John Garvey

John Garvey

Recently, I went with my family and our grandson Jack for his first confession. It was a happy affair. Children at age 7 or 8 are unique in that they are awkward and not at all self-conscious about confession. Thirty of them in procession down the aisle look like a drill team from the Ministry of Silly Walks.

But I was impressed — edified would be a better word — at how long each child spent with the priest. When they came out, they repaired to a vacant spot in the church and gave devoted attention to their penances. There were hugs and some tears (mostly from parents) when they rejoined their families.

I don’t know whether this first experience of reconciliation will engender good attendance habits down the road. I hope so. I have been pleasantly surprised at the frequency with which some of our children receive the sacrament.

At the Catholic University of America, where I work, the supply and the demand are good. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the edge of our campus has confessions five hours every day, including Sunday. During Lent, our priests in campus ministry offer the sacrament in the residence halls.


For a generation after the Second Vatican Council, reconciliation was our most neglected sacrament. Part of the reason is that we lost sight of what it was for.

In an essay he wrote in 1984, Robert Coles observed an unfortunate tendency to substitute psychoanalysis for the sacrament. “I am tired of watching ministers or priests mouth psychiatric pieties,” he said, “when ‘hard praying’ (as I used to hear it put in the rural South) is what the particular human being may want, and yes, urgently require.”

There are sick minds in need of healing, but it is a mistake to treat our sins as symptoms of a disease. They are usually just sins, not evidence of some “complex” or of some deeper neurosis.

With advances in neurochemistry comes a slightly more modern version of the psychological dodge. We will hear that a person who cheats on his wife — not just once or twice, but often — has “a sexual addiction.” Poor guy, he can’t help it, his neuropeptides are out of balance.

There are two things wrong with turning our sins over to the brain doctors. First, it ignores the role of free will in our lives. It is strangely unpopular to say nowadays, but sins are things we choose to do. It is I (not my subconscious or my brain chemistry) who is at fault. Second, when we make the wrong diagnosis, we will prescribe the wrong cure. What we really need, in order to feel (and be) better, is forgiveness.

Pope Francis has preached about mercy and forgiveness from the day he became pope. His message is the short-form statement of Christian belief: Jesus suffered, died and rose again to redeem us.

We affirm that lesson when we say in the Nicene Creed that we believe in the forgiveness of sins. We put that belief into action when we receive the sacrament of reconciliation. And if we really believe, we confess frequently — not from some overweening guilt complex, but because we know it is good for us.

God has made his mercy available. Who would not take advantage?

If, on the other hand, we seek out a priest just for deeper self-awareness, then what we will get is a session of free amateur doctoring. There is something to be said for that, but in these days of affordable care, a good health plan will pay for such things. For the forgiveness of sins, there is no substitute for the confessional.


Garvey is the president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.