Confession seems a bizarre and illogical act for neutral observers: as an example, after I commit a murder, by simply telling somebody else of this my responsibility vanishes and everything goes on as if nothing had happened. This happens on the level of a phenomenon, so agnostics or atheists can be rightfully suspicious that this is one more tool used by the church to extract information from its ‘dependents’. However, confession is more complex than can be described at the level of a phenomenon. It is an internal (invisible, psychic) process connected to the church emphasizing psychological functions before behavior (focusing on what happens in the soul instead of what happens in the visible, physical world).
Let us look more closely at the theological background of confession in Catholic religion. Man has always been born as a sinner, for that was Adam and Eve’s covenant with God when they ate the apple. This is seemingly unjust: what has the decision made by two people thousands of years ago to do with me, even if – as “everyone” comes from Adam and Eve – I admit my descent from them. This culpability is canceled by baptism, a chance given to us by God which, if taken, enables us to stand with a clean slate (soul) before God. Therefore, baptized children do not have sins. Moreover, as it is intention that counts, as long as the child does not purposefully perform an evil act he cannot sin.
However, as soon as the child begins to make conscious decisions about his acts, he can be in one of two conditions: sinner or sinless. Sinners go to hell when they die, the sinless go to heaven. So far, it seems clear. Then, what happens when someone sins? Religious or otherwise, the sinner experiences compunction. Psychologists have various explanations for this:
It is certain that, if somebody becomes weak and does not change the Self-expanded option, then he becomes Self-narrowed: he is anxious about the consequences of his act, afraid of its coming to light, and in general he feels bad. The main problem with Self-expansion called compunction is that – thanks to the function of human memory – it never ends. It fades with time but repeatedly returns, and can also exert effects that cause illness. If anxiety escalates, it can become permanent, and hinder attainment of mental balance. In “Crime and Punishment”, Dostoevsky described how sin can even lead to suicide, more or less genuinely but, above all, suggestively.
Catholicism answers this with its theology, or in the guise of theology. It is a historic ‘given’ that priests are not ordinary men; they have a unique relationship with God following their ordination and vow that they are his servant. This means nothing other than the opening of a communications channel to God; anything related in the confessional is told directly to God. Since they are only a channel of communication in this rôle, they have no right to retain, talk about or imply anything to do with this information. That is the so-called “Seal of Confession”, the priest-penitent privilege that is recognized by the laws of many countries. In other words, the priest cannot pass on whatever he has heard in the confessional (the small box-like construction with two doors to two compartments separated by a grid, in which people can be heard, but not seen or identified visually, by the priest) as it is not himself who is being told or informed to, but the Lord. Since the Lord cannot answer directly, the priests answer for him; according to Catholicism, the Lord suggests the answer to the priest.
Therefore, it may be that someone hurts somebody else by thinking selfishly and, finding a Self-narrowing solution to a problem; for example, he is short of cash and so steals a wallet. A tension then arises in him, which might remain with him until his death, even if he returns the wallet and money, as certain (negative) elements become embedded in his Self, which narrow it. He goes to the confessional, which guarantees complete anonymity, and he relates his act to the servant of God.
What happens in the confessional from a psychological viewpoint? Somebody shares a secret and relives an event. Sharing a secret decreases the tension (Self-narrowing) caused by the secret, according to how many people we tell and to whom we tell it (how important those people are). If I tell a secret only to my wife and my best friend (who will not hurt or betray me) it will barely decrease the tension, as there are virtually no consequences. If I tell the police it might have serious consequences as the police represent society; in effect, I tell everyone. In many instances, the police are not interested in the issue, or analyze it only on the levels of the scale of the act and physical reality of its consequences; it is not their duty to deal with psychological motives. However, sharing the secret with a priest is perfect, in that: I share my secret with “the universe”, who will understand it in the way I want it to be understood. God only listens to me, and theoretically ‘reads my thoughts’; we need not go into detail and bother with protracted questioning and answering, for ‘perfect’ communication takes place. Psychologically, I have the experience of saying those words used to share the secret; I had to say “I stole the wallet”. However, it only matters to me, as God is “all knowing”; he knows that I stole the wallet, the reason why, and what it meant to me. As well as sharing, the key is reliving.
The effect of words is many times surprising, as when we put something into words, when we digitize analogous information (words store information in digital format, while our emotions are stored analogous). During this process the information is involuntarily restructured (so called: reframed) and a new cognitive schema emerges which, until that point was merely a set of acts and sensations with an emotional tone. (He had had the opportunity to talk to himself about stealing the wallet, but the final form of the cognitive schema emerges only by writing it down or telling it to somebody.)
Let me have a detour in connection with the process of putting something into words: it is similar to describing the moment or event of death.
We could observe in old times that, if somebody died, their close relatives or friends tried to describe their bereavement by relating to others the experiences and memories to which they are being subjected. Initially, the words used in this may have been incoherent, unintelligible, as they are emotionally saturated or the words themselves exert strong emotions. Then – so to say, with practice – the story becomes increasingly structured, Emotions recede from the cognitive schema and the historical core of the cognitive schema becomes clearer and more understandable. The person begins to focus upon the quality of communication to share the story, and emotions become slowly detached from the events and take their own, separate place. This process is supported in the Jewish tradition of acquaintances of the deceased visiting the house to meet the bereaved family. At such times, we give the bereaved the opportunity to repeat their story about the deceased as many times as they need to, to put the emotional load of this event to its place, and distract the focus from the event.
The next most important aspect is so-called ‘sincere regret’. Namely, that it is not enough to say automatically “I stole a wallet”, but we have to experience the negative nature of the event and plan how to avoid making the same mistake again. The whole story happens between the person and God: no-one (apart from the priest) knows what sin encumbers the soul of that person. Nevertheless, even the priest cannot determine whether the person regrets – or not – what he did. Moreover, it is not the priest’s duty to judge this. As nobody calls him to account – or could call him – everyone understands that confession only serves to make the penitent feel – or seek to become – better.
There are two further aspects related to confession:
The act of communion (the priest placing the ‘body’ of Jesus in the mouth of the person) is the turning point towards Self-expansion. As the wafer-thin host disintegrates in the mouth of the person, the possibility of a new life opens, by being able to start over our everyday life without sin (assuming that he genuinely regretted his sins and carried out the act of penitence).
The Catholic Church is often presented as authoritarian, which is true from many viewpoints. However, as with most religions, the Catholic Church was established principally to conserve the essence of the religion and to survive. However, the service of confession in its churches is considerably liberal and democratic, and it respects – and builds upon – the function of psyche. Why do I say this? The confession/communion is on one hand a mental antiseptic (preventing mental illnesses, fighting against anxiety, and soul distorting effects), which can preserve the mental balance of the frail and easily sinning people who could break down if confessing to serious sins, even if they still have the strength to change to the ‘right’ way. The first step in using the opportunity of confession is to accept that there is a higher entity that has power over us. It cannot work without this. If someone is so Self-narrowed (evil) that he is incapable of uniting with his Environment by Self-expansion, he will not go to confession in the first place. It is hard to imagine Stalin or Hitler, while sending further millions of people to death, rushing to priests to confess.
In addition, too great a Self-expansion also does not allow confession: if I am so big that I feel that I am a king and everyone serves me then I will not accept someone to mediate between me and God; I want to talk to him directly, not through a priest.
That is why I cannot imagine that Napoleon would go to confess. Someone has to be in a normal state to start on this path: neither too Self-narrowed (in religious terms, he “has lost his connection with God”) nor too Self-expanded (contemptuous).
However, the above mentioned conditions are not exclusive: the opportunity is open, even for the greatest murderers, to return to the righteous path, and be able to attain Self-expansion again. The church or Jesus laid the decision of trying to return to the righteous path in the hands of the individual. To illustrate this, consider that there are no control points for outsiders: nobody can control a mass-murderer’s internal (soul) processes. If someone only simulates the whole process and meanwhile thinks about how he will cheat his wife, then he will not be different from someone who genuinely regretted their sins and who will be a better (more Self-expanded) person the next day onwards. This notwithstanding that he may speak in the confessional exactly the same way, kneel in prayer (whether he prays in the meantime or thinks about the next atrocity is something nobody else will know) and take the host in his mouth.
This being without control delegates the decision to the deepest part of the person. We have to square our conscience with nobody else, so usually most people would rather not go to confession than attend and apparently confess, but not genuinely.
These Self-repair mechanisms work not only on an individual level but also have an effect on communities. During confession, people will, more or less, commit themselves to changing their bad habits and to try to take next decisions so that their Self should stay/become expanded (e.g. help other people; behaving in an unselfish way; avoiding the use of aggression). This approach also has a positive effect on those people who do not believe, or who do not attend confession, in two ways:
Before assuming that I have an overly idealistic opinion of confession, I must note its limitations. These arise from:
Apart from these limitations, I believe that confession is a fortunate and useful institution, which has probably saved the mental health of millions of people (think about the adolescents who repeated compunction) and improved mankind. However, the intention of this detour was not to make a judgment, but to demonstrate a psychological phenomenon that is interesting from the viewpoint of our FIPP model.
Finally: in Judaism, forgiveness and regret are not connected to the mass, but to a celebration (Yom Kippur) when everybody apologizes to God for the sins they have committed against others, and forgives those who have sinned against him. At the same time, everybody apologizes to everyone they know, and everybody has to forgive everybody who apologizes to them.