Slow Journey Away From Rome – Auricular Confession

Following is a Guest Post by Suzanne, who is currently strugging with her Catholic faith. I thank her for her valuable contribution.

The issue of confession is what first began to make me question Catholicism—and I am 30 and have been a willing and devout Catholic my whole life, until a few months ago. I have come to believe that the requirement of individual sacramental confession (auricular confession) puts artificial bounds on Jesus’ forgiveness. Auricular confession can be a great chosen path, and should be available as a choice—for example if someone wants to talk privately about a recurring sin; however, the absolute sacramental requirement for the sole particular ritual is misplaced in many situations.

The type of situation that has been described on this site—getting too close to your confessor—is clearly a danger, both because of the privacy of the confessional and the vulnerability of the confessor, and the stringency of celibacy (which I do not find wrong in itself, but it must be acknowledged that lifelong celibacy is a special condition that should be protected by not adding temptation)—for even a priest devoted to keeping proper boundaries might find himself sorely tempted when confronted with the intimacy that auricular confession requires.

There is something amiss in a system that exclusively requires priestly confession, and I am thinking in particular of, for example, a 14 year old girl who is struggling with sexual sins like masturbation. Imagine the difficulty of a 14 year old girl confessing that sin, out loud, to a priest who is probably twice her age. But the alternative is to risk burning in hell.  Is this kind of choice between deep embarrassment and hellfire really the reason why Jesus came? The "secret" confession available (with the screen) is an illusion, because our priests know us and they know our voices. And how difficult must it be for priests to hear parishioners detailing their sexual sins over and over, when they are vowed to be celibate!

The specific rite of auricular confession is not as old as the church itself and in fact it is much newer. When I turned 30 this year, I began to question why I, a grown woman, must tell my most embarrassing deeds to a priest—who I may have gone to college with, who I drank with at parties—and have him hand out penance to me when he knows nothing about the strains of being a mother, being a woman, being a wife—any of it.

Many Protestant churches offer a general confession, where parishioners admit and confess their specific sins to God in their heart, and the priest offers the Protestant version of "absolution." This option exists in the Catholic church as well, but it is rarely offered. I believe many more souls would actually confess and repent of their sins if this option were offered, because it preserves the dignity and modesty of the individual. I personally feel that this is particularly true in the case of young girls, although any demographic may have serious issues with confessing to a priest, for many reasons.

In my prayer and study I begin to know Jesus as the One who is with us in these dark times—the continual process of sanctification—and He is with us whether we sinned two minutes ago or two years ago. God is God of the desert as well as God of the mountaintop.


Negative Self Esteem For Women Left by Priests

I’ve received a large response to my post, Advice for Women in Love with a Priest. Thank you all for your comments; it makes us feel not so alone in these unfortunate and life-defining circumstances.

Sadly, I see in the Comments section, so many comments where women blame themselves, as I often have:

“It hurts more than anything that has ever happened in my life, even now, over a year later.”

“I feel like if I was a better person, prettier, more successful, smarter, he would want to be with me. I also feel so stupid for thinking he could love me.”

“I am a stupid sheep...”

"Is not a secret marriage optional?....I think it is a mature solution....I mean she agrees never be seen etc."

"I felt so stupid it nearly killed me....FROM A SAD BROKEN WOMAN........"

"I've been broken up with my priest for over a year.... It's gotten easier, but in no way am I over it....He turned on me in the end..."

All of these comments (except for one, that I will mention below) could have been written by me, and I suspect, most women who have loved a priest. It saddens me to read of so many other women going through these same self-esteem issues in the wake of being jerked around by a priest.

I haven’t addressed each comment specifically so I wanted to write a few thoughts I have about these comments and about the wonderful women who have had the courage to comment here and email me personally:

  1. It hurts. A lot. One commenter pointed out, “...children are perceived as victims but women are seen as victimizers themselves.” This is so very true—we are viewed by mainstream Catholics (especially happily married ones whose personal lives are just hunky-dory) as the manipulators of these poor, lonely priests whose deepest desires are to remain celibate and be left alone by women.  As another woman wrote, “Since it was a secret relationship, the grieving has to be secret too.” This is important—it’s not like we’ve just lost a husband, and the pity comes pouring in. Since many of us come from Catholic families ourselves, we have no one to turn to with our grief and must bear it alone.

    I’ve received only two nasty comments so far, that I will not publish, from a truly disturbed man who stated how lucky he is that the women who have come into his life (I sense he’s not partnered, however!) have a deep sense of personal responsibility unlike the temptress that I am, then later that day advised us all to become the priest’s housekeeper and have his baby that way. Yeah, that would work. Not.

  2. Contrary to our thoughts, we are exceptionally pretty, smart, and successful. Think about it. Priests are not allowed to view women as more than a sister. They see us as either the Virgin Mary or a whore; there’s little middle ground. Their minds are not even allowed to “go there” by viewing us as someone they could fall in love with. But they have crossed the boundary to love us, enjoy our company, and considered us special (and probably always will). We don’t see them crying their eyes out at night when they go to bed, but it happens, that I know for a fact. If we were not pretty, special, etc, we would not have been the object of their attraction in the first place. Still, I too feel “what man could love me” if Fr. X wouldn’t leave the priesthood for me. Since we would have gone to the ends of the earth for them, why can’t they do this one little thing for us? Fear is the only reason. That, and a warped theology.
  3. We’re not stupid. We fell in love, that’s all. What’s stupid is the celibacy rule that the Catholic Church invented (yes, “invented”) around 1100 A.D. due largely to St. Paul’s opinion that unmarried men should not marry because he thought that the End Times were imminent. Well, he was clearly wrong that the End Times were imminent, so might he be wrong about one other little thing too? There is no scripture to support celibacy as being superior to marriage, other than St. Paul’s warped, misogynistic view. Some of these men took the vow of celibacy as teenagers, not realizing, let alone feeling, the full consequences of this vow. Eventually, many do, and they become scared.

    Fact: the Catholic Church itself sets us up for failure, sets us up for temptation. For spiritual counseling, it’s recommended we seek a priest. We confess our sins to a priest. We receive all sacraments from a priest. These are the rules of the church, and the way a relationship with a priest begins is typically by the priest—since both parties know we can only view the other person in our proscribed roles, we’re caught off guard and ashamed to discover we have feelings for him. But by then it’s too late. We’ve already fallen for him, and what follows is nearly impossible to avoid (by this, I mean, feeling that we are stupid for loving a priest.)
  4. He will probably turn on you in the end. Today, most priests do not leave the priesthood for marriage. I’ve written an article about the reasons for this, but his reputation and livelihood, not to mention his theology, is on the line. Priests are largely cut off from the “real” world and even if he does decide to be with you, one visit with his spiritual advisor is enough to turn his heel back to his brethren. He is told that he will experience eternal hellfire, and what’s more, so will his beloved. If he really loves you, he’s told, he will let you go—he will not send you to Hell.
  5. A Secret Marriage is Not Optional. That is my opinion. I’ve been told that the couple should move away from the priest’s home parish if he is to be laicized and married, or not laicized and married. It might be awkward for the couple to stay in the same small town where he was a pastor, and a move might benefit them both. But, a secret marriage where “she” is not seen? I respect this poster’s courage to comment, and the rest of the comment, but cannot see the logic of imposing shame on two people in love who want to make a commitment. They should be able to share time with family and friends as before. Those that do not support the decision do not have to agree with it, but it doesn’t necessitate cutting people out of each other’s lives. We all make decisions daily that the entire world will not agree with—it’s what makes the world go ‘round, after all—and we need to all learn to live with each other.

I would like to write a post about How To Get Over Loving A Priest, or at least How To Cope in the Aftermath of Loving a Priest.

If anyone has any respectful ideas for this, please email me at: aftercatholicism@gmail.com. You can either use your real name and be quoted, or be anonymous. Suggestions are welcome!


Do Priests and Bishops Have a Superiority Complex?

I came across an interesting article today on Max Lindenman's blog, Diary of a Wimpy Catholic, called Clerical Narcissism: Myth or Mess?

My answer: BOTH. By "clerical narcissicm" he refers partially to bishops covering up sex abuse scandals that have been in the news for 10+ years now, but also a root cause of it: the belief that bishops and priests believe themselves to be superior to other members of the church, and certainly to lapsed Catholics. (It's worth noting here that one reason people have left Catholicism is because of the abuse AND the cover-ups.)

However, he delves deeper into the issue, citing mandatory celibacy as a reason for narcissism by putting forth inhuman asexuality as the ideal. And, if priests and bishops are practicing this, the "ideal," they may accidentally tend to have a superiority complex toward others who are not.

But what makes this article so thought-provoking is Lindenman's Devil's-advocate approach to the issue, stating: "I am curious to know whether a certain excessive self-regard might be a priestly occupational hazard." He means this as an honest question, not a put-down or assumption: he truly wants to know. Further down he writes, "The mistakes of the institutional Church have much less interest for me than the experience of the individual priest, whom I take on faith to be an essentially good guy who wants only to do right. If any Church norms or practices do, in fact, encourage priests to adopt a narcissistic self-concept, I am assuming they adopt it unwittingly and probably unwillingly."

Personally, I agree with him wholeheartedly. Narcissism is a job hazard of the priesthood, but it is also a job hazard for many other professions--especially professions where people tend to believe their job is their near-total identity. Even little things in all of our daily lives can cause us to be narcissistic. And, despite my own run-in with a priest that I write about on this website, I too believe that most priests are trying to be a good guy and do the right things. I will even say this is true of the of priest I have written about.

And yet, the Church does foster narcissism in the clergy, intentional or not. One brilliant commenter stated that hearing Confessions humbles the priest because he hears sins that are his own and is reminded of them. This could be a post in and of itself. Hearing confessions, on the other hand, can certainly foster a sense of superiority--imagine the power inherent in being the mediator between the sins of the laity and God Himself.

Being alone, though, compounded by being at the whim of one's superior (there are many hierarchies in the church) for not only your livelihood, but your reputation, your identity, your living quarters, can be the toughest job of all.

I would be sincerely interested in what priests themselves have to say about this. Please comment respectfully.