Halliday Sutherland

"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.

My Path To Rome 3

Part three of My Path to Rome comes from Chapter 18 of A Time to Keep (1934) by Dr. Halliday Sutherland.

When I joined the Church of Scotland I was not conscious of any attraction towards Rome. Yet, having told the learned and kindly doctor who examined me touching the doctrines of his Church, that I had not led a good life, I was disappointed when he told me plainly that the Church of Scotland did not encourage auricular confessions. That was my first experience of the truth that every man is by nature a Catholic. No ordinary person likes going to confession, yet most men and women at times feel the need of this mental relief. They will confess to a doctor or a psycho-analyist, and enter into details of conduct which no priest would ask to know.

No two practices in the modern world have been more attacked than the confessional and psycho-analysis. In either case the vehemence of the attack is in proportion to the ignorance of the critic. There is also a widespread fallacy that these practices are alternative methods of solving the greatest difficulties arising out of our human nature. Although both confession and psycho-analysis deal with difficulties in the mind and soul, the two practices are totally different. In confession the penitent voluntarily reveals what is present in consciousness, whereas in psycho-analysis the analyst seeks to draw into consciousness certain unconscious thoughts and desires whose struggle to emerge from the unconscious is creating a mental conflict, reflected either in conduct or in nervous disorder.

The first psychological step in confession is introspection. The Church of Rome being aware of the dangers of introspection — morbidity, scruples, and a weakening of the will — enjoins that this introspection shall be reasonable. The individual is asked to recall in his own mind the occasions on which he has sinned since his last confession. Sin is defined as “an offence against God, by any thought, word, deed, or omission, against the law of God.” I am quoting the Penny Catechism, and the thoughts and deeds described by the Church as sin correspond to what the psychologist calls anti-social tendencies and actions. The teaching of the Church premises first that there is a moral law, against which no individual can offend with impunity, and secondly that every individual is conscious of that law and consequently is aware when he has broken it.

In common with the animals we have instincts, appetites, and passions, but unlike the animals we have power to reflect whether any action is right or wrong in itself, apart from any consequences to ourselves. This power of moral judgement is called conscience, and conscience reflects the Divine Law expressed in human nature, as the calm water of a lake reflects the reality of a mountain. “This, I perceive,” says Cicero,[1] “was the opinion of the wisest men, that law was not invented by the human mind, nor is a decree of the people, but is something eternal which guides the whole world, the wisdom commanding and forbidding. Hence they said that the principal and ultimate law was the mind of God, through reason, enjoining or forbidding everything.”

As conscience when violated can and does give rise to unpleasant feelings of shame in the mind, there is good reason to believe that it exists for the purpose of preventing us from doing shameful actions, just as our eyes were intended amongst other things to prevent us from walking over a precipice. If the conscience is active, instructed, and unbiased, it will decide for the individual what he should do in a particular case. Conscience has been called the “still small voice,” and that metaphor is of interest when we compare conscience with what psycho-analysts call the “silent sentinel” of the unconscious mind.

No one, therefore, can confess anything as a sin unless it be a matter on which his conscience is at least in doubt. For guidance the Church has defined the moral law in terms of the Ten Commandments. Sins are classified under other headings like the seven capital sins. These are so called because they are the sources out of which all other sins arise. These seven capital sins are — pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. There are four sins that “cry to heaven for vengeance,” namely, “willful murder, unnatural vice, oppression of the poor, and defrauding labourers of their wages.”

In the confessional the penitent accuses himself of whatever sins he is conscious under their appropriate names. No details need be given, nor are they wanted. Here is a difference between confession an psycho-analysis. No priest would think of asking questions sometimes put in psycho-analysis, nor if the details were offered would he listen to them. He is only concerned to know the nature of the sin confessed. Nor is there any cross-examination. The confessor only ask asks questions if he be in doubt as to whether a sin actually has been committed, or as to the nature of that sin. The function of a priest in the confessional corresponds to that have a judge in a court of law where he represents the King’s justice. In the confessional the penitent is counsel both for the prosecution and the defence. He may say all that he will against himself, and all that he wishes in mitigation of the conduct of which he is now ashamed. But under no circumstances is he permitted to mention anyone by name, even if that person be a partner in his sin. Confession concerns the individual, and the individual alone.

The confession having been heard, the confessor advises the penitent has as to how in future he can best avoid a repetition of the sins confessed. He he then he then gives him a penance — a prayer or other spiritual exercises to strengthen his will — and tells him to make an act of contrition. Thereafter he gives absolution in the Latin of these words: “I absolve thee from thy sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Ghost.” The authority of the Church for that absolution are the words of Christ to the Apostles: “Whose sins ye shall forgive they are forgiven them, and whose sins ye shall retain, they are retained.” (St. John xx. 21). Yet it should be noted that absolution is contingent on the disposition of the penitent, who must to the best of his ability have true contrition for his sins because they are an offence against a loving God, together with a firm purpose of amendment. “Perfect contrition,” to which the Saints have attained is “sorrow for sin arising purely from the love of God.”

Another difference between psycho-analysis and the confessional is the inviolate secrecy of the latter. Many penitents elected to go to a confessor who knows them and understands their difficulties, but all have a right to go to a total stranger whom they have never seen and may never meet again. In a confessional box the only light is in the central part where the confessor sits. The penitent kneels in a small adjoining compartment and speaks through a grille of metal meshwork. This ensures that the confessor cannot see the penitent. During the two thousand years in which Rome has moulded the civilization of Western Europe no secret of the confessional, despite the human frailties of many of its priests, has ever been betrayed. Indeed, there are many martyrs of the confessional, and in the Jesuit Church at Farm Street is the statue of a German priest who died under torture rather than reveal the confession of a queen.

In the seminaries of Europe, where candidates for the priesthood are trained for seven years, a story, probably apochryphal, is told as a warning to protect future confessors against making any reference, however indirect, to anything they have ever learned in the confessional. An old priest, Father X, had served all his working life in one parish and was about to retire. He was being entertained to dinner by two of his most respected parishioners — an elderly husband and his wife, with a grown-up family. Unbeknown to the priest, his hostess at always made it a boast amongst her women friends that she had had the distinction of having been the first to go to Confession to Father X. During dinner one of the guest remarked that it must be an extraordinary experience for a priest to hear for the first time the confession of another mind. “Yes,” said Father X, “and in my own case I do remember the first confession I ever heard. It was of adultery.” This story is a warning against even the most indirect reference to what transpires under the veil of the greatest secrecy that the world has ever known. Another thing, of which even many Catholics are ignorant, is that it would be wrong for one priest to remark to another at breakfast: “Do you know I had five confessions of theft last night.” That remark would be wrong, because the other priest might have been in the church and recognised some of those who went to confession to his colleague.

From A Time to Keep (1934)

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

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This entry was posted on 1 November 2021 by in A Time to Keep.

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