Project Canterbury

The Value of Confession
by Selden Peabody Delany
Dean of All Saints' Cathedral, Milwaukee

Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1914.


This particular argument in favor of confession was suggested by the newspaper report of a sermon preached by a Congregational minister in Milwaukee. He has since resigned from his Milwaukee charge. He was an up-to-date, efficient pastor, thoroughly modern in his methods, impatient of all bungling ways, prompt and regular as clock-work in the fulfilment of his ministerial duties. In this sermon, which was therefore quite in keeping with his character, he urged his people to apply modern business methods to the cultivation of their spiritual life. In every other department of life everyone recognized the necessity of knowing the facts before proceeding to action. In business, education, health, and government, we all made haste to consult the expert. Why not in the business of the soul as well? The pastor was, or ought to be, an expert in such matters. The people should come to him with their spiritual and moral difficulties. In other words, they should come to him for confession.

In this era of efficiency, the expert has attained to a position of primary importance. Mr. Chesterton, who scorns efficiency, thinks it is one of the glaring defects of our time that we have put the expert on so high a pedestal. In our worship of experts we are in danger of losing our love of freedom and the joy of life, and of doing great injustice to the poor. At the word of an expert on insanity the English will imprison a man without giving him any kind of a chance to defend himself. We ourselves are almost ready to allow experts to determine whether a man or a woman may have any offspring or not. This warning of Mr. Chesterton's is undoubtedly needed.

But, in spite of Mr. Chesterton, we must admit that the expert is a very useful person. The public health would be vastly improved if more people consulted expert doctors, instead of quacks and patent medicine advertisements in the newspapers. Our cities would be better governed if the departments were all governed by experts rather than by politicians; and more beautiful if expert architects were more often consulted. Without championing all the wild theories of eugenics, we may at least say that we feel happier about the marriage of two young people in whom we are interested, when they have presented certificates from an expert physician, showing that they are physically fit for married life. Of course we should not put all our trust in experts, nor in any child of man; for experts are not always infallible.

The priest is an expert in all things pertaining to religion. The soul should be his special concern. His training for the priesthood should have made him conversant with the laws of the spiritual life, and familiar with all ordinary cases of conscience. Presumably he has been through some kind of a course in moral and ascetic theology; and it is to be hoped that he has acquired some knowledge of morals inductively through diligent reading of the Bible and good modern novels and plays. It is not necessary, as some people suppose, that he should have committed a sin or been through an experience in order to administer the proper remedy, any more than it is necessary that a physician should have had all the diseases he is called upon to treat. It is, however, true that a priest is further qualified as an expert by his own experience in trying to live the spiritual life, and his experience in dealing with souls in the course of his ministry. If one goes to confession primarily to consult the spiritual expert, one should of course go to an older and more experienced priest. But it should always be remembered that the priest, like all other experts, is not always infallible.

The priest can give expert advice only after hearing a person's confession. Otherwise he cannot have before him all the facts. He knows only the person's address and occupation, the color of his hair and the cut of his clothes. But those are not the important facts. The only way a priest can determine what is the besetting sin of the person who comes to him for advice, or suggest the best remedy for overcoming a particular temptation, is through confession. Only thus can a priest give the necessary warning to the growing boy or girl at the proper psychological moment; or impart moral instruction to the child, "precept upon precept," as he is able to bear it. People often ask a priest how often they should make their communion or what daily prayers they should use. No priest can give a satisfactory answer to such questions until people have let him see the real condition of their souls by means of sacramental confession. No doubt a priest might attempt to solve a perplexing moral problem apart from confession; but confession would often throw needed light upon the. relation of the problem to the particular soul involved. There is of course a danger that people may get into the way of consulting their priest too frequently and on too trivial matters. Such people expect a priest to take the place of conscience; but that is not one of the functions for which he was ordained. This is a very real danger with weak-minded or over-scrupulous people. They appeal to their priest to decide every little question: where they should live, how much rent they should pay, what pleasures they should indulge in, what food they should abstain from, and what people they should go with. They ought to be able to decide such questions for themselves. That is what conscience is for. It is only in cases where the conscience is really perplexed, and prayer does not seem to bring a solution, that the priest should be resorted to for help. This running to the priest to settle every little perplexity would soon result in nervous prostration for the priest and the loss of all moral stamina for those who run. A priest must deal sternly with such people, for their own good and his.

"Consult the expert" may convey to some the impression of arrogance and pride on the part of the priest, It suggests a cold, judicial person, far removed from the daily struggles and worries of our common lot, uttering dogmatic decisions from a throne. This idea might tend to frighten people away from confession; and therefore it should be used as an argument with great caution. Too many people already are afraid to let a priest know the real state of their souls; and this fear must not be increased by giving them a false notion of a priest as a sort of divine, infallible being, untouched by the common weaknesses of our flesh and blood.

The truth is, of course, that the priest is a creature of flesh and blood like the rest of us. Every day he has his struggles with temptation; and, no doubt, he has often fallen into sin. The temptations of the clergy are probably more subtle and powerful than those that assail the laity; it is natural that Satan should direct his fiercest attacks against the leaders of the army of Christ. Just because the priest is compassed about with infirmities, he is able to be sympathetic and merciful toward those who err. He is deeply interested in the spiritual combat going on in the world, for he is in the thick of it himself. He rejoices with the saints and angels in heaven over every sinner that is truly converted and led to repentance.

A young prodigal once confessed his sins to an aged priest. He had sinned very grievously, and he esteemed the priest as a saint. He began haltingly and timidly mentioning some of his less serious shortcomings; and looking up at the old priest's face, he thought he saw the traces of a smile. He took courage and spoke of very shameful acts; and then stopped, afraid to go on. Observing that the smile was still there, he made a supreme effort and confessed the blackest sin of his past life. Looking up, he was astonished to find the old man's face more radiant than ever. Finally he boldly asked the priest, "Father, why do you smile? " "My son,'' replied the old man, "I was smiling as I thought of the joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth."

If the Church is to minister to the spiritual needs of the men and women of to-day, she must provide some such spiritual expert to whom they may frequently resort to reveal the inmost secrets of their hearts. Failing in this, she would fail to meet one of the deepest and most universal of human needs. Catholics believe, of course, that the Church has met this need in the priesthood, to whom God has given power and commandment to declare and pronounce to His people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins. Protestants do not as a rule believe in auricular confession; and yet many of them to-day are coming to recognize the value of more intimate personal conference between the pastor and the individual soul. They realize that to consult the expert and get skilled advice as to the condition of their souls is in harmony with the whole modern trend in the direction of greater efficiency.

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