Wednesday, September 19, 2012

on condoms and confession

a version of this was posted on Ignitum Today.

Many of the pro-abstinence, anti-contraception types (mostly Catholics) will say that the “Don’t have sex, but if you do, use contraception” approach to reducing teen pregnancy is inherently flawed. They’ll say that the approach sets expectations low, and that it effectively says “Don’t have sex – but if you do, it’s okay.”

Of course, many of those same people march right into the confessional once a month or so. They’ll tell the priest about their spousal spats, their laziness, pride, envy, and lust.  “Don’t sin,” they say, and then they’ll add that “The Church, in her wisdom, knew we were going to sin anyway, so she gave us the sacrament of reconciliation.”

That translates: “Don’t sin, but if you do, go to confession” – so, realistically, confession isn’t all that different from condoms.

If that’s how we’re treating confession, we’re doing it wrong. The purpose of condoms is to reduce the risk of consequences; the purpose of confession is to change behavior and reform hearts. They’re different.

Note: Like anything sacramental, or anything Catholic, the reality of it is incredibly deep and rich, so to all you protesters out there – yes, there is more to it than that. But let’s stick with that much for now.

If we’re not truly willing to change our behavior and allow our hearts to be reformed, we are missing out on what God offers us through the sacrament. Condoms give in to the belief that teenagers won’t be responsible. Confession is a refusal to give up on greatness. And the world needs greatness, needs saints, needs to see holy lives. And why not our lives?
“The ways of the Lord are not comfortable. But we were not created for comfort, but for greatness.” – Pope Benedict XVI
How to Live a Good Confession
Before confessing, make a good examination of conscience. After examining, think seriously about your situation. Are you really sorry for what you did? Consider how your life would be different now if you had done the right thing then. Do you really wish you’d acted differently? Or are you just intellectually aware that it was sinful?

Then, do you want to stop doing this? Are you willing to work at it? To stay on alert for temptation, and when it comes, to look it straight in the eye and say No, I will not! And I don’t mean just now, but next week, too. Thursday. And again on Sunday.

Ultimately, Catholicism is not about correct answers to “What did you say?” or “What did you do?” but rather about “Where is your heart, really?” Your words, actions, and attitudes reveal where your heart is; a willful change in words, actions, and attitudes can move your heart.

Like any sacrament, confession takes place at a particular moment in time but carries forward; it’s a line in the sand after which things are different. The important thing is the “after which” part, not the line. Apologizing to your coach for skipping practice is a start, but getting back on track, or back on the court, will actually make you a better player.

In the words of Bl. John XXIII…
“This must stop, once and for all … from now onwards, I will really be good!” (Journal of a Soul, 28 March 1898 entry.)
That’s the spirit! Don’t assume you’ll do the same thing again, commit the same sins again. Raise the bar, and set your expectations high. The line has been drawn. Things are different now. Confession is not a condom; it is a refusal to give up. I will not be a slave of sin!

At the same time, be realistic. You know your weaknesses, so make a plan. Sometimes priests give penances that directly combat the weaknesses you’ve revealed to them. A priest I know told me he once confessed impatience, and his confessor instructed him to find the longest line at the grocery store, and when he got to the front, to get out of line and find the next longest line – then he could pay for his groceries. For a month. He hated it at first, but after a while learned patience and actually enjoyed chatting with the people in line.

If you aren’t this lucky, make your own plan. Learning patience at the grocery store will make you more patient with your family; learning discipline with your stomach’s appetite will make you more disciplined with your other appetites.

St. Francis de Sales recommends nipping temptation in the bud during morning prayer. Think ahead to your plans for the day. What temptations are you likely to face? How can you prepare yourself ahead of time to be ready to face them? I have a meeting with so-and-so today, and we disagree about something, and I’m probably going to get angry over it. Before the meeting, I will think of five things I honestly respect about her, and consider how much God loves her.

And, of course, constantly pray for God’s grace. Never stop. When we empty ourselves of sin, we must fill up with His grace until we overflow onto the world.

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