every religion has modes of failure. (Evangelicals, with their idea of salvation by Faith Alone have a failure mode of being horribly evil people.)

If we aren’t aware of the failure mode of a faith and of its specific practices then we can easily fall into them. Confession is good, if done with a mind to its benefits, but not if it is treated as an idol: it’s done for a reason, and if it is causing harm to someone rather than relieving them, it has failed.

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  1. If people are to be happy… they need to be able to put guilt and shame aside.
    This also applies socially. A society filled with people who can’t put guilt aside is often a society that perpetually keeps making the same mistakes, and inflicting the same harms over and over.
    People refuse to even consider an action might be harmful because to do so would mean the potential of facing their own guilt.

    People start looking for things to be ashamed and guilty. Emphasis on examining oneself
    Actions performed individually is a drop in the ocean compared to social wide actions when it comes to bad/evil actions. This is the problem with emphasizing “oneself” it’s a distraction from the actually problem.

    not if it is treated as an idol

    Examples of treating something as an idol having bad consequences:
    Doctor Ignaz Semmelweis argued and showed that washing hands saved lives. The medical community in response literally beat him to death.
    When Dr. Bernard Lown tried to do a study to see if bed rest was killing heart patients he was called a “Nazi” Luckily he was able to eventually do his study which showed that yep bed rest was killing millions of people.

  2. Z

    I’d say that some of the worst people I have met are Catholic and I think it’s because of the confession racket allows them to pay such a small price for f*cking people over. What kind of a deterrent is saying ten Hail Marys and ten Graces or whatever (which, in my limited experience in the confessional booth, was all that I was ever asked to do)? If you truly believe God forgives you that easily, then why not sin big? And if you believe that anything you do to others is only between God and you, then why not f*ck people over?

    Mind you that since I was raised a Catholic I therefore met more of them than most folks would. I would also say though, I find Christians who aren’t Catholic, as a whole, better people than Catholics and I believe it is because they are more focused on their deeds than Catholics because the worst of the Catholics basically game the confession racket.

    I also believe that confession also encourages people being fake and two-faced because they play feeling very sorry for their sins and that they sincerely mean every word of every Grace and Hail Mary prayer they say and how painful the whole process is to them when a part of them is laughing inside at how little they had to pay for what they did.


    P.S. I wonder if some Catholics go priest shopping for their confessions like some folks go jurisdiction or judge shopping for lawsuits? Oh man, I know this priest down at that church on the south side of Main Street by the YMCA and I told him about about a whole slew of shit I done wrong and I walked out of there doing only twenty Hail Mary’s and ten Graces. Just leave the man a twenty in the donation jar and he good.

  3. DMC

    To actually get Absolution of the sin in question, one must demonstrate sincere repentance in the form of making things right with any parties damaged by the sin. If you are to be absolved of adultery(for instance) one would have to tell one’s spouse and seek their personal forgiveness as well.

  4. I’d say that some of the worst people I have met…

    Are the ones who do horrible things with a smile and polite manners. Surface appearances are a cultivated strategy.

    because of the confession racket allows them to pay such a small price for f*cking people over.

    Being horrible to people is no big deal because God forgives and God will make everything right. Praise the Lord! He is righteous so I don’t have to be!

    “How can you be moral if you don’t believe in God?”
    Consider the implications of this being viewed as insightful. Without punishment or personal reward many people will not only act horribly, but cannot even fathom that others wouldn’t do likewise.

  5. Z


    Thanks for the info. Yeah, my take might be overly simplistic since I do have very limited experience in the confession booth and it was all at an early age. There wasn’t anything that I confessed to that the priests didn’t just let me off for by assigning me some prayers.

    I’d say though that there does seem, to me, to be this belief amongst the most sociopathic of Catholics that they can do whatever they want and it is between God and them and the only explanation I can come up with is that they believe that confession absolves them of the damage they cause people even when they don’t right matters with the folks they harmed. I suppose that I don’t see how they could believe in God and do what they do and expect to go to heaven otherwise.

    I also got to mention that I think that I went to a Catholic church that was worse than most and more money oriented than most. In fact, one year they published how much each family gave in donations to the church the previous year. They gave you an envelope with your name on it to submit your donations in and they had kept track of it all. That only lasted one year though and I suspect it was because of some backlash.


    Never trust a smile!


  6. Eric Anderson

    This is the 12-steps in a nutshell Ian. And from the addiction recovery perspective, you’re absolutely correct in “the guilt and shame has to go” before progress can be made. That’s steps 4 and 5. A personal inventory that examines “my part” in all my resentments. Then 5, telling someone about it all. Then 9 going to. All those people and apologizing to them while acknowledging “my part” in the resentment with the person.

    It’s a liberating process, no doubt. One, I would suspect, many AA skeptics have been too chicken shit to embark on.

  7. Willy

    Interesting how this post turns up just when I’m discussing the devolving state of the evangelical movement with my aged theologian father.

    I’m not much of a guilty confessor. I’ve always avoided doing any of the major bad shit. Hiding half-full latex paint cans inside a dump load, sure. Lusting for women besides my wife, fine. Does it matter where I get my appetite as long as I eat at home? I don’t sweat the small stuff. I try to be one of the good guys. Sure, I make mistakes, but I don’t have anything major to confess.

    I must be one of the “blessed” we heard about in that Mount sermon, born naturally talented at getting whatever the hell kind of blessings Jesus was going on about. Those blessings sure as hell wasn’t the material stuff.

    What I’ve noticed is that increasing numbers of evangelicals do seem to have more they’ve been doing which is worth confessing, but they aren’t. Many are disregarding the “sheep and goats” Bible verses as some junk some libtard snuck into the Bible. I realized that if the Bible really is as all-true as evangelicals are supposing to believe, that those verses must mean something. It dawned on me that what’s probably being implied is that strong faith causes better behavior. In a universe full of laws which require amounts for other laws to function, a certain amount of faith is likely going to be required for salvation.

    That would make those verses a sort-of handy checklist to help one discern if the amount of faith one has is going to be enough. If you’ve been abusing the poor, then something inside you is still messed up and your faith isn’t enough. You’re gonna be a South Park Kenny, peacefully ascending to heaven and then Access Denied!

    But I am still open to the idea that the Bible was written as a way to help domesticate some humans, for material use by other humans, who never feel the need to confess anything.

  8. Feral Finster

    Not now, never been, no present intent of ever becoming Roman Catholic.

    That said, *most* of the Orthodox priests I have confessed to, in the US, UK, Poland, Russia and Ukraine did nothing of the sort. Rather, confession has typically been a free-form discussion of one’s spiritual state. At least one told me that he didn’t want a laundry list of my sins, unless that was what I wanted to talk about,

  9. Mark Level

    I was raised Catholic, but actually my parents were (thankfully) not that religious & only took us for socialization purposes, & after about 2 & a half years when there was a popular, young guitar playing Deacon who was their friend (this was the 1970s), they became twice a year Catholics, Easter & Xmas. I rejected Catholicism my freshman year of college when I was 17. I read a news article about a Church in France that they claimed was transported (by flying!) from Palestine when the evil “Saracens” approached it. I said to myself I want nothing to do with an institution with such insane superstitions.

    Recently I’ve been watching a 2011 French film called “House of Tolerance” about the lives of women imprisoned in a high-class Paris brothel in 1899-1900. It’s very languid, with one horrible instance of client violence early on . . . Anyway, one of the clients shared that he takes his sessions in the place to confession, & his regular priest is always delighted and jerks off inside the confessional booth while the client recounts his whoring escapades.

    Hating the body & sexuality is not healthy for anyone. At least back then, though, the priests evidently took out their frustrations privately, rather than by raping little boys. But that’s “progress”, I guess!

  10. bruce wilder

    The spiritually enlightened are worse than f* lawyers in their inability to engage with principles or follow consistently any single chain of logical argument.

    Oakchair starts out this thread asserting that “a society” in which many cannot “put guilt aside” is one which many keep making the same mistakes again and again and the turns around and asserts “People refuse to even consider an action might be harmful because to do so would mean the potential of facing their own guilt.” Agency disappears into “society” and people cannot “put guilt aside” in one sentence and cannot stand “facing their own guilt” in the next.

    Way to make sense!

    I was raised Catholic and as a callow youth enjoyed the whole guitar-playing priest/deacon thing. I have no insight at all into the “thinking” of reactionary Catholics. Explain Papa Doc Duvalier? Or Opus Dei? Sorry no clue.

    I watched a Rabbi on TikTok a few minutes ago explain that Americans (!) like 1940s Germans are inherently anti-semitic and he only realized this since October 7.

    Funny I just as recently realized Israeli Zionists are Nazi scum.

    My guilt and shame are mine and I am keeping them along with my sanity. Better that then becoming as deranged as that Rabbi or some child-molesting priest.

  11. someofparts

    Years ago in my reading someone suggested that the confessional, it’s imperfections notwithstanding, at least provided a concrete means for reminding people that spiritual work on oneself is a process that a person should keep working on day after day over our whole lifespans. The further suggestion was that the protestants threw the baby out with the bathwater when they abandoned this tradition.

    Personally, a faith community that encourages me to feel guilty seems like overkill. Just being born female in a male dominant culture has provided all the pressure to feel guilty anyone would ever need.

    Feminism turned out to be the escape route from socially imposed guilt and Quakers turned out to be the escape route from the spiritually imposed variety. Guilt is still a part of life, but only when I do things that any decent person should feel guilty about. I agree with what Willy said that just doing my best to be a good person generally seems to keep things balanced, because that way I mostly avoid behavior that I have to regret later.

  12. Bruce and everyone for that matter go try this experiment. Find a mirror and admit whatever guilts you have. Then obtain a microphone, go to a mall (yes I’m old, I know) and admit to society that same guilt. Which is easier? Which creates more tension and anxiety in you? What differences are there? Now imagine if the guilty action being admitting was one in which society not only didn’t view as wrong, but held as a virtue.

    Individual agency does dissipate and change inside of groups. There are entirely fields devoted to this concept. Ever hear of mob behavior? Cultural conceptions of agency? How about the capability approach? Marx’s materialism?

  13. Jan Wiklund

    Now, feeling guilt can be quite disastrous even if one is not religious. Look at Germany, for example, which as a nation feels such a guilt because their grandfathers killed a lot of Jews so they are prepared to kill a lot of Palestinians (or help killing, but that’s the same thing) just because they are feeling guilt.

    Or take these woke people who want us Europeans to feel guilt over what our ancestors (or some of our ancestors) did about slave-trafficking in the 18th century. What good would come out of that? Probably only ill-will.

    If one has caused shit, encourage something constructive. But let bygones be bygones. And let dead generations lie.

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