Whatever happened to confession?
Recently, Rick Santorum mentioned something in public that Catholics rarely talk about at all anymore: confession.
It was startling, and not just because a politician mentioned it on the stump. It was a reminder that a sacrament that once seemed commonplace has virtually vanished in some parts of the world.
A writer in the U.K. dissects the phenomenon in the Tablet.
One priest told me that in his rural parish in Oxfordshire, no one has come to confession for 10 years. Another in a Midlands industrial district reports that he never gets more than two penitents on a Saturday evening. In a straw poll survey of my friends, who lived through Vatican II, one in three have not been to confession for 30 years. For the rest, “every year or so”, or “once or twice a year”. According to most pastors I speak to, children nowadays rarely return to the sacrament after their first Communion unless part of an impetus once a term from the local Catholic school. And yet, there are inner-city parishes and cathedral churches where the sacrament is popular among every age group, including young adults. Many, seeking anonymity, are from distant parishes. A 26-year-old woman who converted to Catholicism aged 16, speaks of “queues” for confession at the Brompton Oratory and St James’s, Spanish Place in London. She likes to go to confession at least once month, but does not confess in her home parish in north London, because, she says, the sacrament is only available there “on application”.
The understanding of sin and confession today appears to pull in different directions, reflecting wider tensions in the Church. A recent convert informant, instructed in a traditionalist mode, has been taught that missing Mass is a serious sin requiring absolution before receiving the Eucharist. In contrast, a pastor of a large East End of London parish tells me that he never speaks of sin. “We have encouraged teenagers in our local Catholic school to see Reconciliation as an opportunity to talk about their experience of life, and their difficulties.”
The popularity of confession among groups of teenagers is clearly visible at World Youth Days, where the young queue in their hundreds to receive one-to-one absolution. The Penitential Service, or Rite Two (featuring several priests, available for auricular confession), is popular during Lent, with its stress on community contrition. And there is an ethnic dimension to the revival in traditional practice. A priest in an East Anglian market town tells me that when his Polish parishioners receive a visit from an itinerant compatriot priest, they all queue for confession in the old-style box which usually stands empty. Services of General Absolution (Rite Three) were banned by John Paul II, yet they persist in some parishes, and a priest in Buckinghamshire tells me of an unusual experiment where three or four children will come to confess together – admitting, for example, how they behaved badly towards each other, or were guilty as a group of bullying other children.
Yet attendance today bears no relation to what it once was, either in numbers or in character. In the East End of London parish of my childhood, confessions were heard for two-hour sessions on Thursday evenings, and Saturday mornings, afternoons and evenings. Most families went weekly: the nuns would check on our attendance every Monday morning. We brought to the confessional box our numbered, categorised sins: discrete offences, odious to God; blemishes upon the garment of one’s soul. There was not much focus on the consequences for others.
Today, the old dark box has been widely replaced by two armchairs, with a screen and kneeler as an option. Confessors speak of “real confessions” – a penitent’s discussion of the problems and failings in the whole of their lives. Not all moral theologians approve of the trend, seeing it too close to talk therapy.
But what of the millions of practising Catholics who have ceased to go confession altogether? The late moral theologian Bernard Häring wrote in 1978 that adult Catholics ceased to confess because so many of them were using artificial contraception, and saw nothing wrong with it. He might have added other stumbling blocks: sex before marriage; gay relationships; what Häring calls “self-stimulation”; being divorced and remarried (and yet being able to find an “understanding” confessor). These have caused people to either leave the Church, or simply ignore the teaching on “serious” or mortal sin and the need to confess before receiving the Eucharist. The circumstance has created, in consequence, a remarkable, historic split between teaching and practice.
Conversations with priests and people in different parts of the country raise diverse questions. Does confession reconcile us to the Church, or to God? Can “mortal” sin be forgiven with an act of contrition? For many people aged 50 and over, the experience of confession before Vatican II remains a troubled memory. The frequent confessions practised by my generation, and that of my parents and grandparents, was, as it turns out, an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of the Church. In 1905, St Pius X (1903-14) advocated that the age of first confession be lowered from the widespread norm of 13 or 14 down to seven and even younger. His aim was, in fact, to lower the age at which children made their first Communion.
He advocated, moreover, that confession, and Communion, should be made weekly if possible, and certainly more frequently than monthly; whereas the norm had been annually. Pius X’s initiative heralded a beneficial transformation in eucharistic devotion; but early and frequent recourse to confession brought unintended consequences for children at a formative age of development. 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.
There’s much more. Read it all.