Is Confession in Crisis?

Is the sacrament of penance in crisis? One often hears that claim today, but it needs a closer look. My guess is that there’s a crisis all right — but not exactly this one.
Yes, Catholic confessions have plummeted in the last 40 years. But who would care to say that the awareness of guilt has disappeared? In some ways, in fact, the sense of sin appears to be thriving. People just don’t care to admit it or do much about it anymore.
I was reminded of these things by the word from Rome that publication of Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical is imminent. It will be on social justice, we’re told. Actually, it was supposed to come out a year ago, but it got delayed for adjustments to reflect the global economic crisis.
Lately, Benedict has been giving previews about what’s in the document. In one such talk, he said the fundamental source of the economic crisis is greed. Many other people have said the same thing. I surely would agree with that, although to greed I’d add arrogance and culpable stupidity.
This is not about the economic crisis, though. My point at the moment is that in an emergency like this one, people spontaneously look to moral failure as an explanation for what went wrong. Whether the analysis is correct is a different question. People take it for granted that it is — that is to say, they place the blame for what happened on sin.
Now if human beings really do have some sort of innate, built-in awareness that sin is the root cause of many problems, why has the huge drop-off in reception of the sacrament of penance occurred in the last 40 years? Why do so many Catholics these days go to confession very seldom or not at all?
For me, a large part of the solution to this puzzle is symbolized in a particular event.
Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical reaffirming the Church condemnation of artificial birth control, came out in late July of 1968. The following Sunday, I went to Mass at a certain parish and there was treated to a homily explaining why the pope was wrong and contraception was okay. When the priest finished, a substantial segment of the congregation stood and applauded.
I don’t mean to say that sexual sins are the only sins or that contraception is the worst sin of all. I mention this incident instead because it so clearly illustrates the denial on the part of Catholics of the Church’s ability to teach authoritatively about these matters.
But if these matters, why not other matters, too? For me, at least, the events of that Sunday morning more than four decades ago mark the starting point of the slippery slope that has led many Catholics to reject the authority of the Church on moral questions and, along with it, the sacrament of penance. It goes without saying that other people are welcome to situate the moment at which they first perceived this process at work somewhere else.
The observation has often been made — and I’m not going to belabor it here — that for years we’ve heard little or nothing in homilies and catechesis about personal fault for the kinds of sins most people actually commit. Frequently, of course, we are urged to take our responsibilities to God and neighbor seriously, but it’s usually left unclear what those concrete, real-life responsibilities actually are — and, especially, what the consequences of not living up to them might be.
Obviously the popular culture is of virtually no help at all here. Indeed, the prevailing consensus in popular culture appears to be that the only significant wrongdoing consists of denying somebody else his or her right to do whatever he or she wants, especially when the subject is sex. I am reminded of a sociologist’s remark a few years back that the only commandment that seems to count for many Americans anymore is the new, eleventh one: “Thou shalt not judge.”
And yet, as suggested, the reality of guilt persists — widely denied, to be sure, yet eating away at many hearts.
There was a kind of residual guilt implied in President Barack Obama’s announcement that he was taking the lid off federal funding of stem cell research that involves killing human embryos.
The president said he had ordered the drafting of “strict guidelines” to prevent “misuse or abuse.” But if killing embryos by way of stem cell research is ethically clean, there’s no need for guidelines; and if it isn’t ethically clean, guidelines for doing it won’t alter that fact but will merely reassure obtuse consciences that something that is ethically impermissible is permissible after all. The government says so, doesn’t it?
But all that is neither here nor there at the moment.
As far as the Catholic community and the sacrament of penance are concerned, my guess is that the so-called crisis of penance isn’t really that — it’s a crisis of bad conscience instead. Many people will not — and, as a result of persistent catechetical failure, in a certain sense cannot — face up to the fact of their sinfulness and guilt. Yet despite decades of rationalization and denial, the awareness of these existential realities persists.

And if it’s true that it does, then the crisis is even more serious than we thought.

Russell Shaw’s 19th book is Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 2008).


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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