The Catholic Church Has the Best Resolutions
COMMENTARY: And that’s where the sacrament of confession comes in.
The journalistic pattern is: stories before New Year’s Day about your resolutions for the next year, stories the first week of the new year about the resolutions you’re making, and sometime later in the month and the beginning of the next, stories about the resolutions you failed to keep. This is one of the last.
They don’t work very well, but in any case, what Americans try to do with New Year’s resolutions, the Church does better, and all year-round. Catholicism asks us to resolve to get better, but does it with more realism about human nature and actually helps us do what we’ve said we will do.
According to a poll from a couple of years ago, almost half of Americans make a New Year’s resolution. About a third of those resolve to join a gym, lose weight or eat better.
The fitness industry ramps up its advertising the last month or two of the year, playing on their marks’ sense of failure and inadequacy. Some people sign up for the gym and those who already joined start using it again. Gym use shoots up on Jan. 2. People start abandoning their resolutions, according to this poll, on the third Thursday of the month. People begin really “falling off the wagon” about a week into February.
Making New Year’s resolutions can’t hurt, I suppose. The turn of the calendar year offers as good a time as any to try to change yourself. New year, new person. Except that most of us don’t change that way, and even those who do, don’t change in all the ways they should.
The resolution leaves you on your own. And you’re probably trying to do something really hard to do and overcome failings or defects in yourself that you can’t overcome by will power alone. Even St. Paul, all-in follower of Jesus Christ that he was, lamented that he didn’t do the things he wanted to do and did the things he didn’t want to do.
Catholic Christianity, having a hard-nosed view of human beings, helps a lot more. It asks us to make regular resolutions, guides in the resolutions we should make, warns us we’ll fail to keep them perfectly, gives us the chance to start over right away, encourages us to keep trying, and helps us do better.
I mean the sacrament of confession. The Church gives us the chance to confess our sins and absolves us for doing what we shouldn’t have done, and pronounces the Divine promise of aid, and then delivers to us the Son of God himself in the Mass.
Bad Times for Repentance
Ironically, January is the worst month of the year to start controlling your eating and exercise. Most of the country is cold and human beings are made to stay inside and eat when it’s cold. This must make the gyms happy, because they can look forward to people renewing their memberships next December, and then only using them for a few weeks.
Every month is a bad month for repentance. Every month gives us reasons to do whatever we’re tempted to do. Take the deadly sin of gluttony, the one from which many people are unconsciously trying to free themselves by resolving to exercise more and eat less. It gives us a good example of what God working through his Church does for us.
At the simplest level, we commit the sin of gluttony when we take more of something than we should. We commit it when we give something — even a very good thing — a much bigger place in our lives than it should have, and our consumption keeps us from doing something else we should do.
We may think of gluttony as an end of the year sin, with Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. But we can be tempted to it every waking moment, because we can always overindulge in something.
We think of eating and drinking too much, but we can make pigs of ourselves overindulging in almost anything. The internet, for one. Recreation for another. Reading, even (as hard as that is to believe). Even exercise, especially as gluttonous indulgence in exercise serves the deadly sin of vanity. (Exercise enough to get healthier, but not enough to make others admire your abs.)
Tricky Sins to See
Like every sin, it’s trickier to see than we think. We think we’ll know a sin when we commit it, like we’d know when we commit murder, but we very often don’t. We can commit the sin of gluttony by over-indulging in good things without seeing that it makes us gluttons. You can have too much of a good thing, as the expression goes.
But it’s even trickier than that. The archtempter Screwtape explains this to his dim nephew, the apprentice tempter Wormwood, in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters
Screwtape points out that everyone recognizes the “gluttony of Excess.” The devils have been more successful seducing modern people into a “gluttony of Delicacy.”
Wormwood is trying to draw a young man to damnation. The young man’s mother is a glutton of delicacy. I picture a little bird-like lady. In a busy restaurant, Screwtape says, “she gives a little scream at the plate which some overworked waitress has set before her and says, ‘Oh, that’s far, far too much! Take it away and bring me about a quarter of it.’ If challenged, she would say she was doing this to avoid waste; in reality she does it because the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want.”
The arch-tempter explains:
“Her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern?”
Screwtape continues with a shrewd description of the way the woman’s gluttony rules her life and makes others, including her son, miserable. And she has no clue that she’s a glutton, because she doesn’t eat too much, and in fact wants very little. But that little has to be perfect, just so, exactly what she wants. She’s a glutton for having her way. And gluttony, remember, is a deadly sin.
Confession as an Active Resolution
In offering confession, the Church offers us a much better version of the human desire to change, which our culture expresses in the idea of New Year’s resolutions. She knows us in and out, and how much we need to change, and how much help we need in changing.
You might think of confession as an act of making regular resolutions, fitted to your needs. The examination of conscience gives you a procedure for coming up with the right resolutions, and helps you see places we need to change you wouldn’t see on your own. Most of us must be as blind to some of our sins as the young man’s mother. The priest may help with this. So may your family and friends.
The Church’s provision of the sacrament gives the implicit message that the Church knows you will fail, but that you don’t need to quit. You can always start again, and God wants to start again. Someone is on your side, eager to help you.
The sacrament tells you that God will always be there for you when you need to make a new resolution — even a new resolution to stop doing the thing you’ve resolved not to do so many times before. The priest sits in the confessional as the prodigal son’s father stood watching for his son to come home.
The act of contrition lets you express your sorrow for what you’ve done and resolve again, out loud, to do what you want to do. The absolution gives you what you resolved to do, as a loving act of pure grace. You’ve kept your resolution, because God kept it for you. God doesn’t leave you there, waiting for you to fail again. Knowing your weaknesses, Jesus himself comes to you in the Mass as food to strengthen you to do what you’ve resolved to do.
Make a New Year’s resolution if it helps, but definitely make one: Resolve to go to confession regularly.