Book Review: "Sin in the Sixties"--Part 4, "The Day the Confessionals Shut Down"
Maria Morrow saves the best for last in her Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession 1955-1975. The sixth and final chapter, “Thinking Outside the Box: The Decline of Personal Confession,” cuts to the heart of the matter—the demographics and pastoral reasons for the decline of individual confession in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Morrow is a historian of the sacrament—her forte is reporting from available and observable sources—and she does not have a long range plan to revitalize the sacrament of Penance per se, but she does give some valuable clues as to where we might to begin the renewal process.
Morrow cites a 1952 piece from the Catholic convert and activist Dorothy Day on the hard work of making a confession:
When you go to confession on a Saturday night, you go into a warm, dimly lit vastness, with the smell of wax and incense in the air, the smell of burning candles, and if it is a hot summer night there is the sound of a great electric fan, and the noise of the streets coming in to emphasize the stillness. There is another sound too, besides that of the quiet movements of the people from pew to confessional to altar rail; there is the sliding of the shutters of the little window between you and the priest in his “box.”
Some confessionals are large and roomy—plenty of space for the knees, and breathing space in the thick darkness that seems to pulse with your own heart. In some poor churches, many of the ledges are narrow and worn, so your knees almost slip off the kneeling bench, and your feet protrude outside the curtain which shields you from where others were waiting….
Going to confession is hard—hard when you have sins to confess, hard when you haven’t, and you rack your brain for even the beginnings of sins against charity, chastity, sins of detraction, sloth or gluttony. You do not want to make too much of your constant imperfections and venial sins, but you want to drag them out to the light of day as the first step in getting rid of them. The just man falls seven times daily….”
“I have sinned. These are my sins.” That is all you are supposed to tell, not the sins of others, or your own virtues, but only your ugly gray, drab, monotonous sins. [Morrow, pp. 192-193]
Day is describing what Catholic clergy of the time would have called “devotional confessions,” i.e., where no mortal sins have been committed, which were still somewhat common when I was ordained in 1974. The idea of frequent confession was relatively new in Church history. The IV Lateran Council  mandated an annual confession in its Canon 21. Curiously, the practice of confession beyond the annual event required by the IV Lateran became quite popular in the United States by the time of the Civil War. In 1855 Rome exempted American priests from praying their daily breviary or office if they spent five hours or more hearing confessions on a particular day. Confession became a devotional prerequisite for such events as First Friday and Forty Hour Devotions. Children in Catholic schools were routinely taken from class to make confession on the Thursdays before First Fridays.
In the 1960’s, however, confessors and theologians began to worry that routine was the driving force behind regular confession. As a young priest who assisted in the busy downtown confessionals in New England when my college students were off, I can say that this argument had merit, though I would not say this was true in every case, as even today there are Catholics who make regular devotional confessions. But the author is correct in her assessment that both laity and confessors had come to expect a more sacramentally profound experience of penance, particularly given the reforms of the Mass being implemented after Vatican II.
Homiletic and Pastoral Review, the parish priest’s best friend during the era of this book, provided sermons for priests to encourage frequent confessions for the purpose of warding off sinful tendencies. [HPR, which publishes to this day, is somewhat more conservative than my general stance, but I deeply respect its mission to encourage priests to continue their study and academic reading. The publication urges priests to study at least an hour per day and provides a meaty menu of book recommendations and reviews, among other contributions.] But as the 1960’s progressed, and as Catholics themselves became more sophisticated and college educated, there was a sense that the sacramental practice of penance could and should be providing much more.
That “something more” was spiritual direction and deeper advice on the direction of one’s life. Recall that one of the most influential books of the 1960’s was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, the 1946 work by an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist interred in a Jewish extermination camp during World War II. [Amazingly, this work remains a best seller over seven decades later, this morning rated #45 of all Amazon’s book sales which number well over ten million.] The author’s research of the priestly pastoral literature of the 1960’s indicates that there was considerable support among priests for a renewal of the format and approach to confession. Curiously, Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium on the Sacred Liturgy, promulgated on December 4, 1963, devotes all of one sentence to the Sacrament of Penance [para. 72], stating essentially that the rite should be reformed. The reform document, Ordo Paenitentiae, appeared one decade later in Latin, December 2, 1973.
I am not much into conspiracy theories, but I find it mildly amusing that I have not been able to locate an English translation of Ordo Paenitentiae on the internet; I have only succeeded in finding a free Latin version from an independent site. Given that the original is 223 pages long, I am not going to translate it. Moreover, the Vatican seems to have replaced the 1973 document with a 2015 update called Rediscovering the Rite of Penance. This later document acknowledges the existence of Ordo Paenitentiae, but it comments that “at the distance of some decades, however, one notes that the [Ordo Paenitentiae] Rite and formulas have not always been respected. Maybe, this is because some of the celebrative suggestions were judged inopportune or too excessive.”
Ordo Paenitentiae was nothing if not ambitious. It rescripted the sacrament from its contrition/confession/absolution simplicity—in place since Peter Lombard’s day [1096-1160]—into a full Biblical/liturgical rite. It called for more personal interaction between the penitent and confessor, allowing for face-to-face confession and the extension of the celebrant’s hands over the penitent’s head when administering absolution. Perhaps most revolutionary, at least for the post-Tridentine era [1600-present day], was the inclusion of three options for the Sacrament of Penance. Formula One was the individual confession of a penitent to a priest. Formula Two was a congregational Penance service during which individual confessions were heard. Formula Three was a congregational biblical rite during which absolution was extended publicly without individual confession. This third rite was popularly referred to as “General Absolution,” probably the most controversial piece of the reform.
The intention of Ordo Paenitentiae was a recentering of the communal nature of penance, a change from me-and-God to me-my brethren-God, like the principles of the reform of the Mass. But the rite[s] clearly needed reediting. Morrow writes, “When the new Rite of Penance was promulgated in the United States in 1976, it turned what had been a two-minute process, with a simple format for the penitent that was easily taught to children, into a much more complex matter…the new, longer form of this rite was impractical for both priest and penitent.” [pp. 232-233] In 1976 I was hearing most of my confessions from college kids who wandered into my dorm counselor’s room at all hours to sit and hash things out, after which they often requested absolution. I was not about to hand them a 228-page manual. In fact, I have never used the Ordo Paenitentiae ritual myself as a penitent, and still use the “Bless me, father, let’s get down to it” in my 70’s. The monks always chuckle when I say that. Morrow notes that public penance services with individual confessions enjoyed some initial success, but “in practice communal penance services were inconvenient because they required additional time and effort in comparison with individual confession.” [p. 234] As a pastor I scheduled them during Lent and Advent and invited neighboring priests to hear confessions to give my congregation the opportunity and the privacy to confess to someone other than myself. The practice of “penance services” has decreased. My parish has not offered one in at least a decade. “General Absolution” services were quite popular for a time, but under Pope John Paul II the use of this service was limited to extreme cases and virtually forbidden. Catholics are expected to confess their sins personally to a priest.
Unfortunately, by the time of the arrival of Ordo Paenitentiae in the 1970’s the waters of Penance had been muddied considerably by other events in the Church. Penance as a sacrament presented unique challenges, which is one reason why Popes John XXIII and Paul VI did not wish this sacrament [with its moral tangents] discussed on the floor of the Council. The elephant in the room was, specifically, artificial birth control. Morrow writes that “the issue of contraception became even more complicated for confessors to address due to their increasing lack of conviction on the topic.” [p. 212] There was an expectation in the air that Pius XI’s teaching Casti Conubii [December 31, 1930] which forbade artificial birth control—at that time generally barrier methods—would be overturned. It became known that a papal commission had been established to study the question of whether the Church would or could change the teaching. For a fascinating inside history of the commission, see Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission and How Humanae Vitae Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church  The Commission, composed of Cardinals, theologians, and laity, voted 90-30 for a change in the teaching by most reports.
As the 1960’s progressed, it was something of an open secret that many priests opposed the existing prohibition of the pill and other contraceptive methods and were saying so in public forums, such as adult education, and more critically, in the confessional when penitents raised the question. I was “sheltered” for much of the sixties in my mountain cloistered seminary, but when I would visit home, I discovered, for example, that my parents could tell me which of the priests in their parish confessionals were understanding of couples using the pill, and the few who were not, because it was common knowledge in their parish. Younger generations of priests—including myself-- were being taught new approaches to moral theology, pioneered by such scholars as Father Bernard Haring [1913-1998], which embraced a more Biblically oriented approach to morality as opposed to the legalistic model of the moral manuals technically still in use.
Ordo Paenitentiae was still five years in the future when Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae [“on human life”] on July 25, 1968. HV reaffirmed the 1930 teaching of Pius XI on the matter of birth control, which now included the pill, already widely in use in the United States and elsewhere. Historians have pieced together how Pope Paul reached this decision—who advised him, his primary pastoral and doctrinal concerns, his assessment of the papal commission’s three-quarter vote for a change in the teaching, among other factors. What I am more concerned about here is the reception of the teaching in the Church and its impact upon the sacrament of Penance.
I researched the most recent data on the beliefs of Catholics, from a 2016 Pew study. On the matter of birth control, Pew reports that “Even when it comes to Catholics who attend Mass weekly [my emphasis], just 13% say contraception is morally wrong, while 45% say it is morally acceptable and 42% say it is not a moral issue.” These numbers did not surprise me at all; I have long reflected on the irony that every Saturday night I am receiving communion with hundreds of people who, statistically speaking, are probably on the pill and, from the vantage point of the Church, in a state of mortal sin. [Majorities of Catholics also demonstrate sympathy for LGBTQIA rights, from the same study.]
I do not believe that those couples using the pill are going to hell. But what I do believe is that Humanae Vitae probably broke the back of generations of Catholics who would or could no longer accept that the Church was the ultimate arbiter of their moral judgments, specifically in the confessional. Having heard on the CBS Evening New of July 25, 1968 [as I did] that use of the pill was forbidden, Catholic couples would have had to reassess how they would approach the sacrament on Penance in the future. Their options were difficult: if they confessed to the use of artificial contraception, the confessor was bound to ask them if their contrition was sincere, i.e., did they plan to discontinue? [Many priests honored the penitents’ contention that the use of the pill was a matter of conscience and absolved them without complication, but this differed from priest to priest.] If a penitent went to confession and did not confess the use of artificial birth control, there was a mist of intellectual dishonesty over the sacramental experience. A third option: discontinue making confession entirely. It would seem that even an extraordinary reform of the Rite of Penance after Vatican II could not have untangled the deeper problems of morality, conscience, and church authority. One of my few disappointments in Morrow’s book was her reluctance to speculate on how one might address the renewal of the Sacrament of Penance vis-a-vis Humanae Vitae.
If Humanae Vitae was not the major cause of the decline of confession, it was certainly symptomatic of wholesale loss of direction where the Sacrament of Penance is concerned. In her concluding chapter, Morrow scans the horizon for clues which might be of help for the future. One topic of interest is the relationship of Penance to the Eucharist, in which she reiterates the primary theme of her book, the loss of collective penitential consciousness in the church. Her observation that after the Council the faithful were encouraged to receive the Eucharist more and confess devotionally less is witty but worth considering. [p. 238] If the Eucharist is “giving thanks,” then what exactly are we thankful for, if not forgiveness and deliverance from judgment. The loss of confession is the loss of opportunity for self-examination and identity of sin that Penance, even in its routine form, provided for. Morrow has a thinly veiled sense of annoyance for many priests of the post-Council era who seemed to have become bored with confessional duties in general.
This boredom issue spills into the formation of children and their first confession. Those of us of a certain age recall the “age of first confession” debates. This issue has merit on both sides. Canonically speaking, the necessity of a child’s making first confession before first communion is a hard sell, given that the Sacrament of Penance is only necessary when there is grave matter or mortal sin; it is hard to conceive of a six- or seven-year-old in true need of the sacrament. On the other hand, the argument is made that the formation of a young person, even a seven-year-old, is enhanced by learning the devotional routine of regular confession, the names, and types of sins, and introducing the importance of proper preparation for reception of the Eucharist. The author leans toward the first confession/first communion order, and the Vatican has confirmed this preference over the years.
I would take this argument one step further. What we know today about the stresses of even young children—those in poverty, broken homes, abusive or neglected circumstances, bullied, academic underachievers and the like—strongly suggests that the compassionate interest of a non-domestic adult, such as a parish priest, may be much more important that we have appreciated in the past and invites a broader consideration of the format and content of confession. Dioceses spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on programming for children to teach them how to cope with unsafe adults; might we ask if the other pole is a possibility: formation toward growthful interactions with healthy adults, which would include priests and particularly confessors?
If there is to be a wholesale renewal of the Sacrament of Penance, it will pivot around the quality of the interpersonal encounter of grace and concern between the priest and the penitent. Admittedly, communication with the young in a healing capacity is time-consuming and an acquired skill in most cases. Priests in today’s seminaries have precious little time to study all the dimensions of their ministry [though some of today’s young clergy are too proud or narcissistic to admit that] and these deficits indeed breed frustration and the boredom of which the author speaks. Moreover, the decrease in numbers of parochial clergy is itself a contributing factor to the present day drought in quality confession time.
If I may speak from my own vantage point, it is hard for me to approach confessors locally. Now in my 76th year, I spend much meditational time looking backward at “what might have been,” and although I have confessed a good many sins over the years and received absolution, I grieve today over the “what might have been” aspects of my life, including those I have injured by my selfishness, and my deficiencies in building up the Church as one of its ordained leaders. As a former Franciscan I think daily about Francis. A true saint in his own lifetime, as he approached his death, he separated himself from the fraternity and lived in a cave. He would throw himself to the ground and pray repeatedly, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a worm and not a man.” The holier he became, his past life became more grievous to him, as did his appreciation of the infinite Glory of God vis-à-vis his own human existence.
I love my opportunities to confess to the Trappists, which regrettably is too infrequent—the abbey is in South Carolina, six hours from my home . My “regular confessor,” a wise and compassionate 82-year-old monk who manages the retreatants’ experience, has spent his life in the penitential mode of monastic life for many years. His reconciliation ministry is a combination of compassionate listening, wise counsel, and spiritual direction. He recommends spiritual reading which I have found most helpful. He does not absolve me of my pain and regret, but he does help me to see their place in preparing for death while using my still considerable energies to build the Church and imitate Christ despite my age.
It occurs to me, too, that my experience of aging is hardly unique. Every age presents what the late psychoanalyst Erik Erikson [1902-1998] called stages of developmental challenge, the sequential tasks of living. I was fortunate enough to study him in moral theology and psychology, but it is rare to see his work incorporated into pastoral considerations of Penance and moral formation. Of even greater significance is Joseph Martos’ Doors to the Sacred [2014 edition] which introduces the ministry of spiritual direction into the discussion of confession. Writing a decade ago, Martos observes, “Also becoming more widespread is the practice of seeking spiritual direction from lay people who are formally trained for that ministry….Since the process of spiritual direction usually entails revealing one’s sins and shortcomings, and receiving assurance of God’s forgiveness as well as advice from the director, it is not unlike the practice of the medieval monks who acted as spiritual fathers for novices and people near the monastery, in the days before monks were ordained as priests. Thus, one path that reconciliation is taking may retrace a path that it took many centuries ago, with one important difference: today many spiritual directors are women.” [pp. 365-366]
If the Sacrament of Penance is to have a meaning future in the Church, it will need to connect in substantive ways with the broader desire of many Catholics for spiritual direction, i.e., a structured personal response to the Gospel of Jesus which puts the quest for virtue—living the Gospel values—at the top of penitential priorities. Spiritual direction can be offered in multiple formats: for example, there are parishes where small groups meet to follow the Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. History does teach, however, that the one-on-one journey to holiness and insight has a very long and successful track record. Where would St. Augustine be if he had not sought the tutelage of St. Ambrose of Milan?
Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession, 1955-1975 by Maria C. Morrow of Seton Hall University is a very worthy purchase. For us old timers, it is an opportunity to revisit the years immediately before and after the Council and discern what we did right and what we did wrong. For younger generations, this work explains why the lines at the confessional no longer extend twenty persons deep. I will have an excellent follow-up book for review in about two months, A History of Catholic Theological Ethics  by James Keenan, S.J.
Book Review "Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession, 1955-1975--Part 3: "How I Frequently Struck Out in the Seminary Confessional."
This is a crossover post, appearing in both the Morality Stream and The Boys from Aroma Hill Seminary Stream of the Catechist Café.
I vividly remember my first confession at Callicoon. I had arrived on a Saturday [September 8, 1962] as a high school freshman, and I found the regimentation very difficult. I was homesick and feeling out of place as the lifestyle, atmosphere, and routine were becoming clearer to me. After several days of a variety of orientations we were to begin school on Wednesday, and I had sincere hopes that after the academic routine took over, the seminary experience might make more sense to me.
On the Tuesday night before classes started, as I was coming out of the refectory after dinner, I got flagged by the assistant prefect of discipline, Father Cyprian Burke. He asked me my name, and then he said: “I was watching you eat. Your table manners are poor. You swallowed an entire tomato slice without cutting it. You need to improve your manners. I’ll be looking for an improvement, Thomas.” Then he dismissed me. This was the proverbial last straw of my initial St. Joe’s introduction. Four days and I had already messed up. I was learning a lot about the word “discouragement.”
In that evening gloom I wandered thoughtlessly down the long corridor to the chapel, where I discovered that Tuesday night confessions were taking place. [There were eight regularly assigned confessors—four on Tuesday night, four on Thursday night.] The first names of the friar confessors were posted on the confessional doors. To my surprise, I saw that Father Cyprian was one of the confessors. Aha! Here was a chance to make peace with the assistant prefect and assure him that I could obey the rules. So, I entered the box and confessed that I had been neglectful in my dining habits and that I would always cut my tomatoes like a gentleman, and that I thanked him for his corrective intervention.
Just as I was wrapping up my first St. Joe’s confession, I realized that I was not confessing to Father Cyprian Burke, the assistant prefect of discipline, but rather, I was confessing to Father Cyprian Lynch, the professor of history and civics. My distant recollection is that Father Cyprian Lynch took this odd confession in stride, told me to keep trying, and gave me absolution. As it turned out, I continued going to Father Cyprian Lynch throughout my high school years. I cannot remember how often we were required to go to confession, to tell the truth. It was either weekly or biweekly. [There was, of course, no way for the faculty to really know how often we seminarians went to confession, given the seal of the confessional.] I went to confession partly out of duty and partly out of the belief that the sacrament must be doing some good in an invisible way. I was generally faithful about going to confession at least every two weeks. Unfortunately, I cannot remember any advice that was proffered in those four years, or indeed, if any was proffered at all. And this is no reflection on the goodness of Father Cyprian, whom I later enjoyed as a history teacher and fellow priest-friar down the road.
We had Mass every morning at 6 AM, and during that Mass the seminary’s spiritual director, Father Eric Kyle—or occasionally a substitute—always entered the confessional and remained there until the distribution of communion. One morning, in a rare gush of devotion, I decided to confess during the Mass, and as it happened to Father Roman Pfeiffer, who was substituting for Father Eric. I served up my routine and shopworn list of venial offenses, and when I finished Father Roman gave me a scolding. “Don’t you know this time is reserved for emergencies?” I accepted the admonition though I was puzzled about what constituted “an emergency.”
I swear, I was well past 50 years old, a catechetical instructor for my diocese, thinking about old Roman Pfeiffer, and one day I slapped myself on the side of the head and exclaimed, “So that’s why there was always a confessor available every morning!” Since the Middle Ages—and up to the present day in the Catechism of the Catholic Church--official Church teaching holds that any violation of the sixth commandment is grave matter, i.e., mortally sinful. Cardinal McElroy of San Diego touched off a firestorm in recent weeks when he observed in the public media that the sixth and ninth commandments, which deal with sexuality, are the only commandments of the entire ten in which every offense is mortal. No venial sins where sex is concerned. All the other commandments break down into either grave [mortal] or venial matter. McElroy wondered aloud why this is, and whether the Church needs to revisit its official moral reasoning on human sexuality.
Of course, now having discovered that [e=mc2] and better understanding the sacramental rules of the game in our day—and, I guess, still today on the books--my mind rolled on to some curious subsets about life on the Hill. I thought about our library. In my early years at St. Joe’s Father Pascal Marie, our French teacher, was also the librarian. He exercised prudery like an art form, to the degree that he cut out of Time and Newsweek any photo of a woman except Eleanor Roosevelt, and you never knew when she might disappear, too. You might be reading a serious article about the Federal Reserve and discover that the critical 25% of the essay had been excised because a photo of John Profumo’s mistress, Christine Keeler, was printed on the reverse side. Which is why I never understood the extraordinarily long shelf life of a library book called The 87th Precinct.
There are over fifty books in this series of police novels about a New York City detective Steve Carella and his deaf-mute wife, Teddy. [There was a brief TV series based on the characters, too, sanitized by the network censors.] But there was a considerable number of us who were, at the least, aware that one volume of the Naked City series had somehow gotten into the stacks alongside of Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Pop Warner’s Football for Boys. It got to a point where page 157 became notorious for what the old morality manuals would have called ‘salacious” and “lascivious” subject matter. Grave matter! Not that you had to search much—if you stood the book on its spine, it opened to that page instantly. I don’t recall that anyone ever signed the book out of the library. It had unofficial “reference book” status among freshmen and sophomores.
For all of that, there wasn’t much of a black market for naughty pictures or other “grave matter” in my minor seminary experience. Possession of such material would have been cause for immediate seminary expulsion, let alone an eternity in hell. One of my best friends today used to get the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated [How? Our mail was censored!] and show it off to anyone who would give him an extra dessert at supper. I do recall in my junior or senior year of high school an episode where a new high school freshman brought a trunk full of hard core “literature.” Ironically, I was assigned to meet him and his family, give them the tour of the seminary campus, and carry his trunk to the storage room with no idea of its contents. At some point that year his armory of pulp magazines was discovered, and he was quickly dispatched. When I heard about it from a friend I asked, “Did they dust the trunk for prints?”
We were not saints in the seminary, by any measure. There was bullying, physical assault, cheating, and vicious reputation destruction in which I had varying degrees of guilt over my six years there. I can also safely say that there was depression, anxiety, family stress, loneliness, grief, low self-esteem, academic frustration, gender confusion, and vocational searching among many of us. [I gained fifty pounds during my freshman year.] Of course, I can only vouch for my own experience in the confessional back then, but my understanding of the Sacrament of Penance in my years at St. Joe’s precluded any consideration that the things truly troubling me might be matters for the box, and evidently none of my confessors back then were conditioned to think spontaneously or preemptively in those terms, either. This is sad, considering the amount of time we invested on Tuesday and Thursday nights which led, in my case at any rate, to a diminishment of confidence in the sacramental confession as a vehicle of growth for many years.
In reviewing Maria Morrow’s Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession, 1955-1975 [published, 2016] I have a better understanding that seminarians of our time, the 1960’s, might not have been different from the general Catholic public in finding its spiritual/personal needs unmet in this sacrament. As an ordained priest I worked very hard at the Sacrament of Penance—to invite individuals to unburden themselves of their troubles, and to embrace new types of spirituality and behavior, i.e., to help them grow. Some penitents, I discovered, were creatures of routine and did not express much energy in breaking the mold. I had obtained a master’s degree in counseling, and in one instance I had a weekly penitent who confessed a compulsive sexual act at every confession. The sin was troubling, to the point that the individual wept every week during the confession. Finally, I offered this thought: “Perhaps the sin has a clinical compulsive base. [OCD] You know, I have read in my journals that tricyclic antidepressants can be very helpful in reducing the stress you are attempting to relieve in your behavior.” The penitent fired back: “I don’t come here for psychological bullshit.” Which leaves the question—why was this individual coming each week? Was the absolution part of the pathology?
In Morrow’s book she quotes a parish priest: “Quite often adult Catholics prepare for confession with the same examination of conscience they used as children, with the one exception of their expanded appreciation of the sixth commandment. As a result, their self-knowledge is often little more than preadolescent. The rarity with which sins of racial injustice are confessed and the almost utter oblivion of Catholics to their unchristian lack of involvement with the needs and problems of their environment point to a deficiency in their appreciation of sin and those responsibilities that go beyond the commandments. These are problems that obviously the mere frequency of penance will not solve. Indeed, habitual mechanical confessions serve only to perpetuate them.” [p. 223]
Even my father, a devout Catholic who confessed every two weeks, admitted that “I don’t get much from confession.” My mother, who made him go frequently, wasn’t too happy to hear that, and I thought it wise not to tell them that I agreed with my old man and that I only went to confession when I was able to confess to a skilled spiritual master of the sacrament, such as on retreat or visiting a religious house or friary. Morrow researched church documents from the 1950’s and discovered that Pope Pius XII felt compelled to admonish priest confessors for their complaints about having to hear routine or repetitious confessions where there was no evident change or growth taking place in the sacramental encounter. The priests, evidently, were as burned out as the penitents! If one thing becomes clear, it is that Penance as a sacrament needed a rethinking and a reform. What happened after the Council was that the format was changed but the philosophy did not.
“A change in philosophy” would include a return to the earliest roots of confession where the goal of the sacrament was growth in virtue, not the juridical expulsion of evil. The ideal confessor would become a spiritual director, cognizant of such factors as human development. Teenagers in my day, and teenagers today need the subtle openness of wise adults to journey with them as they pass from childhood to adulthood, to cite one example. I believe there is hunger for this kind of sacramental approach today. In the present day there are many laity and clergy seeking to develop their spirituality in self-study groups, personal spiritual direction, spiritual reading, and retreats. My own diocese is seeking to train new lay spiritual directors precisely because of a demand for such services. Spiritual guidance and direction in the following of Jesus appears to be the origin of personal confession as it evolved from the monasteries of Ireland. There is nothing to keep us from exploring reform of the penitential sacrament in this direction.
Book Review: "Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession, 1955-1975--Part 2: When Meat Appeared on Friday Menus"
As some of you may have figured out, a week ago I returned from an 11-day 3000-mile Caribbean cruise to San Juan, Puerto Rico, Saint Maarten, St. Kitts, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Dominican Republic. It is a bit embarrassing to admit this, but we set sail from Tampa on our Celebrity Constellation two days after Ash Wednesday, on a Friday in Lent, no less. In my defense, my wonderful wife planned this trip some time ago to celebrate my 75th birthday [February 23] in a big way, and the Celebrity Cruise chefs had two fish dishes on the menu in the San Marcos Dining Room. It was a magnificent trip on and off the ship, from an offbeat excursion to Maho Beach [Saint Maarten] where the commercial jets land over the heads of the beachgoers—an amazing experience—to a rainforest hike on St. Kitts to a day of exploring the interior of the Dominican Republic. My wife Margaret was heavily engaged in our diocese’s mission in the southern part of the country. This was my first visit to the country where Margaret has invested so much of herself, and it renewed my deep sense of respect and pride for her labors there, as well as the diocesan missionaries as a group, which bore much fruit for the mission’s mountaintop Catholic school standing with the DR government.
I screwed up some courage when I got home and stepped on the scale…and I can safely say that my Lenten fasting, a definite no-show until then, will take on new urgency. For our purposes here, I note with more than a little irony that the next post in the Café queue is a second review and discussion of Maria Morrow’s Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession 1955-1975,  which delves into the disappearances of both individual confession and penitential practices of Catholics in the years after Vatican II.
Again, the thesis of the author’s text is that attitudes toward the Sacrament of Penance were [are?] intertwined with the Catholic collective consciousness of sin reinforced by such practices as fasting, abstaining from meat, making the Stations of the Cross, receiving ashes, etc. Morrow maintains that the same tectonic shift in attitudes toward confession between 1955 and 1975 led to a loss in the Catholic communal sense of sin expressed in universal fasting and abstinence from meat, a trend that continues to this day.
In Chapter Four, “Penance in a New Land,” Morrow makes an important assertion. “The sacrament of penance, even when its popularity was at a zenith, was never alone as ‘penance,’ despite the current narrow identification. Rather, the sacrament was one among many penitential practices inherent in American Catholicism.” [p. 118] It is helpful to recall here that in our catechetical experience the term “penance” in popular parlance referred to the deed or prayer assigned to the penitent at the conclusion of the confession and after the absolution. In the U.S. we rarely say, “Well, I’m going to penance tonight.” Our common idiom is “going to confession,” and the “penance” is the deed assigned to make satisfaction for our sins. In the history books the “penance” at the end of confession was known as a “tariff penance,” a payment of sorts to balance the economy of sin and forgiveness. The “penance” at the end of confession dates to the Irish initiation of repeatable sacramental forgiveness in the first millennium, though in that time the guidance books for Irish confessors, the “Irish Penitentiaries,” were remarkably imaginative in recommending penances that addressed personal weaknesses and the penances themselves considerably more demanding than three Hail Marys.
In his valuable new work, A History of Catholic Theological Ethics  Father James Keenan examines, among many other things, the origins of personal confession as we know it today. See America Magazine's review here. I will discuss this book later in the year, but for now I cite his treatment of St. Patrick and other missionaries to Ireland after 400 A.D. There were no cities in Ireland, and unlike most of Europe, the monastery became the hub of Church life through the balance of the first millennium. Thus, the ritual of a nightly public confession of faults to the abbot developed in the context of the monks’ vowed life and their quest for perfection in following Christ. The penance/advice from the abbot, from what I can tell, was more akin to spiritual direction. Drawing from my own recent experiences with monastic ministry, when I make retreat at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina the Trappist monks still approach the Sacrament of Penance in this fashion in caring for retreatants—confession as guidance toward a holier life. My confessions and the advice proffered by the wise monk spiritual masters usually take close to an hour, but I leave the encounter with encouragement to pursue holiness based upon my history and even recommendations for readings, prayer experiences, and the like.
Clearly, this is not the typical experience of twentieth century Catholics for the most part. The Catechism of the Catholic Church requires honest and sincere confession of mortal sins and encourages the confession of all venial sins as condition for absolution. However, pastorally the Church has long recognized “general confession” as I described above, though it is hard to find, in church legal directives, specific guidelines. As a pastor and eventually a member of AA, I had numerous Catholic men spontaneously approach me to undertake their fifth step, “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,” in the context of a lengthy sacramental confession, which I usually scheduled outside the normal hours of confession. As a retreat master for women religious, it was my experience that many of them took the opportunity of their annual retreat to make a general confession/review of their vowed commitments.
In the bigger historical picture, in the second millennium confession eventually became shaped by the development of moral theology as a stand-alone branch of the sacred sciences. As the Sacrament of Penance morphed from a monastic experience to a universal one, Medieval and Renaissance theologians shifted the emphasis of Penance into a logical, legal--and many would say casuist--science of behavior and satisfaction for sin. The first Catholic theologian to “systematize” the study of the sacred—including the very dynamic of sin—was the monk Peter Abelard [1079-1142]. Yes, this is the very Abelard who impregnated Heloise in one of the era’s truly tragic love tales. Abelard’s works, including the famous Sic et Non [“Yes and No”] served as the backbone for the giants to follow, including Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham [1287–1347]. The Post-Reformation era [1565--] through the mid-twentieth century is referred to in moral theology circles as the era of the manuals, the compilations for priest confessors of classifications of sins and guidance on judging the sinner’s sincerity of guilt and appropriate satisfaction for the sin[s] confessed. Confession became a precise discipline of participation in God’s justice. As a rule, the monastic tradition of spiritual direction toward holiness became more unusual in confession though not forbidden; St. Teresa of Avila records that she received much of her spiritual direction in sacramental confession.
[I know what some readers will ask next: what is the relationship of confession and spiritual direction? Would more people go to confession if they received more than a legal/spiritual pardon? I am researching this now. My guess is “yes.” This is true for me. Morrow addresses the growing interest in psychotherapy vis-à-vis confession in Chapter Six, which will be the next post in this stream.]
Given that in the age when I grew up the pastoral emphases of the Sacrament of Penance had become a penitential spirit and the assurance of absolution, Morrow, in Chapter Four, describes how, by the 1950’s, the penitential spirit of confession was buttressed with other prescribed works of penance in the life of the Church. She summarizes the midcentury’s understanding of sin and redemption as “suffering as penance [which] leads to sanctity.” [p. 149] Most notable of these collective suffering experiences is the season we find ourselves in currently, the Lenten observance. In the 1950’s “Catholics were obliged to fast on every day of Lent except Sundays. This fast was also one of partial abstinence from meat: one principal meal—normally lunch but it could be supper instead—was of normal proportions and could include meat, with the exception of Fridays, which were always meatless. The other two meals, named ‘collations’ [in the manuals] were not to total a full meal and could not include meat.” [p. 127] This and other fast and abstinence regulations come from the 1917 Code of Canon Law in place in the 1950’s and 1960’s as well as subsequent papal adjustments by several popes and carried the weight of grave matter, i.e. mortal sin.
Given the gravity of the obligation, fasting and abstinence issues created major headaches for confessors. Morrow cites several articles from the 1950’s Homiletic and Pastoral Review, the professional journal for priests still published today. Back in the day HPR provided confessional and pastoral advice on such matters as  what is the legal/prudent course of action if one has accidentally ordered a meat meal at a restaurant on Friday or a day of Lent?  Are manual labors bound to fast, given the exertions of their work?  Is a pregnant or nursing mother bound to fast?  Is it morally wrong for Catholic schools to serve meat lunches during Lent, given that one was allowed meat only at the main meal?  If one deliberately ate meat at one of his “collations,” how much meat constituted a mortal sin? [More than two ounces was the general canonical opinion]  Did a milkshake between meals break the fast?
I did not make these up; I cited actual examples provided by the author from HPR issues. In truth, I have personal experiences with the law equally confounding. As a priest I was asked if it was permissible to eat Jell-O on Fridays, because apparently, the gel contains ground bones of animals. [To this day I have no idea. Or of what animals, perish the thought.] I recall a time as a child when a priest friend visited our home and had a beer with my father during Lent in midafternoon. The priest said that in his understanding of Canon Law it was permissible to consume food between meals with an alcoholic beverage, such as potato chips, so that the alcohol would not fall into an empty stomach. I thought my mother would pass out with shock. After he left, she told us kids, “Don’t listen to anything he tells you.” [Where there is law, there are lawyers, and there are mothers.]
Lent was not the only occasion of penance. Fast and abstinence was observed on the Ember Days and on vigils of major feasts, such as Christmas and the Immaculate Conception. [In the days before evening Vigil Masses, did that put a spoiler on Christmas Eve family gatherings!] One penitential season which lost its identity in the modern era was Advent. Many monastic communities observe an Advent fast, but in modern America it is virtually impossible to command an observance of penance given that secular Christmas begins after Halloween. [In truth, there remains major confusion about the nature and liturgical identity of Advent, period. See my recent Café post, “An Autopsy of my Advent.”]
By the 1960’s however, the attitudes of church leaders toward the laws of fasting and penance—including sacramental confession—began to shift. Morrow quotes the young Michael Novak on the practice of frequent confession in concluding Chapter 4:
“But will these millions of Catholics be led by their sincere efforts to a new concern for their Negro brothers, the poor in whom Christ especially lives, the millions of hungry children of this world? It is to be feared that many retain too individualistic a piety to understand that the liturgy speaks of a ‘we,’ always of an entire people and always of a whole and entire, not merely an ecclesiastical or devotional life. Social life, civic life, political life—these, too, need to be revivified by new awareness and new earnestness. One of the major concerns of Roman Catholics in Lent 1965, blessed as they are now with a liturgy now partly in their native tongue and plainly inviting their active participation as a priestly people, is to forge a more conscious bond between liturgy and life, between the church and the world in which it is buried as yeast in heavy dough.” [pp. 157-158]
In short, Novak is asking whether confession and penitential acts are too focused on the weeding of my own garden, i.e., my soul, at the expense of imitating Christ’s Gospel command to feed the hungry beyond the garden fence.
In Chapter 5, “To Eat Meat or Not,” Morrow examines several church teachings on penitential life that followed the Council, which ended in 1965. First, Pope Paul VI [r. 1963-1978] in February 1966, issued an apostolic constitution Paenitemini on fast and abstinence. Wikipedia’s summary is remarkably good: “Paenitemini is a 1966 apostolic constitution by Pope Paul VI. In Paenitemini Paul changed the strictly regulated Catholic fasting requirements. He recommended that fasting be appropriate to the local economic situation, and that all Catholics voluntarily fast and abstain. He further recommended that fasting and abstinence be replaced with prayer and works of charity "in countries where the standard of living is lower."
Morrow’s summary of the document [pp. 162-166] is excellent as she analyzes Paul VI’s directives. The pope was obviously concerned that in the wave of post-Conciliar optimism, secularism, and change the venerable practice of mortification might be lost, and he encouraged Catholics to cultivate an interior attitude of conversion through the collective works of penance of the universal church. He simplified the calendar of required fast days with the hope that Catholics would discover new ways of realizing penitential attitude suited for the times, such as “bearing patiently the ills of life.” He advised episcopal or national bishops’ conferences to consider “replacing the observance of fast and abstinence with exercises of prayer and charity.” [p. 164]
Later in 1966 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops--now the USCCB, The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops--issued its own pastoral directives for our country. Morrow’s analysis of this American guidance is spot on: the American bishops, influenced by the culture and the changing currents of moral theological thought, shifted a much greater weight of responsibility for making penitential determinations to the individual Catholic. Consequently, on matters such as the Friday abstinence from meat, a Catholic could elect to observe the abstinence or substitute for it another good work or act of meaningful penance. This is the present legislation, except that the abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday is a universal norm. But, if you are looking for a date when eating meat on regular Fridays was no longer a mortal sin, November 18, 1966—the date of the U.S bishops’ statement--is as good a date as any.
Morrow strongly implies that the bishops were overly optimistic in their assessment that Catholics were sufficiently catechized to grasp a paradigm shift as great as this one. In his classic What Happened at Vatican II Father John O’Malley makes the same point. In my review of that work for Amazon, I wrote:
In his final chapter, “Conclusion,” O’Malley does offer a telling assessment of perhaps the biggest error of the bishops, particular Western bishops: “They assumed an easier transition from ideas of the scholars’ study to the social reality of the church than proved to be the case.” (p. 292) Hence the turmoil when the bishops returned home.
Virtually overnight, what had been a mortal sin—eating meat on a typical Friday—was no longer a mortal sin. The irony of this change was not lost upon the late-night TV comedian Johnny Carson, who joked in his monologue about all the fools in hell who ate hot dogs at the ballpark on Friday before the rule changed. If the Church could change a grave moral teaching such as abstinence, what else could it change? Perhaps the prohibition of artificial birth control?
The author points out that fasting and abstinence were acts of penance and conversion easily remembered and understood, even if perhaps routine and underwhelming. [My wife Margaret makes the best baked salmon in the world—it is no penance for me to abstain from meat on Fridays.] The legal/pastoral advice of the Church in 1966 turned the specific to the vague. Fasting and abstinence became “exercises of prayer and charity” in Pope Paul VI’s phrase. Morrow compares the relative ease and simplicity of fasting and abstaining to “suggested penances, such as volunteering in a hospital.” This vagueness, she contends, led to the disappearance of penitential works altogether. [p. 184] The Catholic sociologist Father Andrew Greeley called this shift from the identifiable to the vague “the most unnecessary and the most devastating.”
What we have not yet discussed in detail is the relationship of the loss of penitential identity to the decrease in attendance to the Sacrament of Penance itself. The author has saved her best for last: Chapter Six, “Thinking Outside the Box: The Decline of Sacramental Confession” is a captivating analysis of the shift in confessional patterns, and it will be my starting point for the third post in this series.
When I saw that the staid and academic catalogue of The Catholic University of America was featuring a book titled “Sin in the Sixties,” I did an absolute doubletake. For one confusing second while I fumbled for my reading glasses, I thought it said, “Sex in the City.” Then I thought, “Is this some kind of moral commentary on senior citizens?” But the book’s full title is more instructional: Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession, 1955-1975.  I purchased this on Amazon and found the book an intriguing work which held my attention. It is not a perfect book; the author could have done more research on the seminary training of priests and, more significantly, the Humanae Vitae teaching  banning artificial birth control. The jury is still out in my mind about what the author is specifically recommending for us today, not just for a renewal of the Sacrament of Penance, but for a rediscovery of the Church’s common practices of mortification, such as fast and abstinence. In fairness to the author, we simply do not have as much significant research examining the attitudes of Catholics in, say, 1970, as we should have, and that window is rapidly closing.
In many ways the decline in the number of Catholics seeking absolution for their sins, i.e., going to confession, was the canary in the coal mine for the drastic decline in Mass attendance that would follow, but how Catholic attitudes toward Confession and Mass are interconnected is complicated. Very recently in our history Confession was a requirement for receiving communion. And how is Vatican II connected to this decline? I notice that the author, Maria C. Morrow of Seton Hall University, dates her concentration here from 1955, a date we tend to associate with the golden age of full churches, brimming parochial schools, and yes, long lines outside the confessionals. The only factor I can see—albeit a significant one—is that by 1955 hundreds of thousands of Catholic World War II veterans had the opportunity to attend Catholic colleges and universities on the G.I. Bill, with an attendant boost in collegiate courses on Catholic theology that went far beyond the parochial standards of the day.
Why do we go to confession? If you had asked this question of a Catholic in 1959, the answers would probably have included absolution or forgiveness of one’s sins, the assistance of grace or help from God, and a habitual reminder to “do good.” Perhaps some would have called the exercise a devotional habit. The church of my youth had a title for those non-mortal sin habitual visits to the box, “devotional confessions.” On Saturday afternoons my mother went around the house and tallied each of us to see when we had last confessed. In the Burns household two weeks was the maximum spread between confessions. As a priest for twenty years, I would find it hard to draw my own impressions of hearing confessions into a neat box, no pun intended, though as a broad generalization it did seem that more confessions were devotional in nature, i.e., absent the presence of soul-robbing mortal sin. On the other hand, it was very unusual to come across a penitent who was actively seeking spiritual advice or counsel, either, which leads me to think that much of the Catholic population regarded confession with the same genre as not eating meat on Friday. Morrow discusses confession in the broader horizon of Catholic attitudes toward penitential practices.
Actually, the practice of frequent acknowledgement of sin and guilt even if only to oneself has sound historical, theological and psychological underpinnings. St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises include a daily examination of conscience, a practice dating back to ancient monasticism. More recently, AA’s 12-step program could double as a catechesis of our Catholic sacrament of forgiveness: [I am using a paraphrase of the steps here.]
Step 4: Document every mistake you’ve ever made.
Step 5: Admit to God, to yourself, and to another human being the exact nature of your wrongs.
Step 6: Be entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Step 7: Humbly ask God to remove your shortcomings.
Step 8: Make a list of all the persons you have harmed and became willing to make amends to all of them.
Step 9: Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure oneself or others.
Step 10: Continue to take personal inventory and when you are wrong promptly admit it.
A sadly overlooked habitual/ritual form of forgiveness in the Church is the Penitential Rite of the Mass itself. I will concede that in many parishes, including mine, we often blow through this rite at the beginning of Mass like a rush hour drive-through at Starbuck’s. But this rite is Scripturally based on the very words of Jesus: “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” [Matthew 5:23-24] As the Mass begins, there is a call to examination by the celebrant, followed by what should be enough time to follow through on Jesus’ words and survey our breaches of brotherhood. Then, after sufficient time, we pray the Confiteor, “I confess,” as a personal and common expression of sorrow and request for help. The celebrant’s absolution is a true absolution, i.e., it “officially” extends God’s healing mercy and forgiveness. [The only exception would be grave mortal sins, which in Church discipline can only be absolved in personal confession, but even that is not an ironclad rule, as I will explain below.]
To understand Catholic confession, it is necessary to grasp the development of what Church theologians call the “economy of salvation.” The phrase originates from the Greek, “managing the household,” or in our context, how God manages creation, most specifically, us. In Chapter 1, Morrow illustrates how throughout history the descriptions of God’s management have come gradually through the Scriptures. She examines the earliest accounts from Leviticus, for example, where “sin was regarded as a weight or burden—a condition, really--to be borne or as a stain on one’s person. Hence Leviticus describes the tradition of the Day of Atonement wherein the people’s sins were transformed to an animal that would bear away the sins of the people, taking them out of the people’s midst and out of God’s sight into some unknown wilderness.” [p. 15]
However, around the fifth century B.C., the Biblical language in books such as Isaiah and Daniel spoke of peoples’ indebtedness to God. “Hence, sin did not have the same precise meaning in Genesis as in Daniel or Matthew…. This system recognized that consequences follow upon human sins, and the tangible form of evil created in the world by sin must be accounted for and then compensated.” [p. 16] “Penance” was a noun, the payment or satisfaction; failure to pay resulted in the direst circumstances. Biblical theology thus shaped the gradual understanding of the Mass that we old timers remember well from our school days: Jesus was the “perfect payment” to his Father for the sins of the world reenacted daily in “the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary upon our altars.” The highlight of our Mass was not the consecration but the great doxology or moment of glory when the priest raised the consecrated bread and wine to heaven and prayed: “Through him, with him, and in him….”
By the Middle Ages the identification of the forgiveness sacrament with the science of satisfaction was fine-tuned by the noted Church scholar Peter Lombard [1100-1160]. “The three aspects of the sacrament of penance described by Lombard are compunction of the heart, confession of the mouth, and satisfaction by means of work.” [p. 28] From Lombard developed centuries of scholastic or propositional writing on each of these three components. What degree of compunction or “sorrow for sin” was necessary for a valid confession, and how was it measured? How precise did the confession of sin need to be for the confession to be valid? And how was a confessor to judge the gravity of the sin vis-à-vis the appropriate post-confession satisfaction, i.e., “the penance?”
Church Historians refer to the post-Lombard era as “The Manualist Era” because of the reference books for confessors that continued to be published into the 1960’s. The last English language manual I could dig up was compiled by Rev. Heribert Jone with Rev. Urban Adelman, published in 1962, and it is still available on Amazon as a collector’s item. In 1971 I made a retreat at Father Adelman’s retreat house [he was a Capuchin Franciscan friar] and I told him I had seen his 1962 work for purchase at the legendary Newman’s Book Store just off the Catholic University campus. He looked surprised: “Don’t tell me they are still selling that old thing!” By 1971, after Vatican II, the Church was revisiting its language and theology of morality and its sacramental celebration, and even a noted manualist like Adelman recognized the need for a rethinking of both morality and sacramental forgiveness.
In Chapter 2, “From Actual and Personal to Relative and General,” Morrow examines the twentieth century influences which impacted Catholic practice of confession. The greatest sociological change in her estimation was the breakdown of the Catholic community culture. In the East Buffalo neighborhood of my childhood nearly everyone was Catholic and our penitential practices as well as our understandings were continually reinforced. Long before Buffalo wings, every tavern in my neighborhood had Friday fish fries because we all abstained from meat on Fridays. During Lent the grownups fasted every day except on Sundays. We all went to confession—in my case, I slipped into the side door of the church just before 9 PM closing after a Saturday evening of playing baseball or basketball on the church grounds, to make my confession to the kindly alcoholic associate who always gave me a little ferverino to think about. The shift of Catholicism to the suburbs cannot be understated. I grew up a half-block from my church; it was my home, from serving Mass at 6 AM to going to school to basketball at sunset in the school yard. Today I live at a 25-minute drive to my suburban parish. If Margaret and I are traveling or attending weekend Mass in another parish, we can be absent 2-3 weeks from our parish plant.
In 1962 my Catholic family, like so many across the country, moved from the East Side of Buffalo to the suburbs. I left home for the seminary at 14, but my siblings expanded their wings and eventually went on to Buffalo State University and other milieus of the mainstream Protestant and secular culture. Father Andrew Greeley, in his Church and the Suburbs [1959, now in public domain], was among the first to express concern that the new affluence of post-War American Catholics was breeding complacency and contentment, which dulled the urgency of afterlife concerns and the safeguard of confession. In May 1960 the FDA approved the drug Enovid-10, the first contraceptive medication and a modern moral dilemma for Catholics who had been taught that that periodic conjugal abstinence [known then as “the rhythm method”] was the only acceptable intervention to prevent conception. The 1960’s saw the democratization of psychology as Freudian analysis—the therapy of the rich and leisured--progressed into a wider range of available therapeutic modes. The confessional and the rectory parlor, once the only sources of counseling for Catholics, now had secular competition from psychiatry and the new wave of self-help books.
Chapter 3, “From Responsibility to Freedom,” examines the redefinition of sin by most Catholic theologians in the post-Vatican II era, the Council having concluded in 1965. Among Catholic academics there was concern that the confessional model of longstanding and its dependence upon moral manuals was becoming too legalistic and casuist. For example, is sin an act or an attitude? St. Thomas Aquinas, a century after Peter Lombard, defined virtue as the habit of good acts, a sequence of choices of the will which led to an attitude of holiness. Sin would be the mirror of good acts.
On the other hand, twentieth-century moralists such as Bernard Haring argued that morality began with a conversion to the person of Jesus Christ. There is solid New Testament grounding for this approach, notably from St. Paul, who famously taught that it is God’s grace that saves, not strict observance of the Law. Haring’s classic, The Law of Christ , was the classic inspiration of my seminary moral training. See my review of his autobiography, Free and Faithful in Christ  here.
Morrow quotes extensively from Haring, but I found that reading Haring’s entire autobiography Free and Faithful [see above] firsthand embodied the sentiment of many of the Church’s bishops at Vatican II, most of whom had been spiritually traumatized in a real sense by fascism, war, and antisemitism, most notably the Holocaust. Under obedience of his Redemptorist superiors, Haring undertook advanced studies in moral theology in the manualist tradition, but he told his superiors that the sterile syllogisms of manualist moral theology were such a waste of time he preferred to be sent to the missions.
However, in World War II he was conscripted into the German army as a chaplain though forbidden to say Mass. Haring ignored the order about offering public Mass and he also led services for Orthodox and Protestant soldiers as well. He was arrested four times before escaping into American-held territory. Deeply moved by his experiences, Haring would write some years later: “Unfortunately, I…experienced the most absurd obedience by Christians—God have mercy—toward a criminal regime. And that…radically affected my thinking and acting as a moral theologian. After the war I returned to moral theology with the firm decision to teach it so that its core concept would not be obedience but responsibility, the courage to be responsible. I believe I have remained true to this decision—of course not to the damage to genuine obedience, that is, to an obedience that is responsible and joined to openness and a critical sense.” [Morrow, p. 96]
Haring’s teaching and writing had significant influence, not just on Vatican II where he served as a theological advisor, but on generations of priests and seminarians who studied under him, including many in the United States. At issue were two questions:  Was the manualist philosophy of confession focused too much upon personal piety at the expense of the greater moral issues of the day, as in the U.S. the burning question of civil rights, and  would the legal format of confession and morality be better replaced by an evangelical, Gospel motivated change of heart and direction?
Interestingly and tellingly, the direction of confession and moral teaching was too difficult for the Council fathers of Vatican II to tackle during its four years of meetings. The Sacrament of Penance received one sentence of attention [!] in the entire Vatican II Constitution on Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. [SC, paragraph 72] The official post-Council teaching on the Sacrament of Penance, Ordo Paenitentiae [“The Rite of Penance”] was not released until December 1973. Interestingly, this is one of few post-Vatican II documents which has been pulled off the shelf; I cannot find it in English, and Morrow does not cite it in her bibliography. What I did find was an official Vatican statement on the Sacrament of Penance in 2015, during the reign of Pope Francis [r. 2013--] which reads: The Ordo Paenitentiae was promulgated on 2 December 1973, in accordance with the conciliar mandate which revised the Rite and formulas «so that they more clearly express both the nature and effect of the Sacrament» (SC 72). At the distance of some decades, however, one notes that the Rite and formulas have not always been respected. Maybe, this is because some of the celebrative suggestions were judged inopportune or too excessive.
So, what pastoral realities developed before and after 1973 surrounding the Sacrament of Penance that the Church considered “inopportune and too excessive?” The author treats of these and more issues in Chapter 4, “Penance in a New Land: Developments in Nonsacramental Practice;” Chapter 5, “To Eat Meat or Not? Paenitemini, the NCCB’s [USCCB’s] Pastoral Statement, and the Decline of Penance;” and Chapter 6, “Thinking Outside the Box: The Decline of Sacramental Confession.”
I will review and comment on the second half of the book in three weeks. I am taking some time off to celebrate my 75th birthday. But don’t wait for me: buy the book. You will want it in your working libraries for years to come. I checked around the internet and Amazon does have the best prices on this book.
Part 3--"An Introduction to Christian Ethics: A New Testament Perspective" by Alberto de Migno Kaminouchi
In this Morality Stream I have been commenting on the book by Alberto de Mingo Kaminouchi, An Introduction to Christian Ethics . The author’s opening chapter—the first Café post on this topic--examines the eras just before and just after Vatican II. After the Council, Catholic moralists by and large moved from a highly legal and structured approach to morality, the “manual era,” to a more biblically oriented moral spirit drawn from the person and ministry of Jesus as interpreted by intense study of the Scriptures, most notably the Gospels. In the second Café post below, I addressed the resurgence of study into the nature and intent of Jesus, as scholars used multiple methods to discern what can be known of the historical Jesus as well as how the Church came to define Him in its “Christological Councils” of the fourth and fifth centuries.
One of the constants of Christian morality over the centuries has been its relationship to greater goods beyond human experience. In the Act of Contrition which I learned almost 70 years ago, I prayed that I was heartly sorry because of the “pains of punishment” [imperfect contrition] and my having offended the God who is “all good and deserving of all my love.” [perfect contrition]. In other words, human behavior was connected to divine meaning—we were created by God to live and function in an optimum way that we may enjoy eternal reward in God’s presence. After the Reformation, Catholic and Protestant teachings on salvation differed in detail but all Christians maintained the relationship of human life and behavior to Baptism and our ultimate destiny beyond the grave.
If we look at present day culture with an honest eye, it becomes painfully evident that generally people do not align their behavior today with major concern about divine or external consequences either now or beyond the grave. The closest we have to some sort of mystical consequence is “karma” and from where I sit the rules of karma in popular American culture are not nearly as potent as the Hindu or Buddhist understanding of the term. So, the question becomes—when did Western folks make the break to individual judgments about morals, and quit worrying about “bigger picture” norms proclaimed in the churches?
The split between human conduct and divine destiny—when the science of morality switched from outside sources, such as Scripture or religious revelation to subjective human decision making—can be traced back to a particularly devastating point in European history, the Wars of Religion. This is a series of armed conflicts that ravaged Western Europe shortly after the beginning of the Reformation in 1517 and extending for well over a century till the “Peace of Westphalia” in 1648. These wars were diverse and involved separate nations and regions at different times. In Luther’s back yard, a German revolt called the Peasants’ War [1524-25] touched off a series of increasingly destructive campaigns that would last well into the next century. In France, Catholics and Huguenots [French Reformed Calvinists] battled within the country between 1562 and 1598. The defeat and destruction of the Catholic Spain’s Armada in its efforts to seize Protestant England in 1588 is a featured date in history. The bloodiest prolonged conflict of this period was The Thirty Years War [1618-1648]. Fought primarily in the territory of modern Germany, historians estimate that about eight million people were killed in this struggle alone. All told, about 50 million were killed in this series of wars fought under the banner of religion. While religious beliefs served as an identifying flag, like all wars this prolonged series of conflicts was juiced by territorial and economic considerations as well as the fervor of jihad.
Westphalia put a temporary end to the era of religious wars. By this time the continent was exhausted in every sense of the word. The idea of fighting for religious supremacy had lost its appeal. However, something more was lost, and we live with that loss today. Some of the greatest minds in Europe were beginning to despair of the idea that organized religion could organize itself and stand in the way of great evils. Put another way, the learned classes throughout Europe began to abandon the doctrinal and moral premises of organized religion in favor of a new way of philosophizing, in which man stood at the center of the universe. Truth would be sought not in the churches but by scientific inquiry. A similar pulse of discouragement about religion took place after the twentieth century world wars and was a major factor in the decision to call the Catholic Council Vatican II in 1962.
Two figures stand out in this period of change. Sir Francis Bacon [1561-1626] was a devout English Anglican who is remembered today as the father of the scientific method. For any philosophers in the house, Stanford University provides a very thorough on-line examination of his life’s body of work. Bacon held that the human brain is structured to receive observable sense impressions and to formulate them into logical thought. This is the “inductive measure of thinking,” i.e., from small observations to general hypotheses and eventually permanent principles. Philosophy, which had long been structured around eternal general principles—metaphysics—would be turned over on its head as modern man turned to what could be proven from experience as the basis of truth. The dogma of religion as well as the ideas of philosophers like Plato fell into disregard.
The greater name in this intellectual revolution is Rene Descartes [1596-1650]. He is most remembered for his maxim, Cogito, Ergo Sum, or “I think, therefore I am.” On its face, this pithy saying is a philosophical revolution, for it is a declaration of the center of reality as man’s thoughtful being. He developed a philosophy of human existence around the intellectual awareness of man. Descartes is one of the most colorful men of any age; his entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica is well worth reading if you have the time. He was a man with his fingers in a lot of pies. Among other things, Descartes believed in a mechanical approach to man; if the proper parts of the human machine could be replaced or healed, Descartes and his followers believed—hypothetically at least—that man might live indefinitely. Descartes expected to live till 100, at least. He made it as far as age 53. Ironically, his patron demanded he write a sonnet on the occasion of the Treaty of Westphalia, and the overwork caused him to acquire a bronchial infection which killed him.
Neither Descartes nor Bacon were atheists. Both believed in God, but they eschewed the complicated metaphysical belief system that accompanied Roman Catholicism and other Christian churches. By the time of the American Revolution in 1776, most of the intellectuals who formulated the founding documents of the United States were “Deists;” Webster defines Deism as: a movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century, denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe. In short, “The Enlightenment,” as this period of history is called, created a split between the intellectual credibility of man and religious ideals which, to the scientist, could not be empirically proven.
A good example of this separation can be found in Charlottesville, Virginia, the site of Thomas Jefferson’s famous estate at Monticello. Jefferson is a splendid example of the “enlightened mind.” His political thought on the freedom of man to manage his destiny in a collective form of government is the backbone of American government. He did not believe that kings or churchmen had the natural right to restrict the will of the people. Curiously, Jefferson did not see a contradiction here in his own conduct, as he owned slaves and in fact fathered children by at least one of them.
It was Jefferson’s intention to bequeath land and his library toward the establishment of a state university at Charlottesville, now the University of Virginia. Curiously, Virginia already had a university in its state, William and Mary. But Jefferson did not trust the school, in part because it required its students to study a catechism of basic Protestant beliefs. He endowed the University of Virginia on the condition that it would never open a department or school of theology. He championed his school as an international model of free thought, and later in life he requested that history books record the establishment of this school as his chief accomplishment, ahead of his presidency of the United States and his purchase of the Louisiana Territory!
It is good to bear this history in mind as we endure what has come to be called “the culture wars,” though in truth one could call this same national stress a “morality war.” For much of what divides America is the ultimate source of moral authority. Many believe that morals are revealed directly from God through the medium of direct revelation, scripture or another inspired text, or the churches and its ministers. Others draw moral conclusions from experience, public debate, science, or personal confidence in what one knows. A lifetime of experience suggests to me that Catholics walk a fine line here.
In the next morality post, Kaminouchi describes what many Christian moralists are doing in the twenty-first century to reframe moral theology—returning to the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose thirteenth century synthesis of reality and grace remains one of the greatest theological achievements of all time.
Part 2--"An Introduction to Christian Ethics: A New Testament Perspective" by Alberto de Migno Kaminouchi
It has been about a month since the last moral theology entry, specifically a review of An Introduction to Christian Ethics: A New Testament Perspective  by Alberto de Migno Kaminouchi. In my last post in April on the Morality Stream, I laid out the shortcomings of moral pastoral practice in the Church, dating back to the legal structuring of morals for confessional practice after the Reformation. I cited Kaminouchi’s observation that Vatican II’s document on priestly formation, Optatam Totius , in paragraph 16, calls for a restructuring of moral theology centered on the Biblical example and teaching of Jesus.
Some years ago, the expression “What Would Jesus Do?” or WWJD became a popular meme. Given that we have four Gospels and a trove of other books in the New Testament, it seemed logical to assume that the answers to most moral dilemmas can be found rather easily in the New Testament, and the need for structured moral instruction in the Catholic Church or any other Christian community was superfluous except as a resource to read and reflect upon the life of Jesus. But this is not as easy as it sounds. In Ecclesiology at the Beginning of the Third Millennium [2020, see the Café’s Liturgy Stream], in a treatment of the Sacrament of Baptism and our identity in the priesthood of Christ, the authors raised two hypothetical questions. If you asked an average Catholic on the street what happens when a person is baptized, not one in one hundred would answer that in Baptism we become personally shaped into the witness and being of Jesus, which is the precise biblical answer provided by St. Paul. Which brings us around to the second question, i.e., do we know enough about this Jesus of Nazareth from our own reading and reflection to discern his intentions in all the moral decisions we must make during a lifetime?
Knowledge of the sacred scriptures has never been a strong suit of popular Catholic identity, which is the more remarkable when one considers that every document of Vatican II called for an intensified renewal of the Church through a renewal of biblical study. Because the habitual parochial life of Catholics is not used to Bible reading as a staple of daily life, we tend to turn to other staples to solve our problems. In moral theology, for example, we depend heavily upon tradition, natural law philosophy, and ethics probably more than we should.
There is plenty of blame to go around for our chronic deficiencies regarding the sacred scripture. Some of this problem dates to the complicated times of the Reformation when Protestant emphasis upon the Scripture alone [sola scriptura] threatened the importance of sacraments as understood within Catholicism and the authority of bishops to interpret the Bible into rules of moral life. It was only during the reign of Pope Pius XII [r. 1939-1958] that Catholic biblical scholarship was encouraged, and the average Catholic was commended to read the bible, but this counsel never percolated down to the parochial level. In my youth we were still cautioned against reading the Bible because “we might misunderstand it.” In truth, there is a great deal of Scripture that still lends itself to misunderstanding without the appropriate guidance and commentary. The treatment of the “Jews” in the Gospels of Matthew and John called for special clarification by the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission in the 1960’s, to use one example.
The Swiss Theologian Hans Kung [1928-2021] wrote that of all the world’s religions, Christianity is the only one whose moral mandate is to become like God. All other religions rest upon a code or contract within the confines of human reason and experience. But it is Jesus alone who commands us to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matthew 5:48] Jesus alone commands us to sell everything and come follow him. [Matthew 19:21] Jesus commands Peter to forgive his brother “seventy times seven,” an idiom for an infinite extension of forgiveness. St. Paul’s teaching on Baptism, then, makes much more sense: we are configured by the sacramental pouring of water into a union with God brought to fulfillment in imitation of Jesus Christ. As Kaminouchi writes [p.27]: “…the focus of attention of moral theology has to be centered on the person who responds to this revelation with his or her entire life.”
In the second chapter of An Introduction to Christian Ethics Kaminouchi raises the complicated question of our knowledge of Jesus from the Scripture, a complicated balance of seeking the “Jesus of history” as well as the “Christ of faith.” [This balance was one of the four questions I was asked to explain in my final board examination for ordination in 1974.] The author takes us back to the late 1700’s and the work of Hermann Reimarus, an Enlightenment thinker who postulated that the four Gospels were not pure history but reflected the philosophies of the writers. Reimarus began what is called “the quest for the historical Jesus” that continues to the present day. This quest has produced several personality sketches of Jesus—the “social Gospel” school that continued till World War I was followed by a “radical faith” school which held that encounter with Jesus was a matter purely of faith, i.e., that nothing of Jesus’ human existence could be known with certainty.
Today we live in a more balanced atmosphere regarding our interaction with the Gospels. To no one’s surprise, the Gospels are accepted today as faith documents, expressive of the mystery God wishes to share with us. However, this revelation occurs in real history, as God became a man who lived in time, space, and culture. To penetrate the mystery, one must know the person and the time from which he speaks. Jesus stands in real history to reveal a truth beyond history.
Consequently, the study of moral theology cannot progress without the study of the Scripture. Here we address the need for a Church in matters of morality, for none of us is truly equipped to take the Bible into our hands and state definitively, “this is exactly what Jesus would have done in this specific circumstance.” There is a collective wisdom in the Church community guided by the Holy Spirit such that none of us need start from scratch in our reflection upon the Gospels. What all responsible commentaries on the New Testament agree upon is that the preaching of Jesus flowed from his understanding of himself as ushering in the reign of God or the final age of God’s love and revelation. How the kingdom of God gives birth to our moral identities is the focus of the next post on this stream, the third on An Introduction to Christian Ethics.
"An Introduction to Christian Ethics: A New Testament Perspective" by Alberto de Migno Kaminouchi
There was an old saying that more ecclesiastical teaching careers came crashing to an end on the rocks of morality than any other theological discipline in the Church. As a psychotherapist in private practice with a master’s in theology and college teaching experience, I worked weekends for my home diocese teaching theological disciplines to catechists and schoolteachers over many years for their certifications. I could not help but notice that I was getting a lot of assignments to teach morality and human sexuality. Perhaps it was the fact that I did not depend upon my diocese for my full-time employment, unlike my fellow teaching colleagues, which gave me a certain bulletproof status in teaching the most contentious of Church disciplines. For we live currently in a time of “old school versus new school” understanding of Catholic morality.
I approached the challenge of teaching morality and sexuality in a twofold way. I was careful to teach the literal instructions of Catholic texts, but I also provided pastoral background on how some of the more controversial teachings, such as those dealing with divorce or artificial birth control, were handled in the confessional or in confidential priestly counseling, known as “the internal forum,” of pastoral moral practice. In fact, my own seminary training included a course on the internal forum dynamic of confession, i.e., how to assist those whose consciences led them to other moral decisions at variance with official public Church teaching.
Several students over the years accused me of teaching heresy and in some cases became highly disruptive in the classroom at the idea that there might be “exceptions” in the face of what they believed to be infallible Church teaching. These instances, fortunately, were not common. What I did come to see were several distinct attitudes among Catholic adults in approaching Catholic moral teaching.  Catholic moral teachings were absolute. Students could nor conceptualize exceptions without bringing down the whole house of cards.  Catholic moral teachings obliged to varying degrees. Although artificial contraception, such as the pill, is explicitly forbidden by the Church, no student minister of mine seemed unduly concerned about the preponderance of two and three children families at the communion rail every Sunday.  Celibate, fallible males do not possess unquestioned authority to dictate matters of personal choice to lay Catholics. Few would say this out loud, but I read it frequently in course evaluations, and recently much more so in Catholic blog sites and Facebook streams.
What is painfully obvious to me is the perception of morality as a matter of the institution and the individual. One is hard pressed to extract from any discussion of Catholic morality a relationship to the Bible, or more specifically, to the following of and discipleship of Jesus Christ. Nor is there any widespread sense among Catholics of why the Church has felt obligated to teach as it does. Consequently, the need for an overhaul in the catechetics and pastoral life of the Church is desperately overdue, and since the Catechist Café started posting in late 2014, I have been searching for an introductory moral theology text I might use in my own work and review and recommend to those who follow this blog, one that explains the present day conflicts in moral methodology.
I am enthused to say that I have come across a splendid introductory book on understanding the meaning of a moral life. A few weeks ago, I posted the 2021 Spring Catalogue of Liturgical Press, and I noted the inclusion of An Introduction to Christian Ethics: A New Testament Perspective [2015, 2020] by Alberto de Mingo Kaminouchi. The term “introduction” is appropriate. The author provides an overview of how to conceptualize faith and right behavior; he uses the term “Christian” [instead of Catholic] because of his belief that all morality flows from a union with Christ as we meet him in the Bible, and in this respect Christian ethics or morality is an ecumenical venture we share with all the baptized.
Typically, Catholic morality was [and for many, still is] conceived as a free-standing legal system, akin to a superficial understanding of the Law of the Hebrew Scripture, a point-by-point directive for all peoples always to observe at the command of God, to avoid hell and achieve heaven. Western Catholicism is unique in that it believes itself to be the official arbiter and interpreter of the Bible in its moral legislation, inspired to properly articulate moral behaviors for new circumstances not envisioned in Biblical times. Consider sexuality. The exhortation in the Book of Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply” has been conjoined to Genesis 38:9, [“But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So, whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother”] to formulate Catholic teaching against a multitude of sins, including masturbation, in vitro fertilization, and artificial birth control.
Since the mid-twentieth century Catholic theologians have come to question the propositional approach to morality, known as casuistry. Kaminouchi explains in his introduction that casuistic morality does not date back to New Testament times but was born on July 15, 1563. On that day, the Council of Trent mandated the creation of seminaries and a new science of morality to train future confessors in making proper judgments of guilt in the confessional. The priest, as judge, needed case law to assess the moral condition of the penitent’s soul. Case law was compiled into manuals, hence the term “Manualist Era” which has endured in some circles into our lifetimes. Consider the life and work of Father John Ford of Boston College. He is widely believed to be the manual moralist who convinced Pope Paul VI not to change the ban on artificial birth control in the pope’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae on the ground that changing one moral law in the system would bring the whole system crashing down. Such is the congenital weakness of systems. Ford retired from his teaching post in the following year, 1969, as BC students stopped registering for his courses. [See “John Cuthbert Ford, SJ: Moral Theologian at the End of the Manualist Era” who died in 1989].
If the desired product of moral theology was correct judgment on the state of the soul in terms of guilt, appropriate sorrow, and absolution, the system was sufficient, if not engaging. However, over the past two centuries theological scholars in other Church disciplines, notably Scripture, discerned from their studies of the New Testament a different dynamic of salvation and redemption, drawn from the example of Jesus and his early followers. The beginning of moral law, they found, was not codes and propositions but a radical change in the human being who, having encountered Jesus personally or in the preaching of his followers, “became a new person” in baptism and sealing by the Holy Spirit.
In the 1950’s the German moralist Father Bernard Haring brought the insights of the Scripture into the realm of moral theology in his epic The Law of Christ. [See my review of Haring’s 1998 autobiography, Free and Faithful: My Life in the Church, which describes how Haring’s World War II experiences led him to reexamine the role of moral theology in the Church.] Kaminouchi quotes Haring: “Such a moral theology [the manualist tradition] no longer promotes the patterns of discipleship, of that righteousness that comes from God’s justifying action and in loving response to his call to become ever more the image and likeness of his own mercy. All this was left out, or at least left to dogmatic or spiritual theology.” [p. 7]
During the reform council Vatican II [1962-1965] the bishops of the Church approved a decree on the training of seminarians for the priesthood, Optatam Totius, October 28, 1965. In paragraph 16 the document addresses a reform of moral theology: “Special care must be given to the perfecting of moral theology. Its scientific exposition, nourished more on the teaching of the Bible, should shed light on the loftiness of the calling of the faithful in Christ and the obligation that is theirs of bearing fruit in charity for the life of the world.” However, this reform has never been fully implemented, the result being that where the moral life of the Catholic is concerned, “sin and law [remain] the center of interest.” [p. 9] Of particular concern is the present tendency of many newly ordained priests to prosecute sinful acts in the confessional at the expense of emphasis upon Biblical renewal and the complexities of the human situation.
Kaminouchi, in his introductory chapter [pp. 8-9], lists six reasons why the manualist approach to the teaching and pastoral practice of morality is inadequate for the Church. First, it cultivates minimalism. “An ethics centered on sin does not teach people to do good, but to avoid evil and occasions of sin.” It is a far cry of the New Testament ethics of Jesus, whose beatitudes are open ended challenges to holiness. Second, “If the criterion of moral goodness lies in keeping the law, I can consider myself ‘good.’” This is the pharisaic complacency that Jesus decried during his ministry. Third, “Following the rules blindly creates personalities reluctant to think for ourselves.” Not only does the human conscience atrophy over time, but just as in civil law, circumstances inevitably arise for which no existing law has yet taken account.
Fourth, given that no human can meet the requirements of moral law perfectly, there is a permanent state of guilt which can lead to discouragement and even scrupulosity, on the one hand, or cynicism and loss of faith on the other. Fifth is an excessive individualism. “I have to worry first of all about saving my own soul. What others do is their problem.” Such an attitude is contrary to the unity of the Body of Christ. The moral life is a shared life in charity. And finally, sixth, “The preconciliar treatises on moral theology hardly mentioned God at all.” Kaminouchi calls this reality “the idolatry of the norm.” The goal of a healthy morality is precisely communion with God. Ideally, we meet the divine in the confessional as we do at the Communion banquet.
In our next post on An Introduction to Christian Ethics, we will look at the source of Christian morality, the life of Jesus as we know it from Scripture and his witnesses.
For much of my adult life the term “cafeteria Catholic” has been invoked as something of a slur against those who allegedly “pick and choose” what Catholic teachings they will observe to suit their tastes. I believe the term is a straw man which overlooks several critical points:  No one is without sin, and we all select choices compatible to our own lights, contrary to Church and Gospel. In other words, all of us without exception live our moral lives like cruisers at the ship’s smorgasbord; show me an instance of someone who does not.  Moral purists overlook the considerable body of Church history and tradition—particularly from the medieval era—that moral choice making is a complex and, in many ways, still poorly understood process. See this essay from Stanford University on new interest in medieval mental operations.  The Church has always provided a forum for discernment of individual moral decision making, as in the 1970’s on the matter of birth control, in the confessional. It was only in the 1930’s that confessors were instructed to interrogate married persons on matters of contraception.  Even under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church has had to consistently review its moral directives in the light of deeper discernment, as with Pope Francis’ revision of Catechism Code 2267 on the inadmissibility of capital punishment.
With all of this in mind, I do not envy the job of catechists who are attempting to convey the teachings of the Church to young people and adults, nor any Catholic who is attempting to make moral decisions or engage in meaningful conversations with family and friends who are trying to decipher the Catholic moral way. Catholic morality certainly holds absolutes, but its greatest moral teaching is the love of God and neighbor. Unfortunately, we have something of a new phenomenon to behold, a collection of bishops in the United States who claim, for all practical purposes, to be more Catholic than the pope and to hold their charges to a higher standard of conduct than the official Vatican guides prudently advise.
The specific issue in question is the Covid vaccine and its relation to biological strains of aborted fetuses from the 1970’s and 1980’s employed in the development. Although my graduate specialty in the early 1970’s was moral theology, there have been so many scientific advances in the past half century that I am in the same position as most of my Catholic fellows today: dependent upon the information of honest, peer reviewed science and the Church’s moral guidance as processed by the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
During the reign of Pope Benedict XVI, on September 8, 2008, the above cited Congregation issued a teaching entitled Dignitatis Personae, “The Instruction on Certain Bioethical Questions,” an ethical directive covering a wide range of new medical research and practices, including the development of new vaccines. The Congregation took note of the practice of using strains from fetal tissue to develop new treatments and, not surprisingly, condemned the practice of harming or aborting an unborn child for the purpose of extracting tissue or other organs for research purposes. But then, in para 35, the Congregation writes this: “Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such “biological material”. Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available. Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision.”
There are two critical “take-aways” from this 2008 directive. First, the Congregation states that moral responsibility lies with those who made the original decision years ago to use aborted fetus cells for medical research; the guilt does not extend to those “who have no voice in such a decision,” i.e., those of us decades later who need the vaccine to protect not just ourselves but the most vulnerable members of society, the elderly, the ill, and the young. In the technical terms of moral theology, the question is direct versus remote participation or causality. Certainly, we can and should study the issue and “make known [our] disagreements and ask that [our] healthcare system make other types of vaccines available,” as Dignitatis Personae exhorts. Unfortunately, the urgency of a pandemic does not give us this luxury in the cases of the three vaccines developed to combat Covid-19.
The second “take away” is the long tradition of Catholic practice in matters of moral decision making of recognizing that in certain circumstances there is no perfect choice. Put simply, we are sometimes faced with choosing the lesser of two evils from the vantage point of Catholic moral teachings. A textbook case is a pregnant mother suffering from an invasive cancer in the reproductive system. Surgical removal of the cancer may necessitate removal of the fetus. The moral choices open to the mother are the unfortunate termination of her pregnancy, on the one hand, or permitting the cancer to metastasize further and eventually take her life. In such moral dilemmas, the choice is between two morally challenged outcomes. For centuries, dating to medieval theology, the virtue of prudence has been invoked to determine which option is the wiser in view of available data.
On December 14, 2020, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral directive calling upon Catholics to be vaccinated against Covid-19, stating that “being vaccinated safely against COVID-19 should be considered an act of love of our neighbor and part of our moral responsibility for the common good." At that time, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were being distributed for use in the United States. The Astra-Zeneca vaccine was also ready for use in England, and there was some question that this vaccine was more “morally compromised” because of greater dependence upon strains of fetal cells in its testing. In a directive that can be easily applied to the newer Johnson & Johnson vaccine as well, the bishops wrote: "It may turn out, however, that one does not really have a choice of vaccine, at least, not without a lengthy delay in immunization that may have serious consequences for one's health and the health of others. In such a case ... it would be permissible to accept the AstraZeneca vaccine."
On January 11, 2021 Pope Francis, who himself was vaccinated, spoke of the process as a “moral obligation” and authorized immunization of all employees of the Vatican. One would have supposed that by this point it would be clear that a Catholic could be [and probably should be] vaccinated with a clear conscience. But on March 2 the USCCB felt compelled to issue a new clarification: “…if one can choose among equally safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should be chosen. Therefore, if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna's vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson's.”
Rather remarkably, also on March 2, the Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota, issued this statement: “The recently approved (FDA 2-27-2021) vaccine produced by Janssen/Johnson & Johnson used abortion-derived cell lines in the design, development, production and lab testing. This Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine is morally compromised and therefore unacceptable for any Catholic physician or health care worker to dispense and for any Catholic to receive due to its direct connection to the intrinsically evil act of abortion. No one should use or receive this vaccine but there is no justification for any Catholic to do so. Two morally acceptable vaccines are available and may be used. As always, no one is bound to receive this vaccine, but it remains an individual and informed decision.” The St. Louis and New Orleans archdioceses have counseled Catholics to avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
If you have ever wondered about that saying, “more Catholic than the pope,” you have a good example here. Those of us who love the Church and minister in its name have a right to be troubled when maverick bishops issue directives which deviate from universal Church guidance, not to mention the Church’s tradition of thoughtful prudence. Certainly, one factor here has been the U.S. bishops’ longstanding policy of making abortion the preeminent moral concern in its public policy statements, including election guidance. Another is a palpable discomfort of a good number of American bishops with Pope Francis himself, whose moral vision of social justice is considerably broader than that of traditionalists in the United States. For whatever reasons, these bishops feel empowered to exercise more restrictive rulings than the Vatican itself.
Jesus expressed himself clearly enough about the challenges of living a moral life; it is hard enough without creating more obstacles: “They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.” This being the first anniversary of the pandemic in the United States, it is worth pausing to reflect upon the many who have died, suffered, lost their livelihoods, their schooling, their family bonds, and even their access to the Eucharist. The discovery of vaccines in a record short time which promise alleviation of such suffering ought to be seen as a gift from God. I am saddened that some churchmen cannot see this medical intervention in that light. If any vaccine facilitates a single person’s reunion to reception of the Eucharist, a prudent judgment will render it wise.
While there has been much discussion about Q-Anon and its impact on American life and politics, I have seen little—nothing, actually—directed toward a pastoral or catechetical approach toward a conscious embrace of Q and other radical conspiracies. Like many of you, I have family and friends who embraced the Q-anon conspiracy to varying degrees and who have made this known on social media. None has ever approached me personally or on-line to recruit me or to discuss their experiences one-on-one, nor have I engaged in any on-line comments or discussions with them, despite my strong concern about the subject. Social scientists—some of whom have been engaged in on-line chats with Q-anon adherents for months—observe that the members tend to create “new families,” very frequently online, instant camaraderie with individuals who share the same concerns and understand the range of emotions that drove them to identify with Q-Anon in its various forms in the first place.
I can say with certainty that Catholics have embraced the Q-Anon conspiracy to varying degrees, at least in some cases in the mistaken hope that the Pro-Life cause would be strengthened. Q-Anon emerged in social media around 2017 and appears to be a fear of a “deep state,” i.e., a perceived power force that would eradicate Christian identity and patriotic rights and values. Q’s outline of the specifics of the deep state conspiracy carries a certain shock value to anyone hearing them the first time—elements of pedophilia, child trafficking, cannibalism—and has become wedded to the Presidency of Donald Trump and the narrative of the 2020 stolen election, which is probably the reason for the Pro-Life attraction to an otherwise bizarre worldview. We would make better use of our time examining the underlying fears that would attract otherwise common-sense folks to a conglomeration of extreme beliefs.
It may be of some comfort to realize that radical interpretations of the present and future are nothing new. Waves of “anxious heightened consciousness” appear from time to time. Such highly potent emotional waves date to Biblical times, under the term Apocalypticism. The Books of Daniel and Revelation are two outstanding examples of extreme futuristic projections of order and deliverance from the evils of the world. Both books were written during persecution, Daniel during the Syrian desecration of the Jerusalem temple around 150 B.C., and Revelation during a local Roman persecution of Christians during the first century after Christ. Apocalyptic movements developed throughout history, after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., at the fall of Rome in the fifth century [which inspired St. Augustine’s classic, The City of God], during the Bubonic Plague or Black Death in the fourteenth century, the fall of the sacred city of Constantinople in 1453 at the hands of the Turks, and during the “Wars of Religion” from 1524 till 1648. There have been countless smaller waves in the fine print of history.
In every one of these crises, witnesses and victims were forced to reconfigure the way they viewed the world, intellectually and psychologically speaking. This “refiguring” usually had positive and negative outcomes. The shock of the fall of Jerusalem intensified Christianity to embrace its Gentile mission to the entire earth. On the other hand, Christians interpreted the Jerusalem destruction as God’s final judgment of the Jews for failure to recognize Jesus as Savior, a mindset which justified persecution of Jews till our present day. Marjorie Taylor Green, the Q-Anon congresswoman from Georgia, recently claimed that the California wildfires were started by lasers from space under the direction of the Jewish House of Rothschild, the centuries-old banking establishment named after the extraordinarily successful family of Jewish financiers. Antisemitism is usually a significant component of Christian extremism.
Q-Anon adherents, for their part, look at the polar opposite of their world view as “woke.” A 2018 editorial from the Harvard Crimson describes the meaning of “woke” quite well: “The word "woke" implies that to support the liberal viewpoint is to be socially aware. Woke people are heavily informed and actively involved with liberal social issues. If you’re leading a Black Lives Matter protest, you’re probably woke. If you’re calling your congressperson to advocate for Planned Parenthood, you’re probably woke…. This biased nomenclature is rooted in a belief held by some on the left that people are only conservative because they are uneducated. If only people were smarter, more informed, more woke, then surely they would see the Democratic light and switch sides.”
While the details of the Q-Anon conspiracy are dangerous and groundless, it is important to look past the bizarre headlines to the needs of those who embrace the Q community, where their concerns are worthy of consideration and where there is need for fraternal correction for all of us. One can hopefully sense the fear, resentment, and frustration of basically decent people who for many years have been told in a variety of ways that their ideals and way of life are parochial and dumb. The dynamics of the Catholic Church in the United States are as good an example as any. With the advent of the reform council Vatican II [1962-1965] many of us who were privileged to study theology in seminaries and Catholic universities after the Council went into parishes “woke,” so to speak, with the attitude that everything new was good, and the old customs of Catholic devotion and worship were, ipso facto, bad. I confess that many of my pastoral stances were elitist, self-assured, and authoritarian. It is worth noting, too, that “Catholic woke” is vulnerable to the charge of conflating Pro Life with “anti-women.”
My own mellowing over age came with a greater appreciation of the liberal arts tradition of Catholic education, a wisdom I missed in my first flyover in my 20’s. As this past week has marked “Catholic Schools Week,” consider that Catholic Education at every level, and has—where it has met its mandate--enriched its students by immersing them in liberal arts education. Thanks to the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas and his confreres in the 200 universities of Medieval Europe, Catholic education embodies a vision in which full creation is united in the glory of God and the service of mankind. All the arts and sciences, if carried to their frontiers at any point in history, take us to the infinity of God, whether that be the complexity of viruses in the laboratory, the endless lessons of history, or the mystery of human behavior in Shakespeare on the stage. The term “renaissance man” may be dated and sexist, but its truth is as contemporary as ever. The broadest view of worldly wisdom produces a prudence and caution that guided the work of Aquinas and the body of Catholic scholar-saints.
Aquinas understood, too, the moral imperative of learning. We cannot spin opinions out of the air and proclaim them true without grounding, nor can we create an internal universe out of “alternative facts.” The Eighth Commandment holds us to the obligation of bearing true witness, by such standards as Church Tradition, history, due process, and peer review. Due process is appeal to legitimate authority; the riot at the Capital on January 6 was caused, among other reasons, by a failure of some to accept the judgment of duly authorized state officials and courts of law throughout the country on the matter of the 2020 presidential election. Augustine, in his City of God, was a staunch defender of legitimate civil order. By contrast, it is peer review that assures us of the safety of the various Covid-19 vaccines now in use; a claim for any new drug must stand up to strenuous testing by other independent research centers and government agencies entrusted with this responsibility. [Peer review accounts for the delays in the release of newer vaccines, to test for safety before public release, delays which can be frustrating but necessary.]
Even the best educated and best intentioned among us fall prey to hubris, the pride of worshipping the supposed infallibility of our own intellects, an important symptom that our adult learning and reading is self-centered, not God-centered. Aquinas himself once referred to his lifelong body of work as “straw.” The principles of Catholic education across all disciplines puts a person in a classroom, a library, or a reading den for the purpose of being awed. A useful devotional and instructional guide for any adult Catholic is Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina  by the Cistercian monk Michael Casey. Casey speaks of reading with humility. I reviewed this book on Amazon in 2011 when I was “unwoking” and I made this observation:
Casey instructs his readers to embrace Lectio Divina [spiritual reading] with humility. I tend to read critically or pragmatically [as in, can I use this material in a class?] The author advises us to approach the text purely for its own sake, its access to the wisdom of God. We read for grace and guidance, for introduction to a world of the Holy Spirit that to some measure will be foreign to all of us. Casey is cognizant of the human tendency to rebel against new ideas as well as to avoid any trace of the ancient as "irrelevant," that favorite curse word of 1960's Catholicism. He calls to mind that the theology of both Hebrew and Christian Scripture is in fact backward looking, toward the saving deeds of God. A Christian who is not historically minded does not know himself.
Casey goes on to discuss the skill of selecting appropriate works for study. I see a lot in the Q social postings about “doing the homework” and “reading for yourself.” I commend the energy but with one critical caveat: One of the most important fruits of liberal arts education is discernment in self-study, i.e., making sound judgments on the selection of persons, texts, resources, and public discourse one chooses to engage. Reading is not the same as reading judiciously. The monks, of course, would be guided by their abbot and the senior members, and for those of us with liberal arts backgrounds this is one of the skills imparted in research and composition. The rapid transmission of information on social media suggests to me that the skill in separating sources like wheat from weeds is a discernment that desperately needs reinforcement. I can only speak to the arena of institutional religious life, which suffers division and misinformation in the same way that civil society does. I do wish that parishes provided more input on religious reading in Catholic adult education; for example, I always integrated instruction on publishing houses and respected mainstream authors [peer reviewed] in my courses for catechists and church personnel, and I began the Catechist Café some years ago as a resource for adult Catholic education along these lines.
I have been asked by friends if there is some way to meaningfully connect [or more often, reconnect] with family and intimates enveloped in Q-like conspiracy fears and advocacy. I must admit I am at a loss myself, and I do my share of “tiptoeing” with various members of my family. It can be grating and wearisome. There are cultlike characteristics to some Q-Anon adherents, and the certitude and anger are hard to endure at times from the outside; there are none more fervent than the recent convert. It is probably not wise to respond in kind. Jesus prayed that we would all be One. I will risk the charge of naivete with my belief that pain and fear are the fuel for extremist beliefs and behavior and make allowances for that. Remember that all conspiracy theories eventually break the hearts of their sincere adherents. For anyone in pain and disillusionment, the porchlight should always be lit for the homecoming of those who have been through a great deal.
Getting Ahead of Ourselves
With my counseling offices closed due to Covid-19, I have had a little more time to read and reflect upon the way we “do catechetics” and “form faith.” Some of my reading has been published research, some theological texts, journal articles, and several blogsites devoted to the trials and tribulations of religious educators and, in one case, deacons or wanna-be deacons. I will continue researching, of course—it takes about three days of focused study to produce one post—but this year has shifted my outlook on the very nature of evangelizing and precisely what we think we are doing in our parishes and in the universal Church under the umbrella of “catechetics.”
The earliest biblical texts of the Christian experience speak of our Church as an ecstatic little group which had experienced Jesus as raised from the dead and promising to lead them into eternal glory when He returned in glory. “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” [I Corinthians 15:55] or in Peter’s Pentecostal sermon in Acts 2. For the early church and its converts—Jew and Gentile alike—the radical promise of eternal glory was psychological as much as religious. Baptism meant a destiny that no one deemed possible.
The behavioral and psychological focus of an early Christian was rescue, an experience that an intervention by God in a pouring of cleansing water and invisible grace had rescued one from at best meaninglessness and at worst an eternity of pain or nothingness. Forgiveness, salvation, redemption---think of learning that you are cancer free after years of grueling treatment. Apostolic baptism had that kind of impact upon converts that produced a new way of life and a new take on the world in which they lived.
I read a good number of blogs from religious education personnel in the field who lament that their students—and the students’ parents—“know nothing” when it comes time for pastors to assess competency for sacraments of passage, such as Confirmation. The word to underline is “know,” for the Catechism and pastoral approaches of this era seem to go overboard in defining, at the cost of experiencing. It is more accurate to say that most students—nor their parents--have ever experienced the terms of catechetical shorthand, sin, and grace. The terms become for students just another hoop of data to master before life’s next adventures. Ironically, children, adolescents, and young adults actually do have significant episodes of evil and hope in their lives, but the very limited skills and training of [mostly volunteer] religious educators has limited their catechetical scope of work to the jargon of religion, not the lived experience of it.
In my mental health practice, I have had many discussions with parents, and on occasion their offspring, over family issues of religion. One parent put it quite well: “I wish my teenaged son loved the Mass as much as I do.” I pointed out that there was at least 25 years age difference between mother and son, and I observed that they were looking at life from different points in their human development. The parent responded as I think most church ministers would: “But the Mass is the Mass, it is the same for everyone.” True enough if one is speaking from the objectivity of Scripture and Tradition. Where catechetics habitually drops the ball, though, is the mistake that everyone experiences Eucharist—or any sacrament--in the same way, regardless of age and circumstance. Or, for that matter, that everyone has a common experience of the human tragedy of sin or the euphoria of being saved.
When I was making my bones in the “family business” fifty years ago, so to speak, it was commonly held in my seminary that the conservative moralists were too pessimistic and too preoccupied with sin and hell. The progressive or post-Vatican II moralists opted for a more optimistic theory of baptism and salvation, explaining baptism as birth into the family God. I have lived more comfortably with the progressive school throughout my years as a pastor, teacher, and even therapist. But in very recent years I have come to a place where I can’t argue with the numbers—the numbers of young people who are leaving the Church, and the number-crunching of researchers who are seeking to explore the reasons why these young people leave.
Some examples: In January 2018 St. Mary’s Press and the Center of Applied Research in the Apostolate [CARA] released the results of their benchmark study on the subject, “Going, Going, Gone! The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, and just this week “The State of Religion and Young People 2020: Relational Authority” from Springtide Research Institute was released and will be Primed to my front door in 48 hours. It is amazing to me that the research of the past decade never makes an appearance in Facebook sites such as “Catholic Directors of Faith Formation” or “Catholic Parish Staff,” two very interesting sites if you want a feeling for grassroots frustrations among church workers in parishes across the country. The pain of parish ministers—and many parents, to be sure—is an absence of a sense of developmental psychology—i.e., what we can reasonably expect from a youth at any particular age in his or her march to adulthood.
I have great respect for those who teach religion in Catholic schools and parishes, and equal respect for the small percentage of Catholic parents who integrate prayer, discussion, and good works into the family routine, educating and leading by example. Institutionally we are hamstringing this population by  insisting upon an almost compulsive adherence to the terminology of catechisms, beginning with the big one, and  trying to mold children and young adults into attitudes and emotions when their natural human development has not yet prepared them. Put another way, we rush to give answers to questions yet unasked, while paying little heed to the developmental dramas of the young. Religious narrative about sin and deliverance makes no sense if there is no developed sense of one’s precariousness, or what it is that you are being rescued from.
I think that our dependence upon catechisms at times serves as a buffer to keep us ministers from having to listen to the actual sufferings of young people. We have no language or training to engage with them and discover what they really fear in their lives. About two weeks ago I purchased on a whim a paperback copy of one of the twentieth century’s best selling but most controversial novels, Peyton Place  by Grace Metalious. The term “Peyton Place” has passed into the English language as a metaphor of the sin that lurks beneath the veneer of every human and, in this case, a proper New Hampshire town. The book was banned for a time for its explicit depictions of sex and cruelty. I remember how adults talked about the book when I was in third grade, and through most of my life I was always of the impression that this work was a tale of adults behaving badly.
That part is certainly true, but what struck me to the core was the incredible sufferings and injustices perpetrated upon children and minors, and now that I think of it, just about every woman in the book. Peyton Place—its individuals, families, businesses, schools, institutions—virtually screams for saving grace, the adults from their elected blindness and self-righteousness and the young from their anger, fear, and confusion as they navigate the minefield of their adults’ demons.
I do not recommend reading the book—there are plenty of other American fiction pieces that explore the same theme--but it is a secular lesson that we can hardly use the term salvation till we know the private hells.