For centuries, confession or penance (as it was alternatively called) was the linchpin of the Catholic sacramental economy. The Eucharist might be exalted as a miraculous source of sanctifying grace but it was confession that got one over the threshold, so to speak—that could make the difference between eternal happiness or torture. Then, as James O’Toole writes, the system collapsed. Abandoning the confessional was on no one’s agenda at Vatican II. Catholics just voted with their feet. Their abstention was so swift, massive, and spontaneous that it apparently stunned most commentators into silence.
It is true that frequent confession was hardly ever the norm throughout church history; indeed, the whole form and function of what is now called the sacrament of reconciliation underwent enormous changes over time. Many aware of that history have been tempted to shrug off the recent boycott as simply one more mutation that will, somehow, turn out for the best.
Others have put their hopes on changing the label, redesigning the furniture, inviting a bigger crowd, altering the mood, and, cautiously, the theology—all to the better, no doubt, but with only marginal effects on Catholics’ stubborn indifference.
Still others, especially at the highest levels of church leadership, issue heartfelt and poignant appeals for a return to the sacrament, appeals that enjoy just enough success in pockets here and there to encourage a strategy of sheer repetition.
What collapsed, of course, was not simply a particular practice but a whole web of beliefs and attitudes—about sin, damnation, and hell, about fear, shame, guilt, and the ultimate ecclesiastical control exercised by the power of absolution. Numerous strands in that web have become for many Catholics utterly untenable, as unacceptable, even reprehensible, on moral grounds as belief in a seven-day creation is on scientific grounds. The rejection has been even more drastic and far-reaching than O’Toole has space to suggest.
So do we simply accept the reduction of seven sacraments to six? O’Toole is right to speak of a "gap." At best, middle-class Catholics rely on a medicine chest of therapies to cope with inner scars, everyday conflicts, and chronic failings; at worst, they too get caught in the tow of pop confessionalism and easy forgiveness, mainly of the self. There is little of genuine moral scrutiny, repentance, the opening of the heart to God’s grace. Even the penitential service at Mass, typically rushed and more reassuring than challenging, seldom escapes the cultural norm and threatens to be embarrassing on the rare occasions when it does. The debate over general absolution versus particular confession is a sideshow.
But nothing will revive the sacrament if we dismiss as simply superficial or misguided the intuitions that made Catholics shun it, or if we are unwilling to consider major modifications in the way it is celebrated. Questions about the church’s attitude toward the body and the indignities of sexual disclosures to a stranger claiming authority should not be exempt from that discussion.
Might not the church, building on certain precedents, retain the necessity of personal confession but, if so desired, allow it to be made not to a priest but another Christian, a spouse, friend, or adviser? Priestly absolution would follow only on inquiring whether such a confession was properly understood and made, and ascertaining the penitent’s sorrow.
That may be a weak example, meant only to raise the question whether the future of this sacrament depends on retaining a clerical power that is already lost in practice or on something more basic to the Christian life. The future of this sacrament, in short, depends on whether Catholics, from I’m-OK-you’re-OK congregants in the pew to the authorities in Rome, are willing to undertake a real examination of conscience.
Related: The Floating Sacrament, by Thomas L. Kuhlman, John F. Desmond, & Kevin Tortorelli