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.