Empty Confessionals

Where have all the sinners gone?

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two weeks since my last confession, and these are my sins." Many American Catholics over forty can recall some of their most intense religious experiences beginning with those words, experiences that sometimes seemed equal parts terror and relief. Today, those cadences are generally unfamiliar to Catholics under forty and virtually unknown to those under thirty. Yet for generations the formula opened that distinctively Catholic practice: confession.

The sacrament of penance was once so commonplace that few Catholics took much notice of it. Young and old alike, parishioners trooped to their local church to confess, usually on a Friday or Saturday. After silently reviewing their lives since they had been there last, each entered the darkened confessional box and waited until the priest opened the slide between them. In a whispered voice, the penitent first recited the familiar phrases and then proceeded to list offenses against God and neighbor, itemizing particular actions and the number of times each occurred. The priest might ask a question or two, and generally he gave some words of encouragement or chastisement. Then, he assigned a penance to be performed, normally in the form of a few short prayers, and, as the penitent repeated the Act of Contrition, the priest said the prayer of absolution in Latin. The whole thing didn’t take very long, but believers were sure that something profound had happened.

This deceptively simple ritual was deeply ingrained in American Catholic practice and worldview. Sin was a fact of life, and even a very ordinary person had many opportunities, perhaps dozens of them, every day to commit sins that demanded sacramental forgiveness. Parishioners didn’t particularly like going to confession—it was hard, said no less an authority than Dorothy Day, since you had to "rack your brain for even the beginnings of sins" and then confront them honestly. But Catholics did it anyway and often felt better afterward precisely because it had been difficult. Moreover, it was something they did which their non-Catholic neighbors did not, and thus it served as an identifiable badge of religious identity. But then, with a startling suddenness, the practice of confession simply collapsed, leaving for many Catholics a gap that has not been entirely filled. The beginning of Lent may be a good time to explore the role confession played, and later ceased to play, for American Catholics.

Snapshots of the history of confession, culled from the diaries of priests and dry parish statistical reports, suggest its enduring power. Bound by the seal of the confessional, which forbade ever disclosing what they had heard there, priests nonetheless commented on the sacrament in general terms.

Consider the experience of a Boston curate, just after the Civil War. Called in to help at a neighboring parish, he sat in the confessional box one day from 2:00 in the afternoon until 6:00 that night, listening to a steady stream of sinners; though he returned home at that point, he told his diary that several other "Rev. gentlemen continued till 11 p.m. at the confessional." Some decades later, another Boston priest kept count of the penitents in his parish, inhabited by equal numbers of Irish and German immigrants. One Saturday in February 1899, he heard 137 confessions, and they seemed to come in waves: "solid" between 3:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon, he said; "straggling" between 5:00 and 6:00; and steady again between 7:30 and 9:30. A priest in New York City at the same time kept a running "score" (his word), which one year ran to more than nine thousand individual confessions, a mere percentage of the nearly seventy-eight thousand for the parish as a whole. On a day when this priest heard "only eighty-eight," he thought the pace "slack"; another time, he considered seventy-one penitents at a sitting to be "few."

The high volume of confessions continued into the twentieth century, as recourse to the sacrament at least once a month became the norm; many people went more often than that. In Milwaukee, for instance, near the end of World War II, the priests at one church reported that nearly 60 percent of the parishioners went to confession monthly and that almost 15 percent went every week.

Far from the Eastern and Midwestern cities that were centers of American Catholicism, confession was no less essential to lay Catholic practice. Probably typical was the experience in the 1950s of the people of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, not generally thought of as a Catholic stronghold. The parish had a population of about thirty-two hundred, of whom twenty-five hundred were identified as "practical Catholics." In 1952, the two priests there heard 9,431 confessions, an average of about 182 per week; by way of comparison, they performed only twenty-six marriages that year and 140 baptisms. Up to the 1960s, the sacramental ministry of parish priests was exercised first and foremost in the rite of penance; more than at the altar rail, priests and people encountered one another in the confessional.

Shortly after midcentury, however, the number of Catholics going to confession regularly—or indeed at all—plummeted. Though Vatican II had said almost nothing about the sacrament, a sharp decline in practice was apparent almost immediately afterward: "People are staying away from confession in droves," a columnist for the Passionists’ Sign magazine wrote in 1968, and he was right. The National Opinion Research Center conducted extensive surveys of Catholics in 1965 and again in 1975, and the change was easy to see. In that interval, the number of Catholics who reported going to confession monthly dropped from 38 percent to 17 percent, while the number of those who said that they never or almost never went rose from 18 percent to 38 percent. The 1973 introduction of the so-called New Rite, which provided for face-to-face "reconciliation," for an expanded use of communal penance services, and (in some circumstances) general absolution, had little effect in reversing the decline. By 1977, another survey found that 65 percent of America’s priests reported hearing fewer than twenty confessions per week, a far cry from the hundred or more of earlier days.

A University of Notre Dame study in the mid-1980s found these trends firmly in place even among "core Catholics," defined as those who were most active in their parishes. Among that group, more than 26 percent said they never went to confession at all, while 35 percent said they went once a year. Parish after parish cut back the hours when priests were available for hearing confessions—five hours every Saturday had been the norm at the beginning of the century; thirty minutes was the norm by the end of it—and sacramental penance seemed almost to disappear. "Saturday afternoons and evenings are very quiet in most of the parishes I am familiar with," one priest concluded.

Such a dramatic change in so short a time requires explanation. Surely significant were the accumulated dissatisfaction with confession among the laity, dissatisfaction which, in the post–Vatican II era, they felt newly permitted to act upon. For every lay person who appreciated what one called "that bit of fear that keeps you on your toes," there were many others who recoiled from even the anonymous shame of the confessional. The speed with which the sacrament was conducted also rankled. All the statistical data I have seen, supported by anecdotal evidence, shows that the average confession took two minutes or less. Speed could be a blessing, of course: under normal circumstances, it was all over quickly, like an uneventful trip to the dentist. By the middle 1960s, though, lay and religious writers alike were evoking unflattering images—"slot machine," "assembly line"—to characterize the way confession was practiced in most American parishes. Those who longed for more personal spiritual advice and direction had to seek it elsewhere.

Liturgical changes likewise undercut the traditional practice of confession, albeit unintentionally. Even so mundane a matter as parish scheduling helped accelerate the decline. The authorization in 1969 of Saturday evening Mass, anticipating Sunday, transformed the usual time for confession into a time for fulfilling the Sunday Mass obligation. More important, the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, especially in the penitential rite at the beginning of the Mass, had a profound, perhaps unconscious, impact. Suddenly, Catholics heard themselves making a general but public acknowledgement of their sinfulness every week; wasn’t that enough? They also heard the priest invoking God’s forgiveness, again publicly; wasn’t that sufficient?

The shifting relationship between confession and Communion also took its toll. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, regular reception of the Eucharist by the laity was rare. Beyond that, until the 1950s most Catholics presumed that each Communion had to be preceded by confession a day or two before. Many parishes reinforced this link by specifying successive weekends of the month for the Saturday confessions and Sunday Communions of designated groups: the men’s Holy Name Society, the women’s Sodality, and so on. It was even possible to go to confession while Mass was being said—a practice that seems distinctly odd now, except in some downtown parishes—if one wanted to take the sacrament at that Mass. In the aftermath of Vatican II, as priests encouraged more frequent Communion, the two sacraments were effectively decoupled. In 1954, the question column of a national Catholic magazine had said that it was theoretically possible for a parishioner to receive the Eucharist every week without having gone to confession; "however, we do not recommend that practice." By 1969, the priest-editor wrote that it was not only "permissible" to go to Communion without a proximate confession, but "it is and should be [emphasis added] the most usual and normal procedure."

By far the most significant factor in the decline of confession was a changing understanding of the nature of sin. Confession had always rested on a clear distinction between mortal and venial sins. Strictly speaking, only the former, those actions that completely severed the believer’s relationship with God, were "necessary matter" for confession. But the number of mortal sins seemed to keep expanding—many pamphlet-size examinations of conscience, for example, tried to specify the precise amount of "servile work" on Sunday that crossed the line from venial to mortal—and there was also regular encouragement to confess venial sins as well. Regardless of their type, sins were specific, easily recognizable and describable actions. Popular devotional literature published handy lists of them: one, produced as late as 1960, conveniently printed mortal sins in capital letters.

In the aftermath of Vatican II, a broader understanding took hold, together with an appreciation that sin might be collective as well as personal: racism, militarism, and environmental depredation were no less sinful (and maybe even more so) than eating meat on Friday or committing various transgressions against the Sixth Commandment. Such an outlook was a positive development, but the loss of clarity had a price. "Why do we say that some actions are ’wrong’ while others are ’right’?" one priest asked the Homiletic and Pastoral Review in 1970. It is practically inconceivable that an American Catholic priest a hundred years earlier—or even twenty years earlier-would have been troubled by doubts of that kind. The priest wasn’t alone. "People have lost a clear-cut notion of what sin is," Commonweal observed in 1974, "and this new sense of the ambiguity of evil does not fit the popular understanding of confession." The shift also clouded the personal dimension of sin, which was the one best suited for discussion in the confessional. It was difficult for the ordinary American Catholic to feel direct responsibility for larger institutional and societal sins. How exactly did one go about confessing to imperialism or environmental damage? What might a priest’s absolution mean in such circumstances? And what about the firm purpose of amendment always understood as necessary for forgiveness? It might indeed be useful to think of sin as "hanging like a smog" around all human actions, as one theologian put it in 1968, but how could individual penitents take their own proper share of the blame for smog?

The long lines at the confessionals are not going to come back. Too many things have changed about American Catholics and their understanding of themselves and the human condition for that to happen. There is irony in this: just as sacramental penance has disappeared, a more generalized confessional culture seems to have exploded. Any day of the week, we can watch dozens of people confessing (sometimes at the top of their lungs) to any number of bizarre things on television talk shows, not in hope of forgiveness, of course, but rather for our prurient amusement and in quest of a fleeting fame for themselves. More seriously, though, the disappearance of confession has attracted little discussion, and this only compounds the difficulty. We seem to be in the process of reducing the number of sacraments from seven to six—by default. The annual penance service held in many parishes is good as far as it goes. But an effective means has yet to be found for Catholics to express their recognition that they do not always live up to the ideals and standards they profess.

Read more:  Do I Know This Guy?, by Daria Donnelly; Not Yet in Line, by Madeline Marget; Examination of Conscience, by Peter Steinfels

Related: The Empty Box, by Raymond C. Mann

Published in the 2001-02-23 issue: 

James O’Toole teaches history at Boston College.

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