Confession or psychotherapy

Milena Kindziuk

When the thirteen-year-old Ania killed her unborn child she tried not to think about it, not to speak about it and not to remember it. But she suffered more and more from nightmares. She could not eat, laugh and function normally. Finally, she went to confession. For two hours she could not formulate one complete sentence. Her confession was broken by choked sob.
She received absolution. But her problems did not end. Her psychosomatics was active, the post-abortion syndrome did not seize. She could not get rid of guilt. It happened that she knelt to confess her sins every second week. And every time she mentioned abortion as her first sin. Finally, a Dominican confessor proposed that she should undergo some therapy. And in fact, her first visit to the therapist began her new life. Psychotherapy broke the barrier. It let her look deeply into her heart, see what led her to that tragedy. It helped her experience mourning, give a name to her unborn child, bury it symbolically and learn to live with all those problems. 'It lasted two years but it was worth doing', the woman says. Since that time her confessions have been different. She does not feel the need to confess her abortion and she focuses on satisfaction: she got involved in the Spiritual Adoption Programme and in her free time she works as a volunteer in an orphanage.

Making your paths straight

There are numerous cases like hers. And they do not necessarily concern abortion. People come to confessional booths to speak about depression, guilt, and inability to communicate with their closest family or negligence about someone's death. And psychologists say these are all emotional and personality disorders that should be treated by psychotherapists and not by confessors. But people confuse psychotherapy with confession.
'Psychotherapy is one of the methods to help in psychological problems and all sorts of disorders. It is often recommended in painful experiences, misfortunate, when people cannot overcome themselves', psychotherapist Ewa Osobka says. She also stresses that it is not a form of counselling. 'It is man that must learn to cope with problems, learn the art of communication and learn better communication with people.'
Confession also makes people's paths straight but it does not aim at getting to know the world of emotions or hurts. The point of reference is always the concrete Person: Christ who is present in every confession. It is an encounter with him. 'The aim of the sacrament of penance is to reconcile a sinner with God', says Jozef Augustyn, Jesuit Father and known preacher. And Fr Miroslaw Pilsniak, OP, adds that 'the attitude of confession' is a complete, total surrender of the sinner to God's judgement like the crucified Son gave himself up to the Father. Faith and experience of God are the most important things in confession. This is the experience of Someone who is greater than us. Since only God can forgive sins and forgive us. Therefore, psychotherapy will never replace confession. But it can be connected with it since confession that concerns the supernatural and spiritual sphere and psychotherapy that concerns psychological and emotional sphere are not distant or contradictory fields. Psychotherapy and confession need each other. They must only keep their differences and autonomy.

When priest sends penitent to psychologist

'It is good when priests send people to therapists and therapists send people to priests', explains Fr Dariusz Kowalczyk, the Jesuit's Provincial. He thinks that there is an increasing need to combine psychology and spirituality.
'Since it is not possible that at some moment of psychotherapy man does not turn to spirituality. And a therapist cannot show him the way to God', adds Ewa Osobka.

When should a priest send his penitent to undergo therapy?

'For example if a person has excessive scruples', Fr Kowalczyk explains, 'I remember confessing a girl who begged for absolution since she claimed that absolution would make her more peaceful. But she actually needed psychologist's help.'
'The same applies to depression, which is more and more loudly said to be the illness of the 21st century in the sense of deep sorrows and melancholy', predicts Fr Kowalczyk. He regards this phenomenon as a sad sign of our times.
Among Dominicans and Jesuits there are confessors that are in constant contact with psychiatrists and psychologists to whom they many a time send their penitents. But this is not a common practice among priests. But confession alone does not solve psychological, emotional or personality problems.
'The misunderstanding is when 'a religious bandage' is created', says Ewa Osobka. A person goes to some retreats instead of trying to see what is going on in his life. But retreats are not to solve problems. They are forms of work on spirituality. The aim of retreats is not to feel better, not to get rid of one's fears or depression but to deepen one's relationship with God.'
Priests who hear confessions of people who committed the sin of abortion often send them to psychotherapists. Those who contributed to kill unborn children accumulate lots of emotions: anger, grief, despair, and pricks of conscience. As psychotherapists claim unless someone sees that and analyses the circumstances of the killing he will not free himself from guilt.

Good guilt - bad guilt

Feeling guilt is known to every conscience. It is conscience that informs us that we betray our values. However, we can see a clear difference between guilt that a person has when he comes to confession, and the guilt that he analyses with a psychotherapist.
'Psychotherapy is to bring relief, set somehow free from the feeling of guilt', says Ewa Osobka. Whereas confession is 'based' on the feeling of guilt. Since one should have this feeling to experience contrition'. 'Contrition for sins is a decision based on reasonable judgement and not on unpleasant emotions connected with disobedience of the commandments', explains Fr Pilsniak in his book 'Milosc, przyjazn, modlitwa, czyli wszystko, co najwazniejsze' [Love, Friendship, Prayer: All the Most Important Things]. 'Contrition for sins is my inner decision, confession before God: yes, I recognise these deeds as wrong', the Dominican Father explains.
There is no judgement of behaviour in psychotherapy. 'Although, naturally, psychotherapist also knows that if someone hurts himself this is bad for him. But he cannot give his judgement', says Ewa Osobka. Therefore, the most important thing is to answer why a given person behaves like this, why something happens in his life and how to change it.
'Because of that', Fr Kowalczyk stresses, it is so important to differentiate between the spiritual border and the border of all the things connected with the psyche.'

Priests also need therapy

As Fr Kowalczyk claims that psychotherapy can be very useful to priests themselves, to those who have some problems and to those who want to be more competent to minister to others. Priests choose various therapies more and more frequently. 'They come with various problems, for example with doubts about their vocations, emotional entangling, inner crises, difficulties to relate to people', says Ewa Osobka.
Those priests decide to work on themselves because they want to change their lives. 'And they usually succeed', psychologists say. Although they admit that priests are the social group that experiences most difficulties when deciding to begin therapy and ask for help. They are used to helping people every day as if they were predestined to cope with their own problems. And this is not the case, one of the reasons being that therapists and priests-psychologists stress the necessity to 'uncharm' psychotherapy. Since psychotherapy is not for mentally ill but it is helpful in emotional disorders and various crises. Those who decide to begin therapy know about it, they are intelligent and what to change things in their lives. 'It is not shameful to go to a therapist since how can a man who has not studied psychology know how to cope with concrete problems?', Ewa Osobka asks a rhetorical question.

Independently of emotions

'How many times have you confessed your sins?' This was the question one of the priests asked at the students' pastoral centre in Warsaw at the beginning of Lent. There was silence. Since no student counted his/her confessions. And this is another difference between confession and psychotherapy: we confess continuously throughout our life in spite of the fact that this is not easy and pleasant. But as priests emphasize the important thing in Christianity is not to stop this practice, not to postpone confession to some special occasions like wedding, Mass for the dead or Christian feasts. It is also worth remembering that 'the normal' condition for a Christian is sanctifying grace, which allows us to receive Holy Communion.
Confession is a spiritual healing, which reaches more deeply than the sphere of the psyche and confession is different from psychotherapy although relief may seem similar. The grace acts independently of human emotions and whether you feel well or bad.
'A penitent who confesses his sins with sincerity receives the grace of reconciliation with God even if he experiences some emotional disturbance or various emotional temptations' explains Fr Josef Augustyn. Since God goes beyond our experiences and emotions. The sacrament of penance constitutes one of the great mysteries of faith, which it difficult to understand from the human point of view but without which it is hard to get to heaven.

"Niedziela" 10/2007

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: