Freethought Almanac

Lighting a candle in toxic air.

August 17: The Soul of Confession

Bill Clinton's "Map Room" Speech (1998):
Churches and Confession

Bill Clinton

It was on this date, August 17, 1998, that then-President Bill Clinton made his famous Map Room speech – a confession that he did indeed have inappropriate sexual relations with White House intern Monica Lewinski. Although not a Roman Catholic, President Clinton's simultaneously regretful and defiant "confession" would technically pass muster in a Catholic confessional.

If "confession is good for the soul," as we infer from I John 1:9,[1] what exactly are we talking about? The practice of confession is an invention of priests dating from the oldest religions – including the Hebrews, the ancient Babylonians, and the Aztecs of ancient Mexico[2], among others – based on the supernatural belief that all ailments come from God and that it takes a priest to relieve the suffering. Those suffering from the imaginary ailment of "sin," of course, would naturally entreat a priest-shaman for relief.

The Catholic Church takes confession much further. Third-century Pope Callistus (217-222) took advantage of forgeries (which we politely call “interpolations”) in Matthew (16:19 and 18:18),[3] giving the apostles the power to forgive sins, and confession. Consequently, sin became ubiquitous – according to the contemporary Bishop Hippolytus. By the sixth century, the church was publishing lists of sins to be confessed, called Penitentials, that contain such gross sexual peccadilloes that perhaps only Playboy or Hustler could translate and publish them today![4]

After the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, under the papacy of the powerful Innocent III, annual confession became compulsory. Theologians conveniently discovered doctrines confirming confession, which was formalized as the "Sacrament of Penance" by the Council of Trent in 1651.


But if confession is good for the soul, there is no evidence that confession has any effect whatsoever on morals. Not only was absolution from sin sold to penitents, albeit indirectly (indulgences),[5] but since priests are allowed to hear confessions in any setting, not just the traditional confessional box, they had and took the opportunity to trade absolution for heterosexual (or homosexual) liaisons.

As for the spiritual effects of confession, the obligation to confess begins when a Catholic reaches age seven – old enough, one assumes, to deserve hell for unrepentant sin. After the priest prescribes penance for the confessed sins, and the penitent claims he or she is truly sorry, the effect is quite the opposite of "go and sin no more." Forgiveness is a license to sin!

The chief advantage to Freethinkers of having no sky-god to forgive sins is that there is no remedy but restitution for behaving badly. Unlike former President Clinton, before his Map Room confession, for Freethinkers there is quite a bit of incentive for not doing bad things in the first place!

[1] I John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (KJV) "si confiteamur peccata nostra fidelis est et iustus ut remittat nobis peccata et emundet nos ab omni iniquitate" (Vulgate) "εαν ομολογωμεν τας αμαρτιας ημων πιστος εστιν και δικαιος ινα αφη ημιν τας αμαρτιας και καθαριση ημας απο πασης αδικιας" (Greek).
[2] Morris Jastrow Jr, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (1898), Julian Morgenstern, The Doctrine of Sin in the Babylonian Religion (1905), Theophilus Goldridge Pinches, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (1906), full text available through Project Gutenberg. For the Aztecs, see Bernardino De Sahagun, Historia general de las Cosas de Nueva Espana (General History of the Things of New Spain), c. 1577 (Spanish trans., 1829).
[3] Matthew 16:19: "And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (KJV) "et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum et quodcumque ligaveris super terram erit ligatum in caelis et quodcumque solveris super terram erit solutum in caelis" (Vulgate) "και δωσω σοι τας κλεις της βασιλειας των ουρανων και ο εαν δησης επι της γης εσται δεδεμενον εν τοις ουρανοις και ο εαν λυσης ετι της γης εσται λελυμενον εν τοις ουρανοις" (Greek).

Matthew 18:18: "Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (KJV) "amen dico vobis quaecumque alligaveritis super terram erunt ligata et in caelo et quaecumque solveritis super terram erunt soluta et in caelo" (Vulgate) "αμην λεγω υμιν οσα εαν δησητε επι της γης εσται δεδεμενα εν τω ουρανω και οσα εαν λυσητε επι της γης εσται λελυμενα εν τω ουρανω" (Greek).
[4] For example, historian and ex-priest Joseph McCabe refers us to the list of the tenth-century Abbot Regino of Prum in De ecclesiasticis disciplinis, (in Migne Collection of the Fathers, CXXXII).
[5] Pope John XXIII was charged by the Council of Constance (1415) with the direct sale of absolution.

Originally published August 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

Daily Almanac

This Week in Freethought History (December 29-January 4)

Read about comedian Paula Poundstone, the Vatican recognizing Israel, Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius, Swiss Protestant reformer Huldrych Zwingli, American science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, the founding of the Fabian Society, and more … (concludes the series)

Daily Almanac

Coming soon!

Follow me on twitter

@ 2020 Free Thought Almanac