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Confession in a culture preaching redemption without reconciliation

Whereas dysfunctional public shaming may feed our temporal desires, privately confessing one’s sin is humbling. It is hard to truly confront what we each are.

(Image: Annie Spratt/Unsplash.com)

St. Augustine said, “In failing to confess, Lord, I would only hide you from myself, not myself from you.” Yet ours is a time in which the act of sitting quietly in a church confessional to privately confess one’s sins has fallen out of favor. In its place, we now rush to center stage to publicly virtue-signal our disgust for others’ failures. In this theatre, we repudiate whatever boogeyman rules the hour. Systemic racism and greed score very well. Pride, envy, sloth…not so much. Sexual perversion, lust, adultery? Pay no attention to our Lady’s message at Fatima: they don’t exist here.

We’ve traded out confession for its bastard brother: not a penitential reconciliation of one’s choices to God’s will but an angry denunciation of our perception of others’ deficiencies on some narrowly-chosen set of publicly-sanctioned “dos”. Mix in two parts Twitter and Instagram, leave some room for a variant where the denouncer occasionally shames himself while double-dosing the other guys, and we have a twisted re-engineering of the sacrament. It is a glaring example of “my will” over “Thy will”.

In other words, we long for redemption, but without reconciliation.

The marketing teams at the Apples and Amazons of our world know this well. Their “corporate social responsibility” charades parade under the banner of helping others, while really being a celebration of self. Google tells us, “Don’t be evil.” So, if you’re with them, you’re okay. Lock arms with the search engine and together you can publicly shun whomever you view as standing outside the circle. This frequent, alluring reminder that someone else is the problem—not you and your chums—assuages our fear of loneliness while stroking our pride’s thirst. Hate doesn’t live here; it lives at that other guy’s house.

What is this really except for a villainization of the outsider? The intemperate stoking of the public anger against the non-conformist? The disgracing of the one who refuses to bow to the woke supremacy’s totem? It’s not only a distraction from confession, it’s a distraction that compounds the need to confess.

That our biggest and most popular businesses are doing this is not even the saddest thing. That dubious distinction rests with the reality that this virtue-less virtue-signaling occurs in every corner of culture. Yesterday’s “Save Tibet” bumper sticker is today’s “In this house, we believe” yard sign. And your neighbor isn’t the only guy posting one on his front lawn. So is the town bagel shop. And the public library. And the teacher’s union-run elementary school. And the mainline church across from the park.

Even your child’s Catholic university sends out emails every other week proclaiming systemic this and systemic that. And the herding of the masses into training sessions long on Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” but curiously devoid of any mention of the Church’s teaching on the person, right relationships, and the common good.

The need for reconciliation is nothing new. Neither is the desire to avoid it. Anyone who has watched a few minutes of professional sports has seen the wayward fan hoist a “John 3:16” placard. Some of those who have seen the sign may have even checked the reference to decode the meaning:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 

But how many continue reading? Or grapple with what comes next?

…This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.

Whereas dysfunctional public shaming may feed our temporal desires, privately confessing one’s sin is humbling. It is hard to truly confront what we each are. And the world tells us that doing so is beneath us. Shame? What is shame? Why should I own that? My God wouldn’t want me to endure such indignity. My God wants only for me to feel good.

In his book Live Not By Lies, Rod Dreher explains that such distinctions are made by those who may admire Jesus but who aren’t really interested in following him. Admirers get to think Jesus is a really nice guy who loves in the way we want to be loved. A Jesus who conforms to the way we want to orient ourselves. But this “domesticated” version of Jesus isn’t real; he doesn’t exist. After all, Jesus didn’t come to make us feel better or even to make us better fit into this world – the world we think we’ve made ours. He came to help us prepare ourselves for the next – the one He knows quite well.

Said simply, Jesus isn’t preoccupied with conforming to our world’s warped standard of nice. He is the Jesus of the cross. Who knows abandonment. Isolation. Public ridicule. Suffering. Humiliation. It is that Jesus whom admirers have neither the patience nor the fortitude to know. But it is that Jesus whom followers discover on the kneeler of the confessional.

Lent yields to Easter. Through reconciliation, the self surrenders to redemption.


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About Ronald L. Jelinek, Ph.D. 7 Articles
Ronald L. Jelinek, Ph.D., is a Professor of Marketing at Providence College. The opinions expressed here are his own.

12 Comments

  1. I think you mean redemption but redemption in a culture that holds Man out to be god, where Man determines what sin is, where sin is only construed as giving social offense, where forgiveness is given niggardly and where reconciliation is never permitted.

    We live in a culture that has clearly swapped religion for politics. Joe Biden is a Catholic only in a world where to be Catholic is nothing more than a political statement.

  2. It is that Jesus whom followers discover on the kneeler of the confessional (Jelinek). As a confessor laity say otherwise. Marketing, Ronald Jelinek’s expertise is an asset for assessing Internet traffic, the virtual signaling that replaces reconciliation. And the infectious Systemicisms plaguing Church and culture. There’s also the virtual monopoly of message owned by liberals throughout the media. Catholics misled confused disheartened in the confessional by liberal as well as innocuous clergy find a necessary outlet for their moral rage on the internet. Thankfully available on websites with moral integrity. The media is also a business, and too often the message is where the buyers are either liberal or conservative. Rarely open for both. Persons inveterately fearful of confessional shame targeted by Rod Dreher are really scarce. A strawman for a good book sale to satisfy the selective righteous. Dr Jelinek’s thesis has wider value if understood in that context of priest failure to call out sin and reconcile. Most priests are deathly fearful of addressing the moral plague of homosexuality from the pulpit, or the dearth of moral specificity from the Vatican, or the heresies allowed to foment in Germany, Malta, the Philippines, or the great need for sacrifice and the salvific value of suffering and the cross for themselves and for the conversion of sinners. Too often I hear penitents say confessors trivialize sins. Sermons friendly anecdotes. Augustine’s wonderful, In failing to confess, Lord, I would only hide you from myself, not myself from you, today is the converse. For it is the Alter Christus who hides Our Lord from the penitent. If we expect to change the scenario for the better we need clerical leadership. As it stands that doesn’t flow from the top. If redemption without reconciliation is our problem, which indeed it is, it’s unfortunately the message in the Vatican’s newest testament Amoris Laetitia. Laity, even the excessive intermingled with the more reasoned seem our only hope.

      • No. I’m limited to Dr Jelinek’s summary. My object isn’t to offer another comparative book review, rather to respond as a pastor of souls to what’s said in the article. “Shame? What is shame? Why should I own that? My God wouldn’t want me to endure such indignity. My God wants only for me to feel good. In his book Dreher explains such distinctions are made by those who aren’t interested in following Jesus”. Many, many have confessed their sins to me in NYC, W NYS, Albuquerque, Gallup, Tanzania and I haven’t come across that attitude except for a meager few, either in the confessional or outside. Most who avoid the confessional are dubious about its efficacy. Most aren’t too concerned what others may think of their excessive drinking, drugs, violence, adultery, some even their false accusations because they no longer believe there is a distinction between right and wrong except when it affects them personally. And the reason in my experience with them is the ambivalence, lack of moral coherency of priests from the pulpit, in the confessional or outside. My point is, scolding delinquent Catholics in a book, even those who refuse to be “shamed” doesn’t work. If anyone is really concerned, volunteer with a Catholic missionary association. Southwest Volunteers for example consists of laity young and older from Louisiana. Wonderful, humble, loving people who came to our missions in New Mexico and AZ living in hardship conditions. That display of love draws the sinner to Christ not the righteous author of books that censure. Except for those books that have genuine appeal to return to Christ

  3. Confession is very difficult for most of us. Taking a hard look at choices we have made and damage we have done, and seeing where we have failed our fellow man and betrayed God. The object here is to become a better version of ourselves. We allow that it is in the human condition to periodically, if not frequently, fail to meet the standard we and God aspire us to reach. But still we promise that we will try. Cancel culture on the other hand has nothing healing about it. The object is to muzzle, destroy and isolate a perceived “offender”. This is true whether the offender has done something recently or decades before, and whether or not the offender has since changed their lives for the better. This rather disgusting and obscene over-reach was first shown the light of day when Justice Kavanaugh was accused ( an accusation he roundly denied) of groping a fellow teen when he was 17. Recently the career of a young magazine editor was cancelled for remarks she posted as a teen and since apologized for. When the remarks became known,self-righteous and outraged fellow workers “informed” on her, gestapo style, demanding her firing.It strikes me that the only way these public kangaroo courts can continue to function is if people in general fail to forgive, and fail to express the reality that nobody is perfect ( “let he who is without sin”—-you know the rest). Those who run public companies must STOP rushing to judgement and caving into the mob mentality that these public outings represent.Firings, blackmail payoffs to “activists” and other actions by these companies and the weak, fearful executives who run them, must cease immediately. Our alternative is a destroyed nation or one in which we are willing to destroy our neighbors for words spoken in anger or ignorance or simple youth and inexperience. I have taken to writing to the CEO’s of companies who feel forced into a need to attack individuals, political party members or racial groups, that I will no longer be able to do business with them until their policies change. This has resulted in only a small amount of inconvenience to me. And I spread the word to others and encourage them to do the same. Forgiveness is a cornerstone of our faith. And until recent years it has been a moral element which has played out in our national character. Now with an “every man for himself” mentality, and no accountability for the absolute harm done in JUDGING others, we are seeing immense damage done to the nation. We must try to reverse course. Stop apologizing where no offense has been caused, or for who and what you are. You dont owe the person attacking you either an explanation or your respect.You can live without the approval of the vicious and self-serving.

    • It is “Let HIM who is without sin…!” Dadburnit. I am so tired of seeing and hearing your and others’ abomination of a misuse of a nominative pronoun. Yes, I “know the rest” but you language miscreants should know the first part. It just distracted me from everything else that followed your otherwise nifty comment.

    • It is “Let HIM who is without sin…!” Dadburnit. I am so tired of seeing and hearing your and others’ abomination of a misuse of a nominative pronoun. Yes, I “know the rest” but language miscreants should know the first part. It just distracted me from everything else that followed your otherwise nifty comment.

  4. Strong spiritual drink, Professor, of the kind that nourishes the soul and Christian character, and exposes the fatuity, fraudulence and infantilism of popularly devoured L.A.’soapies’ that sedulously avoid mention of the reality of sin – even (perhaps especially) that of murder, marital infidelity, theft and mendacity – glossing over them with euphemisms of “mistaken judgment” and “unfortunate choice” – all, of course, exclusively evasive, self-referential and secular. Ronald Jelinek also exposes here the secularising truncations of scriptural and patristic texts, one widespread instance of the latter being Irenaeus’ “The glory of God is humanity fully alive…” Rarely to we hear the end of the memorable sentence: “…and the glory of humanity is the vision of God.” It seems we’re in danger of becoming spiritual Lilliputian if this combination of Marxist exclusion of personal sin, Hollywood, and ignorance of the Catholic tradition in doctrine and practice are allowed to pass uncontested and have their way; or of becoming strutting peacocks if we settle for pathetically self-aggrandising, cheap and hollow virtue-signaling.

  5. All I know is that the Sacrament of Confession is working for me. Fr. Morello has put his finger on at least part of the situation. Maybe people don’t believe it actually works. But it works slowly. We laity need to testify to its effects. Over the years, I’ve sifted through my sins, large and small, found some underlying patterns, and ousted some lies I told myself. A regular practice of confession helps me face my disappointments in life (when others fail me, or I fail myself), and helps me respond better. Paradoxically, as I learn more about true humility, my fear of others decreases. All of this has been done through the extreme patience of a few priests; they listened to my early confessions where I confused the Sacrament with psychology; they patiently absolve the sins I hand over, and wait years before I can call out the word “pride.” Some days the words of advice they speak ring clearly of the Holy Spirit, and it’s like flowers and candy and fireworks. Other days are quite ordinary in the household of God… I take out the trash and that’s it. Maybe people don’t believe the Sacrament is the answer because priests don’t preach; because the laity don’t give personal testimony; because the work of healing takes time and is often imperceptible… but also, because they don’t really know Him. They don’t know His heart, his desire to meet us, and His purposefulness in appointing these places where He meets us. They don’t see His very intentional connection between His walking through the streets of 1st Cent. Palestine, touching people and healing them body and mind, and the Sacrament of Confession. Then as now, He will only heal the ills we bring Him.

  6. “In its place, we now rush to center stage to publicly virtue-signal our disgust for others’ failures.”

    In its place, many of us rush to center stage to proclaim publicly our sins – to brag about them, to pretend they aren’t sins, and in doing so to influence others to think there’s nothing wrong about them. The entertainment industry is stuffed full of talk shows and “news magazines” on which people talk about how happy they are now that they have committed this or that sin. Then they and the host solemnly proclaim how wrong it is for anyone to believe that the sin is wrong.

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