Dear Reverend Know-It-All,
I was born into the Catholic faith and have faithfully attended Mass and participated in my church choir since I was old enough to do so. However, in the past two years or so, I consciously avoided the sacrament of reconciliation. This is due to sins I have committed which I do not feel sorry for. I realize that this is something I need to work through, but in the meantime, am I allowed to go to confession if I omit the sins I feel no remorse for? If not, does this have any effect on whether or not I am allowed to receive communion?
Dear Mr. Repenter,
Your letter makes me very sad. You are clearly troubled by the situation and are obviously sincere. First let me comment on your having been born Catholic. No one is born Catholic. We are baptized Catholic. Baptism is a sacrament, a word which comes to us from the Latin word “oath to the death”. When you receive a sacrament you are swearing the most solemn oath possible to be faithful to someone, in this case to Christ who loves you. Every time we go to Holy Communion we renew our Baptismal vows and give our life to Christ. It seems that there is part of yourself that you are withholding from the Lord.
I am sad also that you are avoiding confession because you don’t feel remorse. Feelings are not always the best indicators of repentance. Are you saying, “God, you are wrong. These things are not sins.”? Or perhaps you are saying, “God doesn’t mind these things. It’s the Church who says this, not God.” I don’t know your particular situation, but let’s go with second or third marriages. What’s wrong with them? They are certainly less desirable than one loving and stable marriage that lasts a lifetime, but these days hardly anybody has that. The Church should catch up with the times. Do the old men in Rome expect me to live alone and bitter like they do? It’s not the old men in Rome who decide these things. I find that every time I disagree with God, it turns out that God is right and I am wrong. It seems that God has this problem; He thinks He is God, and the better part of my life has been an attempt on His part to convince me that He is God and I am not!
When I disagree with the Church on a moral issue, if I look at it closely, it isn’t the Church saying that something like second/third/forth marriage is wrong, it’s the Holy Spirit speaking in the New Testament. If I believe that the New Testament is the speaking of the Holy Spirit and that it is the story of the New Covenant into which I am baptized, and which I renew in Confession and Holy Communion, I am not just arguing with the Church, but with the Holy Spirit who wrote the book through the weak and sinful hands of people like St. Peter and St. Paul.
I am saddest of all to read your letter, because it reminds me of something that happened in the life of my dear sister who died when she was still a young woman. Through her suffering I learned what repentance really is. If you don’t regret these things now, someday you will regret them very much. My sister was a wonderful Christian woman and we were very close to each other, though she was a few years older than I. She moved to California and had a family. I would spend my vacations there with her and family. She was very involved in the faith and a great champion of the rights of children in the womb at the very beginning of the pro-life movement. However, she had been the most adventurous of all my siblings, and when she was very young she took up smoking as part of her exciting social life. She became a very heavy smoker and no one could convince her that it was wrong. Of course she developed lung cancer in her mid forties. I went out to visit her on the very day that she got the doctor’s call telling that she had terminal lung cancer. I walked in the door, and as I put down my suitcase, she looked up at me and, cigarette in hand, said “I have killed myself.” Then she looked at the cigarette in her fingers with a look that I will never forget. It was a glance of hatred and disgust, I think for herself as much as for the cigarette. She had learned too late that the advice she had always disregarded was right. A few months later I returned to offer her funeral Mass.
When I returned home, being a smoker of cigars myself, I sat in my old overstuffed armchair and prepared to light up a cigar. Out of respect for my grieving family I had not smoked while I was in California for the funeral, but now I was looking forward to an enjoyable few moments, lost in curling blue smoke. I picked up the cigar and a match, but then I looked at the cigar with the same revulsion that had darkened my sister’s dying face as she looked at her last cigarette. I thought, “This is the stupidest thing I can possibly do. I am paying some large tobacco corporation for the privilege of a slow, painful death. I put the cigar down, and haven’t picked one up again in almost 40 years. I had repented. I had been given and had accepted the gift of seeing something as God really sees it, not just as I wanted to see it. The New Testament word for repentance is “metanoia”. It doesn’t mean try harder, or change your life. It means change your understanding. Better, it means allow God’s Holy Spirit to change your understanding.
The Bible says, “Do not be conformed to this present age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” (Romans 12:2). Understanding precedes and determines action. If I know that the bridge is out, I will take another road, unless of course I am thick headed and say, “I was just here yesterday, the bridge is fine and I am in a hurry.” I will end up in the river with that attitude, because I have refused to accept truth. I can always refuse to believe when I am given good advice, and frankly I usually do refuse good advice because I want what I want. To repent is to accept the advice of someone we love and trust. That someone is Christ. We may not understand it now, but He tells us these things because He loves us, not because He wants to make us unhappy.
It is not possible to break the laws of physics. If I go to a cliff, saying “I will now break the law of gravity,” and I step off the cliff in about 10 seconds I will find out that I could not break the law of gravity. It is just as impossible to break the Law of God. You can’t lie. It’s not possible. If I tell my boss I am sick when I am really going to the beach, there is always the possibility that someone from my job will see me, and even if I get away with the lie, I will have no peace because I may be found out, what with security cameras, etc. everywhere. I may have been to the beach, but my mind was elsewhere all the time. It is impossible to commit adultery. You will never find the love and security you seek outside a committed, permanent relationship. An affair may be enjoyable, but I have never known one that doesn’t end in disappointment and heartbreak. You can’t steal. I have known a lot of thieves in my life, but I have never known a rich one. Even if they appear to have succeeded, they live in constant fear of detection.
You really can’t break the Law of God. The commandments are not arbitrary rules made by men. They are the inevitable and inflexible laws of the human condition. In His love, the Almighty has revealed them to us. It is like the parent who says to a child, “Be careful, dear, the stove is hot. Don’t touch. The child cannot resist touching the stove, simply because it’s forbidden. The parent didn’t say, “don’t touch,” just to be mean. Perhaps the commandments should be called the Ten Warnings. They are given to us for our welfare by a God who made us and loves us.
I would suggest that you change the way you pray. The prayer of most people is “Lord, give me want I want.” The prayer of the believer is “Lord, teach me your ways”. If this is your sincere prayer, then I would say going to confession and communion will be the blessing they are meant to be.
I hope this helps a little,
The Rev. Know-it-all