When is a confession not “good enough?”
The question itself challenges my Catholic sensibilities. I like to think that all confession is valid for the expiation of sin. However, after watching Lance Armstrong in the public confessional of Oprah Winfrey’s couch last week, I suddenly have my doubts.
Please understand, I don’t believe that Oprah can administer the sacrament of reconciliation (it must be about the only thing Oprah can’t do). But, Lance Armstrong did something that we are familiar with. He sought redemption from the failures and sins of his past by coming clean with them.
Lance Armstrong owned up to years of cheating in competitive cycling. What’s more, he expressed sorrow for all of the vicious attacks he made against those who sought to expose him during the course of his career. He was forthright and honest, as a good confessor should be.
So, what’s the problem? Many believe that Lance’s move was a calculated effort to get back into the good graces of the public and have his ban from participation in cycling lifted.
Unfortunately, none of us knows Lance Armstrong’s heart and the intention behind his actions. Perhaps we’re rightly skeptical of a man who told bald face lies for years. Or, maybe, he’s sincere.
So, what do we do with Mr. Armstrong? Do we take him at his word that he’s truly sorry?
Therein, lies the “problem” with confession. If not done with the right heart or intention, the validity of confession is questionable. Does confession equal reconciliation? No, there’s a definitive difference between the two. Reconciliation requires more than the pro forma act of confession. It requires contrition. It is predicated on the true desire for repentance.
We need more than just an admission of guilt from Mr. Armstrong. We NEED to believe him before he can ever experience public reconciliation and redemption.
This, of course, is what is required of each of us when we participate in the sacrament of reconciliation. The sacrament isn’t a “punch a ticket for free grace” experience. It’s an opportunity for us to lay ourselves bare before God, letting the inexhaustible love of Christ wash over our sick and broken selves. It’s our chance to turn over our failures while also resolving before God to turn away from them.
At the end of each confession, we pray the Act of Contrition:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest all my sins, because of Your just punishments, but most of all because they offend You, my God, who are all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.
In these words we find the victory of the sacrament: a contrite but victorious heart set on the desire to “sin no more” with the assistance and grace of God.