When I sat down to hear my first confession, on September 14, 1974, I had never been trained in the rubrics of the Sacrament of Penance in my seminary-theology school. Nobody believes that, but it is true. I heard my first confession during the reception after my ordination; someone approached me and requested, and we found a classroom off the courtyard. I was surprised, but not unduly nervous, perhaps because confession in 1974 was still remarkably like 1954, when I made my first confession prior to First Communion. In the previous post on this stream [below] I outlined the development of morality and canon law philosophies about the Sacrament of Penance from the Council of Trent [1545-1563] to the eve of Vatican II, and the emergence of two different pastoral styles among confessors.
A typical confession when I was growing up was a pretty simple affair: state your sins, make an Act of Contrition, receive absolution, and upon leaving, say your penance, which usually consisted of “three Our Fathers” or “three Hail Mary’s.” [In 2011 I made a general confession at the National Shrine in Washington and I received a rosary as a penance. Tough crowd in DC.] I cannot remember my first confession with the other First Communion candidates, but for some reason I remember the second, in the general adult Saturday hours. I told my old monsignor I had been punished at home for playing with the bright buttons on our electric ringer washer. He took some time to explain to me that parents have rules to keep their children from getting hurt. Looking back, I am rather impressed that he took time to provide guidance and counsel to a little seven-year-old.
Unfortunately, I cannot recall any “St. Paul on the Road to Antioch” confessional conversions in elementary school, and even in the minor seminary the experience of going to confession was at best routine, part of the program. I cannot remember if our St. Joe’s rulebook mandated weekly or biweekly confessions on Tuesdays and Thursday evenings. I can remember when the wheels started coming off the wagon, though. I think I was a high school junior when I took the train back to the seminary, having purchased a steamy detective novel with several naughty passages. Fearful that I had committed mortal sin, I went to confession on the first Tuesday night back. But then I got to wondering if I had told the confessor how much I had read, so I returned the following Tuesday. Both times he absolved me, no questions asked. But his absence of wrath got me to thinking that perhaps he misunderstood what a serious sinner I was. So, I went back the third Tuesday, and then he hit the ceiling—not because of my moral lapse but because I was doubting the sacramental power and succumbing to scrupulosity. I left the confessional, not relieved, but disoriented— “there’s something screwy about this whole thing,” I thought, and I proceeded to give up going to confession for all of Lent that year.
After the first two posts on this Café topic, I was surprised to hear from some Aroma Hill friends how they quit going to confession forever during their seminary years. This information jelled with the much later  CARA-St. Mary’s Press classic study, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation of Young Catholics.” In that study, researchers found that the process of leaving the Church can begin as early as the age of ten, the mean being thirteen. Lots of reasons have been put forth about why young people give up and leave the Church [including many of my classmates and friends from seminary days] but several reasons have been overlooked, and I would argue that our understanding and practice of Penance is a major one. Vatican II laid out new and/or restored principles for renewal of all the sacraments, but renewal of Penance has been elusive—dare I say untried.
The Church is wedded to a definition of sin and restitution that constitutionally falls flat in its efforts to bring the penitent closer to Christ. Put another way, sin is still defined as a precise deed and restitution is weighed out with black leather precision. This is the “casuist” method of justification. Priests were trained in this method until Vatican II, positioned to make certain judgments that every sin was properly confessed and assessed in order that sacramental absolution could be guaranteed to forgive the penitent’s mortal and venial sins. Newly ordained priests were required to attend casus conscientiae or “cases of conscience” meetings with moralists and canonists to examine the kinds of sins they might encounter in the box. I was able to find a sample of such cases here. Looking back, it is a grace from God that many older priests in my youth did not take the casuist approach very seriously. Anyone of my vintage can recall that every parish had a mix of priest confessors—most parishes had multiple priests in the post-World War II era, at least in populated areas—and it was common knowledge in a parish who were the strict confessors of the Jesuit-casuist mold and the gentle confessors of the Redemptorist cut. Often this depended upon which seminary a priest attended, but for some confessors their psychological disposition and/or personal piety played a factor in how they approached the sacrament, or more to the point, how they interacted with penitents.
This duality of approaches in confession was exacerbated with the discovery of oral contraceptives, commonly referred to as “the pill,” which came into use in the United States in 1960. As a rule, Catholicism forbade the use of the pill based upon Pope Pius XI’s 1930 Casti Connubii prohibition of artificial birth control. However, theologians of that time were reexamining the theology of marriage, the nature of sin, the role and freedom of conscience, and most of all, the need for a full experience of Christ’s mercy in the rite of Penance/confession. Many, but not all, newly trained ordained priests of the mid-1960’s, reinforced by the general directives of Vatican II, abandoned the legalistic casuist confessional style and brought scriptural and psychological insights into the confessional encounter. It was becoming obvious to educated adult Catholics that salvation did not dangle on an appendage to a technical sin.
These newly ordained priests would also become my seminary teachers in college [1966+], and in 1967 I had a two hour talk with my theology professor to inquire about something troubling me: “How can something be a sin last year and not this year, according to our classroom presentations?” He walked me through the history of the sacrament of Penance and the various forms and moral philosophies this sacrament had taken. He introduced me to some of the outstanding moral minds of the times. He shared the importance of healing in the sacrament, not judging. It was one of the most satisfying and enlightening interventions of my life, and I am still grateful to the priest today.
A sidebar to this encounter—in the spring of 1968, as my days at St. Joe’s were winding down, I entered my public science fair exhibit--the chemical and medical principles of “the pill.” I knew I would get some scores from the judges for originality. I cannot remember if any seminary officer signed off on it, but I trudged down the hill to the Callicoon pharmacy and a chat with the old pipe-smoking pharmacist. I was hoping to get just a user’s guide, like the patient’s brochure, but he opened the boxes of three different brands and pulled out the full-scale details for doctors and patients and gave them to me, the ones in #2 font-size.
Come the day of the fair, many local gentry visited and in the process caught my display—there generally wasn’t much to do in Callicoon—and I started getting questions from couples who thought that the pill was a sin [which, in the public casuist teaching, it was—and still is!] and why was a seminarian presenting this medication for general information. I would talk with them briefly, and then ring the intercom into the friary to solicit a young priest to sit down with them in a parlor. I remember that day so well because every couple told me in so many words that they could not bring themselves to talk to a priest about their marital problems, and in some cases how they wished to return to communion. A few had confessional horror stories.
I learned a lot about morality and confession that day, and it stayed with me right through to ordination and beyond. Check in again in a few days for my reflections on twenty years of hearing confessions—where I think we are today and what can be done to move the heart closer to the forgiving Christ “in the box.”