I was invited to speak last night on BBC Radio Four, during The World Tonight programme, on the subject of deathbed confessions. You can hear the entire programme here. This discussion in question is about 37 minutes in. The story that occasioned the discussion, that of the man who confessed to murder nearly 70 years after the event, is here.
I have several observations to make about this subject, in no particular order.
First of all, when you know you are dying, make sure you call a priest. He can hear your Confession, give you Holy Communion, anoint you, and give you the Apostolic Pardon, which is a plenary indulgence in the moment of death. All these things are not to be dismissed when you are facing your final journey to your Maker. Indeed, they are to be treasured. Sometimes, one comes across people who do not want to see the priest, because they do not want to admit to themselves that they are dying. This is sad, and an indication of the culture in which we live – after all, ours is a culture where death is the great unmentionable. One must hope and pray that such people have time enough to accept that they are dying, and prepare themselves accordingly.
The second thing is that it occurs to me that Confession, and with it absolution and penance, are good for the soul, as the saying goes, and that the non-religious have never quite managed to develop a suitable substitute to any of them. My guess is that the unnamed man in Canada who handed himself into the police for a murder committed 70 years ago did so prompted by his confessor. To confess to the crime, and to allow the crime to be officially solved, would be part of making amends, indeed the only amends the man can now make. In so doing, and in confessing to a priest (if that is what he did, though we have no way of knowing) the murderer admitted his guilt, took the penance, faced up to the truth about himself, and encountered the truth about God too – namely that God forgives because He is loving. That would have been a truly liberating experience.
Indeed anyone who goes to confession experiences the same liberation, even when the Confession may be a good deal less dramatic. But if you are a non-believer, who or what is to liberate you from your guilt occasioned by your evil deeds? Secularists may point out that some sins are imaginary, but most people admit to the existence of evil. So, how do we own up to our part in evil and liberate ourselves from it, if there is no God to forgive us?
The third thing that strikes me is that the decision of the British police to interview the man and demand his extradition is ludicrous. He is not for long in this world, so sending him to jail, should he live long enough to be put on trial, is absurd. After seven decades this murder cannot really be dealt with as a legal problem – but it remains a moral problem. We live in a world obsessed with legal procedure and punishment, but with little understanding of forgiveness and redemption. This case of the Canadian man confessing to murder after 71 years is a good illustration of the futility of the first, and the necessity of the second.