Arts and Culture

What Has Happened to the Sacrament of Reconciliation?

by Father Robert Lauder

IN THE LAST 50 years, there has been a dramatic change in the use that Catholics make of the sacrament of reconciliation previously referred to as the sacrament of confession. The change is obvious, but the reasons for it are not, at least not to me. One reason I am writing this column is to force myself to try to think through just what is happening that so few Catholics take advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation. Some people who had the practice of confessing every week now make use of the sacrament once a year. That is an amazing change.

We can take at least two views of what is happening in the Catholic community with regards to confession: an optimistic view and a pessimistic view. The optimistic view sees the change as a sign of maturity among Catholics. We know that sins can be forgiven outside the sacrament. One way, of course, is during the penitential rite that precedes the celebration of the Eucharist. Another way is by making an act of contrition. Church law is that if a person has committed a mortal sin, a sin that separates the person from God, the individual should not receive communion until that sin is confessed in the sacrament of reconciliation.

The optimistic view also rejoices that people are not running to confession because of scrupulosity and neurotic guilt. Scrupulosity is an anxiety neurosis that leads a person to think that very innocent actions that the person is performing are sins. Often, scrupulosity focuses on sex. When I was in the major seminary as a student many years ago, there were 200 young men studying for the priesthood. That number was the approximate number of seminarians during each of the six years that I spent in the seminary. I suspect that many of those young men had attacks of scrupulosity. Perhaps some had it for a day or a week; others for longer periods of time. In fact, some may have had such a serious problem with scrupulosity that they had to leave the seminary.

It is amazing that scrupulosity, which at one time was called the “Catholic neurosis,” has to a great extent disappeared from the Catholic community. Why? I suspect the change in the image of God that is presented in religious education courses, theology and homilies has contributed to the disappearance of scrupulosity. The image of God has changed from a God to be feared to a God of love.

In his book, The Word in and out of Season: Homilies for the Sundays of Ordinary Time, Cycle C (New York: Paulist Press, 1991, $7.95) theologian Richard Viladesau, having commented on some of the reasons that might support the optimistic view of the decline in the use of the sacrament of reconciliation, writes the following:

“A negative view might see the same phenomena in rather a different light, pointing to a loss of the sense of sin itself, and seeing this as a capitulation to the more general ‘permissiveness’ of our society, an adoption of the uncritical self-acceptance and lack of responsibility that are signs of social and moral decline. Moreover, it might be pointed out, regular confession was for the laity not merely a sacrament of forgiveness, but was the most common form of spiritual direction. Its decline could signify not only the loss of a sense of sin, but also the loss of a sense of the need for spiritual progression and/or a loss of confidence in the clergy as spiritual guides.” (p. 38)

I am hoping that better minds than mine can understand what has happened to many members of the Catholic community in relation to the sacrament of reconciliation. Though I did not have a personal experience of being a confessor in a penance service in which general absolution was allowed, everything I heard from pastors made me wonder if general absolution should be permitted again. I am hoping that bishops, theologians and liturgists will take a long, hard look at the present situation and ask whether a return to general absolution might revive the sacrament and help many to deepen their sense of sin and their gratitude for forgiveness.

I have read many contemporary theologians who insist that an enormous problem in our society is that people are not encouraged to look deeply into themselves, to reflect on what is important in their lives, what values they have and why. Examining their consciences before confession was one way that people confronted themselves and evaluated their lives in relation to the values they embrace. Is there anything else in our society that encourages people to do that? My impression is that there is much in our society that encourages the opposite, much that helps people to distract themselves from reflecting on what really matters.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.

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