Back in August I posted a photo on the Café social platforms Facebook and Linked In of a peculiar piece of furniture from a venerable Catholic Church along the Danube. I didn’t identify what it was, and I had several readers ask. Here is your answer: it is a confessional, and the bowl extended out front is, if you haven’t guessed, a collection plate. I don’t know if this plate was intended for free will offerings or if there was a set fee for confession—as with indulgences in that time—or higher rates for mortal sins. The architecture of confessionals was intriguing to me. The priest sat in the middle, as today, but in some churches the penitent’s area was richly decorated with life-sized figures which provided a kind of late-medieval and renaissance catechetics of the sacrament. The figure to the right appears to represent a saint reporting to the priest all the sins committed by the penitent, including the ones he is withholding. The figure to the left is an angel imploring…well, I’m not sure what. Perhaps mercy? I guess that is the secret of great art—open to multiple interpretations.
I came across a fascinating observation by Archbishop Charles Chaput, the retired Archbishop of Philadelphia, in a piece for the Catholic News Service regarding his views on the Synod. The former archbishop of Denver pointed out that “the most difficult problems facing the Church today are not matters of ecclesial structure and process. They’re tied intimately to Psalm 8 and the question of who and what a human being really is.” His observation resonated with me on several levels. In the first instance, what is a human being? All of us in seminary seeking to become theological masters and priests had to acquire at least a bachelor’s in philosophy before admission to do graduate theology work. I completed my B.A. in Philosophy at Catholic University in 1971, but the school of philosophy was going through a hard transition at the time, and it is only in recent years that I have come to understand how much that turmoil set me back in my first go-round with theology years ago.
To enter the mysteries of the life of the Church, or for that matter, to engage in the synodal discussions now underway, we as individuals must come to grips with meaning, the ultimate purpose of everything. Now well into my 70’s, I find that many of the religious controversies within the Church do not capture my soul as intrinsically important as they might once have done. For the first time in my adult life, I find myself asking questions about standalone organized religion and whether it is necessary for the person who seeks God in the stillness of intense meditation. While this is not true around the globe, it seems that decline in organized religion in the United States and much of the Western World is pronounced, and in some quarters with “a good riddance.” My life and intellectual history makes it fairly unlikely that I would consciously sever an almost eight decade relationship, but aging has this way of moving one’s fixation from the housekeeping of the Church as well as the countless humanitarian injustices I had once hoped to heal, to a position somewhere in my inner cosmos where I feel the hunger to breathe the air between God’s infinity and my finity, if that is a word. [Microsoft Word says it is not.]
I would wager that my preceding sentence relates somehow to those we call “Nones.” [Americans who identify themselves to researchers as having no religion; the term is also used widely for Catholics who have left the Church.] Paradoxically, “Nones” is probably the biggest misnomer of the day, for the adolescent who disengages from parochial Catholic life at age thirteen [as research has shown is the beginning age of the typical ecclesial divorce] is developing his philosophical instincts in a healthy stage of his development. Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, was put to death for encouraging his countrymen to ask “Why? Why? Why?” He perceived about his society, correctly, in many cases, that not only the wrong answers were being provided, but the wrong questions were being asked.
The instructions for the Synod called for dioceses to reach out to the Nones and the disaffiliated, but the synodal process in the United States was so erratic I doubt any meaningful answers will come from the results compiled by participating dioceses, which would be about half of the U.S. dioceses. [Results were not released in any case.] The twin questions of why so many have left the Church, on the one hand, and why many who have stayed are unhappy on the other, has been left to the bantering of the press, Catholic and secular, which has highlighted issues on sexuality, ordination, and accountability. Very few, if any, have raised a public discussion over how or if the American Church has picked up the torch of the Jewish psychiatrist and death camp survivor Viktor Frankl’s 1946 classic, Man’s Search for Meaning.
I sincerely hope that the Synod is not another housekeeping Church meeting, a “rearranging of the deck chairs on a Titanic that never quite sinks” though Pope Francis has said dozens of times that this is not your father’s synod. I agree with Archbishop Chaput that any aggiornamento or reform of the Church must begin with the most daring of philosophical questions: Why? Why did the infinite God create us and become part of all of us? It was not necessary, after all. Who, exactly, are we? What is the nature of human existence? To which I might add human sexuality. The Catechism of the Catholic Church [para. 2357] admits that, regarding homosexuality, “its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained” but proceeds to label homosexual love as “disordered.” Perhaps the Nones could no longer stay with an institution they perceived as “stuck” with no interest in getting “unstuck.”
This past week I looked at my youthful report cards from Catholic elementary school and six years of the minor seminary, and I showed them to my wife. A while later she observed, “You know, in the seminary you had six periods of Latin per week, and two periods of religion. That’s strange.” I replied that whenever I asked a professor about more religion, he would inevitably say, “You’ve got twelve years of seminary, you’ll get it later.” But here I was, having left home at 14 to live in a strict boarding school seminary precisely because I thought I could pursue a subject for which I had great enthusiasm. Maybe I am a semi-None.
For years I was involved in religious education training of catechists, and I still follow the field through friends and blog posts. Someone forwarded me a piece from the late noted astronomer Carl Sagan that describes Catholic faith formation so well:
“Every now and then, I’m lucky enough to teach a kindergarten or first-grade class. Many of these children are natural-born scientists - although heavy on the wonder side and light on skepticism. They’re curious, intellectually vigorous. Provocative and insightful questions bubble out of them. They exhibit enormous enthusiasm. I’m asked follow-up questions. They’ve never heard of the notion of a ‘dumb question’.
But when I talk to high school seniors, I find something different. They memorize ‘facts.’ By and large, though, the joy of discovery, the life behind those facts, has gone out of them. They’ve lost much of the wonder and gained very little skepticism.
Sagan’s analysis could be extended to account for the Church malaise throughout adult life. Perhaps it is that, as much as anything, that lies at the heart of the Nones Exodus. There was no more air left to breathe. We are like Alexander the Great, who reportedly wept when his army reached the Atlantic Ocean, with no more worlds to explore. In Sagan-ese, we Catholics spend a lifetime studying for the test instead of letting our divinely bestowed imagination prod us along the road to the angels.
WHERE DOES CONFESSION FIT INTO THIS NARRATIVE?
There is one Sacrament that “escaped unscathed” from the Vatican II renewal, and that is the Sacrament of Penance. We can look at the other six sacraments and point to their structure, understanding, and execution as modified [and sometimes reformed] in the post-Conciliar revamping of worship and theological understanding. But Penance/Confession is essentially defined and observed in the same fashion as it was in medieval times. That strange collection plate at the exit of an old confessional might just as easily been designated as “court costs,” for Penance is a sacrament fresh out of Perry Mason’s office.
We can thank or blame the Irish for the ritual of confession we still use today. As early as 600 A.D. the abbots and thinkers on the Isle of Saints and Scholars arrived at the template of Penance familiar to us all. The relationship of God to man was seen as a zero-sum system. As God had created us and sustained us, each of our sins incurred a debt to God. The Sacrament of Penance—which most Christians prior to 600 never received—became a regular occurrence in the lives of the baptized, because God demanded payment of the debt. The priest’s role in this sacrament began—and in many senses remains—as the judge of sincerity and, more concretely, as the legal decision maker for what needed to be repaid to God in some significant action. Our “three Hail Mary” penances are tiny, symbolic relics of a day when a sinner might be told to make a journey to the Holy Land—in 600 A.D.
During Vatican II there was strong sentiment to renew all the sacraments more closely with the Bible. It was 1974, the year I was ordained, that the new directives for Penance were released, Ordo Paenitentiae. The document and its commentaries—including the 1993 Catechism--reveal the struggle between the judicial mind and the mystical-spiritual mind. The juridical mind addressed confession with razor-sharp precision. The Catechism is awash in the listing of sins and their variants. On the other hand, if you have a moment, look at the Vatican II rite for individual confession provided here by the EWTN website. It is my understanding that the ritual enumerated here is supposed to be used in every confession, and a card or resource should be available in the confessional or reconciliation room for the penitent.
[Let me interject here, by the way, that the absolution administered by the priest in the Penitential Rite of the Mass is a valid absolution, juridically speaking, if you are sincerely sorry for your “venial sins.” Mortal sins must be confessed directly to a priest confessor.]
When I first saw the new format for confession, I had significant doubts that it would fly, and as it turned out, it was as successful as the U.S. attempt to switch to the metric system which was happening at the same time. I was a college chaplain in the 1970’s and while few ever frequented the confessionals, many would stop by one of my offices to sit and talk about the direction of their lives. They were good kids—not perfect to be sure; but none of us are. They were alive, conscious of role and responsibility and still sorting that out. It was common to talk over an hour about their moral issues as they put them forth, with an eye toward discernment and growth. They were not slaves to the juridical philosophy of confession—no calculated lists of sins on the newly invented typewriter called a computer--but rather, and pardon my odd comparison, they had something of an approach like St. Teresa of Avila, who sought much of her spiritual direction in the confessional.
It is ironic, when you think of it, that my generation of seminarians and young priests in the early 1970’s here in the United States never made a connection between the disenchantment with the confessional box—even in its reformed rite—and the “democratization of psychotherapy.” In fact, there was a “human services” course taught at my seminary by a gifted Catholic laywoman, Sandra Sutherland Fox, which introduced us to the various ways of meeting pastoral needs then employed by social workers. She introduced me to basic principles of psychotherapy and in particular Dr. Carl Rogers [1902-1987], then the guru of American psychoanalysis. We hopefully have all experienced those priests in confession or “the parlor” with the gift of reading souls, who win us back to trust and communion with God as our Father, in the fullest sense of the term.
It is also interesting that the Vatican, as early as the 1950’s, was getting complaints from priests and bishops around the world who were discontented with the format of confession, most notably the practice of habitual or “pious” confessions, the practice of weekly or biweekly confession where the same list of sins was repeated every time with no notable change of heart. [See Sin in the Sixties  by Maria Morrow.] If I had to guess, many of those priests of the 1950’s may have had much more to offer penitents had the structure [limited time] and the legalistic history of the sacrament been altered. Unfortunately, the Vatican II formula and the times were not opportune to explore the ways that the encounter of Penance might enrich the Church.
I must wonder—given that no hard data has been released of the Synod listening sessions—how many Catholics around the world asked for greater assistance in learning to pray, read the Scripture, and receive spiritual direction. I see more individuals seeking regular soul counsel and holy conversation pertaining to their lives, and not a few who are sacrificing time and money to learn the art of spiritual direction at an accredited Catholic university, to become spiritual directors—those with the balance of a healthy prayer life, a grasp of theology, and the art of the counselor. And, has anyone explored the interlocking of the Sacrament of Penance with the art of spiritual direction? The ritual of Penance and the support of spiritual direction both enjoy the same goals: self-understanding [thank you, Archbishop Chaput] and full loving union with the Father.
Would someone bring this conversation to a discussion table or two?