The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America
Susan Wise Bauer
Princeton University Press, 2008
352 pp., $26.95
Reviewed by Stephen H. Webb
Confession Run Amok
By the 20th century, the secularization of confession was complete. Confession became a way of gaining attention, adjudicating blame, and even overturning (rather than confirming) social conventions. (After all, what is confession without shame except another name for exhibitionism?) Political and religious leaders increasingly relied on the forgiveness confession naturally obtained to hold onto their power. As Bauer writes, "Public confession had become the most powerful means by which leaders acknowledged the power of their followers." Confession is the price the powerful must pay when they want to be treated just like one of us, rather than thrown into jail.
A further irony is that Catholic leaders have been the least adept at using confession to save their careers. Teddy Kennedy's televised confession that he had been involved in the drowning death of a young woman near Chappaquiddick Island was all explanation and no contrition. He blamed a concussion, not moral weakness, for his inexcusable conduct after the accident. Bauer speculates that, "Protestant-style public confession, which might have saved Kennedy, was foreign to his own religious training."
Then there is the sad case of Bernard Cardinal Law, ruling bishop of Boston, a man who must have heard thousands of confessions during his long ministry but—when it most counted—could not make one of his own. Reading the closing chapter on Law, after several chapters on Clinton, it is hard not to wonder whether the cardinal should have tried to learn a lesson or two from the former president. Bauer includes the cardinal's six statements apologizing for the sexual offenses of priests, which should be required reading for all bishops in training. Cardinal Law got caught up in subtle questions about the culpability of his own intentions, and he was determined to maintain the confidentiality of the confessions of priests. By following the customs of his Church, he led his diocese into disaster. Cardinal Law did not understand the extent to which he had come to represent the entire Catholic hierarchy on the priest abuse scandal. He blamed the medical and psychological authorities for bad advice, and he relied on the language of business management to insist that he was the best person to reform the system. That so many Catholics were dissatisfied by his various statements demonstrates just how Protestantized American Catholics have become.
Bauer is a skilled analyst of political rhetoric. She is also a terrific writer, having mastered recently the art of blogging, which is the most prevalent form of semi-private confession in American today. (She writes about homeschooling her four children while she tries to finish a projected four-volume history of the world.) Yet she offers few suggestions for how confession can be redeemed from its sorry state. The problem is that even the most sincere confession has the effect of making it harder to keep our sexual lives private.
Perhaps something in the incompetence of Catholic leaders to make adequate public confessions can point the way forward, although it should be noted that Pope Benedict XVI has mastered the art of the straightforward request for forgiveness. Most polls show that Catholics do not like to go to confession very often (or reconciliation, as the rite is now called), but somehow both Catholics and Protestants need to take back confession from the wider culture. A place to begin would be to hold Christian leaders accountable to their faith by expecting them to ask God for forgiveness rather than the general public for sympathy and approval.
Stephen H. Webb is professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. He is currently working on a book about creation and evolution, entitled The Dome of Eden.
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