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The remedial quality of confession

| Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Professor Samuel Bray teaches an absolutely exceptional upper-level course on remedies. I’m taking it this semester, and it’s a true honor to be learning the law of remedies (including the distinction between law and equity) from a renowned national expert in the subject. One of the things I’ve noticed about remedies (the course, not the concept) is how all-encompassing it is. This course has basically taken everything we’ve done throughout the first year of law school, ties it up in a bow, and asks us to go deeper. I leave that class every Monday and Thursday grateful for the opportunity to think deeply about what happens after a court has decided who should be liable for what in a case.

Right before fall break, I went to confession at the Basilica. Now, I’m a regular at the confessional, which has its pros and cons. Pros: it’s good for me to avail myself of the graces of the sacrament of confession frequently, and the post-confession high cannot be beaten. Cons: between every confession, we sin (thus why we go back), and sin is bad. Plus, too often I’ve fallen into the trap of rendering the beginning of a confession by rote: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last Confession was about a week ago. In the time intervening …”

I’ve gone to confession once or twice since, but this early October confession stuck with me for an analogy the priest provided me. After I had completed my confession, he said that sometimes, it is easy enough to associate the sacrament of confession with something like a car wash. When our cars get dirty, we take them to the car wash so that they might be cleaned, then leave for the road again, only for our car to get dirty again so that we return to the car wash again. But confession is not supposed to be like a car wash, the priest said. Because, if we let Him, God is doing far more than just wiping away the stain of sin. If we let Him, God seeks to change our very hearts and minds (metanoia in the Greek) 

You might be thinking: “Interesting reflection on the sacrament of Confession, Devin, but how does any of that relate to your remedies course?” Confession is like my remedies course in many ways, but the most important is that the “car wash” analogy the priest gave me in the confessional before fall break led my mind on a spiritually (and legally) edifying side tangent. I find myself flourishing the most when I am able to tie the parts of my life that are completely unrelated to my legal studies back to my legal studies, and the confessional is no exception. When the priest gave the “car wash” analogy, I had a eureka moment: the confessional is like injunctive relief, not damages.

Remedies as a course strives to outline the different things that someone can ask for in the event he or she wins a lawsuit he or she has filed against someone else. In many cases, people sue because they want money to rectify a wrong. But sometimes people want other things. If the sale of a house goes awry, people will often sue to obtain a specific piece of property, for instance (that’s called “specific performance”). And most importantly for this column, sometimes people sue to stop other people from doing things. When you sue with that in mind, you’re seeking an “injunction,” or for a court to “enjoin” another person or group. Injunctions are kind of hot in the news right now because issues surrounding who courts can enjoin and when are at the center of the Texas abortion bill case the Supreme Court just decided to hear, but to make a long story short, if a court enjoins you from doing something and you do it anyway, you can get put away for contempt. Additionally, courts can “modify” an injunction to reflect changes in circumstances, like when an injunction is ambiguous and parties don’t know how to comply with it. Most importantly, though, unlike money damages, injunctions require continued mediation between a court and the parties to litigation, since an injunction always asks you to stop doing something for an extended period rather than simply do one thing (pay money) and move on with your life.

So it is with our spiritual life and how we should approach the confessional. Going to confession isn’t like paying money damages, as though you can pay a penalty (be it actually through money, or through some sort of good work) and then move on with the rest of your life as though nothing even happened. God calls us to a deeper relationship than that. In the first instance, he has placed the natural law upon our hearts such that we are capable of discerning right from wrong. This is akin to an initial injunction from a court. But sometimes we fail to listen and obey, just as injunctions aren’t always clear. In those instances, where I fall, it is the confessional that “modifies the injunction,” so to speak, setting me on a path to authentically “amend my life,” to quote an older form of the Act of Contrition. But what about the notion of penance? That too fits this analogy, but simply as time served on the charge of being in contempt of court. For sin is the contemnation (that’s not a typo) of God, and our penance, given in the confessional, is how we make that right.

The next time you go to confession (and really, dear reader, you should go to confession), keep this in mind. God isn’t calling us to do this to pay for our wrongs. His Son already did that on the cross. We shouldn’t approach confession as though it’s going to enable us to move on with our lives as though nothing’s even happened. The Sacrament of confession should change us, leading us to a continued, closer relationship with our heavenly father, and remedying (pardon the pun) our wounded souls.

Devin is a member of Notre Dame Law School’s class of 2023. Originally from Farwell, Michigan, he is a 2020 graduate of Michigan State University’s James Madison College. In addition to serving as a teaching assistant at the law school, in his free time, he sings with the Notre Dame Folk Choir and discusses the legal developments of the day with anyone who will listen. He can be reached at [email protected] or @DevinJHumphreys on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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