Soul Physician

It is not the healthy who need a physician, but they who are sick.  But go, and learn what this means:  I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.  For I have come to call sinners, not the just.

–Matthew 9:12-13–

            In this insightful observation, Jesus clearly indicates that the art of caring for souls is very much like the science of healing bodies.  What better way to describe the work of a priest in confession than to compare it with that of a wise physician?  Obviously, both practitioners are “healers” and must have a good “bedside manner,” but the parallels between the priesthood and the medical profession go far deeper than that.  Here let me list only eight.

            First:  No right-minded doctor would ever claim that he or she possessed the actual ability to heal.  At best, the physician is nothing more than the instrument of the Great Healer.  Similarly, no priest in confession would ever claim that he had the actual capacity to forgive sins.  The confessor is but the instrument of Jesus.  It is Christ who forgives, but Our Lord chooses to work through the priest.  Jesus could very easily have chosen to do otherwise.  Ours is not to question divine wisdom.

            Second:  A doctor does not need to be consulted in cases of minor illness (colds, indigestion, athlete’s foot, et cetera).  Over-the-counter medications are usually quite adequate.  Yet when it comes to serious illnesses (cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, et cetera) a physician’s diagnosis and treatment is essential.  If, therefore, there is even the smallest doubt as to whether a symptom is serious, one should see one’s doctor.  The same sort of thing holds true with regard to the forgiveness of sins.  Venial sins do not need to be confessed to a priest.  The Penitential Rite of the Mass, holy water, or even a good act of contrition is sufficient to obtain divine pardon.  Mortal sins, on the other hand, are a different matter altogether.  They must be confessed in the sacrament of penance and absolved by a priest.  Remember, however, the list of mortal sins is longer than most of us think and includes more than just murder.  If the slightest doubt exists as to whether or not a sin is mortal, the sin should be confessed.  In addition, there is benefit to going to confession even if the penitent has no mortal sins to confess.  Such confessions are very salutary and are called “confessions of devotion.”  In any event, regular confession is important.  Thus my third point.

            Third:  Just as an annual checkup is a minimal requirement for anyone wishing to remain in good health, regular confession (once a year at the very least) is a sine qua non for maintaining the life of the soul.

            Fourth:  A physician cannot address a patient’s concern unless the patient tells him or her what is really going on.  It would not help, for instance, if you said you had a sore throat but were too embarrassed to say you had rectal bleeding.  Have no fear.  Doctors are well acquainted with human frailty and are seldom shocked by what you tell them.   Similarly, a priest cannot assist a penitent unless the penitent is as honest as he or she can be.  Do not be afraid.  We priests have heard it all.  I myself can truthfully say that there is nothing I have heard in confession that I have not done, have not thought about doing, or could not do far better if I put my mind to it.  (See 1 Corinthians 10:13a.)

            Fifth:  There is much wisdom in the proverb: “The doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient.”  Well do I know this from personal experience!  Years ago, I tried to lower my cholesterol by eating canned tuna fish every day.  When I went for my regular checkup, I discovered that my cholesterol had indeed gone down, but my blood pressure was through the roof!  I should have consulted my doctor before making any major changes in my diet.  A similar principle applies to the health of the soul.  The spiritual director who guides himself has a fool for a directee.  One should never embark upon a new spiritual regime without the advice of a confessor or spiritual director.  Some zealous individuals, for example, might wish to undertake strict fasts and penances when they would do far better by performing acts of charity.  Others might want to do mission work in exotic lands when they would be better advised to look after their own families at home.  When it comes to both physical and spiritual health, good intentions are not enough.  Professional approbation is vital.

            Sixth:  A patient who is unhappy with a doctor’s diagnosis or proposed treatment has the right to seek a second opinion.  The same holds true for the penitent who is dissatisfied with the way he or she has been treated in confession.  A “bad” priest is never an excuse for abandoning the Catholic Church, just as an inept physician is never a good reason for denying the efficacy of medical science.  The best thing to do in either case is to seek out another professional.

            Seventh:  HIPPA regulations underscore the importance of doctor-patient confidentiality.  Yet the Church goes even further in preserving the secrecy of the confessional.  Canon 983 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law asserts:  “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore, it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason.”  Fear not.  What happens in confession stays in confession.

            Eighth:  Doctors are not immune from sickness.  They can, in fact, die of the very illnesses they themselves treat in others.  For example, my own father, a general surgeon, died of colon cancer, a disease he himself encountered all too frequently in his patients.  Yet a clean bill of health is not a prerequisite for practicing medicine.  Dad continued to work for two years after his original diagnosis. Alas!  Priests are not impeccable.  They can go to hell for the same sins they absolve in confession.  A spotless soul, however, is not a requirement for confessors.  God can use even a sinful priest to forgive sins.  Pray for your doctor, of course, but, by all means, pray for your confessor.

            So the next time someone tells you that he or she cannot understand why it is necessary to go to a priest for the forgiveness of sins, tell that person that you too are just as baffled.  Why should Jesus choose to make use of frail priests when He could just as easily forgive us directly?  Then again, why should Our Lord choose to rely on fallible doctors when He could just as easily heal us without their intervention?  As I said earlier, ours is not to question the ways of the Almighty, the Great Healer of body and soul.

            What are you waiting for?  Schedule a checkup with your doctor.  Confess your sins to a priest.