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 firstname.lastname@example.org