This stream, of which this post is the third—was inspired by a considerable concern that Catholics who are not attending sacraments due to the Covid-19 virus might not come back when the immediate crisis subsides. Given that many catechists and ministers are limited in what they can currently do, this “down time” might provide some opportunities to look back on our ministries with candor. My goal is to assess the reasons people stopped frequenting sacraments over the past half century, and to assess how a new evangelization might create a spiritual hunger in a post-Covid world. “Going back to normal” is not a healthy goal; the “old normal” was hemorrhaging Catholics in droves. This next post will be autobiographical—my own attitudes toward the Sacrament of Penance as I grew up, and the following or fifth one on how I approached my twenty years as a confessor, and what I would teach today.
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.”
Last Friday’s post on “Will Catholics ‘Come Home’ after the Virus?” generated the largest response of any posts on The Catechist Café blog this year: on my own Facebook site, email, and visits reported by my webmaster at Weebly, the blog platform. By way of review, the post’s intention was to examine the impact of the Covid-19 virus on present-day Catholic sacramental life against the backdrop of a steady decline in Catholic sacramental life dating back at least to 1970 and probably some years before. My pastoral intention here is to reflect upon sacramental life—specifically the manner the Church celebrates the rites—and to examine what might be happening to lead so many of our brethren to leave the worshipping family. As I noted last week, Catholic journalism and secular outlets are asking how many Catholics may not “come back” to common Sunday worship when Covid-19 conditions are contained. We will not know for some time, but I cannot think of a better time to discuss the long exodus from the Church, of which the pandemic is but a dramatic [and possibly temporary] spike.
Again last week, I chose the Sacrament of Penance and the fashion it was celebrated over the years since the Reformation to see if its theology and its style would compel penitents to return to the sacrament with heightened anticipation and enthusiasm. We got as far as the eve of Vatican II [1962-1965] when the Church in the United States and some other countries found itself in a quandary over the face of sacraments presented in the confessional box, for a cluster of reasons enumerated below.
 For starters, last week we looked at the two variant approaches to the judgments of the confessors rendered in the sacrament, dating from the post-Reformation reforms of the seventeenth century. One, reflecting the intellectual influence of the Jesuits, was a strict legal determination of the numbers and kinds of sin in confession, in order that absolution could be administered with near certainty in the eyes of God. The other approach, introduced by St. Alphonsus Ligouri and the Redemptorists, brought an affective and devotional mood to the sacrament, whereby in issues of uncertain guilt, the penitent received the benefit of the doubt, an approach known in the textbooks at “probabilism.”
 The Redemptorist model was embraced by many pastors and even by popes, who agreed with St. Alphonsus Ligouri that the consciences of the faithful should not be unduly disturbed on matters such as birth control. However, in 1931 Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical, Casti Connubii, which reaffirmed the prohibition of artificial contraception but with greater length and reach than the Church had seen in several centuries. Pius XI had altered the trajectory of both confessional practice and professional moral theologians with his arguments. In the first instance, he made the case that every marital sex act without openness to conception was a grave violation of the law of nature and never permissible, i.e., evil deeds cannot justify good intentions in his train of thought.
It was also the style of Pope Pius XI that would impact Catholics in the pew in that the pope made this decision himself. On a matter so delicate and intimate to married couples, there was no broader, episcopal consultation, and certainly none from lay persons. Pius drew from select Biblical texts and ancient theologians such as St. Augustine, who held that sexual intercourse itself without conception was venially sinful. Redemptorist works and writers garnered zero footnotes in Casti Connubii. With the switch in moral emphasis from discernment of intention to a static, timeless, legal definition of acts and guilt, those who approached the sacrament of Penance—possibly the most intimate moments of contact with personalized grace and forgiveness for a Catholic with a priest, was reduced to a formulary. A penitent had no time to interact or, as we say today, “tell his story.” Confession was depersonalized, and academic moral theology had nowhere to go. The story goes that when one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, the Redemptorist Father Bernard Haring, was told by his superiors that he was to study moral theology in Rome, he argued: “'I told my superior that this was my very last choice because I found the teaching of moral theology an absolute crushing bore.'' His superior replied: “We are asking you to prepare yourself for this task with a doctorate from a German university so that it can be different in the future.”
 The horror of World War II and the Holocaust led Catholic scholars and philosophers to the conclusion that much of Catholic moral methodology was simply not working. Nazi Germany, for example, was a nation of Lutherans and Catholics who participated in antisemitic genocide. Scholars began to redefine the nature of human acts, and more specifically, what does the word “sin” mean? Is the direction of one’s moral life determined by a series of independent individual acts, or is sin better defined as an overarching direction or choice, known by the term “fundamental option?” The Redemptorist Father Haring mentioned above introduced this concept in his post-World War II writings, notably his moral text The Law of Christ [English translation 1961] Haring was a staple of seminary training of priests in my formative era; I had to outline Haring’s theory and writings during my oral masters comprehensive exams in 1974.
 Casti Conubii was declared in 1930, but events and science were pushing ahead. In the United States, thousands of Catholic servicemen returned home to start families. CC had forbidden birth control practices of the 1930’s, but the medical advances in reproductive health services became more advanced. Pope Pius XII, in a 1951 address to Italian midwives, removed any question on the morality of periodic sexual abstinence during fertile times as a method of spacing children. In my youth this method was called “rhythm” or later “Natural Family Planning.” [Every diocese has an office of NFP for education of the faithful.]
In my childhood [1950’s] I remember that my relatives of child-bearing years complained that “rhythm” was unpredictable and unreliable. In the late 1950’s the first safe contraceptive pills were prescribed in the United States. “The pill” was considered morally objectionable by the Church because it was an artificial intrusion against nature, though the rhythm method, many opponents argued, also appeared artificial as couples abstained from sex at the very time nature had prepared for them to conceived. Certainly, in the United States, there were more Catholics attending college—particularly Catholic colleges—than ever before, many by virtue of the GI Bill. It was a time of empowerment of lay Catholics, who were exposed to the intellectual side of Catholic life beyond what they were routinely taught in home parishes.
 Pope John XXIII stunned the world in 1959 with his invocation of an Ecumenical Council which we know today as Vatican II. The very idea of a council elated some and terrified others, depending upon whether one embraced the idea of “change” or “entrenchment.” Pope John, clearly aware of this, removed several “hot button” issues from the bishops’ consideration, notably priestly celibacy and birth control. But regarding birth control, the pope gathered a small working group, the “Papal Birth Control Commission,” to study the pros and cons of change in the Church’s teaching on contraception. One famous member of the group, Patty Crowley of the United States, was longtime president of the Christian Family Movement to which my own parents belonged in the 1960’s. The struggles of this commission are outlined in Turning Point  by Robert McClory. The existence of such a commission leaked to the public and led to widespread expectation that there would be official papal change in the moral teaching on contraception by Catholic couples.
Vatican II did not discuss the issue of conception directly, as it was instructed not to do so. But in December 1965, as the Council was wrapping up its work, the bishops approved a Constitution, Gaudium et Spes, “Joy and Hope,” a message of good will addressed to the entire world, not just the Catholic Church. In GS the Council, speaking of marriage and family life, articulated dual purposes of intercourse in the sacrament of marriage, describing married life as both unitive [bringing a couple closer to each other] and procreative. This phrasing was considerably different from earlier Church tracts which strongly emphasized the creation of children as the primary [and usually sole] reason for sexual intercourse in marriage.
In the 1960’s priests who were familiar with the debates of Vatican II, or like myself, were trained in that era, took a more conciliatory stance toward couples who approached them, either as individuals in the confessional or as couples in “the parlor,” the term given to intimate counseling which priests as a rule consider as inviolate as the secrecy of the confessional. On the other hand, there were priest confessors who believed they were bound to strict interpretations of Casti Conubii. It was quite common then that parishioners spread the word discretely about their local priests as to whether they were strict on contraception teaching, or didn’t ask about it in the confessional, or if asked, advised the couple to use their own consciences.
Finally, on July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which fortified Pius XI’s 1930 teaching against artificial birth control. It was quite unexpected and bitterly disappointing to many priests and evidently to many lay Catholics as well. I would say that Pope Paul’s encyclical is a much more compassionate document than Pius XI’s teaching, and Paul goes to considerable lengths to explain his reasoning to people he knows will be upset and alienated. The temperament of Humanae Vitae is a good template for the hard discussions the Church is faced with now and in the future in that it treats its opponents with considerate respect. The same tenor has been notably absent in the so-called “culture wars” in recent times in the United States.
For our purposes, one of the sad outcomes of the birth control controversy was its impact upon those seeking the grace of the Sacrament of Penance. In a matter of intense moral concern, Catholics found themselves caught between their consciences and the conflicts of their priests and the moral governance of the universal Church. In the next post [sooner than this one, I hope] I will share with you my personal reflections from having lived on both sides of the confessional grill, with some thoughts about this Sacrament that might lead some of our absent brethren to pursue the conversion process with joy and hope, or gaudium et spes.
For further research I strongly suggest Contraception: A History of its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists [1968, 1986] by John T. Noonan, Jr.
It has been a little time since the “Monday Morality” stream has jostled itself to the head of the line, but we just completed a week with multiple saints who profoundly influenced moral thinking and pastoral approaches to the Sacrament of Penance. Last Friday was the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order. Saturday was the feast of St. Alphonsus Ligouri, the founder of the Redemptorists, and coming up this Thursday is the feast of St. John Vianney, the nineteenth century French parish priest renowned for his gifts in the confessional.
Penance/Confession is one of the sacraments impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and yesterday I read several pieces online which speculated that Catholics would not return to the sacraments once a vaccine is discovered and group worship is reasonably safe. As is the common theme of such articles, the onus of this defection lies with Catholic laity for any number of reasons, from weak faith in the Eucharist to start with to the convenience of televised Mass, etc. I think that future Church researchers will have a field day assessing the entire Church response to the virus, however long we suffer with Covid-19.
But the language of much literature on the current situation in the Church in the United States seems to portray a shock and a deep concern at the Corona intrusion, with its potential to decimate Catholic congregations. If losing practicing members is the measuring rod, then the horse was out of the barn long before a virus jumped species in China, and the thinning of congregations at the Eucharistic banquet was already in plain sight before New Years of 2020. I pulled up current sacramental statistics from CARA and found that the decline of sacramental practice in the U.S. is not only worse than you can imagine, but dates back to 1970, when statistics of this sort were analyzed for the first time.
U.S. Priestly Ordinations:  805  486
Religious Sisters  160,931  42,441
Parishes without resident pastors:  571  3572
Former Catholics  3,500,000  29.400,000 *
Students in Religious Ed  4,200,000  2,200,000 *
Infant Baptisms  1,089,000  582,331
Adult Baptisms  84,534  35,138
First Communions  849,919  600,816
Marriages  426,309  137,885
Weekly Sunday Mass  54.9%  21.1%
Pray weekly  80.8%  80.8%
As it happens, I am currently reading The Struggle for Celibacy  by a priest sociologist who was embedded [with approval] in a functioning American major seminary as a researcher-observant to understand how seminarians are prepared for the sacrifice of married love that celibacy involves. The author, Father Paul Stanosz, observes that people will make sacrifices if there is a corresponding motivating ideal, a supportive peer group, and a fulfillment of a desired goal. I suspect this hypothesis may be true as a determining factor as to why people in general engage in Church membership and sacramental celebrations, or conversely, why they eventually leave, disappointed. I have no doubt that during the extended break from regular church life, there are at least some who are weighing their reasons for continued sacramental participation, but the Covid epidemic is more of a spike than a new phenomenon.
Let us take one sacrament, Penance, that has declined in practice over the past half-century, though for many reasons these numbers cannot be tallied, nor should they. But anecdotal evidence abounds. My family took a week-long fishing trip to Parry Sound in Ontario in the 1980’s, I believe it was. After a hard day of netting northern pike, we kicked back after sunset and made serious withdrawals from a bottle of Canadian Club next to the citronella candle. I was ordained around ten years at that time and the conversation turned to “church,” as it always seemed to do in the parts of my family which still frequent them. [I never start these discussions.] My parents were devout Catholics; my father served as a medic in World War II in the North African and European theaters. He was buried in 2002 with the small blue rosary that “got me through the war.” I am sure that being under fire as much as he was, the opportunity to make confession and receive absolution meant a great deal to him.
Thankfully, he returned home alive from war and resumed his place in the “peacetime parish church” until his final illness made it impossible to attend. But on that clear Canadian night of our trip he made a remarkable admission: “I don’t get anything out of going to confession anymore. The only reason I go is because your mother makes me.” I appreciated my dad’s candor, because he was no “cafeteria Catholic” and upheld Church teachings at considerable cost, personally and professionally. He also affirmed for me something I was noticing in my decade of parish work.
Even though my mother and father met through a high school pen pal program sponsored by Our Sunday Visitor in the last 1930’s, my dad was not, to my knowledge, much of a reader of Catholic literature. He lived instinctively the wise counsel of the late medieval mystic and writer Thomas a Kempis, who wrote in the Imitation of Christ that “I had rather feel compunction than know its definition.” The post-Reformation Council of Trent [1545-1563] is remembered for its clarification of Catholic doctrine and practice that was attacked, denied, or redefined by Lutherans, Calvinists, and others. Curiously, its teaching on Penance, while strict on many points, seems to go the extra mile to give the penitent a palpable experience of God’s mercy. So we find in the Council’s minutes [Chapter 14]: “But the thing signified indeed and the effect of this sacrament, as far as regards its force and efficacy, is reconciliation with God, which sometimes, in persons who are pious and who receive this sacrament with devotion, is wont to be followed by peace and serenity of conscience, with exceeding consolation of spirit. The holy Synod, whilst delivering these things touching the parts and the effect of this sacrament, condemns at the same time the opinions of those who contend, that, the terrors which agitate the conscience, and faith, are the parts of penance.” Often forgotten, confession has a highly personal and
After Trent, the theology and practice of the Sacrament of Penance fell under the provenance of Jesuit theologians and canon lawyers, whose textbooks and “manuals for confessors” emphasized the legal aspects of the sacrament, objectifying intention and sincerity [e.g., perfect and imperfect contrition], precision of the confession of actual sins, etc. Jesuits advocated the strictest adherence to the letter of the law in moral judgments—on the grounds that this was the safest way to insure the effectiveness of the sacrament. The Latin word for “safer” is tutior, and in history books this approach to moral theology and confession is often referred to as “tutiorism.” Not for nothing were the Jesuits mocked as “casuists.”
However, by the 1700’s, the pastoral life on the ground was becoming overly “tutiorized” [i.e., emotionless], and in reaction to the absence of personal and emotional worship experience--catharsis, the awakening of the emotions as Aristotle used the term in his classic work on drama, the Poetics--there emerged a spontaneous eruption of new and venerable devotions among the faithful [for example, devotion to the Sacred Heart], that nurtured the affective need of believers. Theologians such as St. Alphonsus Ligouri, founder of the Redemptorists, looked to a different confessional stance, one which assumed the good intention of the penitent. Thus, if there was reasonable question about guilt, a confessor could assume that the penitent’s intentions did not reach the level required for a mortal sin. Predictably, this trend is known today as “probabilism,” as in the penitent probably did not intend to sin mortally. One aspect of St. Alphonsus’ teaching and practice was the prudence of confessors not to pry too deeply into the sexual lives of married penitents, specifically on the question of birth control.
St. John Vianney followed this advice, and in his retreats for French priests in the 1800’s he advised them not to disturb the good consciences of their parishioners needlessly. In fact, when the matter of contraception-- the use of condoms and coitus interruptus--was raised to popes, the general response was to follow Alphonsus Ligouri’s wisdom on such matters. By the twentieth century, however, as popes saw a numerically declining population in Europe and general immorality in public life, there was a swing back to the stricter Jesuit tradition, and in 1931 Pope Pius XI counseled priests to do more extensive exploration of a penitent’s attitude and practice regarding marital life and procreation. In his encyclical Casti Conubii Pius XI writes: “If any confessor or pastor of souls, which may God forbid, lead the faithful entrusted to him into these errors [contraception] or should at least confirm them by approval or by guilty silence, let him be mindful of the fact that he must render a strict account to God, the Supreme Judge, for the betrayal of his sacred trust, and let him take to himself the words of Christ: "They are blind and leaders of the blind: and if the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit.” The confessional philosophy of saints like John Vianney or Alphonsus Ligouri was nowhere found in CC.
Casti Conubii was written just thirty years before Vatican II, and prior to the invention of “the pill” in the 1950’s. Birth control medication alleviated the complications of the “rhythm method” or periodic abstinence during the facility cycle. Pastors and students in many Catholic colleges were absorbing significant reappraisals on matters of morality. Bernard Haring’s classic, The Law of Christ, led to a redefinition of sin itself, a factor that percolated into the confessional and certainly into my major seminary training. [1969-74] As a priest product of these years, I was exposed to three approaches in extending the Sacrament of Penance, and to be honest, I still debate in my head what might be the best way to celebrate this sacrament—and others, like the Eucharist--in a fashion that faithful Catholics like my father might have found more fruitful and compelling.
Whether Catholics will come home after the virus is an extension of a discussion we should have paid more attention to for the last several decades. Ironically, it is Covid-19 that provides the opportunity to rethink the sacramental experience today.
I will continue this “sub stream” for at least two more posts. The next will deal with my own training and experience as a twenty-year confessor—what I learned, what my intentions were, what I might have done differently and more profitably for those who came to confession. The third will extrapolate to the Sunday Eucharist. I will post all of these on the Saturday sacrament stream. Please feel free to post reactions—on the Catechist Café website itself, www.catechistcafe.com [Saturday Sacraments stream] or on the Catechist Café Facebook page posting, or privately to me at email@example.com