The April 4, 2004 edition of the Northwest Indiana Catholic newspaper contains a Catholic News Service article by Jerry Filteau titled Who is going to confession? The story is about a symposium at The Catholic University of America in Washington DC, held to discuss the reason so many Catholics no longer participate in frequent confession.
According to the article, Boston College historian James O'Toole stated, "Between 1965 and 1975, the number of American Catholics going to confession fell through the floor." O'Toole and other symposium participants listed numerous reasons for the "near-demise of auricular confession" during those years. Quoting from the article, it lists four:
1. Its speed: The typical confession was "two minutes or less" and many felt it was perfunctory.
2. Fear: "Everybody seemed to have a story of a priest yelling at them," and as soon as they felt they could give confession up, they did.
3. A "growing sense of triviality": Catechetical instruction on the rite continued to call for enumeration of individual sins by kind and gravity, while Catholics were starting to think of sin in categories such as social sin, sinful attitudes behind one's individual actions, and fundamental option instead of the classical "mortal" or "venial" categories.
4. Contraception: When Pope Paul VI reaffirmed in 1968 the church teaching that use of contraception in the conjugal act was always intrinsically wrong, "most Catholics stopped confessing it."
Taking O'Toole's points one by one, I see it a little differently:
1. Speed: Even in the old days when we went to confession frequently, I don't recall ever hearing anyone say, "Gee, I wish I could spend more time in that confessional." Nobody enjoys telling their sins to a priest. We did it because it was necessary and a pre-requisite for receiving the Eucharist.
2. Fear: In the old days of frequent confession, perhaps everybody had a story of a priest "yelling" at them. We still went to confession. After all, we deserved a scolding once in a while. Nowadays, priests never "yell" in the confessional, and yet, nobody comes.
3. A "growing sense of triviality": O'Toole is getting closer here. There has been a de-emphasis of the mortality of mortal sin. The pre-Vatican II booklets we used to examine our consciences prior to confession were very specific with mortal sins written in all capital letters. More on this later.
4. Contraception: This is a valid point among Catholics of reproductive age. The sin of contraception is probably one of the toughest teachings for Catholic couples to accept. The assumed practice of birth control by Catholics caused many to turn inward to their own consciences when discerning right from wrong. To validate their behavior, they assumed an attitude that the church, run by a celibate all-male clergy, just didn't understand the workings of married life. Most felt the Church was disconnected from modern reality. Catholics became faced with three choices: They could confess something they did not feel was wrong and were not willing to give up. They could dismiss contraception as a sin and omit it from the confession. Or, they could acknowledge the perceived disconnect of the Catholic clergy and simply avoid confession altogether.
While O'Toole makes some valid points, the reasons Catholics avoid confession go much deeper. It is no coincidence that the number of confessions plummeted after Vatican II. Perception of sin changed drastically in the aftermath of the Council. For example, prior to Vatican II, Church precepts dictated that eating meat on Friday was a Mortal Sin. Dying in a state of Mortal Sin meant going to hell. After Vatican II, the Church allowed another penance to be substituted for abstinence from meat on Fridays. When was the last time you heard a priest say that you still need to refrain from meat if you don't substitute something else? Is it still a Mortal Sin? Who knows?
Thomas Aquinas warned of changing rules without good reason. In fact, he goes beyond that, saying that rules should never be changed unless it would cause more harm NOT to change them. He reasoned that changing any rule diminished the binding power of the rule. The command to do penance on Fridays carried little weight after the rule was changed. Catholics wondered how many were banished to hell for something that was perfectly acceptable now?
Since meatless Fridays were so closely associated with Catholicism, the diminished power of the rule carried over to other perceptions of sin, changing the mindset of the typical Catholic. If we will no longer go to hell for eating meat on Fridays, we probably won't go to hell for missing Mass on Sundays or failing to confess mortal sins once a year, especially if these sins are no longer mortal. The line between right and wrong took on a more subjective feel. Catholics began to rely on personal discernment to form their consciences.
Vatican II also changed the mechanics of confession. Confession became the Sacrament of Penance or Sacrament of Reconciliation. We were no longer to say, "Bless me Father for I have sinned." This was replaced by a short dialogue of prayer with responses which made some Catholics uncomfortable. It is hard enough to remember one's sins without having to recall lines such as "His mercy endures forever." Later, many Catholics reverted to the old form, but those who began confessing less frequently became confused about which form to use. Some confessionals displayed a prayer card with the wording, but many did not. In the confusion (and as another result of the diminished power of a changed rule), form became unimportant. Yet, those who were uncertain what to do and too embarrassed to ask, simply stayed away.
The aftermath of Vatican II also affected our reverence for the Eucharist. We went from communion cloth to no cloth, rail to no rail, kneeling to standing, paten to no paten, receiving on the tongue to receiving in the hand. We went from priestly distribution to lay Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers. We went from ornate tabernacles to humble boxes. And as Thomas would have expected, the binding power of the rules diminished to the point where receiving the Eucharist is a state of grace was no longer an issue. It is not so much that Vatican II changes were bad, but the fact that they were changes reduced their binding power to the point of casual abuse.
Prior to Vatican II, nearly all confessions were completely anonymous, done behind an opaque screen in privacy. Now, Catholics have the option of going face to face. Many Catholics are uncomfortable with face to face confession, but feel a certain stigma attached to hiding behind a screen when others are openly confessing. A recent emphasis on Communal Reconciliation Services with multiple priests hearing individual confessions makes anonymity even more difficult since most churches have only one confessional and the other priests generally hear face to face. Those preferring to go behind the screen may feel alienated or intimidated by the communal service. Again, it becomes easier to avoid an uncomfortable situation. And since the communal penance service is held only twice a year in many parishes, those who do like it may gain the perception that twice a year is frequent enough.
Another nuance was a change in the way sins were confessed. Confessing, especially face to face, took on a more conversational manner. While this might be good, it requires more thought and composition which can be disconcerting. This can be a problem during communal services where brevity is a concern. When discussing intimate details of one's life, some people need time to open up.
The shortage of priests may also affect the number of people going to confession. Whether we admit it or not, we sometimes rate priests on how easy or difficult it is to confess to them. Some give a little lecture and tough penance and others simply tell you to say three Hail Marys, pray the Act of Contrition and go in peace regardless of the gravity of the sin. With many parishes having only one priest, our choice of confessors is often limited. The increased role of the laity has forged closer working relationships with the typical parish priest and many find it difficult to tell their darkest sins to someone they are close to.
All of this confessional avoidance becomes commonplace because of something I call Peer Permission. We know about the power of peer pressure, the tendency to do something because others are doing it. Peer Permission is essentially allowing ourselves to be derelict in duties because others are doing the same. Not going to confession becomes acceptable because our peers are not going either.
Priests contribute to this acceptance by not speaking out. Their homilies rarely mention the devil or mortal sin. Instead, we hear about how forgiving and merciful God is. This is true, but part of the message is missing. God provided a means for attaining his forgiveness and mercy sacramentally. The absence of this emphasis by the clergy infers a validation that minimizes the appearance of necessity.
Reversing the exodus from Sacramental confession will not be easy. The burden may fall on the shoulders of the same parish priest whose attitude may have contributed to the problem. He himself may require some coerced reflection on the importance of the sacrament. Once the decision is made to bring people back to confession, a three step approach may work best. First, create the desire for Sacramental confession by demonstrating the need for souls to be clean. This may require extensive re-education. Second, ease the fear and apprehension of those who have not been to confession for a long time. And third, provide frequent opportunities.
Getting people back into the confessional must start from the pulpit. Sunday homilies are the best way to educate a captive audience. And, one homily is not enough. It may take a series of homilies. We need to go back to the very basics, explaining the necessity of confession and addressing what has transpired since Vatican II. We need to re-catechize adults as if they were making their first confession. How should we confess? What should we say when we enter the confessional? Do we need to be specific in name and number? Assure the penitent that the Act of Contrition will be posted in the confessional for those too nervous to say it by rote.
When I was in the second grade preparing for my first confession, our priest used a simple visual aid which fascinated me at the time. It was a white tube similar to the cardboard core from a roll of paper towels, though slightly larger. The word Confession was printed on the outside. Father used handkerchiefs to represent souls. Some were snow white, representing souls free from sin. Some had some black ink spots, representing souls with venial sins. Others were completely black, representing souls in a state of mortal sin. Much like a magic trick, he would insert the sinful souls into one end of the tube, and they would come out the other end white. To illustrate making a bad confession, the handkerchiefs came out of the tube with spots remaining. It was a very effective tool to use on a seven-year-old.
I have often lamented that Catholics sometime suffer from a spiritual retardation, never progressing much beyond that elementary level. We have been so poorly catechized over the past forty years that an entire generation knows little about their faith including the importance of the confession. Sadly, we find ourselves in a condition where parents are unable to pass the faith to their children. We have much work to do. We can begin by restoring our reverence for the Holy Eucharist. Emphasizing the importance of being in a state of grace before receiving Communion is essential at this time where Catholics routinely take the Body of Christ as if it were a vitamin pill.
On Divine Mercy Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter, Catholics had an opportunity to gain a plenary indulgence. Many Catholics today do not know what a plenary indulgence is, let alone how to get one. A plenary indulgence is the complete remission of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven. (CCC 1471) What a wonderful gift! How many priests even mentioned this to their congregations? Unfortunately, there is so much confusion about indulgences that it has become Catholic taboo to talk about them. Our Lord has offered us a wonderful gift and we simply ignore it.
Gaining the plenary indulgence is fairly simple. According to the Divine Mercy Sunday website, "The plenary indulgence is granted (under the usual conditions of a sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and a prayer for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff) to the faithful who, on Divine Mercy Sunday, in a spirit that is completely detached from the affection for a sin, even a venial sin, recite the Our Father and the Creed, and also adding a devout prayer (e.g. Merciful Jesus, I trust in you!)."
A priest who stresses the importance of this gift and offers special opportunities for confession to gain the indulgence, would certainly stand a chance of getting a few more Catholics into the confessional. Those who made a good confession for Easter could probably have obtained the Divine Mercy indulgence with little additional effort. While it is apparently not necessary that the confession take place the same day, it nonetheless needs to take place within a reasonable timeframe. If the priest no longer mentions these indulgence opportunities, even those aware of them will assume they are no longer important.
At some point in the re-education process, it will be necessary to be blunt with the congregation. They must learned a renewed reverence for the Blessed Sacrament and be made aware of the sin of receiving the Holy Eucharist in a state of sin. They must know how to form their consciences in accordance with Church teaching. Perhaps we need a renewed fear of the realities of hell. Blessed Sister Faustina, whose vision of the Sacred Heart led to the institution of Divine Mercy Sunday, also had a Vision of Hell. Her diary mentions seven tortures of indescribable suffering, and she warns that most souls there were ones who did not believe hell existed. A re-examination of eternal damnation would certainly foster an appreciation for the availability of Sacramental forgiveness.
Married couples must be told that they should not be receiving Communion if they practice artificial birth control. At the same time, every parish should be offering instruction on Natural Family Planning to ALL married couples and those in marriage preparation classes. It is a great disservice to the mission of salvation to simply condemn artificial birth control without teaching the alternatives. Contact the Couple to Couple League for assistance.
Beyond the educational process, the priest can do several simple things to make their parishioners more comfortable making their confessions. Schedule confessions at regular times. Be in the confessional with the door closed prior to the starting time, and do not leave until the end of the schedule. Those who wish to receive the Sacrament anonymously need to be assured that the priest will not wander out of the confessional, thereby invading their privacy. Once per month, swap parishes with a neighboring priest. Give your parishioners a regular opportunity to confess to a stranger. Some people feel more comfortable telling their sins to someone with whom they do not have a close relationship.
Set aside ten or fifteen minutes to hear confessions on Sunday before the Masses. This has several advantages. In parishes were confessions are so few that people do not go for fear of being the only ones in attendance, Sunday confessions before Mass will guarantee more people in the church. This not only helps those who seek anonymity in a crowd, it also converts Peer Permissiveness back into Peer Pressure or conformance. When people attending Mass see others entering the confessional, they may feel the necessity to confess also.
Overcoming forty years of neglect will require much effort on the part of bishops, priests and the laity. With a little re-education, compassion, and coaxing, the lines may start to get longer again. While we can do much to break down the barriers, it will ultimately be up to the individual to choose the best route for his or her salvation.