|Saint John Vianney in the confessional, where he spent up to 16 hours a day for many years.|
Why the Empty Boxes?
No, I'm not talking about the line at the DMV, or the lunch line at school (the worst!). I'm talking about the line at the confessional in Church. Unfortunately, the Sacrament of Penance, which today is more commonly referred to as the Sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation, has become greatly under-appreciated and under-used by Catholics, and so it's rare that I get the opportunity to wait in this line. According to a national survey conducted at Georgetown University, three out of four Catholics report going to confession less than yearly or not at all. Also, just 2 percent report going at least once a month. Years ago (50+), the lines at the confessionals were long in virtually every Church anytime the Sacrament was offered, which was then (and still is today) typically on Saturdays in most parishes, and on additional days in a few parishes. There are several possible explanations or causes for this relatively rapid and recent decline in the number of Catholics who make use of the Sacrament of Confession. Here I list them in order from what I consider to be the least likely and apparent causes to those most probable and apparent.
1) A decrease in the commission of serious sins by Catholics in recent years
2) A change in the Catholic Church's teaching about the necessity or importance of the Sacrament of Penance
3) A cultural shift in how people understand sin, guilt, and personal accountability
4) Confusion and misunderstanding about the nature and purpose of the Sacrament, resulting from poor or even non-existent catechesis on the matter
Sin is Still "In"
If you were hoping that I would consider the first possibility as a valid explanation for the decline in Catholic practice of Confession, please turn on the news for ten minutes, walk outside your front door, or make a brief examination of your own conscience! Sin has not become any less popular during the last fifty years. In fact, it has been "in fashion" since Satan first sold the idea to Adam and Eve. Many people, especially those who do not make use of the Sacrament of Confession, would probably cite the second reason I listed as a likely explanation for the empty confessional boxes. This view is tempting, because if true, it would seem to let Catholics "off the hook" ("If the Church doesn't think confession is important, why should I?"). The problem with this view is that, like other problems in the Church which people try to blame on the Church herself, it is simply not accurate at all. "But Chris," someone might ask, "what about Vatican II, didn't it do away with all of the superstition, scrupulosity, and harsh judgmental attitudes that made people feel guilty enough need to go to Confession every week?" As a general rule, anytime a person tries to justify their view with a vague appeal to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, it's usually wrong. In fact, this general rule applies not only to the teachings of the Vatican II, but to all of the teachings of the Catholic Church. If we want to know what the Church teaches about something, we should always first look to the Church herself and what she has officially taught (e.g., by consulting her Catechism), rather than allowing ourselves to be misled by potentially misinformed people or climates of opinion. In the case of a person referencing Vatican II, the only response that is usually necessary is to ask them, "Have you ever actually read the documents of Vatican II?" Nine times out of ten, the answer is, "Well, no..." (Sounds fair, right?). That being said, what did the Council teach about the Sacrament of Penance anyway? Here is a small sampling:
Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from the mercy of God for the offence committed against Him and are at the same time reconciled with the Church, which they have wounded by their sins, and which by charity, example, and prayer seeks their conversion (Lumen Gentium).
Pastors should [be] mindful of how much the sacrament of Penance contributes to developing the Christian life and, therefore, should always make themselves available to hear the confessions of the faithful (Christus Dominus).
In the spirit of Christ the Shepherd, [pastors] must prompt their people to confess their sins with a contrite heart in the sacrament of Penance, so that, mindful of his words "Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand" (Mt 4:17), they are drawn closer to the Lord more and more each day (Presbyterorum Ordinis).What is Sin?
Seeing that the Second Vatican Council certainly did not "do away" with Confession in any sense, nor seek to downplay it's importance, we are left to conclude that the decline in the practice of confession among Catholics today must be the result of one or both of the last two possible causes. The prevalence of pop-psychology in our culture, of "I'm okay, you're okay" thinking and best-seller lists full of "self-help" books, is evidence that the third explanation is true, almost without question. Also, there is a widespread attitude of moral relativism in our society, which has sadly become the default view taught in the majority of our children's schools, TV shows, and in all forms of the media, from news to entertainment. My father always says, "The only sins that people believe in today are 'hurting someone's feelings' and 'judging people.'" Our current president articulated this relativistic attitude quite well when, in a 2008 interview for the Chicago Sun Times, he was asked what his definition of "sin" was and answered, "Being out of alignment with my values." In other words, when he sins, Barack Obama is offending himself and his own subjective standards of morality, not the God who created him and the objective moral values and duties that we all encounter every day of our lives. Unfortunately, it seems as though many Americans, if not most, would agree with Obama's definition of sin.
What is Confession?
The most manifest cause for confession-box-absenteeism is the fourth one that I listed – confusion and misunderstanding about the nature and purpose of the sacrament. There are numerous questions raised by people who don't properly understand what the Church teaches about the Sacrament of Confession, including:
- What is Confession exactly?
- Where is it taught in the Bible?
- Why does the Church require it?
- How can it possibly help me?
- Why can't I just confess my sins directly to God instead of telling them to a priest?
The Sacrament of Confession, like all of the seven Sacraments that the Catholic Church offers, is an "...efficacious [sign] of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us" (CCC 1131). So, if Confession was instituted by Christ, when did he institute it and where is that institution in the Bible? It is most clear in the Gospel of John, when Jesus first appeared to the apostles after his Resurrection:
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (Jn 20:19-23)."As the Father has sent me..." How did God the Father send Jesus? With "all authority in heaven and on earth" (Mt 28:18). "All authority" includes the authority to forgive sins. Remember the story about Jesus forgiving the paralytic?
And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”––he then said to the paralytic––“Rise, take up your bed and go home" (Mt 9:1-7)."If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." How would the apostles know which sins to forgive and which to retain unless people first confessed them? We never read about Jesus giving the apostles the power to read minds!
Sin Can Be Personal, But Never Private
The question still remains, why did Jesus institute this Sacrament in the first place? Why not let people just keep their sins between them and God? Saint Paul provides the insight needed to answer these questions:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body...If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Cor 12:12-13, 26)."If one members suffers, all suffer together..." Is there any greater suffering than sin? No, which is why when we sin, we seriously damage not only our own soul and relationship with God, but the entire Body of Christ. In the Sacrament of Penance, the priest is participating in the ministry of his bishop, who has inherited the authority given by Christ to the apostles to "forgive and retain" sins. When the priest grants a person absolution, he is not performing some action by his own power. Rather, he is serving as God's instrument to reconcile the person with Jesus Christ and his Body, the Church. The theology of this is clear when we read (or hear) the prayer of absolution:
God the Father of Mercies, through the Death and Resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.Even though the priest says, "I absolve you of your sins," he does not do so by his own power or authority, which is why he also says, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." The words, "In the name of" are equivalent to, "By the power/authority of." A modern example of this would be when a police officer yells at a fleeing criminal, "Stop in the name of the law!"
Just Following Orders Here!
Once we understand what sin is, how it affects us, and how it affects the entire Body of Christ, it is much easier to understand why Christ would leave us with the great gift that the Sacrament of Confession is, and why the Church in her wisdom would require all of her children to participate in that Sacrament at least once per year. The role of the Church is to nourish, teach, guide, and protect all of her members. To ignore the reality of sin, to downplay the power it has to damage individual souls and the overall health of the Body of Christ, would be a tragic form of neglect on the part of the Church. In offering the Sacrament of Confession to people, the Church is not undermining the role of Christ as Redeemer and Forgiver––she is obeying the command of Christ, who told his apostles to make disciples of all nations, "...teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Mt 28:20). Is Confession comfortable? No, but if surgery of the body isn't comfortable, why should surgery of the soul be any different? I suspect that, more than anything else, the primary cause of the decline in practice of confession is the modern and typically American ideal, which falsely believes that "I am completely independent and self-sufficient, and I don't need other people judging me or telling me how to live my life." However, as the saying goes, "No man is an island," and if we cannot forgive others when they offend us, how can we expect to God to forgive us when we offend Him? The prayer that Jesus gave us, the Our Father, contradicts this, asking God to "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." In other words, we are God's standard for our own forgiveness.
Do You Come Here Often?
The reason why the line to confession is the one line that I enjoy waiting in is that, far from judging or thinking less of the other people in line with me, I greatly admire them! Nothing is more encouraging to me then to see my brothers and sisters in Christ striving in their faith, and being humble enough to admit your own sinfulness and brokenness is the first step to becoming a saint. Future saints make the best company! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post. I'll leave you with this quote from a homily of one of my favorite priests, Father Mike Schmitz:
When we go to Confession, we're not telling God something He doesn't already know, or showing Him something He doesn't already see. We're giving Him something He doesn't already have––our broken heart.Whether it's been a day, a month, two years, or twenty years since your last Confession, I hope this post has helped you to better understand what the Catholic Church teaches about this Sacrament, and if you have felt up to this point that Confession wasn't for you for any reason, I invite you to prayerfully reconsider. May God Bless you!
† Under the Mercy,
Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd Ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000. Print.
Catholic Church. “Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church: Christus Dominus.” Vatican II Documents. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011. Print.
Catholic Church. “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests: Presbyterorum Ordinis.” Vatican II Documents. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011. Print.
Catholic Church. “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium.” Vatican II Documents. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011. Print.
Schmitz, Michael, Rev. "UMD Newman Catholic Campus Ministry." 2014. Podcast.