From 1897: How to hear a woman's confession

Since this is Reconciliation Monday in the greater New York City area — three dioceses are “leaving the light on” until 9 pm tonight, so people can go to confession — here’s a fascinating glimpse at the sacrament from the 19th century, courtesy Pat McNamara, who found this advice in a manual for seminarians:

A dangerous rock which the priest encounters in the stormy sea of the world is the hearing of women’s confessions. The knowledge of this fact and a sense of dread are his best safeguard. He must persevere in a state of indifference and insensibility towards female penitents; he must keep his heart hermetically sealed against human sentiments of affection and avoid every sign of familiarity, though cherishing a holy respect and reverence for the sex of our mothers.

Woman needs the sacraments more frequently than man. Her good influence in the home-circle is of the highest value for the faith and morality of those who come in daily contact with her. Her presence should spread about her the perfume of Christian devotion and charity. It is the duty of a confessor to cultivate the virtues of humility and purity in the queenly heart of the Catholic woman and to fit her for the exalted position which Mary, the Mother of Jesus, won for her in the Church of her Son.

Guard your eyes: Averte oculos tuos, ne videant canitatem. The eyes are the windows of the soul; close them to keep sensuality aloof. Do not look at a female penitent either before, during, or after confession. It would he injurious to you and others for several reasons. Non permittas illas ante confessionale accedere, ut tibi loquantur, et multo minus, ut manus deosculentur. In actu confessionis non ostendat, se eas agnoscere(St. Alph.). Guard your tongue; never use expressions of friendship and familiarity; put the fewest possible questions.

With young women observe the advice of St. Augustine: Sermo brevis et rigidus cum his mulieribus habendus est; nec tamen quia sanctiores, ideo minus cavendae; quo enim sanctiores sunt, eo magis alliciant. St. Liguori says: Cum junioribus in confessionariosis potius rigidus quam suavis. Speak to a woman in the confessional as if you were addressing her spirit, separated from the body and standing before the judgment-seat of God. Be kind and respectful to old women, especially if they are afflicted with deafness or some infirmity peculiar to their age. Obsecra anus ut matres(1 Tim. v. 2).

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  • jkm

    Dabbing a little Eau de Christian Devotion and Charity behind my ears as I head to confession, dearly hoping that my pastor has preserved an appropriate sense of dread over the years. Not sure how the Averte oculos tuos thing is going to work in face-to-face Reconciliation, but oh well.

    I’m old enough that this exercise in quaintness makes me smile, even though it is also eloquent evidence of attitudes in priestly formation that we are reaping a sad harvest from, these days. Almost worth shedding a few cheap women’s tears over.

    May you and yours enjoy the fruits of a blessed Holy Week!

  • 635751279

    “he must keep his heart hermetically sealed” –Good Lord, I picture his heart in a ziplock baggie or maybe shrink wrapped.

  • justamouse

    Wow, that’s some power we women have. Now if I could only manage to get flames to fly from my fingertips I’d have something going. Or, if I could manage to get the kidlets to clean their rooms…

  • Dan S

    UGH!

    Woman needs the sacraments more than men? Don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.

    Do not look at the female penitent? Avert your eyes?
    Was there that much fear of leering priests that were unable to control themselves. Perhaps they were on to something, though, considering all of the inappropriate behavior we are seeing from a small percentage of priests.

    I think this manual needs a healthy dose of Theology of the Body. Women aren’t to be seen as disembodied, as this manual seems to want seminarians to view them. What about that “adequate anthropology”?

  • http://www.gerardnadal.com Gerard Nadal

    Translation: They didn’t have a language to help young men understand their own sexuality and how to channel that energy in a life-giving manner when dealing with women. It was easier to denigrate the woman than it was to help the young man understand his own weaknesses and temptations. I agree that we’re reaping the fruits of that planting.

  • http://abbey-roads.blogspot.com/ terryn

    Excellent advice. Those Jezebelle’s!

  • diakonos09

    Oh man…no wonder we got to where we are today. I am surpirsed they didn’t have Sunday Mass by gender with the Women’s Mass held in a cloister grill with triple locks and all the curtains drawn.

  • Eugene

    Dan S,

    If you read the next line: “Her good influence in the home-circle is of the highest value for the faith and morality of those who come in daily contact with her.” That sounds like a pretty solid reason for needing the sacrament of reconciliation more often.

    It’s not saying that women, by their gender, are more sinful. It’s saying that women, by the way in which they go about their daily lives, need to be models of the Christian life of the highest order.

    If we reflect a bit on the context in which this was written, this makes perfect sense. Western women in the late 19th century were almost universally involved in domestic duties. Men were the breadwinners. A man involved with his work duties isn’t going to have much for talk. The woman, however, when not at home itself, is at market or meeting with other families, or whatever it is people do when they spend all their time taking care of their family.

    In that context, who needs reconciliation more? The man, seeing the same people for most of the day, being occupied with a task that he forgets himself in and just goes, or the woman, going through a variety of situations with a variety of people, all while minding what is presumably a very large gaggle of children? It’s very easy for a variety of small weeds to pop up in such circumstances, and what is reconciliation if not a bit of gardening for the soul?

    Of course, this doesn’t even begin to touch on the idea of the woman as the spiritual engine of the family, or the vast and incredible influence she has on her children, which I think are the main points of the explanatory sentence. But I’ll leave those aside for now.

    Peace in Christ!

  • dymphna

    Actually, it’s pretty practical advice. Young women develop crushes easily and old women gossip.

  • Dan S

    Eugene, It’s not up to me to determine who needs reconciliation more.
    It doesn’t seem obvious that the Church has determined that women need this more because of their duties.
    One could equally make the case that men have mistresses far more than women are/were unfaithful.

    Anecdotally, it is well known from many family histories that men had girlfriends on the side. I married into an Italian culture and I was shocked at how rather common place it was within that culture, for the men. They worked hard, but had girlfriends. I’ve seen this more than once. that’s not to denigrate Italians, but to show that maybe this wasn’t looked at in the same ways.

    All I am saying is that looking at this over 100 years later, there is a clarity where certain presumptions come out of that time, and it is questionable whether or not those presumptions were valid.

  • http://www.ironiccatholic.com The Ironic Catholic

    I’m sorry, but ugh.

  • Meggan

    Not bad advice (except for the part about women needing the sacrament more than men).

  • http://homeindouglas.blogspot.com Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher

    Well, I guess we are so alluring that we are constantly an occasion of sin for priests. Thats right: Blame The Women!

    Perhaps we should just wear burlap bags over our heads at all times to prevent the inflammation of the senses of priests…

    I think that it’s time to retire the old Madonna/Whore thing, don’t you?

  • Dan S

    if it is true that women need the sacrament more, why isn’t this still being taught today?

    It is highly uncharitable, since this must somehow be true, to not tell women that they need this more. the Church is in the business of speaking the truth in charity, and is is being derelict in its duties for dropping this.

    I still say the manual needed a good does of Theology of the Body.

  • RomCath

    “Perhaps we should just wear burlap bags over our heads at all times to prevent the inflammation of the senses of priests…”

    Sounds like a good idea.

    For God’s sake it was written long ago, get over it.

  • Dan S

    Perhaps we can ask Deacon Greg whether or not he plans include this little tidbit about women needing the sacrament more in his next homily regarding the sacrament of reconciliation? ;-)

  • http://redcardigan.blogspot.com/ Erin Manning

    It’s interesting to me that a few people will defend this rather misogynistic view of women because it is an old view; that is, that simply because it comes from the past, it must be valid and good somehow, and it is our job to reconcile the apparent misogyny.

    Um, bunk.

    One of these days some bristlingly intelligent person is going to do a real, thorough, detailed book about the influence of Jansenism on Catholicism in America. Jansenism began in France, of course, but spread into other countries (notably Ireland and Germany, the birth-country of the author of this little piece). Because Jansenism spread through seminaries, it influenced a couple of generations of priests, who then retained its influences and spread it to their students, many of whom were among the immigrant priests sent to America from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s.

    Now, sometimes perfectly healthy attitudes about sex and sin get mislabeled “Jansenism” in our culture, and I want to be clear that I don’t fall into that camp. But the ideas expressed in this piece seem to be: 1. Women are dangerous (because of sex, though that is left unsaid); 2. The proper way to treat women is to “seal one’s heart” against them; 3. Women need confession more than men (and the specific issues mentioned are purity and humility, suggesting that women are, by virtue of their feminine carnality, more prone both to impurity and pride); 4. Don’t look at a woman or treat her in a friendly way; 5. Ignore her sinful flesh, and treat her like a disembodied spirit.

    That’s so Jansenist that it’s practically Manichean. The pervading fear of sin and one’s inability to avoid it if one so much as glances at a female form, the idea that a priest must cultivate a sense of dread in his encounters with women–all of it hearkens back to the Jansenist emphasis on the effects of Original Sin, the inherent depravity of human beings, and the idea that only a tiny handful are predestined to be saved.

    There were bad ideas in the past. Jansenists influenced the Church with the fear of the body, the dislike for Sacred Heart devotions (because it focused on Our Lord’s Heart of flesh and blood), the tendency to view ordinary human interactions as sinful, and so great a sense of unworthiness and dread of sin that they once posited the notion that most human beings would never actually be worthy of receiving Holy Communion, and would always commit the grave sin of sacrilege when they received. These ideas harmed the Church, and are still harmful when they crop up in contemporary Christian writings.

  • http://www.whystaycatholic.com mike leach

    This is awesome! We’ve come a long way, baby!

  • Dan S

    Good comments, Erin.
    Reading your posts makes me wonder if these guidelines for seminarians were also found in the writings for the the Ukrainian and Ruthenian men in Eastern seminaries. I don’t know, but I suspect not.

  • http://imaginemdei.blogspot.com/ Margaret Duffy

    Bet those who are finding this objectionable that you’ll find just as much to upset you in any 19th century writings about women (even some of those written by women). The only idea here that seems a bit unusual for its time is the idea that men need confession less than women do. Perhaps it’s actually a reflection of the fact that women probably came to confession more often than men did. And they probably still do.

  • http://redcardigan.blogspot.com/ Erin Manning

    Margaret, my college degree is in literature. I’ve read plenty of 19th century writings by and about women. The idea that women are to be encountered with dread, feared, treated with “sealed hearts” and lack of common friendship, and dealt with as though their flesh was too evil to acknowledge is not at all prevalent in 19th century literature–not even 19th century Catholic literature, in fact.

  • http://www.findinggracewithin.blogspot.com Shannon

    I remember going to confession face to face in 1985. The priest kept his eyes closed the whole time. I was insulted.

  • naturgesetz

    Erin Manning — I like what you wrote at #17.

    I’d just like to add that the “women are dangerous” notion is a two-sided coin (if not multifaceted). In the quoted passage, there is a sense that some women may attempt to seduce a priest — hence the necessity for sealing the heart. But I also can see a sense that priests are susceptible to the attractions of innocent women as well. So it is a defense against their own weakness, against temptations which arise from their own hearts as much as a defense against temptresses that these cautions are given.

    I agree that the terror which produced these extreme safeguards was excessive.

  • Dev Thakur

    I can’t help but feel that most of the commenters here are refusing to really look at this writing in context and explore the intention.

    First of all, women do need confession more in a society in which they need to be holier because they are running everything. From the world’s point of view men were more important because they ran business or politics or blah blah blah. Women actually are more important because motherhood, the domestic Church, raising children, these are more important.

    Second, this is not about women being jezebels. This is about the very close private quarter of a confessional and the priest’s need to take this sacrament with great seriousness and care.

    I would ask all the above commenters, if you ignore everything I wrote above to just consider this:

    It is the priests who are overfamiliar in the sacrament of confession who are at risk (even if most never did) of abusing it by flirting or at worse even abusing minors in the confessional.

    A priest who is focusing on the last things, focsuing only on sins and absolving them, focusing on holiness, and not seeing “Miss Smith” or “little Johnny” but seeing a soul created by God with an amazing destiny, that priest is avoiding the path of compromise and sin and abuse.

  • Dev Thakur

    Did I miss something in the manual that told priests to always treat women this way?

    Or to specifically only treat them this way in the context of confession?

    I think this distinction is not being made!

  • http://redcardigan.blogspot.com/ Erin Manning

    Respectfully, Dev Thakur, the advice to see a penitent (and only female ones; there’s no mention of “little Johnny) as a disembodied spirit is, at heart, advice to see them as less than human.

    We are not meant to be souls without bodies. We will experience this separation for a time because of sin, but will regain our bodies, glorified, at the end of the world. If the advice to priests had been to think of *all* penitents as disembodied spirits I still think it would betray a fundamental discomfort with the reality of the human body, but singling out women in this way goes further than that.

    The seminarian is not being taught that when he is a priest he must hermetically seal his heart from *all* penitents, think of them all as spirits without bodies, avoid looking at them, or persevere in a state of indifference to them–he is only being told to do this when women come to confess. This betrays, I think, a real fear that the mere awareness that a human female is beyond the screen will tempt the priest to sin at least in thought–and such a fear is not grounded in healthy relationships between men and women.

  • Dev Thakur

    Erin: but this is not advice for how to relate to women except in confession. And in Confession the priest is Christ, and it is the penitent’s soul that matters.

    (Once after hearing the confession of a prostitute who still felt terrible about her sins, St. John Vianney, outside of the confessional, kissed the ground beneath her feet to teach her that having confessed she is a pure soul again and should have confidence in God’s Mercy. He was not her buddy in the confessional! But he was saintly and caring for her, appropriately so, outside of the confessional).

    I was saying that this advice in general would also have prevented cases of abuse of minor in the confessional if it were followed. Indeed to hear confessions by the manual above seems absolutely incompatible with abusing a penitent.

    Why does this manual focus on women penintents? Um, duh, maybe because the assumption is that priests are heterosexual males. An assumption any healthy person would want to make, unfortunately we cannot make it any more.

  • pagansister

    Maybe the women were supposed to take note from the Muslim women—wear a burka. Then the priest couldn’t see anything—not even her eyes. She would be more covered than the nuns of that time, so temptation would not exist.


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