Is Confession Dead?

The confessionals are empty. The sinners have gone away. Or should I say, “sin has gone away.” Not to be judgmental, but rather to be observant, I sense poignantly a lack of what I would call “sin awareness” among modern Catholics. We seem to have assimilated the secular notion that the concept of sin places outdated, even psychologically damaging restraints on people, or that the feeling of guilt for wrongdoing (or wrong-thinking) is emotionally debilitating. Thus, we see in society the virtual elimination of the word “sin.” We don’t want to hurt anybody’s self esteem. Catholics, perhaps innocently, have bought into this nonsense.

Cohabitating young adults are seen going to communion with apparent impunity. Our children are taught in public school health classes that masturbation is “normal” (as if a mathematical average equals absolution). They are told that abortion is a legitimate medical procedure, as if “medical” means okay. Some adults with decades-long resentments against others apparently have no problem allowing these self-destructive feelings to fester and to ignore the basic Christian concept of unconditional forgiveness.

Our young appear to have almost universally adopted the idea that pre-marital sex is acceptable. Pro-choice Catholic politicians take the sacraments in a blatant display of hubris, arguing ignorantly that abortion is a matter of conscience. Football fans cheer when a member of the opposing team has his head nearly separated from his body. Marriage seems in many cases to be about as serious as “going steady” was when I was in high school. And on and on.

Our pope is emphasizing the need to welcome the disaffected and to affirm them as Catholics. Fine, but we need also to reaffirm doctrinal truth. These objectives are not at loggerheads; both are mutually, authentically Christian. In making Catholicism a living faith for sinners of all stripes, we must also meet the challenge of truth telling and not lower the bar for re-entry.

We are weak, all of us, and in constant need of the wonderful sacrament of reconciliation. I am a sinner, and as such I have a need for the confessional at least monthly. Not because I have a scrupulous conscience or because I’m “hard on myself,” but because I believe human frailty to be a constant state requiring constant vigilance.

I suppose with a profoundly informed conscience many of us could survive spiritually with a once-a-year confession. Not I. I know myself better. I would become lazy, apathetic, and removed from the spiritual world. From a purely selfish standpoint I am spiritually refreshed by the sacrament of reconciliation. It’s not a question of merely “staying out of Hell this week.” Rather, it is a moment of understanding of my potential for some degree of holiness and a realization of the nature of God’s mercy.

"Return of the Prodigal Son" by James J. Tissot, 1862
“Return of the Prodigal Son” by James J. Tissot, 1862

I want to be straight with Him. I want to thank Him for his mercy. Thank him for His Cross. Ask Him to shape me up. Give me more self-discipline. Respond to His will. This is when I am most happy, most optimistic and most confident.

Why have we forgotten these things? Have we been so misguided by warped interpretations of Vatican II that we think that serious sin has disappeared? Do we even know what is venial and what is mortal? Do we think that examination of conscience and an act of contrition are always enough to prepare for the Eucharist? Do we really understand what is sin and what isn’t? Are we so naive as to think that secular psychobabble can replace doctrinal truth?

If the laity can’t answer these questions satisfactorily, why shouldn’t we expect our clergy to answer them – the same clergy that would admonish us to take advantage of a confessional that may be open, in most cases, no more than forty-five minutes to an hour each week? My pastor is pretty good at this. His message is strong and fairly frequent. But I have lived a long life as a Catholic, lived it in nine different parishes, and have seen the sure but gradual decline in the use of the confessional.

How can Catholics take the confessional seriously when they do not have the answers to these questions? When a parish of 3,000 people produces fifteen or twenty penitents at the confessional each week?

The problem of a seriously diluted sacrament lies as much with the clergy as with the laity. Not to be hard on the clergy, who have probably become discouraged at the dramatic downturn in confessional visitations, but the educational problem (from the pulpit) is theirs to solve. And in the process, as the British would say, they need “to put a little stick about.”

I am sure there are some priests who believe that the confessional, for a time, had become a Jansenistic ritual of scrupulous excess, that we needed to “loosen up, ” and know that we are all basically good and needn’t be too worried as long as we haven’t created a major “separation” from God. Like what? Murder? Adultery? Coveting my neighbor’s goods? And any number of other sins, great and small, that have not disappeared from human hearts or the world.

If we are going to argue historically that private confession only appeared after several Christian centuries, we had better still today know exactly what would take its place. Because what we seem to have at present is Eucharistic anarchy: “I’m a good person. I can go to Mass and Communion any time I want.” So why, exactly, did Christ have to come into the world and die a horrible death on the Cross?

Terence K. O’Leary is the retired President/CEO of a Boston marketing and communications company and a former board member of Massachusetts Citizens for Life.