Sharing our sins

Author: Andrew Santella

I spent a couple days not long ago peeking into the deepest, most secret shame of complete strangers.

I watched a guest on Dr. Phil come clean to his wife and to the world about his addiction to porn. Over at, I read a posting from Anonymous in Florida in which she admitted to stealing $15,000 from a relative and “masturbating a few times.”

At the local Barnes & Noble, I picked up the new addiction-and-recovery memoir by The New York Times columnist David Carr, The Night of the Gun. I read about the night years ago when he left his twin baby daughters strapped into the back seat of a car parked in front of a crack house on a winter’s night in Minnesota while he spent a few hours inside getting high.

And on the arty website PostSecret, which displays confessional postcards contributed by readers, I found a picture of a father and toddler daughter, with this message displayed: “Even though I am deeply in love with another woman, I am staying in my bad marriage for my daughter. I hope I never resent her for it.”

What makes a mark in the world right now is the mercilessly self-lacerating and lurid revelation. Confession is the predominant mode of pop-culture discourse, making it hard to open a newspaper or turn on a television without encountering the intimate secrets of people you’ve never met. Even if Dr. Phil and are not part of your normal daily media diet — and I was just doing research, I swear — the flood of unsolicited tales of personal failure is difficult to avoid.

Take Carr’s memoir. It’s just one — though an especially good one — of a small library of self-critical memoirs on the market. Such daytime TV shows as Dr. Phil and The Jerry Springer Show and Cheaters thrive on the carnival thrill of watching humans flaunt their shame. And then there’s the confessional website, a genre that includes examples like Not Proud, True Military Wives Confessions and the originator of the form, Daily Confessions. All allow the anonymous wrongdoer to unburden his conscience electronically and provide a forum for his audience to mock, scold or console him, as they see fit.

It’s not the most inspiring corner of the pop-culture universe, but it’s not getting any smaller, either. According to an Internet tracking firm cited in USA Today in 2006, traffic on Internet confession sites grew 139 percent in one year.

People can’t seem to stop telling us all the ways they’ve done wrong.

What is strange about all this confessing is that, in some ways, it seems to run counter to human nature. Confession is supposed to be good for the soul, but the catch is that before you confess you have to admit that you’ve messed up. That’s a problem for some of us. We come with the standard human allotment of stubbornness and pride, and that makes it hard for us to come clean. Who likes to admit that they’ve messed up?

Yet in other important ways we seem hard-wired to confess. If we want to connect with others, we know we have to occasionally tell them that we’ve been wrong and ask them to forgive us. Which is one of the reasons we’ve been spilling our secrets to bartenders and therapists and sometimes even the people we love for much longer than we’ve been doing it online.

Tell it all

What’s unsettling is how expert we’ve become at confessing. Some of us are pros at it. As an essayist, it’s part of my job description to occasionally go public with my failings. That puts me in league with the folks on Dr. Phil — and factoring in my mercenary motives makes me even more culpable. “Trade in your neuroses for cash,” one of my editors once advised me.

Not that profit is the primary motive for most self-revealers. Spinning our failings into a narrative — even if it’s just a post on a website or a blurted confession on daytime TV — is redemptive. Sharing our sins gives them meaning.

One of the strengths of Carr’s recovery memoir is that it shows an awareness of the ways it implicates him, as the author of a recovery memoir, in the genre’s ulterior motives: “Junkies and drunks frequently end up putting a megaphone to their own pratfalls in the form of memoir because they need to believe that all of the time they spent with their lips around glass, whether it was a bottle of vodka or a crack pipe, actually meant something,” he writes.

Explaining the impulse to confess could be its own academic sub-discipline. For the philosopher Michel Foucault, the urge had to do with the triumph of scientific inquiry. Advances in medicine, psychology, education and criminology made us objects of constant scrutiny, he argued, so we believe we must share our secrets and reveal our true selves. “We have become a singularly confessing society,” he wrote, none too approvingly.

For others, the impulse to tell all is about our relationship with power. The psychoanalyst Theodore Reik argued in The Compulsion to Confess that confession can be an appeal for affection from parental and authority figures. Some of us, of course, even confess when we really shouldn’t. According to the legal group The Innocence Project, false confessions and self-incrimination account for more than a quarter of the cases in which wrongly convicted people are later exonerated by DNA evidence.

Our political and criminal justice systems, our religious institutions, even groups like Alcoholics Anonymous build into their programs a mechanism for confession. When South Africa sought to purge the shame of apartheid, it launched a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to chronicle abuses and atrocities. The idea, says Father Nicholas Ayo, CSC, ’56, ’62M.A., a professor emeritus in the program of liberal studies at Notre Dame, is that owning up is healthy and necessary.

“In A.A., they say that you’re as sick as you are secret,” says Ayo. “There has to be a moment of truth. We understand that we have to take inventory and tell someone. We need to verbalize it.”

But why is it that, with all this confessing going on, the one place you’re not likely to find as many people expressing contrition is in the very place most associated with sin and forgiveness — the Catholic confessional?

Confession has become the one sacrament Catholics feel free to skip. We’ll get married in church, we’ll be buried from church and we’ll take communion at Mass. But regularly confessing sins seems to be a part of fewer and fewer Catholic lives. A 1997 poll by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research found that only 10 percent of Catholics surveyed said they confessed at least once a month. A 2005 Georgetown University study found that just 14 percent of American Catholics go to confession at least once a year.

Our confessors have certainly noticed our absence. Father Raymond C. Mann, OFM, wrote in Commonweal recently of “having ample time for breviary and meditation” while waiting for sinners to join him in the reconciliation room. When he began hearing confessions 49 years ago, he writes, 12 priests would be kept busy hearing confessions during Advent and Lent. “These days, one priest is usually sufficient.”

Or go back further still and compare today’s turnouts at the confessional with those of a century ago. Boston College’s James O’Toole has researched and written about one New York City parish whose priests heard 78,000 confessions in one 12-month period in 1896 and 1897.

Out of the box

Confession was once a badge of Catholic identity, one of the practices that defined the faith and set us apart. You’d see us lined up inside the parish church on Saturday afternoons, waiting to take our turn in the box.

Confession was, in the words of religion writer Peter Steinfels, “the linchpin of the Catholic sacramental economy.” The Eucharist and the other sacraments, Steinfels points out, provided access to God’s grace, but expressing contrition in confession could mean the difference between going to heaven or hell: Dying with unconfessed mortal sin on your soul meant eternal torment. It’s no wonder that Catholics of an earlier generation — my father, for example — were so scrupulous about confessing.

Confession’s decline, when it came, was sudden and swift. It is linked, like any other recent and profound change in Catholic life, to the Vatican II reforms. Not that the reforms that emerged from the Vatican II councils struck explicitly at penance. But the emphasis of Catholic teaching seemed at that time to shift from guilt and damnation to love and forgiveness.

All at once, old distinctions between mortal and venial sins didn’t matter as much as a broader understanding of our patterns of behavior. The practice of bringing a laundry list of sins to the confessional suddenly felt outmoded. And if you didn’t hear quite so much anymore about running the risk of going to hell, maybe confession didn’t seem such an urgent matter.

The name of the sacrament changed. What we called Penance became known as Reconciliation. Then the action moved out of the confessional booth. Face-to-face confessions, reconciliation rooms and communal services came into play. But the biggest change of all was that people simply stopped going to confession. O’Toole quotes one priest writing in Sign magazine as early as 1968: “People are staying away from confession in droves.”

There has been no lack of explanations put forth for why we sinners have been skipping confession. There’s the gap between the Church hierarchy and American Catholics on sexual teaching. There’s the growing societal distrust of authority. There’s the ready availability of other outlets for our guilt — psychologists, A.A., the self-help section of the local bookstore. There may even have been a shift in the way we think about sin.

Christian Smith, the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Notre Dame, recently surveyed teenage U.S. Catholics on their attitudes about guilt and found “no evidence that Catholics feel more guilty than other teens.” Catholic guilt, if there ever really was such a thing, does not seem to be a reality for today’s kids.

In fact, Smith said, he detected reluctance among young people to judge others or themselves. “The attitude seems to be that I’m okay and you’re okay, and that there is no real need for hard soul-searching or self-examination,” he said.

Maybe, as Mann has noted, the question shouldn’t be why have people stopped going, but why do we go at all?

Are we seeking comfort? Healing? Something that we can’t get from therapy or the Internet confession sites? If, as Ayo says, we all sometimes feel the need for a shared moment of truth, it may be that the need becomes greater as the truth becomes more painful. We could, presumably, find our moment of truth in the sacrament, if we did the hard work of looking for it there.

Finding forgiveness

Catholic confession is based on the premise that grace is accessible and that forgiveness is all around us. Its roots are in the communal appeal — one person standing up and seeking forgiveness from the community that he has wronged. That’s not entirely unlike the virtual community you find online. On the website Group Hug, readers get to vote to offer a virtual hug to the person confessing or to reject the confession. The site, and others like it, turns us into amateur hearers of confessions — whether we’re ready for the job or not.

Group Hug recognizes a paradox: That even as we feel the urge to confide in each other, we also often end up feeling uneasy about what we hear. We don’t want the responsibility that comes with that information shared. When I asked Ayo what it was like to have a procession of people come to him, one by one, to tell him all the ways they have failed themselves and their loved ones and God, he said: “You’re so touched by the humility of the confession that you feel humbled yourself.”

Our online confessors, who tend to specialize in not-so-helpful responses like “You’ve got some real problems, dude,” aren’t so generous.

The real action in any confession, though, is not in the response and not in the absolution, but in the confession itself.

“We’re the ones who change in confession, not God,” Ayo told me. “It’s not that God is angry but then relents. It’s that we who have had a hard heart now have a change of heart.”

There is, for the record, no such thing as online reconciliation. That ruling comes from the Pontifical Council for Social Communication, which declared in 2002: “There are no sacraments on the Internet.” I’m not sure I can articulate the theology behind that policy, but my gut tells me that nothing that involves Googling and waiting for web pages to load really deserves to be called a sacrament. Online confession is just too easy, too immediate. Dorothy Day wrote of having to “rack your brain for even the beginnings of sin.” Is that sort of work just too harrowing for us today, in our constantly plugged-in, media-saturated condition?

In the end, media confessions — whether they’re made online or on TV or in yet another confessional memoir — only end up cheapening the universal impulse to come clean. It turns confession into a consumable to be sold on the market.

And if you don’t have anything to be particularly ashamed of? Well, you could always make up a sin to confess. That strategy, after all, landed James Frey on the bestseller list with his faux memoir A Million Little Pieces, in which he copped to a life of misbehavior that, it turned out, he never really led. Similarly, one of the things you can’t help but notice about memoirs and confessional web sites and daytime shock-talk TV is that so many of the moments of truth offered there seem so false. You can’t help but think that some of the confessions just don’t ring true.

“I don’t believe 90 percent of you,” one visitor to Group Hug posted recently. Too many of the confessions have a whiff of self-aggrandizement about them, as if the person confessing believes that he can make himself bigger by making his sins bigger, his shame bigger.

It may be that our lives are too ordinary, even down to the paltry and predictable sins, to earn one any real confessional notoriety. Recalling the confessions of her Catholic youth, memoirist Patricia Hampl has written of being “disappointed by the quality of sin available to me, the predictability and flat anti-narrative tedium of my lists.” The way around that disappointment is clear enough now. To make a true splash you have to concoct a suitably provocative offense.

This, finally, might be the strangest thing about our present confessional culture — that the compulsion to confess is so overwhelming that it fosters entirely bogus confessions. Our need to confess has finally outstripped our bottomless capacity for sin.

Andrew Santella ( has written for The New York Times Book Review, Slate, GQ and other publications.