Over at The Deacon’s Bench, Greg Kandra has shared a piece by John Cornwell from The Tablet on the decline of confession among Catholics worldwide. It’s a fascinating article, reflecting the research Cornwell has done for a forthcoming book. For reverts of a certain age, like me, there’s much that resonates.
Among the reasons Cornwell posits for the decline (which in itself is more a presumption than a matter of fact, as statistics aren’t tracked for confessions the way they are for Baptisms, Confirmations, First Communions, and Catholic marriages, which are also falling off):
It’s not really a decline. For much of the Church’s history, confession was a rare, often once-in-a-lifetime ritual for the average Catholic. Though Trent’s reforms boosted that to once a year, in order to make possible the annual “Easter duty” to receive Communion, it wasn’t until the 20th century that frequent confession began to be first encouraged (by Pius X, who lowered the age of first confession to enable younger children to receive First Communion) and later made de facto mandatory for Catholic school children. If you grew up in the 1950s and early 60s, as I did, at the height of frequent confession, you remember being marched once a week over to the church by S’ter and lining up, out of earshot of other fifth-grade penitents no matter how hard you strained, outside the box. No generation of Catholics has ever participated in the sacrament of Reconciliation so frequently, before or since. We’re the confessional doughnut hole, and when the pressure eased up we left the practice behind along with other childhood trappings.
Sin is out of fashion. I think there’s a good bit of truth to this. For us Confessional Boomers, sin—not forgiveness—was the focus of catechesis on confession. We bought the Baltimore Catechism’s milk-bottle soul analogy (soul free of sin = pure white milk; soul with venial sin = milk with ugly black spots; soul with mortal sin = BLACK MILK!; I see now that the milk is actually grace, and what looked like black milk is an empty bottle, but that’s not what it looked like at the time). Scrupulous little prig that I was, I was delighted that my 8th birthday chalkboard came with black chalk as well as white, so I could illustrate for my sister the sour-milk error of her ways. We were expected to—and could—enumerate a list of sins as part of our weekly confessions, naming not only the precise infraction, but the number of times and with whom. (“Alone or with others?” the priest would prompt.) I fought with my sister 10 times (because she hid the black chalk), I disobeyed my parents 3 times (I mostly made those up, because I was too goody two-shoes to think of ways to disobey), I watched a monster movie on TV, but just once (my mother had warned me against this, because of a tendency to nightmares, but I thought anything discouraged had to be a sin, and not only confessed it but told my friends, who dared me to watch it, that they were Going to Hell). Later there would be I had impure thoughts, I went to a movie rated Objectionable In Part for All, I cursed. We had Examination of Conscience booklets with sins listed like grocery items, grouped like groceries by type—produce, dairy, meat; dishonesty, disobedience, impurity. Cornwell notes the obvious downside of such an emphasis, especially with impressionable young children:
A girl I once knew inadvertently broke the fast on the morning of her first Communion by taking a sip of water (in those days the fast began at midnight). Realising her lapse on approaching the altar rail, she was plunged into a waking nightmare, convinced that she had committed a sacrilege. It took five years of mental agony before she managed to broach her aggravated “wickedness” to an understanding priest.
Too much emphasis on sin clearly drove many away from confession, as soon as they were out from under S’ter’s reign. But the other direction is just as problematic. If there are no sins anymore—no itemization, just sin as an amorphous unlovingness—why go to confession? It would be like going to the grocery store to buy unspecified groceries. Not, seemingly, worth the bother of getting in the car and going through the ritual. I’ll eat what’s in the fridge. I’m sure God knows I’m sorry.
The connection between confession and clergy sex abuse. Cornwell offers evidence of at least coincidence, very likely causality, between the peak years of childhood confession and the peak years of clerical abuse of young people, if for no other reason than that predators could use the enforced intimacy of the confessional—and the 1960s and 70s practice of hearing confessions informally outside the box, in sacristies and priests’ homes and on retreats—to gain victims’ trust. Disturbing as this is, there are wider consequences of placing children and priests not well formed for lives of celibacy in intimate proximity.
When I was in 6th grade, a troubled and alcoholic new curate began questioning girls in explicit and obscene detail about their sex lives during confession, suggesting things—masturbation, oral sex, even incest though why this would be our occasion of sin is difficult to fathom—that some in those more innocent days had not even read about. Individually sickened, but terrified of violating the seal of the confessional and believing our word would not be trusted, we endured the lewd catechizing for weeks, not even telling one another. I, the erstwhile scruple girl, broke first. I saw a friend crying as she left the confessional, and dared to ask her if the priest “said anything funny to her.” Relieved to know she was not alone, she shared similar awfulness, which we soon determined was widespread. At first we just stopped going to confession, inventing excuses, hoping our hearts out not to be struck by a truck in the crosswalk on the way home and die unshriven. Finally, on the eve of a First Friday (no getting out of that one!), I went to our teacher, a no-nonsense ex-Marine laywoman, who had the grace to believe us. Within days, Fr Troubled was packed off to detox and counseling. But I did not enter a confessional ever again, except to nurse my infant son during a funeral. I received the sacrament only a few times between 6th grade and when I drifted away from the Church in my early 30s. And I have always wondered if there were other Fr Troubled’s out there, whose psychosexual immaturity fell short of clearcut abuse (certainly as it was defined in those days), but who came very near to ruining the experience of Reconciliation for so many.
Humanae vitae fallout. There is probably a lot of truth to the notion that even as emphasis on sin declined, Catholics remained conscious that they were living in what used to be preached about as sin. Catholics who used artificial birth control, or who divorced and remarried, or who were partnered (straight or gay) without benefit of marriage, or who stopped attending Mass with any regularity at all could tell themselves—and could, I think, truly believe, since no one was going to any great lengths to challenge or form their consciences—that what they were doing was just fine. Yet they stayed away from confession in ever-increasing droves, either because there was still some consciousness of sin but very little commitment to the firm purpose of amendment that would require a complete change of life, or because if these things that had once been such grave matter were no longer worth confessing, what on earth would be?
Discomfort with the revised form. Cornwell doesn’t go into much detail on this, other than to say that some sacramental theologians are concerned that face-to-face confessions concentrating more on general ethical pep talks or pop psychology than on sin might be verging too closely on talk therapy, not Penance. As a Confession Boomer, I have to say that in spite of all the baggage of the past, I really miss the tidiness of a memorized ritual, generic responses and prayers, and anonymity. I have only gone to confession a few times since my reversion at Christmas in 2010, and I must confess that I always feel much like I did when going to talk therapy—nervous that I’m not going to do it right, or say the right thing. I like my pastor (most especially for the way he almost managed to hide his terror when, in my eagerness to make a full confession as part of the requirement for returning to the Church, I tried to Tell Him Everything), but I find it hard to talk to him without my grocery list. And for a Sunday or two afterward, I can’t quite look him in the eye; it’s like meeting your therapist in the dry cleaners.
I know I can request a screen, or confess at another parish (I’m looking forward to opportunities for this on pilgrimage in September), but I bet I’m not the only one who’d find it so much easier if I could just slide back into BlessMeFatherForIHave SinnedItHasBeenThreeWeeksSinceMyLastConfessionAndTheseAreMySins. None of this picking a Scripture reading or making an Act of Contrition in my own words. And I like the idea of more creative means of satisfaction, such as volunteering to work in a soup kitchen when I’ve let gluttony make a god of my stomach, but I still need to go kneel in front of the Blessed Sacrament and say 3 Our Fathers and 3 Hail Marys to feel like the absolution really took. Am I alone?
Lack of opportunity. Finally, as some penitents Cornwell interviewed note, frequency goes both ways. I like to think I’d go to confession more often if my chances weren’t limited to an hour on Saturday morning (which hour I can never remember correctly until it’s gone by) or—horror!—by appointment. Really, other than in case of death, can you imagine hauling Father away from whatever 15 minutes a week he gets to practice his golf swing or post his blog or have lunch with his mom, just to listen to my (unenumerated, amorphous, boring) sins? And does anybody ever do anything—view a house you’re not really going to buy but are dying to see inside, buy an antique, have the junk hauled out of the garage—that’s limited to By Appointment Only? Not to mention that it would require Making a Phone Call, which I don’t do if I can at all avoid it. (Hey, we all have our phobias. Give me public speaking to a hostile crowd of 5,000 strangers over initiating a phone call any day.)
I’d like to confess more often, I really would. I envy my sister Patheos blogger Calah Alexander, who manages to get to confession weekly in spite of having a gabillion toddlers and being pregnant with number gabillion-and-one. (Of course, Calah lives in Ave Maria, Florida, which is kind of the Disney World of Catholicism, so I imagine she doesn’t have to make an appointment. I tend to envision confession chapels taking the place of Starbucks in Ave Maria.) Calah is a lot of things I’m not (besides Mother of Gabillions)—young, a convert, devout in a completely practical and nonsmarmy and totally-without-scruples way, so I wonder if she is the future of confession, a new boomlet of sorts. I’d like to think so.
If you’ve stuck with this all the way through (reading this required as much time as St John Vianney used to put into hearing confessions, I’m afraid), what are your confessions about confession? If you’re a post-Boomer, without the baggage of the confessional box, what does the sacrament mean to you? Do you have reasons for decline to add to Cornwell’s list? What, if anything, would draw you to the sacrament more frequently?
UPDATE: Fr Michael Duffy, one of the newest members of the Patheos Catholic Channel blogging bench—not to mention a new member of the clergy—responded to this post with insight from the other side of the screen, as it were. Fr Michael also wonders if it might not be time to initiate a new Catholic tradition, one of praying for one’s confessor as we approach the sacrament. I think it’s an inspired suggestion, in the literal sense, and I’m in.