Reforming the Sacrament of Reconciliation

Reforming the Sacrament of Reconciliation April 13, 2012

Resolved:  the sacrament of reconciliation should be reformed so as to give greater emphasis to the communal aspects of sin and reconciliation and less emphasis to the personal, private dimensions.  In particular, general absolution in the absence of private confession should be regularly allowed.

Okay, before the storm begins, let me make a few comments.  I am actually ambivalent about this proposal:  I can see pluses and minuses on both sides.  I am more or less regular in receiving the sacrament:  I try get ‘shriven every couple of months, with the ideal being monthly.  I take great value from it.  However, this is shaped by the fact that I have found a confessor who functions as my de facto spiritual advisor and there is at least as much focus on spiritual growth as there is on past sinfulness.  (This is not to say I downplay my sins.  Rather, having established them, the question becomes where am I to go from where find myself.)

On the other hand, I can see that the reception of this sacrament has fallen greatly, with relatively few people receiving it even the one time per year mandated by canon law.  Pastoraly, I have heard priests speak with great enthusiasm about the response to communal penance services, and they complain that attempts to offer general absolution are usually shut down by their bishops.  (The exception is the Australian bishops, but my understanding is that the Vatican intervened to stop this practice.)   Sincere attempts to increase participation seem to have little or no long term effect.  (I am thinking, for instance of the ad campaign I ran into in Kansas City, which included ad campaigns urging people to go to confession during Lent.)

I recently read the Catechism on this subject and while it highlights a number of different aspects of the sacrament, the general presentation seems grounded in a juridicial, “laundry list of sins” approach to confession:  in other words, the narrow format that was dominant prior to Vatican II.  I have read a little bit on Orthodox practice, and while there are similarities to the West, the emphasis seems different and this results in very different practice on the ground.

Therefore, I offer this resolution for discussion.  All perspectives are welcome, but I am interested in the pastoral problem:  how can the Church best use its authority “to bind and to loose” to fulfill its mission of healing and reconciliation in the modern world?


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