Pascal On Confession

From 100 of Pascal’s Thoughts.

Truly it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is a still greater evil to be full of them, and to be unwilling to recognise them, since that is to add the further fault of a voluntary illusion. We do not like others to deceive us; we do not think it fair that they should be held in higher esteem by us than they deserve; it is not then fair that we should deceive them, and should wish them to esteem us more highly than we deserve.

Thus, when they discover only the imperfections and vices which we really have, it is plain they do us no wrong, since it is not they who cause them; they rather do us good, since they help us to free ourselves from an evil, namely, the ignorance of these imperfections. We ought not to be angry at their knowing our faults and despising us; it is but right that they should know us for what we are, and should despise us, if we are contemptible.

Such are the feelings that would arise in a heart full of equity and justice. What must we say then of our own heart, when we see in it a wholly different disposition? For is it not true that we hate truth and those who tell it us, and that we like them to be deceived in our favour, and prefer to be esteemed by them as being other than what we are in fact? One proof of this makes me shudder. The Catholic religion does not bind us to confess our sins indiscriminately to everybody; it allows them to remain hidden from all other men save one, to whom she bids us reveal the innermost recesses of our heart, and show ourselves as we are. There is only this one man in the world whom she orders us to undeceive, and she binds him to an inviolable secrecy, which makes this knowledge to him as if it were not. Can we imagine anything more charitable and pleasant? And yet the corruption of man is such that he finds even this law harsh; and it is one of the main reasons which has caused a great part of Europe to rebel against the Church.

Few leave the Church these days because of confession, since reconciliation is not often encouraged. And it’s now not so much people telling you of your sins that’s a problem either. It’s that sins which are sins aren’t accepted or even known as sins. Now what do you do about that, especially when you have some leaders in the Church telling you to follow your conscience and that this self-same conscience is the best guide to right and wrong? Some people really do believe, or claim to, that certain acts in which they engage aren’t sins, even though they’re “on the books” as sins. Conscience overrules the book? We’re in ignorance-of-the-law-is-no-excuse territory here.

Then, once you know a sin is a sin, it isn’t always so easy fessing up to it. Rather, some faults are easy to admit, some hard. Some things you do, you’d sooner burn away in shame and bury yourself in some dark hole instead of saying, “Twice I …” Now you know the priest can’t say anything outside the box, but that doesn’t mean you don’t know that he knows that you know that he knows (I might have got lost there) what you did. And this induces a reluctance.

That reluctance is always worth overcoming. But you have to be ready with truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I think it was Pascal who also said (though I have been unable to discover the original quotation) that we often sculpt confessions so that we seem not so much less bad, but so that the priest thinks better of us.

Big things are thus sometimes easier to confess. Big ones are much more likely to be “one-offs” which you want to rid yourself of as soon as possible, and that even you yourself can’t believe you were stupid enough to do. It’s the lesser faults that prompt the most reluctance. “It’s been two weeks since my last confession, and this one is exactly the same as the last.” Now that is embarrassing; or worse, because you have the suspicion that you never meant it when you said (last time) “Never again.” They say Gracie Allen, of Burns & Allen, used to travel to a distant city to confess so that the priest wouldn’t recognize her. Sounds about right.

Pascal again, from Thoughts 529:

A person told me one day that on coming from confession he felt great joy and confidence. Another told me that he remained in fear. Whereupon I thought that these two together would make one good man, and that each was wanting in that he had not the feeling of the other. The same often happens in other things.

Cautious optimism.


  1. Michael Dowd

    Confession, they say, is good for the soul. The 12 program of AA requires a general confession of all your faults, vices, sins to another person after significant preparation. And it is an axiom that if you do not complete this step you will go resume/continue drinking/drugging. In other words, having a bad conscience is one of the reasons for addictions and other bad behavior and the chief cause of unhappiness. I think everyone could benefit from confession. And it is a shame the amount of hardship and self flagellation one must endure, and cause others to endure, before doing this.

  2. Trigger Warnings

    As a ten-year Catholic (former Agnostic-leaning Deist-at-Best), I have come to love the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

    But one reason the Church might not beat the drums more loudly is simple math. If every eligible person in our parish gave a 15-min confession once per month, the priest would be engaged 24 hrs per day, doing nothing else, including sleep, all month.

    Since the official schedule is 60 min every Saturday, conveniently scheduled to begin 1 hour before the Mass that the priest must celebrate, I’m thinking the Bishop would be very dismayed if parishioners ever got serious about going.

  3. Joy

    If repentance then forgiveness. In that order. Sometimes confession out loud may come in between.

    Confession is not necessary or sufficient except for human forgiveness which is the hardest to render because people don’t like to forgive. The wallowing in the power of the sight of the repentant wretch makes the domestic cat look kind to it’s victim.

    It’s the really serious sins which remain in the memory which are hard to forgive. Jenny Nicholson stopped preaching when she couldn’t forgive the bomber who killed her daughter. How honest. Compared with the usual slopey shoulders which heads of institutions often have. However the criminals are not repentant and in some cases they are dead. Forgiveness follows repentance, in that order. Forgiveness can be given without repentance by man but this is still an action in the mind of the victim which is often undertaken rather than holding on to resentment.

    If it’s really the thought of worldly shame and worldly judgement from men then ‘secret confession’ is a good solution. To convey the feeling of repentance and the desire for forgiveness. If it’s a serious sin which is a crime then tell the policeman and he’ll sort it out for you down on “Letsby ‘Avenue.“

    The man in the box is really dealing with and in worldly shame and guilt. It’s a displacement activity. It also in smaller communities gives the priest rather a lot of useful and sensitive information about his congregation. Just think of all the possibilities to single out people who’s sins you particularly dislike for a good old preach and further control of the mind of the person who’s told the priest in confidence. Tell a friend, book an appointment with a stranger to talk about it or tell someone on a bus. It will have the same cathartic effect, missing a bit of placebo, perhaps. If you don’t mean it, don’t ask for it. You will mean it one day when your heart means it and not just your head.

    Talk to God, he’s not so busy and at least he knows what to do about it.
    This is what I struggle with. I simply don’t take the church’s authority seriously. They were utterly unrepentant. They let the government and communities carry the burden of guilt. I learned in the last few months that this is why my life changed forever in the early 90’s along with countless others. Suddenly the penny dropped and I understood what the note meant.

    It is wrong for the church to set out to engender guilt and shame. Utterly and demonstrably wrong. This is the purpose of the confession box and all the fire and brimstone. It is about control and not for divine reasons. The lady who lost her son attended mass twice a day. What a cold fish. Her husband was warm and normal. He played rugby for Ireland’s national team.

  4. Ken

    REGARDING: “Then, once you know a sin is a sin, …:

    How does one know what a “sin” really is — such that one can be certain?
    By what authority?

    Recall that Luther’s theses and the Protestant Reformation came about because of abuses by the Catholic Church (e.g. selling indulgences).

    ABOUT “…it isn’t always so easy fessing up to it…” here’s one that many keep on trying to frame as something it wasn’t:

    “The proposition that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from its place is absurd and false philosophically and formally heretical, because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scripture. The proposition that the Earth is not the center of the world and immovable but that it moves, and also with a diurnal motion, is equally absurd and false philosophically and theologically considered at least erroneous in faith.”
    – June 22, 1633, Pope Clement VII; ‘Papal Condemnation of Galileo’

    Since, many still try to assert that the Catholic Church condemned Galileo over matters pertaining to faith doctrine, as if that somehow separates the fact that the Church held a position about reality that remains provably false…that because Galileo (and Copernicus before, and others) hadn’t conclusively proved this bit of reality, it somehow vindicates the Church!

    To my understanding, the following remain (though, as history establishes, they’re not always right):

    Infallibility of the Catholic Church
    CCC (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)) 2035, “The supreme degree of participation in the authority of Christ is ensured by the charism of infallibility. This infallibility extends as far as does the deposit of divine Revelation; it also extends to all those elements of doctrine, including morals, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, explained, or observed.”

    Only the Roman Catholic Church has authority to interpret Scripture
    CCC 100, “The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.”

    Sacred Tradition equal to scripture
    CCC 82, “. . .the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence’.”

    Scientific findings are accumulating in a number of areas that, from the perspectives of some, threatens core doctrine — even some explicit assertions made in the Bible … and that makes the routine attacks on science (e.g. “scientism”) understandable. Beliefs one needs will be defended vigorously. Here’s an accessible summary of psychological defense mechanisms and why they get formed (basically as coping mechanisms against emotional pain):

  5. Joy

    On ignorance and defence in law. The point of law which maintains a person’s guilty despite their claim of ignorance is not true of divine justice.
    God knows what is in the heart and knows of the degree of ignorance. His justice does not require benefit of the doubt to ensure justice is served.

    God doesn’t condemn people for not responding to evidence they don’t have.

    John 9:41
    Jesus said:
    “if you were blind you would have no sin, but now you say we see, your sin remains.”
    God will not condemn for not seeing what you cannot see.

  6. Many still do point to confession as something they hold against the Church, but their logic is grounded on very thin theological grounds, misinterpreting the purposes, intents, and roles involved, and completely missing the point that confession is actually a very healthy psycho-social activity. I think it is one of the many good things about the Catholic Church.


  7. Fr. John Rickert, FSSP

    Once when I was getting my teeth cleaned, the hygienist, who was a Protestant, mentioned to me that she didn’t get what Confession was about at all. I replied, “It’s kind of like going to the dentist.”

  8. Joy

    Hmm, absolutely tell a friend or someone on the bus, or a therapist and it’s doing the same thing. Confessional is such a hard thing to understand after all. It’s like calculus or quantum mechanics!
    If the sin’s the same every tie you go to confess, change the process. The sin is a compulsion, like taking a drug, or the confessions’ serving some other superficial purpose having to do with appearance to oneself or others.

    When a person says ‘I never understood what that was all about’ they’re being polite and really mean something else, or they’re a hairdresser or cabbie and need to find things to talk about.

    What is unhealthy is that it is so open to abuse by the church and its members who think it’s more holy than simply dealing directly with God. Like holy water, and rosary beads. They think the thing’s blessed with magic. The middle man is acting as an agony aunt. The church is so built on the idea that the clergy in a hierarchy are closer and closer to God and therefore have a better channel to him. That’s the idea people have and the one the church requires people to have.

    What on earth is a ‘psychosocial activity’. It’s hardly social.
    It sounds rather like the ‘biopsychosocial referred to by some medical fields. It’s a fusion of three words to hope to end up with something ‘wholistic’ that means you don’t have to say wholistic because that sounds too new age aromatherapy!
    Only the simplest mind would not understand what confession is for and they
    wouldn’t be going to church anyway.

    People from the church can always go and talk to a priest or a vicar. That is part of their pastoral role. Systematic forcing of innocent girls and boys into the box to confess when they’ve done nothing wrong is abuse. It is a subliminal way of reminding that individual just how low they truly are. That is the reality for many who grow up in the Catholic church. It is systematic control of the self esteem of the masses. All part of the beloved idea of higher and lower. Higher and lower will always exist and it does not require a church to manipulate people. It is also a way for those who really are evil to continue doing as they please and continue to keep the illusion going that they are really respectable. It’s self deception as well as public deception.

    It’s used as a rod of iron, not how it’s intended. Not in all cases of course, but enough to make a difference.

    “All clean now? That’s nice.”

  9. Rod Montgomery

    Cautious optimism?

    Seems to me hopeful pessimism is more appropriate.

    As C.S. Lewis put it (paraphrase): Left to ourselves, all things human tend to go to Hell, but God is merciful, and we may hope that He will save us from ourselves.

  10. Mactoul

    The propositions about Sun or the Earth being at the center of the world are not contradicted by Science. Science concerns itself about relative motions and is uninterested in questions such as “center of the world”.

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