As counter-intuitive as it may seem, I find that a useful way into an explanation of Penance and Reconciliation begins far from any ideas of sacrament or church or even of God. Instead, I begin with French Existentialism (which, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is an explicitly and consistently atheistic philosophical position) by way of Albert Camus and a demonstration inspired by the character of Jean-Baptiste Clamence in the book, The Fall. What Camus offers there is a story that, ultimately, is about a long and slow and unconscious ‘examination of conscience’, and the [existential] fruits of the awareness of judgment and guilt that arise therefrom.
[Clamence, of course, does not end in turning to the church but, rather, tries to achieve forgiveness of himself… the picture we have of the man by the end of the book, I believe, offers a compelling illustration of the ultimate futility of such an effort.]
When I teach the book in (secular) courses, I draw the notion of self-judgment out of the students themselves. “Think about it,” I say, “you know that you, like Clamence in Paris, like to think of yourself as being a ‘good person’; and you like it when others see you as a ‘good person’. But how good are you really? Couldn’t you be better than you have been, even just today? Admit it to yourself now, you, I don’t know, maybe you did see that elderly woman standing on the train while you were sitting and pretending you were too involved with your phone to notice her… but you saw her. You knew it would be good to give her your seat. But what did you do? … Come on now, let’s see some hands — who truly believes, now that you think about it, that you didn’t pass up any opportunity to be good? Who could not have been any better than they were today?”
I’ve never had a hand raised at that question. That, then, turns us to Camus’ exploration of judgment and guilt — but I believe the same basic exercise and the same principle helps to explain the value and function of Confession. For in the end, everyone finds himself GUILTY before the court of goodness — not even divine goodness here, just your own, flawed, human sense of goodness, whatever that is — but no one wants to be guilty, we all want to be acquitted. And yet, even more than that, when it comes to the Guilty verdict we give to ourselves, we don’t just want to ‘get off on a technicality’; we know and feel our guilt and so, what we want is not to be proclaimed innocent but, rather, to be forgiven and made genuinely acceptable again. Acceptable to our society and community, yes, but also to feel acceptable to ourselves.
The problem, of course, is that we cannot give either the acquittal or the forgiveness to ourselves. In our own hearts and minds — in the court of our own consciences — we are always already and only ever found guilty. Acquittal requires a change of venue and that change, in turn, requires the acceptance of the right and authority of the Judge in that court to overturn our own judgments — and that means we must approach with humility to lay out our case. To lay out the case, then, obviously means recounting the particulars of the crime(s). We, the witnesses of both the defense and the prosecution, must testify openly and honestly — under oath, as it were. Further, in order to receive the forgiveness we seek more desperately than acquittal, we must be truly sorry. How can one who does not find herself in need of forgiveness [which would be the condition of a contrite heart] ever seek to be forgiven? And so our testimony must be open, honest, and contrite.
Now, with the Sacrament of the Church, comes the astoundingly good news — this Judge has made His ruling before you even came to His court and, unbelievable as it may seem, He has acquitted you and forgiven you. Of course, part of contrition and the acceptance of forgiveness is a desire to want to ‘make up for’ whatever you feel guilty about — and this Judge also metes out forms of ‘probation’ or ‘community service’ but, surprisingly enough, these turn out to be more to your benefit and rehabilitation than punishment or retribution. And all this He does through the appointed Servants of His Court who, it turns out, we call Priests.
In sum, when compared with the justice of our own minds or the prisons of our political systems, the question is downright absurd: “Why Confess to a Priest?” Well, because it seems rather silly to me that you’d want to reject forgiveness and rehabilitation in favor of stewing in the misery of your own guilt but, hey, who am I to judge, right?