Examination of Conscience

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...

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About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.