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.