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.