It used to be a secret shared with a priest, says Mary Kenny. Now the vogue is for public ...
It is a curious thing that just as the sacrament of confession is, historically, on the decline, so the confessional mode of public discourse is booming. It is apparently impossible to turn on the television in America now without seeing some celebrity in full confessional mode, revealing his (or more frequently her) childhood traumas, experience of abuse, eating disorders, drinking disorders, drug habit (now reformed), desire to cross- dress, etc etc. The Princess of Wales has drawn upon this form of discourse in her own soul-baring, indicating as she does so her high esteem for "honesty", as decreed by the confessional mode. Thus, although her husband's own TV confessional revelations were hurtful, she nevertheless admired the honesty of it.

So perhaps confession is good for the soul, after all. There are, of course, marked differences between the traditional sacrament of confession, and the new-age confessional mode. Confession was, first of all, held not only in privacy, but in utmost secrecy. The "seal of the confessional" was deemed to be a sacred trust, which the confessor could not break under pain of death itself. Remember those Montgomery Clift movies of the Fifties where, as a sensitive and tormented priest, he could not reveal a murderer's secret because it was told under the seal of the confessional? It was supposed to be like that.

Second, old-style confession was not a question of j'accuse but rather of je m'accuse. It concentrated on one's own sins and failings, rather than, as the new-age confessional mode tends to do, on the errors and failings of others. In the secrecy of the confessional you listed your own sins and asked for forgiveness. The sins of others were off the agenda. And, I'm afraid, there was no remissionary margin given for suffering an unhappy childhood, maternal deprivation syndrome, and so on.

Third, in old-style confession, absolution could not be transmitted without "a firm purpose of amendment" and, until the Sixties, a sincere pledge of restitution where harm had been done. So, if you cheated the taxman or nicked a hotel towel, you were obliged to make restitution before receiving pardon. This also applied to a no less heinous crime - the destruction of someone's character or reputation. Thus if you were malicious or catty about someone, afterwards experiencing a stab of guilt on realising that you had somewhat over-stated the case of their incompetence, infidelity or inebriation, you had to go back to the source, not the television camera, and restore their good character.

The new-age confessional mode colonised old-style confession - which had itself already been invaded by psycho-babble and a shift away from guilt towards the disciplines of penance and "the whole person" after Vatican II (1962-65) - before virtually displacing it. Both styles share the desire to unburden oneself, to look within one's soul. But what did Princess Diana herself hope to achieve? Was it to make a clean breast of the past, as was the intention behind the old-style confession? Or was she motivated by the common desire to self-improve, to see where one has gone wrong, and perhaps, to make amends?

Old or new - which is preferable? To live in dread of hearing your sins shouted from the satellite dishes at any moment by some past acquaintance who goes into TV confessional mode? Or to examine one's own life, and conscience, in private, meanwhile living in dread of the Last Day, when everybody's "sins will be shouted from the rooftops"? Or is compromise the answer? The old-style confession was certainly too narrowly based. It will survive and revive if it learns from, without being the same as, its competitor. For myself, I think I still prefer the seal of the confessional.

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