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What happened to confession Changing mores reflective of use
www.Catholic.org ^ | National Catholic Reporter | Ed Conroy

Posted on 02/07/2007 7:07:29 AM PST by Alex Murphy

SAN ANTONIO, Texas. (National Catholic Reporter) – Lyn Woods, a middle-aged Catholic woman who teaches ceramics at the Southwest School of Art & Craft in San Antonio, said that, although she goes to church, she hasn’t been to confession in many years.

She says her childhood experience of the sacrament of reconciliation explains much of her adult attitude toward it today.

“When I was 7, 8 or 9 years old,” she said, “I found myself repeating the same sins over and over to the priest. It seemed to me they weren’t really sins but simply human nature. On the other hand, if I did something really serious, the guilt alone would drive me to confession.”

Woods’ opinion that confession is often meaningless seems an increasingly common one among American Catholics.

Over the past decade and a half, an increasing number of Catholic scholars and clergy in the United States have been seeking to understand the changing dynamics of confession, now called the sacrament of reconciliation, in the life of the American church.

Their inquiries are spurred by one undeniable social fact. Since the 1970s, the number of American Catholics making private acts of confession to their parish priests has, in the oft-quoted words of Boston College historian James O’Toole, “fallen through the floor.”

O’Toole made that dramatic statement at a 2004 conference on the “state of confession” held in Washington at The Catholic University of America.

Organized by Leslie Tentler, a professor of history at Catholic University, the conference has been widely cited in articles written for U.S. diocesan publications during Lent, the time when priests generally encourage more lay participation in the sacrament.

Despite such encouragement, however, American Catholic churches that in the 1950s and early ’60s were filled with people going to confession on Saturday evenings are now full of people fulfilling their weekly Mass obligation.

Catholic sociologist James Davidson of Purdue University says it is necessary to see such changes historically, as part of a “bell curve.”

“It is important to remember,” he said, “that at the turn of the 20th century the Catholic church in our country was characterized by a lack of vocations and a general lack of popular participation in the sacrament of reconciliation.”

Davidson observed that the social situation of 100 years ago was not very different from that of the present time, and that the church has come to a trough in a curve that was at its peak in the ’50s.

“In the 1950s, American Catholics banded together after experiencing decades of anti-Catholicism. You saw a great upsurge in vocations to the religious life and a tremendous public participation in private confession in the churches on the weekends,” he said.

Davidson’s perspective is informed by the research work he undertook with colleagues William D’Antonio, Dean Hoge and Katherine Meyer, which resulted in their highly respected 2001 study “American Catholics: Gender, Generation and Commitment.”

According to Leslie Tentler, issues of gender and generation have played a role in shaping popular participation in the sacrament, as have disagreements over what behavior constitutes a sin.

Take, for example, the issues around contraception.

Tentler, who has extensively studied North American women’s responses to Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humana Vitae, says there is no doubt that reproductive issues have had an effect upon American women’s approach to the sacrament of reconciliation.

After interviewing parish priests around the United States and women who practiced birth control and still attended Mass, Tentler observed that “many women simply did not regard contraception as a sin, and so they simply stopped going to confession.”

Tentler also said that the response to that situation from American Catholic clergy in the field has been cautious.

“In general,’ she said, “most of the parish priests I interviewed said although they agreed with Humana Vitae, they did not bring it up with their parishioners because they did not wish to alienate them from the life of the church.”

Tentler’s study of women who stopped going to confession because they did not consider contraception a sin suggests that they did not wish to lie to their confessors or found it prudent simply not to confront their parish priests with their disbelief in contraception as a sin.

This tension between sincerity and prudence in the confession of Christian faith has existed since the Renaissance, notes John Jeffries Martin, chair of the Department of History at Trinity University in San Antonio.

In his book, Myths of Renaissance Individualism, Martin explores the crises of conscience experienced by some notable Catholics in mid-to-late 16th-century Venice, Italy, when they began to feel conflicted over whether they should publicly profess their new Protestant beliefs.

“The most famous of such cases was that of Francesco Spiera, a sophisticated lawyer from a town north of Venice, who had converted to Calvinism but, when called by the Inquisition, lied and said he was faithful to Catholicism,” Martin said. “Spiera later felt he had committed an unpardonable sin, and although both Catholic and Protestant friends tried to dissuade him of that belief, ultimately committed suicide.”

Spiera’s case became famous throughout Europe. It was even cited by early Puritan clerics after a spate of suicides in England, apparently brought on by similar crises of conscience, as reason not to hold the faithful too strictly accountable for their sins, Martin said.

Martin points out Catholics such as Spiera who converted to Calvinism rejected individual confession in favor of “the idea that one’s whole life should be a confession.”

“At the same time, however,” Martin said, “Cardinal [Charles] Borromeo in Rome was instituting and promoting the idea that Catholic private confession should take place in the confessional box.”

What Martin sees as significant in this bifurcation of Calvinist and Catholic approaches to confession during the Renaissance is that both are intensely concerned with the exercise of the individual conscience.

“The Calvinist was constantly testing his sincerity, asking, ‘Are my motives pure, for if they are not pure and I am not sincere, I am not of the elect,’ ” Martin said. “Catholics, too, shared this deeply introspective quality in the process of the privatization of confession.”

Today, centuries after the Reformation, does private confession to a priest offer the possibility of spiritual experiences that can be uniquely beneficial?

Oblate Father William C. Davis thinks it does.

Father Davis, who currently serves as pastor of the predominantly Hispanic Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Houston, Texas, served as pastor of St. Mary Church in downtown San Antonio in the 1980s and ’90s.

In an interview in Houston, he said he saw the pressures of modern life as a whole bringing a great diversity of people to him at St. Mary Church, in unusually high numbers, for private confession.

“I was surprised and delighted to find numerous Protestants coming to St. Mary’s for confession,” he said.

“They said to me, ‘Father, we don’t have this in our church, and I want to talk directly to you.’ So, I heard their confessions, and often would bless them by laying my hands upon their heads. When I told them that they received God’s forgiveness and the blessing of the Holy Spirit, I could see what a difference it made for them.”

Father Davis, now in his 70s, is also one of a great many parish priests who have received training in family and individual counseling and who see their work as counselors as part and parcel of their pastoral practice.

Father Davis’ emphasis on helping the penitent obtain some kind of psychotherapeutic experience is no doubt supported by his “laying on of hands,” a more charismatic manner of administering the sacrament than the rather formulaic conversation many Catholics experience in the traditional confessional box.

The larger question remains, however, as to whether private individual confession lends itself to psychological healing or to a meaningful spiritual experience among the general Catholic lay population of the United States.

It appears Catholics are willing to talk about the sacrament, if able to do so anonymously. Several persons raised in the Catholic faith and interviewed for this story recounted they no longer go to confession for a wide variety of reasons but refused to be identified.

Those reasons ranged from a general lack of trust of priests, reticence to speak of sexual matters, the seeming irrelevance of traditional penances, doubt of the priest’s power of absolution, and the feeling they said that confession gave them of being trapped within personal weaknesses, always guilty, always in need of forgiveness.

Such feelings may well be driving people in other directions for meaningful spiritual experience. James Davidson said his sociological research at Purdue suggests that other forms of spiritual practice may be replacing that sacrament for American Catholics as the central feature of their spiritual lives.

“I think it is also important to note there are now many ways in which laypeople find a sense of spirituality that they also integrate with their participation in the life of their parish churches,” he said. “They may range from some form of social service to the practice of contemplation to various forms of physical activity such as tai chi or yoga.”

Davidson noted those forms of spirituality emphasize social engagement with the world, or the development of the interior life, or a new relationship to the human body through meditative forms of exercise.

If sacramental confession continues to change within American popular culture, so too has psychotherapeutic confession changed in the context of popular culture.

Once largely practiced in private between a therapist and client, the sharing of secrets about perhaps taboo forms of behavior or thought is now increasingly becoming public.

Today, millions of people are daily entertained by “the stories you can’t tell” that other people now confess, with little or no shame, on television shows hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Phil and the like.

Many other people confess anonymously, or participate vicariously in such confessions, on various Internet Web sites.

Do these forms of expression cultivate the exercise of conscience or simply provide a brief moment of catharsis soon forgotten? Are they meaningful in ways not yet generally appreciated and challenge the church to find new ways of making sacramental confession relevant to a new generation?

Scholar Martin sees the emphasis upon sincerity and the exercise of individual conscience, a legacy from the Renaissance, as now pervading American cultural life.

“Maybe it is possible to extrapolate and say that we in America live in a culture that pretends to be sincere and we appear to tell one another everything all the time,” he said. “In such a world, what need would people have to be introspective in the company of a priest when everyone is doing so elsewhere?”

That question calls for a creative examination of conscience about how American Catholics practice the sacrament of reconciliation, as individuals and as a community.


TOPICS: Apologetics; Catholic; Ministry/Outreach; Religion & Culture
KEYWORDS: catholic; catholicbashing; confession; hitpiece; penance; reconciliation; sacrament; sacraments; sin
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1 posted on 02/07/2007 7:07:33 AM PST by Alex Murphy
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To: Alex Murphy; Siobhan; Canticle_of_Deborah; NYer; Salvation; sandyeggo; american colleen; ...
Catholic ping!

Alex, need you be reminded that the National Catholic Reporter is as Catholic as Ted Kennedy is, and both seek to undermine Catholic teaching?

Davidson’s perspective is informed by the research work he undertook with colleagues William D’Antonio, Dean Hoge and Katherine Meyer, which resulted in their highly respected 2001 study “American Catholics: Gender, Generation and Commitment.”

The report sounds like a product of the "women's studies" department of a typical American university. The fact that the Reporter says it's "highly respected" seems to support my hypothesis.

“In general,’ she said, “most of the parish priests I interviewed said although they agreed with Humana Vitae, they did not bring it up with their parishioners because they did not wish to alienate them from the life of the church.”

It's called Humae Vitae. It is the spineless nature of many parish priests that has set up this situation. Their silence is their condoning of the fact that these people have already alienated themselves from not just the Church, but from God. They know it is wrong because the Church teaches it is wrong, but they have chosen to disregard it (though I would guess that at least some have never been taught that contraception is a sin). Grave matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will.... it sounds like mortal sin to me.

2 posted on 02/07/2007 7:19:41 AM PST by Pyro7480 ("Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, esto mihi Jesus" -St. Ralph Sherwin's last words at Tyburn)
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To: Pyro7480

He thinks UNESCO is a reliable source, too ... as long as the outcome can be given an anti-Catholic spin in some way.

I'm getting bored with this - anyone else think a boycott of the poster's threads is in order?


3 posted on 02/07/2007 7:21:47 AM PST by Tax-chick ("It is my life's labor to bring Christ to souls and souls to Christ through word and example.")
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To: Tax-chick; NYer; Alex Murphy

Well, actually, NYer posted the same article a few minutes after Alex did. I wouldn't boycott this thread, because I think that the Sacrament of Confession should be something that is consistently discussed.


4 posted on 02/07/2007 7:24:17 AM PST by Pyro7480 ("Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, esto mihi Jesus" -St. Ralph Sherwin's last words at Tyburn)
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To: Pyro7480

I think discussion is no substitute for confession!


5 posted on 02/07/2007 7:25:11 AM PST by Tax-chick ("It is my life's labor to bring Christ to souls and souls to Christ through word and example.")
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To: Tax-chick

You are quite right. What I mean is that the subject should be consistenly discussed, particularly since there is quite a bit of chaos at many levels of the Catholic Church.


6 posted on 02/07/2007 7:29:24 AM PST by Pyro7480 ("Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, esto mihi Jesus" -St. Ralph Sherwin's last words at Tyburn)
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To: Alex Murphy

I miss the booths. I hate the face-to-face "let's rap" approach.

I sometimes joke that they ought to have Halloween masks at the door if you wish to maintain privacy. I would choose the pirate or the "Confessing Cowboy."


7 posted on 02/07/2007 7:29:53 AM PST by Puddleglum
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To: Tax-chick
anyone else think a boycott of the poster's threads is in order?

***********

Yes, and that's all I'll say on this thread.

8 posted on 02/07/2007 7:31:02 AM PST by trisham (Zen is not easy. It takes effort to attain nothingness. And then what do you have? Bupkis.)
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To: Pyro7480
What I mean is that the subject should be consistently discussed, particularly since there is quite a bit of chaos at many levels of the Catholic Church.

That's true. But I'm teaching a class on Confession this afternoon, so that will make things crystal clear for one batch of 5th graders :-).

Unfortunately, that won't change the fact that our pastor is 70 years old, has Parkinson's Disease, and has a full-time job at the Chancery as well as being sole pastor of a 1,200-family parish. I wish we could do Confession by phone!

9 posted on 02/07/2007 7:43:03 AM PST by Tax-chick ("It is my life's labor to bring Christ to souls and souls to Christ through word and example.")
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To: Pyro7480; NYer
#2: Alex, need you be reminded that the National Catholic Reporter is as Catholic as Ted Kennedy is, and both seek to undermine Catholic teaching?

#4: Well, actually, NYer posted the same article a few minutes after Alex did.

You planning on giving NYer the same "reminder" you gave me?

10 posted on 02/07/2007 7:49:07 AM PST by Alex Murphy
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To: Alex Murphy; NYer

The mirror thread is no longer up, so the point is kind of moot. Also, if I'm not mistaken, did she get it from another website where it was posted?


11 posted on 02/07/2007 7:51:42 AM PST by Pyro7480 ("Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, esto mihi Jesus" -St. Ralph Sherwin's last words at Tyburn)
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To: Tax-chick; trisham

On the point of a boycott, I don't think we should. If a wrong impression is trying to be given, it should be refuted. We shouldn't give up the battlefield.


12 posted on 02/07/2007 7:54:20 AM PST by Pyro7480 ("Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, esto mihi Jesus" -St. Ralph Sherwin's last words at Tyburn)
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To: Pyro7480
Also, if I'm not mistaken, did she get it from another website where it was posted?

Exact same article, same website, same source. NYer formatted hers and included the photo; I didn't.

13 posted on 02/07/2007 7:56:33 AM PST by Alex Murphy
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To: Pyro7480

There's that. On the other hand, responding to crankery can reinforce it.


14 posted on 02/07/2007 8:05:33 AM PST by Tax-chick ("It is my life's labor to bring Christ to souls and souls to Christ through word and example.")
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To: Tax-chick; Religion Moderator
On the other hand, responding to crankery can reinforce it.

Ping me the next time you refer to me.

15 posted on 02/07/2007 8:06:37 AM PST by Alex Murphy
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To: Alex Murphy; Religion Moderator

Nothing personal, but I think this behavior is declasse'.

I won't say anything further.


16 posted on 02/07/2007 8:07:52 AM PST by Tax-chick ("It is my life's labor to bring Christ to souls and souls to Christ through word and example.")
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To: Alex Murphy
I am a devout Catholic, in my head. I do not go to church for many reasons. One being my ex-wife divorced me, not the other way around - I should have but wanted to raise my kids - one of which she threatened to abort. The way I was raised, if you are divorced and remarry, you are excommunicated. So I say, "Their rule, let them live by it." Then there is Kennedy - I won't pay $3000 or whatever their fee for a divorce is now like Kennedy et al. It makes me sick to see these folks go to communion and they are divorced, publicly advocate abortion etc. and the Church lacks the guts of their own convictions to expel them.


Then again, the church seems to advocate open borders too. With 12000+ murders in the US per year by illegals, why don't they avoid the occasions of sin? Then they know the illegals go on welfare, STEALING my tax money. Guess they forgot "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars (borders and immigration) ... etc"
17 posted on 02/07/2007 8:20:46 AM PST by Sam Ketcham (Amnesty means vote dilution, & increased taxes to bring us down to the world poverty level.)
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To: Pyro7480; Alex Murphy; Tax-chick; Lady In Blue; Salvation; narses; SMEDLEYBUTLER; redhead; ...
Also, if I'm not mistaken, did she get it from another website where it was posted?

Before posting the same article, I did a search. As I began to post it, I took a phone call and Alex apparently beat me to the actual posting.

This is a VERY IMPORTANT article. Having once used many of the excuses that appear in this article, I know only too well how the mind can justify this. I was also most intrigued to read that Protestants frequent confession at this Church (though they cannot receive Absolution). I have printed a copy of this article for my pastor who preaches the need for this Sacrament, to deaf ears.

Thank you Alex, for posting this thread.

18 posted on 02/07/2007 8:35:39 AM PST by NYer ("Where the bishop is present, there is the Catholic Church" - Ignatius of Antioch)
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To: NYer

I know protestants who have approched my mother asking if she could help them arrange a confession at our church. Turns out, Lutherans have a very old, seldom used confession practice themselves. It is very similar to what we do.

That being said, I have no understanding of what this article is talking about. At my parish, where there are over 14 hours a week of confession available, it's still hard to get in. It has taken me four separate trips to get in. At my local parish, which I do not attend, confession is only available for one hour on Saturday. Heaven help you if you arrive on time, there will be at least thirty people in front of you.


19 posted on 02/07/2007 8:42:25 AM PST by mockingbyrd (peace begins in the womb)
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To: NYer
As a convert, I may have an appreciation of Confession that many cradle Catholics do not. I find that besides of the relief of absolution, the priest is often very helpful in having me look at problems in a different way and look for ways to avoid the behavior in the future.

Another benefit is that when I am tempted to repeat past sins, I can often remind myself that I do NOT want to have to confess the same thing again!

20 posted on 02/07/2007 8:43:26 AM PST by Miss Marple (Prayers for Jemian's son,: Lord, please keep him safe and bring him home .)
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