The Twelve Steps and Compatibility with Sacramental Confession

During my interview on the “‘On Call’ with Wendy Wiese” radio show on May 1st there was an Anonymous caller at the end who asked a question on the compatibility of the Twelve Steps with the Catholic Church’s sacramental Confession. As the call was near the end of the show, I didn’t fully engage the question. Upon listening again to the show I caught a deeper sense to Anonymous’ point. Which was:

In the Twelve Steps, you review your life and bring forward all the bad stuff you did. How is that compatible with the teaching that in Confession, God forgives and forgets your sins? I think he meant that if you’ve been confessing your sins to a priest all along, why bother going through the moral inventory of Step 4 and sharing it with another in Step 5? (As well as the follow up Steps along the way.) If God forgives and forgets in Confession, what is the point of doing the Steps?

I am assuming a few things. One, is that the person in question has not dropped the practice of the Faith during their drinking career. Many do. In the context of the caller’s question, it seems as if the hypothetical person was still going to Confession and probably confessing all of their alcoholic transgressions. This is fine. They were forgiven. The slate was clean. However, chances are they committed those sins all over again. In my experience, and in the testimony of priests who generalize what they hear in Confession, many people commit and confess the same sins time and time again, whether they are addicts or not.

Another thing: although Catholics are supposed to do a thorough Examination of Conscience in preparation for Confession, I think few actually go very deep and try and get at the underlying root causes of their sins. This is the intended purpose of the Twelve Steps, particularly the Fourth one. We have to uncover not only the bad things we’ve done, but we must understand why we did them, so as to comprehend how our alcoholism affected our lives and the lives of those around us. We do that fearless and searching moral inventory not only to clean up our past and make amends, but to see the patterns and commonalities or all of our sins. We get at what triggered our behavior so we can make the required changes in our lives. Whether our past behavior involved consistently broken relationships, an inability to hold a job, or just not being able to finish “big dreams,” we see in our Fourth Step all the bad we have done, and also why. So even though we may have confessed these sins and have been forgiven, we still need to address them in the context of the Twelve Steps.

Why? So we can forgive ourselves. That may sound trite and New Age-y, but if we do not forgive ourselves we run the risk of not being able to shed our resentments over these past failures. “We remember the past, but do not close the door on it,” to paraphrase a line from AA’s “Big Book.” We close the door on our past out of shame or fear. If we forgive ourselves, we have no need to close that door to our past. We can remember it as it made us whom we are today, and we can look ourselves in the mirror because we learned from our past. And we can bring what we learned to others.

So yes, God forgives us and forgets our sins when we go to Confession; but when we work the Twelve Steps, we can forgive and forget them, too.

Know someone, perhaps yourself, who might like Catholic devotionals for alcoholics? Please take a look at my books! (Thank you!!)

"The Recovery Rosary: Reflections for Alcoholics and Addicts"

and "The Stations of the Cross for Alcoholics"

4 Comments

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head. My experience has been that there are few priests who want to hear a Fifth Step, which is (of course) the REAL corresponding step to the Sacrament of Confession. When I am working with a Catholic in recovery, I always point out to them that I am not forgiving their sins (I am not a priest); rather, I am helping them pin point those character defects that kept leaping into their life at the most inopportune moments. Then, if they continue to do a 10th step on a daily basis, they will be able to bring to the confessional that which keeps tripping them up in sobriety. It is not an either/or, it is a both/and proposition.

    • Actually, I think all 12 Steps correspond to Confession. Consider the time spent for the daily examen, prayer, and amendment of life, all 12 of them link to the Sacrament. I have long had a blogpost planned about this, perhaps I should get to it!

  2. The other point is that in Confession, the priest is unable to keep us accountable after absolution. Ven Fulton J Sheen spoke on the Seal of the Confessional and explained it by saying that if he had someone steal from his desk, then come to Confession to him about it, Ven FJS could not only NOT give any indication to that person when he saw him, Ven FJS could also not start to lock his desk or office in order to prevent further theft by that person in the future.
    Our sponsors in AA/Alanon have the ability to keep us accountable in the role they play. By telling God only, as so many say they do, they don’t find that root cause. By going to Confession, we are forgiven, but there is no human to be accountable to later on. By having a real sponsor to work through the Steps (Tell God and another person… ) we can be held accountable when we begin to slip… and by Being Catholic, having that sponsor, then also having the privilege of going to Confession… we have the best of the best. Forgiven. Grace to continue on. Someone to hold us accountable here in this place.

    • We have to keep ourselves accountable; “the firm purpose of amendment.” Also, if we do a nightly examination of conscience, that serves as an accountability method. Sort of like a precursor to our own Particular Judgment after we die: our conscience damns us or not.

      If we are honest, open and willing, we can determine the root causes of our sins. Perhaps by some sort of combination of both sacramental Confession, and working with another, as well as a sincere nightly examen, we can truly get to the root causes of our sins and successfully amend our lives.

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