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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  • Julia Smucker

    I really like the communal emphasis as a general principle. But I’m not sure general absolution would be a sufficient corrective in that direction. Like you (judging from your own ambivalance), I think too much would be lost if the raw specificity of personal confession were altogether displaced. To my mind the major theological and pastoral question would be, how can both that raw specificity and the communal dimension of reconciliation be preserved and emphasized in complementary fashion?

    James Dallen has a lot of good things to say along these lines in his book The Reconciling Community. At one point he discusses pros and cons of individual confession, communal reconciliation, and combinations of the two. He seems ambivalent about all three options, with good reason. I don’t see any pastorally perfect solution, but I agree that there should be more emphasis on the fruitfulness (that is, efficacy, robustly understood) of reconciliation in spiritual growth and community, and less on the juridical dimension.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “raw specificity of personal confession”: thank you, this is an insightful turn of phrase. Also, I think you have touched on an important point, that reconciliation plays a role in spiritual growth and community. To use a medical image: reconciliation must do more than cure the disease: it must restore fullness of health. During my long convalescence last year I came to understand the difference between the two: my ulcer was healed and I was declared “well” by my doctor months before I was really restored to full health. In the same way the sacrament will be most efficacious when it not only brings forgiveness (healing) but also reconciliation (fullness of spiritual health).

  • It has long struck me that the “services” offered by Catholic Churches are dispensed similarly to those of a bank. My personal experience is long, long out of date, but certainly in the old days, when, say, three priests were hearing confessions, it was a lot like waiting in line for a teller. The priest who heard your confession was determined randomly (unless you knew which ones might yell at you and let other people go ahead of you if you were in front of the line and that priest became available). Every “branch” provided essentially the same services, so the church you went to depended on where you happened to be when you needed a church.

    If I ever run the Catholic Church, I think I might institute general absolution as the norm, but also require everyone to have some kind of spiritual director to be in contact with on a regular basis. It could be by phone or via the Internet. It could be anonymous. It could be “group therapy” in a forum similar to this one. Or, it could be with a spiritual director you met face to face on a regular basis. The kind of confession that I knew was at best do-it-yourself spiritual direction. The last thing you really wanted was for the priest to remember you or try to tell you what to do. You just wanted to reel off a list of sins, get as light a penance as possible, and get out.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Robert Orsi, author of The Madonna of 115th St. (and a Trinity Alum!) came back recently to talk about his research on the sacrament of penance in the 20th century between WW I and the early 70’s. From his summary of his focus group studies, I gather that many people had a similar view of the sacrament: “You just wanted to reel off a list of sins, get as light a penance as possible, and get out.” Further, he talked about the social pressures that made regular (weekly!) confession a necessary duty, whether or not you really felt called to the sacrament. The sacrament had no positive communal sense attached to: only this negative pressure to conform.

  • I’m not really sure what you mean by the “communal aspects of sin and reconciliation”, at least, in any sense that would have any distinctive relevance to contrition, confession, or satisfaction. I also actually don’t think current practice does give much emphasis to personal, private dimensions; there’s very little in it to encourage people to recognize their responsibility and come to God in light of that, beyond the bare offering of confession and absolution. And I also am inclined to say that reconciliation is a point at which the distinction between communal and private breaks down completely.

    The single best confessor I’ve ever had was so because practically everything he said in the confessional was brilliant. And it was so because it wasn’t ever flashy or vague: it was practical, it was specific, he often laid out several possible options, dealt with real problems like how to maintain resolution — in short, good advice always. (The experience has always made me wary of people who criticize priests without considering their whole ministry; the priest in question was a really poor homilist — just not public speaking material at all — but a genius in the confessional. The man had a special grace of counsel.) I think the resolution is focused too much on downstream matters — I don’t think more general absolution would do anything much at all. (“General absolution in the absence of private confession” is a little vague — general absolution is never in the absence of private confession; when one receives absolution of any kind one is supposed to confess, it’s just a question of whether you do before or at the next opportunity, as a penitent coming for absolution or a penitent grateful for it. All that I think would happen with more general absolution is that more people would forget actually to confess.) But actually doing more to train priests to handle confessions — much more than the brief class many get — might do something.

    I also somewhat worry that this sort of tinkering misplaces the point of the sacrament. Reconciliation is a sacrament whose material is provided entirely by us — it’s as if we were the bread and wine, or the baptismal water — and it is provided by the personal act of repentance. Any changes one made can only be reasonable from the perspective of the sacrament if they make genuine repentance more likely. This can be impeded by certain practices, but in the long run it’s a problem that we have to work out as laity, on our end. What is most likely to bring us to genuine repentance? I don’t think modifying format really does much to answer that question.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “I’m not really sure what you mean by the “communal aspects of sin and reconciliation”,”

      From the Catechism: “the forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being, where he regains his innermost truth. He is reconciled with his brethren whom he has in some way offended and wounded. He is reconciled with the Church. He is reconciled with all creation.” CCC 1469.

      This is an aspect of reconciliation that is missing or underplayed in private confession (depending, of course on the confessor) that I think gets (or can get) the necessary emphasis in a communal service. The spirit of what I am thinking of is capture in an Orthodox rite. During it they turn to one another, with one person saying “Brother (or sister), forgive me, for I have sinned against you!” The other replies with an embrace, “I forgive you! May God forgive us both!”

      • But these things are neither missing nor underplayed, and can’t be — they follow directly from the sacrament itself as one of its effects, ways in which God works through the sacrament. One could argue, and I would argue myself, that they need to be talked about more; but all a change of format could do would be to remind people that this is so. Given that the sacrament is genuine, it begins doing all these things, regardless of the format.

      • keith

        I’ve only been Catholic for about two years but I have had mostly positive experiences in the confessional. I think the aversion people feel towards going is not a problem with the sacrament itself but a certain flaws in our culture. The most important of these is our American/Enlightenment sense of autonomous self-jurisdiction. People don’t like being put in that vulnerable position. Its frightening and humbling to confess sins. I also think many American Catholics feel uneasy about having to submit oneself to the priest only to be scolded for things which most Americans do with impunity. On top of all that we are constantly being reminded in the popular culture that the thing that distinguishes us is our “Catholic Guilt.” I would argue that the process leading up to confession- examination of conscience etc- and the feelings of remorse and contrition during, and the penitential mindset are all necessary and positive for our growth. Why try to make it more user friendly? On a side note, people seem so keen these days to confess their “sins” to random therapists that it seems unlikely that the problem of reduced confessions is primarily due to the 1 on 1 form.

        We used to have public confessions and public penitents with sack cloth and ashes, and moving it into the private realm was a major improvement. Obviously, you aren’t advocating for that, but I am a little confused as to the specifics of corporate absolution. In my experience a huge benefit comes from the specificity of private confession, and it certainly has a positive effect on my future decision making process. Its as if there is more difficulty in re-offending in the same area within which I’ve been forgiven. I also feel like when I am absolved I feel reconciled to the community etc.

        You mention the Orthodox tradition… I spent a year in the Republic of Georgia and I remember being struck by the lack of adults receiving the sacrament. I asked my interpreter what the reason for this was and she told me that they were all too sinful to eat it, and that the children were too young to have done anything wrong. Up near the front of the crowd people would periodically give what seemed to be individual confessions to a priest while wearing a ceremonial cloth on their heads, but they were few in number. I suppose the Georgian Orthodox might have strange traditions of their own, but the reason I brought this up was to point out some of the positive aspects of our private confessional tradition.

        One last thing– the tradition you talk about of turning to your neighbor and saying “I have sinned against you” etc. seems to be pretty similar to what we already do when say the penitential rite at the beginning of mass, and there are many times when we implore God’s mercy and receive blessings from the priest during mass. . . I feel like confession meets a different need.

        Perhaps one way to address the issues you have is to advocate for more penitential services where the corporate body meets as a group and after a short service privately confesses. We had something like this during lent, and even though the lines were long, it was quite full for a Tuesday night.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


        one could make the same argument about the mass. The Fathers at Vatican II found that certain aspects of the mass were missing or at least not given the attention they deserved, and so ordered the reform of the mass. This is not the same as saying that they were truly missing from the Tridentine mass; but there is a pedagogic dimension to the sacrament, and reform can serve this purpose.

      • Well, pedagogy is precisely one of the primary purposes of the Mass, so it makes sense to re-order it as pedagogical needs demand. But while they expanded the options, they didn’t actually order much change to the format of the sacrament itself at all. The better parallel would be not the Mass but the Eucharist itself, and advocating that we bring back the old Agape Feasts in order to emphasize the communal nature of the sacrament, which queuing up one by one and spending one minute saying ‘Amen’ and popping the host into one’s mouth arguably does not do. This is entirely a possible thing to do (it even has apostolic precedent), and it would certainly convey something of the communal nature of the sacrament in a way that the current format doesn’t. But the same sort of questions would arise. Does it really teach the communal character of the sacrament in a better way than the current format plus reasonable catechesis and homiletics? And wouldn’t something also pedagogically important, even about the communal nature of the sacrament, be obscured by the change? &c.

        I think the strongest relevant disanalogy between Reconciliation and Eucharist is that in the former the matter of the sacrament is our own penitent actions, internal and external, so one could argue that a given format facilitates these. In a sense, that’s why private confession came to dominate in the first place: it was just a much better context for repentance than it what it replaced. But this is about the very matter of the sacrament; whereas you are talking about the effects. And I think one problem with this approach is that sacraments are precisely mysteries, and therefore inexhaustible: no possible format could teach everything important about what the sacrament does, because they are all the effects of Christ’s Passion, considered under the one aspect of repentance and absolution. And there seems no principled way to choose from among these effects, as far as format goes (as opposed to catechesis and homiletics, which, while also not exhausting the sacrament, can be continually adjusted), other than tradition and what the sacrament itself really requires.

  • Mark Gordon

    Whenever this subject comes up I always think about Bonhoeffer’s famous passage from The Cost of Discipleship: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

    Confession can be difficult. We like our religion comfortable. Confession puts the onus squarely on us as moral agents. We prefer to diffuse or evade personal responsibility. Confession is about right and wrong. We prefer to think in terms of well and unwell. Confession is unfashionable. We hate the unfashionable.

    I think the problem with Reconciliation is that the necessity of making a personal confession hasn’t been emphasized enough in the past few decades. Why don’t priests make themselves available before EVERY Mass, instead of just a half hour on Saturday afternoon? Why aren’t they doing an hour in the box every day, and then exhorting people to avail themselves? Maybe it’s because I’m a convert, and maybe others have different experiences, but for me the most delightful discovery in becoming a Catholic was Reconciliation. My (Protestant) mother once asked me why I had to confess my sins to a priest. I told her I don’t confess because I have to. I confess because I can. It’s an incredible grace to be able to take your sins to another human being, under the seal of the confessional, and download it all. The absolution is almost an afterthought.

    I think if we want to institutionalize the loss of the sense of personal sin, then substituting general absolution for personal confession is the way to do it. Maybe we could just dispense with absolution and penance altogether and consider the recitation of the Confiteor to be sufficient. But is that really what we should be aiming at?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Mark, I understand what you are saying, and I respect the point Bonhoffer is making. But on reading this, it does smack of rigorism. I hear sin, but I don’t hear forgiveness. I may be misunderstanding you, and I hope that I am. I don’t want to “institutionalize the loss of a sense of personal sin”—I want to expand and deepen people’s understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation. Maybe I am going about it the wrong way (I am ambivalent about my own resolution) but it seems to me that things are amiss now, and more emphasis on the same won’t yield the pastoral fruits we desire.

      • Mark Gordon


        I guess my point is that there hasn’t been an emphasis on the same – that is, on the traditional teaching and practice – in a long, long time. Look at what the half-hour weekly Confession schedule teaches the faithful, for instance. It teaches them, in the black and white of the bulletin schedule, that Reconciliation just doesn’t matter.

      • “Forgiveness” doesn’t mean anything if we have no sense of sin. God’s mercy becomes MORE meaningful to people the more wicked they realize they are (Dorothy Sayers said something like this).

    • keith

      +1 This is what I meant to say 🙂

  • Besides the potential heresy here, I’ll point something out: the sorts of people who call for General Absolution (without personal confession) to emphasize the “communal” aspects of sin…generally would also be abhored if public PENANCE were restored in the Church. So they clamor for public absolution, but the thought of expelling anyone from the church and making them wear sack-cloth and ashes outside during Lent or whatever…that they hate. And yet, doesn’t that emphasize the public/social nature of sin?

    I say private penance for private sin, public penance for public sin. Of course this distinction is somewhat “artificial”…but I’d say, in general, heresy, apostasy, and schism could be considered the “public” sins requiring a public repentance as regards the community of the Church. Other cases of notoriety (that might cause scandal for the community if the reconcilliation were not manifest publicly) could be imposed on a case by case basis.

    Have people confess privately, of course, and maybe a preliminary absolution for the danger of death would be given at this time too…but then bring back the rituals of public penance (reconcilliation on Holy Thursday, etc) and public reconcilliation. Of course, there are issues, Aquinas says Solemn Penance should only be imposed once in a lifetime for various reasons.

    But, my point is, the Church did at once point have a more “communal” notion of the Sacrament of Penance…but it didn’t involve General Absolution! In fact it involved a rigorism and harshness that made the gradual ascendency of exclusively private confession and penance look like the “lenient” thing. Trying to push for what is, in the end, a “less painful” practice under the guise of making it “more communal” seems a tad bit disingenuous to me.

    • Here’s a concrete proposal:

      Currently, there is a mismatch in canon law. Certain sins carry an “automatic excommunication.” Some of these make sense, like heresy. Others, however, are used apparently just to emphasize the gravity of a sin in a world that questions it, like that for abortion.

      On the other hand (as certain recent news stories popular in the conservative Catholic web-world have reminded us) there is also a canon regarding denying communion to “manifest and obstinate” public sinners.

      I think it is not correct to have these two separate categories. It seems absurd to me to call some people “excommunicated” (allegedly “automatically”) whose sins are not known publicly, or at least who do not meet the canonical standards for “manifest and obstinate,” and so who are NOT denied communion publicly. But then to have other people denied communion publicly who are “not” in fact “excommunicated” (automatically or otherwise).

      These seems a ridiculous situation to me because all “excommunicated” is supposed to mean (or originally meant) was that someone was denied communion publicly. Having classes of “excommunicated” people, like in abortions, who are aren’t publicly denied it (even if they are supposed to deny themselves privately, like anyone in mortal sin) but then having classes of people publicly denied communion who are technically not “excommunicated”…doesn’t make any sense.

      Instead, I say, collapse the two concepts. Make excommunication (“automatically”) apply to sinners who are manifest and obstinate, who are “public” and get rid of the distinction between the two categories. No longer apply excommunication to secret sins, or deny communion to people who are not excommunicated.

      Now, I have my own problems with talk of “manifest and obstinate sinners” if only because it seems to create a two-tiered system of sinners and to imply that (to “avoid scandal” somehow; although I don’t see why merely KNOWING that random people sin would cause anyone else to sin) it is somehow better to keep our sins swept under the rug and keep up appearances. (It also involves some, I think unwarranted, assumption jumping about the nature of people’s relationships, as if sharing a house means you’re sexually active or more “obviously” so than people who are dating but live separately. Puh-leeze).

      Still, if there is to be some distinction between the internal forum and the external forum, I say we need to make that line more concrete, then. Keep private confession for private sins, and give absolution for the personl sin aspect. However, if any of the sins confessed are “public,” are of the variety that carry a denial of communion/excommunication then there would be a separate step: confession before the community to the bishop, public penance, culminating in public reconcilliation (in otherwords, separate the absolution from the personal sin from the lifting of the public canonical censure).

      This I think would help balance the internal forum/external forum question in confession better.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Heresy? I am not often accused of heresy: what have I said to bring this up?

      • keith

        I don’t think he was accusing you of heresy… Unless I missed something. re-read that section. He’s making a side point on the difference between automatic excommunication for certain sins and refusing people the sacrament for continued public scandal.

      • No, when I mentioned “potential heresy” I was indeed warning David specifically.

        It is a dogma (check Ott) that: “By virtue of Divine ordinance all grievous sins (mortal, serious) according to kind and number, as well as those circumstances which alter their nature, are subject to the obligation of confession. (De fide.) ”

        This obligation could only be removed by a true emergency, and even then only with an intent to confess sacramentally at the next possible opportunity should one survive the emergency situation (and one likely should abstain from communion until the true sacramental confession too, since outside perhaps something like a Viaticum, it is not “necessary” to receive communion in any particular instance).

        Making general absolution the norm, or a regular thing outside true emergencies…is thus an endorsement of a heresy (unless one is being super disingenuous about what constitutes a confession-omitting “emergency”) and these absolutions would be invalid anyway.

        • A Sinner

          Ott is, however, not dogma. And if you look to the Orthodox, they do not think “number” is necessary.

      • I’m pretty sure an Orthodox priest would ask you to elaborate if you confessed “murder” and that this elaboration would involve specifying how many people you had killed.

        But obviously, “number” is not a category that applies to all types of sin. (And also, obviously, the Orthodox are not necessarily the standard of Catholic orthodoxy).

        I’m pretty sure Ott is getting this directly from Trent.

        • While a priest might, in some circumstances, ask for “how many,” for the most part, number is not a thing of interest to them, and you will find Orthodox writings to this effect. And since the Orthodox are not seen as heretics in regards to this, we must be careful, and not make practices as they emerged in the West as necessity, which is the point. To call something different as heresy and then point out things are necessary which the Orthodox do not accept is to suggest, perhaps, too much is read in discipline. There can be value in such details, but it doesn’t seem necessary. That’s my point.

  • Thales

    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.

    I guess I don’t know why “the communal aspects of sin and reconciliation” should receive greater emphasis and why “personal, private dimensions” of sin should get less emphasis. Consider that the flipside of “sin” is “virtue”: it seems to me that every person can benefit greatly from more exhortations to become holy in a personal manner, and not simply as a member of a community; that every person can use greater encouragement to live one’ own personal life more in conformity with the Gospel and to seek a closer personal relationship with Jesus.

    • Thales

      I should add that in my experience, I receive these personal exhortations to live my own personal live more in conformity with the Gospel and to seek a more intimate personal relationship with Jesus during the Sacrament of reconciliation received privately… and generally, I find these exhortations to be more significant and helpful to my spiritual life then a general exhortation delivered in a homily, for example.

  • Catholic writer Marjorie Campbell has called for general absolution of minors. In light of a childhood experience with a prurient confessor and the ongoing child sex abuse scandal, Campbell advocates that private confession be restricted to adults. She places very little trust in confessors, even if a child’s confession is within full sight of adults. Given that some pedophilic priests have used private confessionals as a site for child sexual abuse, I cannot help but sympathize with her position.

    Certain sins fall under latae sententiae or other forms of excommunication. These sins might fall outside of a priest’s ability to indiscriminately forgive. A girl could have an abortion with parental consent and automatically incur excommunication (along with those who abetted the abortion). Still, in most dioceses, secular priests are deputized to forgive the sin of abortion and restore the penitent’s standing in the Church without recourse to the bishop. In that case, why would a priest’s general and public absolution not forgive that girl’s sin?

    Campbell’s request is not unreasonable. Perhaps quarterly or semi-quarterly the children of the parish and their parents could attend a special Mass. Before Mass, the priest would offer an exhortation (brief sermon), followed by penance, a congregational act of contrition, and then absolution. At the communion, all present could approach to receive. Granted, many adults would probably attend this Mass to avoid private confession. Still, I am sure that private confession for adults would have its place, especially for adults who are experiencing a personal crisis. Private confession might become the exception, but it would not disappear.

    • It is unreasonable. That’s what the confessional booth is for, which has multiple doors for a reason. And it’s public, because confession times are publicly posted.

      • Yes, confessionals often have doors or veils. However, a child can still be assaulted so long as a confessor can enter into the penitent’s area. “Reconciliation rooms” often have nothing more than a screen behind which the confessor sits for anonyomous confession. A penitent can walk around to sit and face the confessor. In my childhood parish the partition for one of the confessionals was removed for “face to face” confession. There were still three passageways, but two of them opened onto the same room. These setups are not safe for vulnerable persons. Heck, I’m a 250 lb. grown man who prefers face-to-face with the confessor in the pews simply because I value eye contact and full visuo-spatial awareness when talking to someone else.

        I realize the theological problems inherent in general confession. Still, the old box confessional is not for anybody, especially minors. Confessors should disregard boxes altogether and hear confessions in the pews or another open space. Hearing a disembodied voice from behind a grille still gives me the creeps!

  • Agellius

    It seems obvious to me that people failing to avail themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation reflects a failure to realize or admit that they need absolution. Therefore maybe what’s been lacking in recent decades is an emphasis on the gravity and danger of unrepentant and unabsolved sin.

  • tausign

    The experience that one has with this sacrament (fruitful or dry) rests in the reality of conversion that precedes it. Stated differently, there’s really no reason to approach the sacrament of penance/reconcilliation unless conversion has already begun. Confession is the AMEM of conversion/metanoia. The general problem of short lines for individual confession is unlikely to be resolved or compensated by general absolution services. In either case, the conversion experience is lacking.

    This is just as true in the matter of penance as sacrifice (fasting, prayer, almsgiving). True penitence is an expression of an inward change already occuring. All sorts of problems arise when we fake it or misuse any of this ‘divine assistance’. I would say that the real question is, ‘How do we enter into the beginnings of conversion’? That’s the more difficult and crucial pastoral problem. Somehow we have to understand that ‘conversion/metanoia’ is the goal and confession is (almost) an afterthought that flows out of that experience…not the other way around. Once this begins, then any form of penance will move us in a vituous cycle.

  • brettsalkeld

    I apologize if someone has already said this, but I don’t have time to read all the comments right now. I’m just responding to David at this point.

    I agree that the communal dimension of sin needs more attention, though I don’t think that should lead to a lessening emphasis on personal sin. Rather, I think that a growing awareness of the social nature of sin will help to better contextualize individual sin so that it can be better understood and better addressed. I think it is a false dichomoty to play personal and social sin off against one another. Just one example: pornography may be the quintessential personal sin but, in fact, it ties one in to a whole system of unjust exploitation and a massive cultural error in the value we place on people and bodies. It is far from being only “personal.” I don’t expect it would be difficult to make similar analyses of all kinds of personal sin. But I’m not interested if the analysis is simply used ot excuse personal sin.

    In my own experience, general absoution was a way to duck actually owning my sin to another member of the body of Christ. I do not think it should be used except in the most exceptional circumstances (war, natural disasters etc.). On the other hand, I think that we could do a much better job of highlighting the social aspects of sin in the way we construct our examinations of conscience. I think parishes should have reconciliation nights where Scripture is read and followed by a reflection. Then the congregation should be led in an examination of conscience. Furthermore, we could publically confess our participation in unjust social systems etc. But it would all lead to private confession. Of course, you can’t force anyone to go, but you can give them a context to really think about it. I’d guess more people would go to confession in such contexts than just those who show up during scheduled times before Sunday Mass.

    • Julia Smucker

      “I think it is a false dichotomy to play personal and social sin off against one another.”

      My only disappointment with this statement is that I didn’t say it!

      Your pornography example is brilliant, as are your recommendations on shaping the penance service. I hope a few parish priests and liturgists are listening.

      • keith

        As I mentioned above, during this past Lent my Diocese implemented this idea. The way the did it was to have the diocesan priests be at one parish one night each week, so that each parish was fully stocked with priests one night in lent. It went smoothly. Having to wait in a long line adds another dimension to it.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      thank you for this very insightful analysis. I don’t think we are terribly far apart, since I think your discussion (especially your identification of a “false dichotomy”) approaches the concerns I hinted at in my resolution from another direction. But I am much more willing to entertain the idea of general absolution, in the context of a regularly schedule ceremony such as you describe. I think, if done well, with the right catechesis, it would bring more people to individual confession by renewing and expanding their understanding both of their sinfulness, and their need to be reconciled with God and with the Church (both the local community and the broader Church, the communion of saints, represented by the priest).

      • brettsalkeld

        Yes, I imagine we are quite close together. I’m just more dubious that general absolution could be done in a way that would lead more people to private confession. It may work that way once in a blue moon, with a very gifted pastor probably, but as a general practice I don’t think it would tend towards more private confessions.

  • brettsalkeld

    Also, having a confessor who is also a spiritual director is a great idea and should be widely encouraged.

  • A really good book on confession and the attendant issues is Your Sins are Forgiven You, by the late George A. Maloney, a Byzantine-rite Jesuit (who converted late in life to the Orthodox Church). He looks at the history of confession and absolution East and West, and suggests possible modern approaches to it.

    His suggestion as to format is a modified penance service. He argues that there must be robust catechesis on all aspects of reconciliation/confession, and that there should be a difference in practice between how different situations are handled. IIRC, his ideal is a penance service much like the ones we know, with hymns, reflections, readings, catechesis, etc. Then he suggests a two-tiered approach: for those who want to make auricular confession, there will priests available for it; for those who don’t have specific sins, especially mortal ones, weighing on them, they will approach the presiding priest (much as in a Communion line) and be absolved without specific confession (beyond a statement of personal sin and an Act of Contrition, that is–this is similar to Orthodox practice).

    I’m not sure whether Fr. Maloney mentions this in the book, but in the East, people often have a spiritual father, generally a monk or staretz, but sometimes an older, wise layperson, who serves as what we’d call a spiritual director, and with whom they discuss their specific sins and situation. Then, for actual absolution, one goes to the local priest and makes a general confession of sin (much like the Confiteor) and is absolved. The understanding is that the parish priest does not necessarily have the charism of care of souls, and that there’s no reason to force both functions–spiritual advice and sacramental absolution–on the same person. The priest has the final say in that if some unusual situation arises, the spiritual father or mother might direct the individual to bring it up to the priest. Still, in ordinary day-to-day life, the functions are separate.

    I think this would be especially helpful if a person, for whatever reason, finds his parish priest’s advice unhelpful. It would also be good in that it would insulate one from the difficulties of finding a new spiritual guide when the parish priest gets transferred. I’m not sure how you’d implement this in the Latin Church, but I think it has potential.

    Of course, I can also see potential problems in such approaches, and it’s been a long time since I read the book, so I’m not sure I’m remembering it completely correctly; but it struck me at the time, and still strikes me, as a creative attempt to get the best of both worlds in getting people back to Confession. I’ll have to buy it and re-read it, in fact–Fr. Maloney was a good writer on many spiritual issues.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thank you for this book recommendation. What you write about Orthodox practice agrees with what I have gleaned and has given me much food for thought.

    • Mark Gordon

      Anything by George Maloney is worth reading.

  • Smith

    My parish back home offers “general absolution” a couple times a year (It isn’t called this in the bulletin, but that is exactly what it is). This event is scheduled, while confession is never provided on a scheduled basis, rather by request. So do you know how many schedule confession with Father? Hardly anyone.

    The problem with confession isn’t that no one uses it. The problem is a lack of catechesis, a lack of availability, and no clearly established expectations for the community.

    • Thales

      This event is scheduled, while confession is never provided on a scheduled basis

      I’m surprised that that’s the practice of your parish. I’ve never seen that before. Every parish I’ve ever seen has scheduled confession times (with the general criticism being that there should be more/longer scheduled times and/or greater awareness/catechesis about this.)

    • Mark Gordon


  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    This reminds me of the very prevalent tendency to connect confession with the supposedly communally common repentance of sins in the early Christian Church. Such communal professions are attested to by so many sources that it is hard to doubt some practice thereof. But that this is connected to the idea of an individual confession as was developed later in the medieval era is very doubtful. Being explicit about one’s faults is always better than than being hidden about them. But how this became an event where one is shriven is a very curious trajectory indeed. Undoubtedly this is one of the many way the RC church has exercised creativity throughout the ages.

  • Fr. Don

    In my parish, less than 20% of baptized Catholics attend Mass. Of the 19% who do, less than 1% ever come to Reconciliation. Those who come to daily Mass ALL avail themselves of the sacrament of Reconciliation. I daresay that this is true throughout our diocese, at least. What I think seems to be the problem among many of those who actually do go to church for Sunday Mass is that the vast majority come from families that did not emphasize the beauty and power of forgiveness, especially through individual confession. The most common thing I hear is “I can confess my sins directly to God”. Often when I have pressed this, I find that the idea of what is sinful is so deficient that the prospective penitent believes that they are either only venially culpable, or that they, like the Blessed Virgin haven’t sinned. The vast majority are ignorant religiously, and have vaguely Protestant ideas about how to deal with moral failings.
    The solution, my friends is catechesis, not changing the rites. In many cases, I have seen people turn around once they understand the power of sin (both individually, and yes, communally, and the power of individual confession. Karl Jung once said, “I don’t have Catholics as patients. They have confession.” Karl, I think you may have something there.

    • Julia Smucker

      This Jung quote reminds me of how one of my RCIA leaders once said, “If everyone went to confession, it would put professional psychiatry out of business, except for those who are truly insane.”

      • Might I suggest that the RCIA leader you quote needs to have his or her head examined? 😛

        Would anyone recommend that, say, a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or someone with a phobia of dogs, or someone with bipolar disorder, of someone suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, should choose regular confession as an alternative to psychiatric treatment? Many years ago I knew a psychotherapist who specialized in treating priests, nuns, and brothers, none of whom where “truly insane.” Do you suppose the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is a result of some priests not going to confession enough? I don’t think psychiatry has a dramatic success rate when it comes to those who abuse young people sexually, but I would hate to think the superiors of abusing priests would advise confession over psychiatric treatment.

      • Unenamored as I am of RCIA ladies, strictly speaking, sexual abuse of a minor is truly insane.

    • Peter Paul Fuchs

      Fr. Don and Julia,

      I think you are both really misunderstood the meaning of Jung’s comment, if Jung actually said it . For what it is worth, a quick Google search does not turn it up. But it is not inconceivable that he said such a thing since it reflects the often surprisingly practical nature of some of his reasoning; although he is more famous for rather outre interests. But, whatever the case, you misunderstand his general attitude to such matters. The best way to see this is in the fact that Jung never wanted to visit Rome, and in fact had a strong feeling against going there. This is because he felt the that the whole vibe of the place as as the center of Catholicism was rather obliterative to psychological insight. So indeed, he might have said he doesn’t have those sorts of Catholics in his practice who are in fact un-interested in psychological insight about themselves. One can only reflect that the recent history of the RC Church bears this out, and pray for the victims of that tendency.

      What is an absolute howler is the idea that confession could be a replacement for that psychological insight. That’s just crazy.

      • The Confessional is no place for psychoanalysis. That said, most people don’t need psychoanalysis.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs

        Dear Ubisolitudinem,

        Well, no, many just need the appropriate drug.

  • In a word: NO

  • Bruce in Kansas

    Wholesale absolution as a member of Sam’s Club (or Jesus’ Club) sounds like a good deal, there’s something missing from the retail aspect of Confession in our sacramental life.

  • 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?

    The modern world affirms corporate fault to a fault — I’m what society, my parents, my genetics, my component atoms made me — with individual success. This is a distortion and a half truth, a lie in the midst of the “only.” We must fill in the blanks, presenting the prospect of personal fault and corporate success.

    Of the top of my head, though I’m sure there are several dozen more points:


    Objection the first: Emphasis on the communal aspects of sin may be done during penance or as part of the penance. A large restructuring of the outward shell of the sacrament is not needed.

    Objection the second: In an age dominated by “We are the Church” I don’t see that the communal aspect of anything needs to be emphasized. If anything, there needs to be a renewed emphasis on “my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault.”

    Solvency and harms:

    Objection the third: This wishy-washy reform would not add new structure but remove existing structure from confession. The result would not be so much renewal of faith but a dispersal of the faithful. “Oh. So it’s one more thing the Church is destroying. And I thought the 1970s were over.”

    Objection the fourth: As with heresies, this is a distortion of reality, as if the only dimension which matters is the communal dimension. Unfortunately, while that dimension matters, there is also a dimension of personal fault which will be completely steamrolled over with this proposal.

    Logical flaw:

    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.

    I’ve heard the opposite diagnosis from people I trust and seen enough to confirm that we need more confession times (coupled with more preaching about confession). But even granting this dubious anecdote, what people want does not necessarily equal what people need. I’ve heard children speak with great enthusiasm about the need for ice cream instead of meatloaf for dinner, but that does not mean dad’s wrong for shutting them down. Whether dad is a big meanie poopy pants is a separate question.

    Counterproposal: the Holy Father stresses the need for a hermeneutic of continuity. The Affirmative proposal amounts to a kind of liturgical “playing games,” precisely the opposite of what we need right now.

    Considering all of these reasons, Judge, you should vote Negative on this ballot.

  • Liam

    In a word, no. Trying to fix the ritual is not going to fix the problem; that’s to put the cart before the horse. The problem is that we expect the workings of God’s grace to be gracious (in the conventional sense of that word), and leave us *feeling* full rather than empty. We are very disturbed by the idea that the Good News for us may be that it is better to be empty than to be full; the prosperity Gospel and Christian narcissism has reached deep into the American Catholic psyche, and general absolution would dovetail too well into that baleful dynamic (and public penance would stir the melodrama that Christian narcissism thrives on).

    The little way, my friends. Take the little way, the way that understands how broken we are and accepts that God more commonly speaks to us via the small, still voice than a Damascene moment. Strain to avoid expecting, or depending upon, anything grandiose or melodramatic.

  • The priest to parishioner ratio is on the order of 1500 to 1. Given 15 minutes per confession, monthly confession for each parishioner would amount to 375 hours a month or 86 hours per week. Conceding for the moment that that the priest to parishioner ratio has grown, I still think people are idealizing monastic practice and attempting to impute it to the laity. While I think a person should be very careful in adopting monastic practices but am generally supportive, I think it is quite dangerous when others browbeat folks into adopting them.

    As for communal confession, we have it almost every mass. The communal confession services in lent do not seem to require significantly greater organization with many priests available for individual confession than with only one priest. They also have the benefit of stopping priests from being an administrative island.

    So in summary, it is nice to wish any number of things, but we must remain mindful of the economy or parishioners and the economy of priests.

    • Given 15 minutes per confession? What, did you kill a man?

      • Liam

        Indeed, in my experience of waiting for confession each month, that would be an extreme. More typical would be 3-5 minutes.

      • 15 minutes would be more in keeping with spiritual advising. Call it 5 minutes if you care. It doesn’t change that the Church is no where near equipped to provide that level of support. By no where near, I mean by a couple orders of magnitude. Given the Church’s priorities, perhaps she doesn’t believe that grave sin is all that frequent of an occurrence.

      • Consider that 86 divided by 3 is, rounding roughly, 28 hours a month, which adjusts your fifteen minute per confession figure to five minutes per confession.

        Consider that there are four weeks in a month. That brings it to seven hours a week, a more conceptual figure because confession times are posted weekly.

        Consider that most times confession is offered, two priests are there. Most other times there are more. This minimum figure brings the total hours per week per priest in the confessional to a mere 3.5. Which is so doable it isn’t even funny.

        (Confidentially, there are three priests at my local Novus Ordo parish there every Saturday for about that long, and more during peak and rush hours.)

      • The typical parish does not have two priests. That you thought such should cause you to reexamine your grasp of reality. Perhaps spending less time on the Internet would do you well.

        • It was spending time off of the Internet that led me to the conclusion that confession times offer two priests. Still 7 hours a week — which also assumes your parish size — is not 80 hours a month. (It is also not 80 hours a week, as a commenter below misquoted.)

        • I happily retract this characterization. Refer to a comment below for a better analysis.

    • M.Z.,

      On the one hand, your point is well taken. If EVERY BAPTIZED CATHOLIC suddenly was living according to the ideal…it simply wouldn’t work. We wouldn’t have enough priests, there simply wouldn’t be enough time!

      We can, of course, suggest a reform of the priesthood. I’d start by suggesting letting married men be ordained, as unsalaried part-time volunteers, after a much less rigorous training process (the 6-year-brainwashing seminary system accomplishes nothing good).

      And, of course, some might suggest that as more Catholics begin to fulfill the ideal…we’d naturally get more priests.

      However, neither of these are my point in this comment. My real concern is something I’ve seen from a friend too lately, and that’s in this sort of weird “deontological” or almost Kantian way you seem to be looking at this.

      As if the fact that it would be demographically impossible for EVERYONE to fulfill…somehow means that everyone is excused, even though any given INDIVIDUAL might indeed be able to personally fulfill it. As if an ideal that could not be met by EVERY individual means that EACH individual is excused.

      This does not follow.

      Indeed, I’d argue that in our current debt-money system…it is impossible for all individuals to pay back their loans to the usurers, by a simple mathematical impossibility (not even taking into account practical impossibilities). Yet, at the same time, I wouldn’t quite say that this excuses those of us who can pay back our loans from doing so (yes, even the usury if we have agreed to it).

      A famine may mean that food is so scarce that it will only be possible for 75% of mothers to feed their children. The “ought/can” issue gets problematic when you try to apply it to a collective. For the individual the inability to fulfill a maxim might personally excuse. But the demographic impossibility of everyone fulfilling an ideal or maxim…does not invalidate the maxim or excuse those individuals who can fulfill it.

      The fact is, not everyone DOES try to live up to the ideal/maxim of frequent personal confession. So the system remains sustainable for now. If everyone does start trying and we really do start to run into constraints on resources or times, then we might start having a real emergency that excuses, or needing some major reforms. But some sort of “categorical imperative” type analysis where “I can’t wish this as a maxim fulfilled by everyone, because then there’d be problems, therefore even an individual can’t be said to be required to do it”….is simply invalid. That just becomes a self-fulfilling loop.

      • If EVERY BAPTIZED CATHOLIC suddenly was living according to the ideal…it simply wouldn’t work.

        Everybody should just stop committing sins, and confession would be unnecessary. Problem solved!

      • Exactly, David!

  • I think we should return to the early Church practice of communal confessions, you know, confessing before the whole community of believers. It may scandalize the good middle class ladies sitting in the front pew, but they’ll get over it. Besides, the real horrible sins that people SHOULD be worried about are the ones that people are doing all the time out in the open, like usury and oppressing the orphan and widow. No one seems to be ashamed of that, but people find looking at naughty pictures on the computer embarrassing? Yeah, we have our priorities straight.

    As for the true contrition vs. attrition thing, that boat left the dock with the condemnation of Jansenism. Now, Jansenism warms my heart for some reason, although I am repulsed by it. Call me a masochist, I guess. But the idea that one is “shriven” just by whispering something in a dark box is actually a strange idea once you think about it, and not actually that ancient. Indeed, in Argentina at least, such “dark box” confessionals don’t exist. You often have to look the priest face to face. Maybe that would be an improvement. If you are going to sin, at least face up to it.

    • Heresy, thy name is primitivism. Not every practice of the primitive Church was a good idea, and fewer are the best formulations of that idea.

      But the idea that one is “shriven” just by whispering something in a dark box is actually a strange idea once you think about it, and not actually that ancient.

      Just? Is that how you want to characterize confession?

    • Liam

      Oh, in America, the good middle class ladies (but not only them) THRIVE on public confession. They/we stopped being scandalized about at least a generation ago. It’s part and parcel of having Christianity bless the culture of narcissism.

      I find anonymous confession (which is canonically required to be available to the faithful; face-to-face is only by mutual choice of both penitent and confessor) allows penitents to focus less on ministering to their priest-confessors. (Yes, it’s an issue for people who have care-giving personalities – they enter confessionals and being face to face means they will tend to tend to the priest, rather than being tended to by the priest; these are people who find it harder to receive than it is to give, and in Reconciliation, they need to be given the opportunity to receive rather than to give for a change….)

  • Perhaps the Catholic (at least, hierarchical Catholic) aversion to public liturgical absolution derives from the belief of (some) Anglicans and (most) Lutherans that the absolution after the confession of sin at eucharistic liturgy forgives all sins, even grevious sins. Lutheran eucharistic theology, for example, teaches that the eucharist itself is an absolution of sin so far as those who trust in God’s mercy receive forgiveness for their sins by partaking of communion. That would be highly incompatible with Catholic theology at least in its Tridentine formulation. I am careful here because some Anglicans, especially Anglo-Catholics, do not believe that the confession of sin at their Mass is sufficient to forgive mortal sin.

    For Rome to do an about-face and claim that the confiteor and miseratur forgive all sins, regardless of gravity, would require a re-examination of the Eucharist. Any conclusion which does not require private absolution would deviate from Catholic and Orthodox eucharistic and sacramental theology. Even though I am still sympathetic to those who wish for routine general absolution, I now realize that the theological stakes are much higher than I previously thought.

  • Pinky

    I understand the idea of this article, but on a practical basis the problem of non-participation in this sacrament is much bigger than the question of its private versus communal aspect, unless the proposal for general absolution is being made to address the problem of non-participation. If so, we should discuss it as such. I think that the priests need more training, but the people do even moreso.

    I know that this suggestion runs against your idea, and runs against contemporary attitudes, but I’d be satisfied if we reduced the frequency of the reception of Communion. Peer pressure encourages everyone to receive the Host, and no one to seek out Confession. Reception of Communion in a state of sin, or in a state of moral torpor, reinforces itself both naturally and supernaturally. We become dead to the value of the sacraments. Would general absolution encourages us sacramentally? I don’t know. I can imagine a lot of people would receive it without thinking, and without any real repentance. I could be mistaken, but I don’t think it would be spiritually constructive, and certainly not more spiritually constructive than a revival in private Confession.

    • Liam

      I believe the idea of peer pressure is more internalized than real.

      The Council of Trent itself exhorted the revival of the practice of frequent communion, but for a variety of reasons, the implementation of that conciliar reform had to await Pope St Pius X a century ago.

    • Pinky: I agree that many persons might benefit from less frequent communion, or even communion only after sacramental confession. Frequency of communion must remain a mutual decision of penitent and confessor and subject to no one else’s judgment.

      I am convinced that Humanae Vitae has made it almost impossible for confessors to provide spiritual formation with regard to frequency of communion. Let me emphatically state that I do not presume to judge married persons. I am not married, and do not intimately understand the struggles of family planning. Still, if a penitent is convinced that contraceptive use is not immoral, then there is little a confessor can do to convince the penitent to refrain from communion until the cessation of contraceptive use. Even more, if a priest is not convinced that contraception is immoral, then he will probably not recommend a “medicine” of more devout communions for a penitent currently using contraception.

      Some priests are not even convinced of private communion. Some think that private confession is only for criminally grave sin and not for lesser offenses such as missing Mass on Sunday. Others believe that the eucharist forgives sins. Combine this with the peer pressure you mention, and a reformation of communion piety is a tall order.

  • pcs

    My old master in grad school, Darth Tom Richstatter (and I say that most lovingly) would agree with you, as would I – provided an “individual” element remained in some way. Even in Rite III the forgiven penitent is required to celebrate the Sacrament individually, to keep that very important (and very healing, IMHO) aspect of “coming to Jesus” in this way. A bit more on his site, here:

  • One practical objection to solvency: the seal of confession.

  • Reading some of the comments, I think I should say that, allowing for my qualms about the phrase “general absolution without private confession,” which is not really very accurate, I think David’s proposal is an entirely reasonable possibility, in the sense that we could very well have a situation in which the sacrament of reconciliation has to be handled largely by reconciliation services and general absolutions. I just don’t think changing the current system, under our current conditions, to this kind of system would have any obvious benefit, and would argue against the resolution on this ground, as well as on the ground that there are much less massive revisions that could be done, like better catechesis, more discussion of the sacrament in homilies, more scheduled hours a week. (No one expects every parish priest to manage St. Jean Vianney levels of 80 hours a week in the confessional. But most parish priests could handle a little more scheduled confession time without having to be John Vianney to do it.) While it probably varies from parish to parish, the current way of doing things doesn’t seem to be either broken or overwhelmed; it just seems to be undersupported.

    This undersupported character, by the way, is not really unusual; there have been periods were even Baptism and the Eucharist have arguably been undersupported. This is certainly not the first time in history in which confession has had such problems. Actually, St. Jean is a good example; when he became parish priest all the sacraments were undersupported, because the clamp-downs after the French Revolution had almost destroyed both catechesis about them and the ability of even devout Catholics to use them. The Cure D’Ars turned that around only by doggedly offering the sacraments, and preaching about them, as often as possible, for whole decades while people slowly started returning to them. And I think in our much less severe case, his solution on a smaller scale is precisely the right one. We are a fix-it culture and like to tinker; but the sacraments don’t need to be fixed. They just need to be taken fully seriously, and any practical re-working necessary will flow naturally from that over time.

    • Minor correction: Nobody here mentioned “80 hours a month.” It works out to something more like “7 hours a week, divided by the number of priests.”

      • I didn’t mention eighty hours a month, either; the wording was “eighty hours a week”. It was exactly what it said: a reference to the Cure D’Ars. St. Jean Vianney is said to have spent between eleven and sixteen hours a day, depending on the time of year, in the confessional, for large portions of the year. Confession was one of his big things (he continued to hear confessions on his deathbed, for instance). The point was that in expecting confession to be better supported than it is, one is not demanding that parish priests be taking on a task as onerous as John Vianney’s, which no one expects.

        However, looking at the part of the comments thread you are referring to, I think you are actually mistaken.

        • Fair call, and I see you are right.

          Still, I have no problem with priests doing even 30 hours a week in the confessional (adjusted for the absurd figure of 15 minutes per confession.) After all, isn’t Vatican II all about “lay involvement?”

        • For that matter, we can still divide 30 by the number of priests present and get a reasonable number.

          Of course, these analyses assume that regular confession does not result in a deeper spiritual life and a greater likelihood of discernment, which will always be an authentic source of renewal.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    I want to thank the many people who have provided thoughtful comments to this resolution. I have found the discussion very helpful in shaping my own thoughts. Here are a couple more thoughts:

    I do not think that there is anything heretical about my proposal, but there was a certain ambiguity in the way in which it was phrased. I never intended to suggest that private confession and absolution be abolished; rather I wanted to suggest that the space for communal rites (including general absolution) should be expanded, with the two working in tandem. I would note that venial sins do not need to be confessed by name and number in order to be forgiven, so it would seem to follow (though I may be mistaken) that absolution can be offered for them without them being enumerated. Thus, private confession could be reserved for mortal sins and perhaps serious, recurrent venial sins, and that smaller sins could be treated in a different way. Or perhaps a person will alternate between private confession and communal penance services.

    The question remains, and I think that it is a serious one, as to whether private confession or a communal rite will do more to promote an understanding of oneself as a sinner. Several people have questioned this, with a strong sense from some that a sense of sinfulness is only had when people own their sins by speaking them to a priest. I am less certain, and I have a sense (perhaps a naive hope) that regular participation in a communal penance service would lead people to reflect more on their sins and resolve to move beyond them. Again, from a pastoral perspective (theological questions to one side) it would seem that a communal service would do more good than 5 minutes “in the box” reciting a laundry list of sins. (Truthfully, I have a hard time believing that more can be accomplished in such a short span of time.)

    • Julia Smucker

      David, I like your ideas about communal penance services “working in tandem” with private confession. But in the same vein, I would not go so far as to reserve the latter for only “serious” sins; it seems to me that would all but do away with private confession, which you said you don’t want to do.

      I do think we need to restore a more relational and less juridical sense of the sacrament of reconciliation. But then, there is also a deep sense of personal responsibility in it that should go beyond a technical admission of having “broken the rules”: that raw specificity I was talking about happens when we go to confession and essentially say, “Here is how I personally have wounded the Body of Christ.” This is serious business!

      And how amazing, when you think about it, that we have such a concrete means in place for reparation of those damages, restoration of relationships, and hearing the call to continuing conversion.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


        Indeed, it is amazing. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.

  • tausign

    David, we should be thanking you for bringing up a serious need in the Church; a renewal of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. After several days of lingering with this question and the comments I agree that something must be done to revive participation. You are showing a true Franciscan charism in being ever concerned for a rebuilding and renewal of the church.

    I’m wondering if some aren’t unnecessariy put off by any mention of communal aspects of sin. My own sense is that we are not talking about ‘sin shifted away from us and into the corporate body’. Rather that sin is obscured or normallized in and by the community at large. It’s not for us individually to confess ‘structures of sin’, or wring our hands that we live in ‘a culture of death’. But precisely because sin is structured, codified, and even glorified in our social mores we have increasing difficulty recognizing the need to break free into conversion/metanoia/repentance.

    If we could find a way to gather together and acknowledge that ‘our own sins in particular’ are contributing to ‘an edifice of sin in general’ and conversely that this ‘edifice of sin in general’ is adding fuel to ‘our own sins in particular’, then we could begin a virtuous cycle of conversion/repentance. Veni Creator Spiritus

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thank you: you have summarized beautifully some of my concerns about the communal aspect of sin. This perfectly complements the other aspect that I was thinking of: that in many sins, we sin against our brothers and sisters and need to demonstrate that we are cognizant of and remorseful for this fact. Sometimes, this needs to be done by apologizing directly to the person I have wronged; other times, however, we simply need to acknowledge before the community that we have not been acting as we should. And, as you point out, sometimes we need to acknowledge together that we have collectively been part of something that has caused us all to not act as we should.