Do you go to confession once a year? If so, you’re a member of a minority group within the Catholic Church in America.
A survey conducted in 2008 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University showed that 30 percent of American Catholic respondents said they go to confession less than once a year. And 45 percent said they never go at all.
Also, six out of every 10 respondents said they believed either “somewhat” or “strongly” that they can be good Catholics without going to confession at least yearly.
There was a time within the memory of many Catholics when regular Saturday confession was the norm and long lines formed outside of multiple confessionals in many churches. Today the flow has diminished to a trickle. The priest in the confessional has become a lonely figure.
So what happened? Father James Martin, S.J., the prolific author and editor at large for America, the national Catholic magazine, wrote in 2007 that “a confluence of factors” has influenced the precipitous decline in penitents:
- We may be less obsessed with sin, but in the bargain we don’t think of ourselves as sinners and may not recognize our personal responsibility for our actions.
- Post-Vatican II, emphasis in homilies shifted to the pervasive forgiveness and mercy of God, leading many Catholics to question whether confession is necessary for forgiveness.
- The 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae included the Vatican’s prohibition on artificial birth control, which was widely rejected by the American faithful, who began to doubt the Church’s stance on sexual morality and its moral authority in general.
- People are leading ever-busier lives.
Other possible factors include the residue of childhood anxiety, memories of ill-tempered and judgmental priests, reluctance to open up to another person, and simple embarrassment. Even Pope Francis (who says he goes to confession every two weeks) has recognized the manufactured barriers: he has emphasized that confession isn’t like “going to a torture session” where Jesus “is waiting to lambaste me.”
Still, the Sacrament of Reconciliation in 2014 remains a tough sell. In fact, says Father Gordon Moreland, S.J., it may have nearly vanished from the consciousness of many Catholics.
“I don’t think people are necessarily staying away,” he says. “It just doesn’t even occur to them to go. It’s just not on their radar screen.”
The reason for such a disconnect, says Father Gordon, the Director of the House of Prayer for Priests in the Diocese of Orange, likely has less to do with individual attitudes toward the sacrament than with a pervasive societal lack of understanding about the nature of true forgiveness.
“The source of the sacrament is in the Lord’s mandate to his disciples to preach the forgiveness of sins,” says Father Gordon, “and the trick here is how to help people to hear that message. In order to deal with that, people need to have some experience of forgiveness at a level that is real to them. I don’t think we’re very good, culturally, at forgiveness. In terms of our discourse, and our policies of, for example, criminal justice, there’s practically no room for forgiveness. The idea of forgiveness is strange to so many people. It’s not something people are used to.
“When you talk about sacramentalizing forgiveness you’ve got to have some sort of psychological receptivity and appreciation of forgiveness. If a kid has never felt forgiven by one of his parents, what’s going to be the basis for him thinking about ‘What does it mean for God to forgive me?’”
Forgiveness must not only be offered in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but repeatedly proclaimed elsewhere, says Father Gordon.
“I think we need to preach forgiveness,” he says. “We need to create a culture of forgiveness, starting with the family. Pope Francis is talking about this a lot. He acknowledges himself as a sinner. The recent popes have talked about it, but it hasn’t been picked up, the idea that you can’t have justice without forgiveness. That falls on deaf ears in terms of the world’s consciousness. In international relations, for example there’s never the thought that conflicting factions might be called at some point to forgive one another. That’s why that reconciliation approach that Nelson Mandela inaugurated in South Africa was such a remarkable and remarkably effective thing in a country that was terribly torn. But then, you notice what a profound exception he is.”
At the confessional level, Father Gordon is more optimistic.
“My impression is that most priests are more compassionate in the confessional than they are in anyplace else in their lives,” he says. “They rise to the occasion and are their best selves. But you still have some of this imprudent questioning. That’s the problem with the priest who hasn’t experienced forgiveness. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. But the person who comes to confession is already under the influence of the grace of forgiveness, or he wouldn’t come.”
Most priests, says Father Gordon, have learned that shame has no place in the confessional.
“In the breviary that we say in evening prayer every Thursday we do one of the canticles from the Book of Revelation,” he says, “and a key line in that canticle is ‘The accuser of our brothers is cast out who night and day accused them before God.’ The idea is that the Messiah has come into the world and he repudiates the accuser. The word for the accuser here is the same word as Satan. Satan is the one who told Adam and Eve they ought to be ashamed of themselves—not of what they did, but of themselves. So it’s that shaming that’s the work of the accuser. If the priest shames the penitent, he’s playing the role not of the Messiah, not of Christ the liberator, he’s playing the role of Satan. It’s a pretty strong image.”
The Sacrament of Reconciliation, says Father Gordon, is, or should be, entirely about forgiveness and the unconditional love of God.
“Forgiveness,” he says, “is as radical as the resurrection of the dead. The mystery of the forgiveness of sins is mirrored in the Resurrection of Christ. I would suggest to someone who hasn’t been to confession in a long time that most people find it helpful to experience real forgiveness in their lives, and especially forgiveness of the Lord. It’s possible in the Sacrament of Reconciliation to experience that. And that’s a gift and a grace.”