Saturday, March 1, 2014


Which do you prefer for Confession?
or This?

Along with all the other upheavals in the Church of the 1960's and 70's that left people scratching their head, confused and demoralized, was the attempt to make Confession more relevant. Now, keep in mind, in my day, most Catholics went to Confession very regularly and a significant percentage went weekly.

No one was complaining about the Sacrament or the fact that as the penitent said the Act of Contrition in English or the vernacular, the priest offered the Prayer of Absolution simultaneously in Latin.

No one was complaining about the fact that one had to enter a darkened room and wait quietly until the door to the screen was opened so one might follow the formula for confession precisely and receive absolution anonymously .

No one was complaining about the long lines but those who wanted to avoid the long lines arrived early to be at the front of the line.

No one was complaining, and by that I mean the laity. The only ones complaining were a small, academic, clericalist clique of academic theologian who wanted to "renew and improve" this Sacrament.

In the 70's there was a back and forth renewal and it caused confusion. First we were told to make our Act of Contrition not during Confession, but either before we entered the "Reconciliation Room"or after. Then we were told, no, make your Act of Contrition during Confession, but before the words of absolution.

Then we were told a new formula and there would be a scripture reading (the reading of Scripture during private confession was short-lived, even if it was merely a verse from the bible. (How many priests or penitents hear a scripture reading in private confession)?

Then we were told that we were "Oh so pre-Vatican II and thus really, really stupid and backwards) if we called this Sacrament, Confession or Penance rather than Reconciliation.

Then we were told it was better to go to a Reconciliation Service.

Then we were told that it would be better at Reconciliation Services if general absolution was given without confession.

Then we were told that it would be better to have general absolution as a part of the Penitential Act of the Mass and then we wouldn't have to go to confession at another time.

Then we were told we could decide what was sin and what wasn't sin on our own.

Then we never heard anything about sin and damnation.

It kept changing and changing and then we were told that if we didn't go face-to-face, then we were anti-change and pre-Vatican II and you know, really, really, really stupid.

Then by the mid seventies almost no one was going to Confession, (no, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say that, don't chastise me for being soooo pre-Vatican II, it was only a slip, please don't hate me), no one was going to celebrate with the priest the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

I doubt that any sociological studies were performed to determine why Catholics don't go to Confession any more (there I go again, I mean Reconciliation). There aren't too many studies from the 1970's to poll Catholics who left the Church in that period as to why they did.

We can only guess that Catholics became disillusioned and two types of Catholics, those who thought all the changes in the Church after Vatican II destroyed the identity of the Church and those who thought that the changes in the Church after Vatican II didn't change the Church enough.  Both groups and rather significant in size became lukewarm or tepid and simply did not hand on the faith to their children (my generation of kids) either because they didn't know what to hand on or didn't like handing on what they were told to hand on. Then Mass attendance began to slide, my generation of children didn't have the same discipline as my parent's pre-Vatican II generation and things spiraled from there with subsequent generations of kids. 

And now here we are with only about 20% of Catholics attending Mass on Sunday ( and lower in many other parts of the world) and even fewer than 20% going to Confession.

At Saint Joseph in the last 10 years we have seen a significant increase in the number who attend Confession regularly here. We usually need two priests hearing confession on Saturday beginning at 3:00 PM. This is what I account for the increase:

1. I and our parochial vicars have preached and written and taught about it regularly, but preached about it at Sunday Mass where the majority of our Catholics hear us and we teach about sin, original, actual and the two types of actual, venial and mortal and now we emphasize the step beyond mortal to corrupt as Pope Francis describes it.

2. I removed the option for face-to-face confession in our so-called "reconciliation room"  and returned to calling it the confessional. I had a news article in our newsletter telling the reason why, that our confessional was secluded and no one could see the priest or penitent from the outside when penitents went face to face opening up the possibility of all kinds of pitfalls. Thus everyone knew that when they went to confession it would be behind the screen.

3. Once Catholics were assured that they wouldn't have to go to Confession face to face, even by accident, more began to come and the confessions were much more specific when the penitent was assured of anonymity.

4. We added more times for Confession, Monday through Friday at 7:30 AM. 

Is the Confessional the way back to encouraging more of the 20% of Catholic who attend Mass to go more frequently? I report, you decide.

Finally, I continue to contend that when polls are taken as to why Catholics do not practice the faith that this is useless unless we go back to the immediate post-Vatican II period. We have to find out why Catholics who were reared in the pre-Vatican II period and thus had a cohesive identity, common liturgy and common spirituality, piety and ascetic penitential discipline were so radically changed after Vatican II and polarized, some leaving the Church over the loss of what they loved prior to Vatican II and some leaving the Church wanting more radical changes in the Church, especially after Humanae Vitae.

What happened in the priesthood and religious life of those who entered prior to Vatican II who experienced what many laity experienced as I describe above is cut from the same cloth. 


John Nolan said...

The traditional confessional 'box' was introduced in the 16th century because the prevailing custom of the penitent kneeling before the confessor gave rise to lurid Protestant tales of the solicitation of female penitents. No doubt the 'crimen sollicitationis' did and does exist, and there are procedures to deal with it. Even before the 16th century nuns were commonly separated from the confessor by a grille.

The decline in auricular confession since Vatican II is for a number of reasons. Firstly, the terms 'mortal' and 'venial' as applied to sins was rarely used; priests talked of 'serious' and 'less serious sins', implying a sort of sliding scale. Secondly, the Penitential Act in the reformed Mass was now given more prominence, and most people assumed it sufficed to absolve all but the most heinous offences. Thirdly, the new Mass shifted the emphasis onto the 'community meal' aspect, so people would not consider attending Mass without receiving Communion. The Eucharistic fast was effectively abolished. Fourthly, the impression was given in liberal circles (who effectively called the shots) that the Protestants were right when they declared auricular confession to be otiose; and in the 1970s services of General Absolution became widespread.

The disjunction between the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist was reinforced by the practice of using lay people to take Holy Communion to those who for one reason or another couldn't get to Mass, depriving them of the opportunity of making a sacramental confession. What was intended as a measure of last resort became a way of 'involving' the laity. Of course visiting the sick is a Christian duty, but this was something else. It surely can't be right that laypeople are used for what is essentially a sacerdotal task so that Father can chair a finance committee or relax on the golf course.

My deep-rooted antipathy towards EMHC is well-known, and there is no point in saying that "Rome allows the practice" since what actually happens goes far beyond what Rome intended or indeed authorized.

Gene said...

The widespread use of EMHC's is perhaps the most disgusting and destructive aspect of the OF. It is a stupid sop to the laity and a continuing blemish on the Mass. It needs to be stopped by Priests with the guts to do it….better, from a Pope with the guts to do it.

Sometimes I go to Mass intending to receive but, when the gaggle of variously attired EMHC's…at St. Jo's with their little Star Trek looking stoles…pops up and meanders down front, I get so disgusted and cynical that I do not go down to receive.

Many Priests know exactly what is wrong with the Mass, they simply do not want to deal with what fixing it would entail, especially the whining from the laity.

We have a very long way to go before Catholic identity is recovered. I am not encouraged.

Rood Screen said...

Great post, Father McDonald, with good questions that need answers. To add to John Nolan's fine comment, it's worth noting that, even before the reforms, the use of the confessional was only required when hearing the confessions of women (apart from sick calls, obviously).

I do remember reading somewhere that the original proposal in the Sixties was simply to allow penitents the option of kneeling at the step before the priest's door of the confessional, thereby highlighting the sacramental extension of the priest's hand during the absolution. This would rightly emphasize the absolution over the confession. But then, as was usual in the era, all Hell broke loose.

Anonymous said...

RE: John Nolan's mention of EMHCs...

Indeed, "Rome allows the practice" is a huge oversimplification in the allowance of EMHCs on a regular basis. Communion in the hand is, assuredly, permitted in most cases, and the burden of proof is on the priest (unfortunately) to show that there was a "serious risk of profanation" and disallow it.

But with EMHCs, the Vatican has been consistently clear that they MUST, really must, be necessary before being used (see Redemptionis Sacramentum, for example).

In the 1997 document "INSTRUCTION ON CERTAIN QUESTIONS REGARDING THE COLLABORATION OF THE NON-ORDAINED FAITHFUL IN THE SACRED MINISTRY OF THE PRIEST" we find this strong statement, which applies in all but the most dire of situations: it asks that, among other things, an end be put to the "the habitual use of extraordinary ministers of Communion at Mass thus *arbitrarily extending* the concept of "a great number of the faithful".

Anonymous said...

My apologies, btw, if that previous comment was too off-topic. :)

Pater Ignotus said...

Anecdotal evidence is rarely helpful in developing plans to "fix" anything. It also suffers from an immensely high level of confirmation bias.

In a study conducted by the University of Notre Dame, 2,600 "core Catholics" it was reported that 25% never go to confession, 35% go once a year, and 6% go monthly.

Among the reasons given for the decline in making use of the Sacrament:

1. Accumulated Dissatisfaction. Penitents found the way the Sacrament was celebrated to be perfunctory, that it enhanced fear of punishment and diminished the mercy of God...

2. Many had a growing sense of the triviality of what was confessed. That would be a result not of the architecture of the confessional, but of the lack of spiritual formation provided. I was taught how to "go" to confession in second grade, but no one ever suggested that as I matured I might want to approach the Sacrament in a different way.

3. Contraception. Those using artificial contraception - men and women - did not see it as sinful and as requiring confession.

4. Social and Economic changes. After WW2 Catholics obtained higher levels of education and moved into the middle and upper economic classes. At the same time there was a culture-wide rebellion against older - and sometimes outdated - notions of human behavior.

In this regard, Confession was seen as a "badge of denominational identity." As that identity was no longer needed, neither was the badge. Identity changed not because Vat 2 changed the way the mass and sacraments were celebrated, but because the culture changed - drastically. Where different religious groups were once segregated by choice, now people lived together without the dividing lines that had once been prevalent.

Psychology, once rejected as having nothing to do with sin/guilt, was now seen as a true benefit to those whose thinking and behavior was in need of reformation.

John Nolan notes the impact of the vernacular mass, especially as concerns the "absolution" offered in the Penitential Rite.

rcg said...

I was told that the Act of Contrition was essentially equal to sacrament of Confession so was led to believe the 'traditional' method was not really needed. I have been in parishes where they acknowledged the need for at least annual confession by having an extra event during Mass where there were several priests on the top step and people traipsed up over the now absent altar rail to have a short confession and absolution. All of this, including the comments about the EMHC and other changes, are linked by a profound lack of reverence and even simple respect for the gravity of sin and the sanctity of God.

John Nolan said...

Pater Ignotus,

All your points are valid, and I see them as complementary to those I made, and not contradictory. I was taught how to make a Confession at age seven, but there was no follow-up to it; if as an adolescent or adult I wanted to know how to examine my conscience, I would have had to consult books which are not on the average person's reading list.

The weakening of 'denominational identity' is a very important point which really requires a separate thread. It is certainly a fact, but its origins and future implications, and whether it is a good or a bad thing, really need discussion.

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

"Anecdotal evidence is rarely helpful in fixing anything" to which I heartily agree, but it is helpful to diagnosing what went wrong and not repeating history.

Pater Ignotus said...

Good Father - No, anecdotal evidence is not helpful. Any one of us can say, "I talked with three people who left the Church because...[Fill In The Blank]" and conclude that that anecdotal evidence translates into a universal truth.

Unfortunately, any one of us can also say, "I talked with three people who came into the Church because ...[Fill In The Blank With The Exact Opposite]" and conclude that that anecdote translates into a universal truth.

For as many people as YOU know who left the Church because Latin was no longer used, there are those who stayed in the Church because Latin was no longer used.

Wikipedia says: "The expression anecdotal evidence refers to evidence from anecdotes. Because of the small sample, there is a larger chance that it may be unreliable due to cherry-picked or otherwise non-representative samples of typical cases. Anecdotal evidence is considered dubious support of a claim; it is accepted only in lieu of more solid evidence."

Anecdotal evidence is not reliable in diagnosing anything, especially something as complex as the current situation in the Church today.

John - I agree - the notion of "Catholic Identity" and all that that implies would be a good conversation.

Православный физик said...

In the East penitents kneel in front of the icon of Christ, and priest places the stole on the head…, so the priest is never faced

Being anonymous I think is important for the psyche. definitely, transforming the confessional into a therapy session hasn't helped.

Anonymous said...

As one with professional knowledge of statistical methods of inference, I know that popular misconceptions about the use and misuse of statistics are as common as the use and misuse of anecdotes.

Statistical surveys with large sample sizes can be quite reliable in the measurement and quantitative assessment of complex phenomena--and the discovery of conditions needing change--but the determination of effective strategies for change frequently must rely more on human judgment informed by experience--that is, by extensive assimilation of anecdotal evidence. I can think of nowhere this is likely to be truer than in the Church, whose current situation has been shaped by so many complicated and interrelated conditions, both social and religious.

The usual cliches regarding unreliability of anecdotal evidence stem not from inherent lack of reliability, but from the common use of intentionally biased small samples in framing judgments.

Pater Ignotus said...

Henry - Knowing something about statistical methods of inference, you know that the weakness of anecdotal evidence is a result of the small sample size.

When the sample size is increased substantially, it is far more likely that the evidence gathered will be representative.

Yes, strategies for moving forward should be based on human experience, but not on the experience of a handful of individuals who are cherry-picked by the "reporter" in order to justify his or her preconceived notions (confirmation bias).

George said...

For everything that's been posted; Good points in all of them.

The will and the intellect of modern man has become clouded and darkened to sin and it effects.
For too many Catholics today, the reality of hell and purgatory is no longer present and for far too many, religion and God are just an afterthought, if even that. The same for prayer and fasting. We know we cannot save ourselves by our own efforts but what kind of spirituality is that which expects God to do everything while we do little or nothing? And when we do something, it is for self-interest and not for love of God and neighbor?

Bernard of Clairvaux wrote of walls put up by sin which separate the sinner from God and the recognition of personal sin.

Teresa of Avila:
"We must not voluntarily nourish a desire to continue in venial sin of any kind. No matter how small it is, a venial sin offends God."
"As for venial sins, I paid little attention and that is what destroyed me"

"But, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)

rcg said...

I have knowledge of statistics, too. I do not think it is applies in this case, we are talking bout leadership.

Anonymous said...

When I want to avoid lines at confession I go to Holy Spirit.