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 Story of the day:

CONFESSION Mar-24-2004 (1,190 words) xxxn
Theologians, historian explore decline in confessions

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been two weeks since my last confession. ..."

With that ritual formula once familiar to all Catholics, Boston College historian James O'Toole opened a daylong symposium on how the sacrament of penance has changed and how its chief form, individual auricular confession, has almost disappeared from American Catholic consciousness in the last 40 years.

The symposium was held March 19 at The Catholic University of America. Historian Leslie Tentler of the university's Center for American Catholic Studies coordinated and moderated the event.

O'Toole contrasted a New York City parish in 1896-97, where the seven priests on staff heard 78,000 confessions a year, with the typical parish today, where the bulletin may list a half-hour or 15-minute weekly time for confessions, or perhaps offer them "anytime by appointment."

"Between 1965 and 1975, the numbers of American Catholics going to confession fell through the floor," he said.

He cited a massive 1988 study which found that even among "core Catholics" -- the 30 to 40 percent most active in parish life -- one-fifth said they no longer go to confession, half said they did so only once or twice a year, and only about one-fourth went to confession every other month or more often.

"Historians rarely get to see trends or phenomena begin and end so sharply," said O'Toole, who has done extensive research on the history of U.S. confessional practice for a section of a book to be published later this year.

While records from priests' diaries or parish reports in the past indicated that it was not uncommon for priests to hear 175 to 200 confessions on a Saturday, he said, "today, most priests I've talked to report hearing 20 or fewer per week."

Franciscan Father Joseph Chinnici, a theologian and dean of the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., argued that while confession has declined dramatically looking at the issue only in those terms masks larger realities of changing religious practice among U.S. Catholics.

He described massive changes in Catholic attitudes and self-understanding in the wake of the Second Vatican Council which, he said, converged to undermine the traditional Catholic cultural supports for auricular confession -- the penitent's enumeration of sins by number and kind into the ear of the priest.

He and O'Toole agreed that a general U.S. social movement -- the rapid, massive suburbanization of American Catholics in the decades following World War II -- brought major shifts in parish life and relationships that affected every area of U.S. Catholic culture, including Catholics' approach to penance.

In an afternoon session of the symposium, two theologians, Dominican Sister Catherine Dooley of Catholic University and Benedictine Father Kurt Stasiak of St. Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana, discussed ways of teaching and preaching about penance that could help restore the practice of sacramental confession among Catholics.

Sister Dooley said teaching about the sacrament of penance should begin not with the Ten Commandments and how to go to confession, but should "start with a theology of worship."

Like the other sacraments, penance is liturgical prayer, and "we've forgotten the sacrament is an act of worship. ... There is too much emphasis on what are my sins, and we forget that what happens here is God's action in my life," she said.

She also urged more emphasis on conversion as a lifelong process, the role of sacramental reconciliation in that process, and the context of baptism and the Eucharist as other sacraments of reconciliation and conversion.

Father Stasiak said confession "gives us a chance to ask where have we left God out of our lives."

He suggested that an emphasis on the role of confession in conversion of life can resonate with adolescents who are in the midst of trying to find their identity and figure out what they want to do with their lives.

Citing his experiences with confirmation retreats for teenagers, he said, "Some of what we want to happen to young people with confirmation (retreats) might be better done with confession."

In the morning session O'Toole and Father Chinnici laid out the pervasiveness of the change that occurred in the 1960s and '70s and said there were numerous reasons for the near-demise of auricular confession in those years.

O'Toole said there were several reasons for a rapid growth of Catholic dissatisfaction with confession in the 1960s. Among those he cited were:

-- Its speed: The typical confession was "two minutes or less" and many felt it was perfunctory.

-- Fear: "Everybody seemed to have a story of a priest yelling at them," and as soon as they felt they could give confession up, they did.

-- A "growing sense of triviality": Catechetical instruction on the rite continued to call for enumeration of individual sins by kind and gravity, while Catholics were starting to think of sin in categories such as social sin, sinful attitudes behind one's individual actions, and fundamental option instead of the classical "mortal" or "venial" categories.

-- Contraception: When Pope Paul VI reaffirmed in 1968 the church teaching that use of contraception in the conjugal act was always intrinsically wrong, "most Catholics stopped confessing it."

Father Chinnici expanded on some of the more theological or religious reasons O'Toole cited, such as other liturgical changes and changing understandings of sin and penance.

Speaking of religious practice as "embodied knowing," the theologian said the celebration of Mass in English made people more aware of the elements of penance and reconciliation in every celebration of the Eucharist -- the Confiteor ("I confess") at the beginning of Mass, the exchange of peace among the people, the "Lord I am not worthy" recited just before Communion.

He said Communion in the hand embodied a change in the priest-people relationship, expressing ritually the Vatican II teaching of the common priesthood of all the baptized.

Between 1966 and 1972, the traditional practice of first confession before first Communion was almost universally reversed in the U.S. church, he said, and then the Holy See ordered a return to the previous order.

In those same years, Father Chinnici said, there was an explosion of movements in the church that changed many Catholics' attitudes toward penance and reconciliation in various ways.

Some he cited were the charismatic movement, Marriage Encounter, Bible vigils, communal nonsacramental celebrations of penance, communal celebrations with individual confession and absolution, communal celebrations with general absolution, house of prayer and contemplative prayer movements, and "a massive growth in interest in spiritual direction" among lay people.

Controversies over general absolution, communal services and the order of first confession-first Communion made confession the "most contested" sacrament in postconciliar Catholicism, he added.

He said it is important to see that not only did the church experience a steep decline of auricular confession in those years, but "the ritual opportunities and practices of forgiveness and reconciliation expanded."

"Are we seeing a decline in confession or an expansion of forgiveness?" he asked. "What was happening was that the religious practice of auricular confession was being repositioned in relationship to multiple expressions of penance now occurring in church life."


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