Ritualized Confession of Sin
James G. McCarthy

The Roman Catholic Church has misled its people with regard to the seriousness of their sins. It has done this in many ways, one being by turning confession into a ritual. This takes place in various ways in Roman Catholicism, the best known being the sacrament of confession. Priest and parishioner go through a well-rehearsed exchange of prayers and responses. The person lists his sins and their number of occurrences, concluding with, "I am sorry for these sins and all the sins of my whole life, especially for (here he names some past sin already confessed)." The priest then assigns the person a penance and asks him to say an Act of Contrition, a prayer expressing sorrow for sin. The priest then absolves the individual, supposedly setting him free from his sins.

The problem with ritualized confession of sin is that, like an actor in a morality play, the Catholic has been given his lines. He is not speaking to God in his own words, but is repeating a formula to a priest. All too easily this can be performed without genuine remorse or intention to change. The person departs, thinking that everything is right between him and God, when in fact he hasn’t been talking to God at all. The most common formula for confession of sin among Catholics is the Act of Contrition. Many Catholics say it daily:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You. And I detest all my sins because of Your just punishment, 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 confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.

If said from an informed mind and a sincere heart, the prayer (with the exception of the last line) is a beautiful expression of sorrow for sin. Rattled off hundreds of times each year, however, it is meaningless.

That appears to have been the case with Angela, an elderly Catholic woman dying of AIDS. I tried to explain to her that she was a sinner who needed to trust Christ as her Savior. But Angela, when talking about getting to heaven, always ended up focusing on her own good works and righteousness.

"Have you ever sinned, Angela?" I asked her on one occasion.


"Have you ever done anything serious enough to send you to hell?"

"No," Angela replied, calmly shaking her head in professed innocence. She knew herself to be a good Catholic. She had gone to Mass every Sunday for over 60 years, prayed the Memorare to Mary, and daily made an Act of Contrition. Angela had been a good wife and mother, dependable in every way. Even when life dealt her an unfair hand—she had contracted the HIV virus a few years earlier from a blood transfusion—she bore it without complaint.

Admittedly, compared to most people, Angela was a good woman. She had many admirable traits. But how did her life measure up to God’s standard of righteousness as revealed in the Scriptures? That was the real issue, not how she compared to other sinners. With time running out for her, I felt I had to press the matter harder.

"Have you ever offended God?" I asked, knowing what her answer would be.


"Then why do you say the Act of Contrition?"

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Doesn’t it start, ‘O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You’? Why, Angela, do you pray that almost every day, if you have never offended God?"

The poor woman had no answer. In her heart Angela was so convinced that she was a good person ready to meet God that my questions made no sense to her. Only God knows if her daily Act of Contrition amounted to anything more than the repetition of holy poetry. From my conversations with Angela, I could only conclude that she had repeated the prayer so many times that the words had lost their meaning.

The prayer continues: "And I detest all my sins because of Your just punishment, but most of all because they offend You, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love."

These are commendable sentiments when spoken from the heart of a truly repentant sinner. But they are meaningless when coming from the lips of a person who actually believes the very opposite. Angela, at least as far as she was concerned, had never offended God. She wasn’t heartily sorry. Neither did she detest all her sins. Like many Catholics, she probably didn’t even know what the word contrition means.

I marvel how Angela also denied that she had AIDS, despite testing HIV-positive and having every classic symptom of the disease. Her fingernails were distorted from a fungal infection and her skin scarred where cancerous cells had been removed. Each day her nurses had to swab her mouth with medicine to keep ever-threatening thrush at bay. Once a vibrant woman, she was now a frail invalid, her lungs clogged with pneumonia. Her immune system’s T-cell count was at 16 (about 1200 is normal). Yet to the day she died, Angela refused to accept her doctors’ diagnosis.

It can be the same with Catholics and their sin. Deceived by the lie of self-righteousness, they cannot see their sin despite clear evidence to the contrary. Sadly, many will understand the magnitude of their guilt only when they stand in judgment, naked and ashamed before God in His holiness. Only then will they know that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).

Adapted from Conversations with Catholics by James G. McCarthy (Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1997)

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