Book Review: "Sin in the Sixties"--Part 4, "The Day the Confessionals Shut Down"
Maria Morrow saves the best for last in her Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession 1955-1975. The sixth and final chapter, “Thinking Outside the Box: The Decline of Personal Confession,” cuts to the heart of the matter—the demographics and pastoral reasons for the decline of individual confession in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Morrow is a historian of the sacrament—her forte is reporting from available and observable sources—and she does not have a long range plan to revitalize the sacrament of Penance per se, but she does give some valuable clues as to where we might to begin the renewal process.
Morrow cites a 1952 piece from the Catholic convert and activist Dorothy Day on the hard work of making a confession:
When you go to confession on a Saturday night, you go into a warm, dimly lit vastness, with the smell of wax and incense in the air, the smell of burning candles, and if it is a hot summer night there is the sound of a great electric fan, and the noise of the streets coming in to emphasize the stillness. There is another sound too, besides that of the quiet movements of the people from pew to confessional to altar rail; there is the sliding of the shutters of the little window between you and the priest in his “box.”
Some confessionals are large and roomy—plenty of space for the knees, and breathing space in the thick darkness that seems to pulse with your own heart. In some poor churches, many of the ledges are narrow and worn, so your knees almost slip off the kneeling bench, and your feet protrude outside the curtain which shields you from where others were waiting….
Going to confession is hard—hard when you have sins to confess, hard when you haven’t, and you rack your brain for even the beginnings of sins against charity, chastity, sins of detraction, sloth or gluttony. You do not want to make too much of your constant imperfections and venial sins, but you want to drag them out to the light of day as the first step in getting rid of them. The just man falls seven times daily….”
“I have sinned. These are my sins.” That is all you are supposed to tell, not the sins of others, or your own virtues, but only your ugly gray, drab, monotonous sins. [Morrow, pp. 192-193]
Day is describing what Catholic clergy of the time would have called “devotional confessions,” i.e., where no mortal sins have been committed, which were still somewhat common when I was ordained in 1974. The idea of frequent confession was relatively new in Church history. The IV Lateran Council  mandated an annual confession in its Canon 21. Curiously, the practice of confession beyond the annual event required by the IV Lateran became quite popular in the United States by the time of the Civil War. In 1855 Rome exempted American priests from praying their daily breviary or office if they spent five hours or more hearing confessions on a particular day. Confession became a devotional prerequisite for such events as First Friday and Forty Hour Devotions. Children in Catholic schools were routinely taken from class to make confession on the Thursdays before First Fridays.
In the 1960’s, however, confessors and theologians began to worry that routine was the driving force behind regular confession. As a young priest who assisted in the busy downtown confessionals in New England when my college students were off, I can say that this argument had merit, though I would not say this was true in every case, as even today there are Catholics who make regular devotional confessions. But the author is correct in her assessment that both laity and confessors had come to expect a more sacramentally profound experience of penance, particularly given the reforms of the Mass being implemented after Vatican II.
Homiletic and Pastoral Review, the parish priest’s best friend during the era of this book, provided sermons for priests to encourage frequent confessions for the purpose of warding off sinful tendencies. [HPR, which publishes to this day, is somewhat more conservative than my general stance, but I deeply respect its mission to encourage priests to continue their study and academic reading. The publication urges priests to study at least an hour per day and provides a meaty menu of book recommendations and reviews, among other contributions.] But as the 1960’s progressed, and as Catholics themselves became more sophisticated and college educated, there was a sense that the sacramental practice of penance could and should be providing much more.
That “something more” was spiritual direction and deeper advice on the direction of one’s life. Recall that one of the most influential books of the 1960’s was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, the 1946 work by an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist interred in a Jewish extermination camp during World War II. [Amazingly, this work remains a best seller over seven decades later, this morning rated #45 of all Amazon’s book sales which number well over ten million.] The author’s research of the priestly pastoral literature of the 1960’s indicates that there was considerable support among priests for a renewal of the format and approach to confession. Curiously, Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium on the Sacred Liturgy, promulgated on December 4, 1963, devotes all of one sentence to the Sacrament of Penance [para. 72], stating essentially that the rite should be reformed. The reform document, Ordo Paenitentiae, appeared one decade later in Latin, December 2, 1973.
I am not much into conspiracy theories, but I find it mildly amusing that I have not been able to locate an English translation of Ordo Paenitentiae on the internet; I have only succeeded in finding a free Latin version from an independent site. Given that the original is 223 pages long, I am not going to translate it. Moreover, the Vatican seems to have replaced the 1973 document with a 2015 update called Rediscovering the Rite of Penance. This later document acknowledges the existence of Ordo Paenitentiae, but it comments that “at the distance of some decades, however, one notes that the [Ordo Paenitentiae] Rite and formulas have not always been respected. Maybe, this is because some of the celebrative suggestions were judged inopportune or too excessive.”
Ordo Paenitentiae was nothing if not ambitious. It rescripted the sacrament from its contrition/confession/absolution simplicity—in place since Peter Lombard’s day [1096-1160]—into a full Biblical/liturgical rite. It called for more personal interaction between the penitent and confessor, allowing for face-to-face confession and the extension of the celebrant’s hands over the penitent’s head when administering absolution. Perhaps most revolutionary, at least for the post-Tridentine era [1600-present day], was the inclusion of three options for the Sacrament of Penance. Formula One was the individual confession of a penitent to a priest. Formula Two was a congregational Penance service during which individual confessions were heard. Formula Three was a congregational biblical rite during which absolution was extended publicly without individual confession. This third rite was popularly referred to as “General Absolution,” probably the most controversial piece of the reform.
The intention of Ordo Paenitentiae was a recentering of the communal nature of penance, a change from me-and-God to me-my brethren-God, like the principles of the reform of the Mass. But the rite[s] clearly needed reediting. Morrow writes, “When the new Rite of Penance was promulgated in the United States in 1976, it turned what had been a two-minute process, with a simple format for the penitent that was easily taught to children, into a much more complex matter…the new, longer form of this rite was impractical for both priest and penitent.” [pp. 232-233] In 1976 I was hearing most of my confessions from college kids who wandered into my dorm counselor’s room at all hours to sit and hash things out, after which they often requested absolution. I was not about to hand them a 228-page manual. In fact, I have never used the Ordo Paenitentiae ritual myself as a penitent, and still use the “Bless me, father, let’s get down to it” in my 70’s. The monks always chuckle when I say that. Morrow notes that public penance services with individual confessions enjoyed some initial success, but “in practice communal penance services were inconvenient because they required additional time and effort in comparison with individual confession.” [p. 234] As a pastor I scheduled them during Lent and Advent and invited neighboring priests to hear confessions to give my congregation the opportunity and the privacy to confess to someone other than myself. The practice of “penance services” has decreased. My parish has not offered one in at least a decade. “General Absolution” services were quite popular for a time, but under Pope John Paul II the use of this service was limited to extreme cases and virtually forbidden. Catholics are expected to confess their sins personally to a priest.
Unfortunately, by the time of the arrival of Ordo Paenitentiae in the 1970’s the waters of Penance had been muddied considerably by other events in the Church. Penance as a sacrament presented unique challenges, which is one reason why Popes John XXIII and Paul VI did not wish this sacrament [with its moral tangents] discussed on the floor of the Council. The elephant in the room was, specifically, artificial birth control. Morrow writes that “the issue of contraception became even more complicated for confessors to address due to their increasing lack of conviction on the topic.” [p. 212] There was an expectation in the air that Pius XI’s teaching Casti Conubii [December 31, 1930] which forbade artificial birth control—at that time generally barrier methods—would be overturned. It became known that a papal commission had been established to study the question of whether the Church would or could change the teaching. For a fascinating inside history of the commission, see Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission and How Humanae Vitae Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church  The Commission, composed of Cardinals, theologians, and laity, voted 90-30 for a change in the teaching by most reports.
As the 1960’s progressed, it was something of an open secret that many priests opposed the existing prohibition of the pill and other contraceptive methods and were saying so in public forums, such as adult education, and more critically, in the confessional when penitents raised the question. I was “sheltered” for much of the sixties in my mountain cloistered seminary, but when I would visit home, I discovered, for example, that my parents could tell me which of the priests in their parish confessionals were understanding of couples using the pill, and the few who were not, because it was common knowledge in their parish. Younger generations of priests—including myself-- were being taught new approaches to moral theology, pioneered by such scholars as Father Bernard Haring [1913-1998], which embraced a more Biblically oriented approach to morality as opposed to the legalistic model of the moral manuals technically still in use.
Ordo Paenitentiae was still five years in the future when Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae [“on human life”] on July 25, 1968. HV reaffirmed the 1930 teaching of Pius XI on the matter of birth control, which now included the pill, already widely in use in the United States and elsewhere. Historians have pieced together how Pope Paul reached this decision—who advised him, his primary pastoral and doctrinal concerns, his assessment of the papal commission’s three-quarter vote for a change in the teaching, among other factors. What I am more concerned about here is the reception of the teaching in the Church and its impact upon the sacrament of Penance.
I researched the most recent data on the beliefs of Catholics, from a 2016 Pew study. On the matter of birth control, Pew reports that “Even when it comes to Catholics who attend Mass weekly [my emphasis], just 13% say contraception is morally wrong, while 45% say it is morally acceptable and 42% say it is not a moral issue.” These numbers did not surprise me at all; I have long reflected on the irony that every Saturday night I am receiving communion with hundreds of people who, statistically speaking, are probably on the pill and, from the vantage point of the Church, in a state of mortal sin. [Majorities of Catholics also demonstrate sympathy for LGBTQIA rights, from the same study.]
I do not believe that those couples using the pill are going to hell. But what I do believe is that Humanae Vitae probably broke the back of generations of Catholics who would or could no longer accept that the Church was the ultimate arbiter of their moral judgments, specifically in the confessional. Having heard on the CBS Evening New of July 25, 1968 [as I did] that use of the pill was forbidden, Catholic couples would have had to reassess how they would approach the sacrament on Penance in the future. Their options were difficult: if they confessed to the use of artificial contraception, the confessor was bound to ask them if their contrition was sincere, i.e., did they plan to discontinue? [Many priests honored the penitents’ contention that the use of the pill was a matter of conscience and absolved them without complication, but this differed from priest to priest.] If a penitent went to confession and did not confess the use of artificial birth control, there was a mist of intellectual dishonesty over the sacramental experience. A third option: discontinue making confession entirely. It would seem that even an extraordinary reform of the Rite of Penance after Vatican II could not have untangled the deeper problems of morality, conscience, and church authority. One of my few disappointments in Morrow’s book was her reluctance to speculate on how one might address the renewal of the Sacrament of Penance vis-a-vis Humanae Vitae.
If Humanae Vitae was not the major cause of the decline of confession, it was certainly symptomatic of wholesale loss of direction where the Sacrament of Penance is concerned. In her concluding chapter, Morrow scans the horizon for clues which might be of help for the future. One topic of interest is the relationship of Penance to the Eucharist, in which she reiterates the primary theme of her book, the loss of collective penitential consciousness in the church. Her observation that after the Council the faithful were encouraged to receive the Eucharist more and confess devotionally less is witty but worth considering. [p. 238] If the Eucharist is “giving thanks,” then what exactly are we thankful for, if not forgiveness and deliverance from judgment. The loss of confession is the loss of opportunity for self-examination and identity of sin that Penance, even in its routine form, provided for. Morrow has a thinly veiled sense of annoyance for many priests of the post-Council era who seemed to have become bored with confessional duties in general.
This boredom issue spills into the formation of children and their first confession. Those of us of a certain age recall the “age of first confession” debates. This issue has merit on both sides. Canonically speaking, the necessity of a child’s making first confession before first communion is a hard sell, given that the Sacrament of Penance is only necessary when there is grave matter or mortal sin; it is hard to conceive of a six- or seven-year-old in true need of the sacrament. On the other hand, the argument is made that the formation of a young person, even a seven-year-old, is enhanced by learning the devotional routine of regular confession, the names, and types of sins, and introducing the importance of proper preparation for reception of the Eucharist. The author leans toward the first confession/first communion order, and the Vatican has confirmed this preference over the years.
I would take this argument one step further. What we know today about the stresses of even young children—those in poverty, broken homes, abusive or neglected circumstances, bullied, academic underachievers and the like—strongly suggests that the compassionate interest of a non-domestic adult, such as a parish priest, may be much more important that we have appreciated in the past and invites a broader consideration of the format and content of confession. Dioceses spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on programming for children to teach them how to cope with unsafe adults; might we ask if the other pole is a possibility: formation toward growthful interactions with healthy adults, which would include priests and particularly confessors?
If there is to be a wholesale renewal of the Sacrament of Penance, it will pivot around the quality of the interpersonal encounter of grace and concern between the priest and the penitent. Admittedly, communication with the young in a healing capacity is time-consuming and an acquired skill in most cases. Priests in today’s seminaries have precious little time to study all the dimensions of their ministry [though some of today’s young clergy are too proud or narcissistic to admit that] and these deficits indeed breed frustration and the boredom of which the author speaks. Moreover, the decrease in numbers of parochial clergy is itself a contributing factor to the present day drought in quality confession time.
If I may speak from my own vantage point, it is hard for me to approach confessors locally. Now in my 76th year, I spend much meditational time looking backward at “what might have been,” and although I have confessed a good many sins over the years and received absolution, I grieve today over the “what might have been” aspects of my life, including those I have injured by my selfishness, and my deficiencies in building up the Church as one of its ordained leaders. As a former Franciscan I think daily about Francis. A true saint in his own lifetime, as he approached his death, he separated himself from the fraternity and lived in a cave. He would throw himself to the ground and pray repeatedly, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a worm and not a man.” The holier he became, his past life became more grievous to him, as did his appreciation of the infinite Glory of God vis-à-vis his own human existence.
I love my opportunities to confess to the Trappists, which regrettably is too infrequent—the abbey is in South Carolina, six hours from my home . My “regular confessor,” a wise and compassionate 82-year-old monk who manages the retreatants’ experience, has spent his life in the penitential mode of monastic life for many years. His reconciliation ministry is a combination of compassionate listening, wise counsel, and spiritual direction. He recommends spiritual reading which I have found most helpful. He does not absolve me of my pain and regret, but he does help me to see their place in preparing for death while using my still considerable energies to build the Church and imitate Christ despite my age.
It occurs to me, too, that my experience of aging is hardly unique. Every age presents what the late psychoanalyst Erik Erikson [1902-1998] called stages of developmental challenge, the sequential tasks of living. I was fortunate enough to study him in moral theology and psychology, but it is rare to see his work incorporated into pastoral considerations of Penance and moral formation. Of even greater significance is Joseph Martos’ Doors to the Sacred [2014 edition] which introduces the ministry of spiritual direction into the discussion of confession. Writing a decade ago, Martos observes, “Also becoming more widespread is the practice of seeking spiritual direction from lay people who are formally trained for that ministry….Since the process of spiritual direction usually entails revealing one’s sins and shortcomings, and receiving assurance of God’s forgiveness as well as advice from the director, it is not unlike the practice of the medieval monks who acted as spiritual fathers for novices and people near the monastery, in the days before monks were ordained as priests. Thus, one path that reconciliation is taking may retrace a path that it took many centuries ago, with one important difference: today many spiritual directors are women.” [pp. 365-366]
If the Sacrament of Penance is to have a meaning future in the Church, it will need to connect in substantive ways with the broader desire of many Catholics for spiritual direction, i.e., a structured personal response to the Gospel of Jesus which puts the quest for virtue—living the Gospel values—at the top of penitential priorities. Spiritual direction can be offered in multiple formats: for example, there are parishes where small groups meet to follow the Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. History does teach, however, that the one-on-one journey to holiness and insight has a very long and successful track record. Where would St. Augustine be if he had not sought the tutelage of St. Ambrose of Milan?
Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession, 1955-1975 by Maria C. Morrow of Seton Hall University is a very worthy purchase. For us old timers, it is an opportunity to revisit the years immediately before and after the Council and discern what we did right and what we did wrong. For younger generations, this work explains why the lines at the confessional no longer extend twenty persons deep. I will have an excellent follow-up book for review in about two months, A History of Catholic Theological Ethics  by James Keenan, S.J.
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