The Practice of Penance

Have you ever wondered why Friday fish fry is so popular at Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee? Mostly likely the diners who pack the joint today do not know that it is a relic of Milwaukee’s Catholic culture. Maria C. Morrow opens her book with this first fact, namely, that nonsacramental penitential practices have virtually disappeared in the U.S. Catholic Church. The second fact Morrow highlights is the decline of the sacramental practice of penance, here aptly called “confession” because that is how mid-century Catholics referred to what we now call, for good theological reasons, the “sacrament of reconciliation.”Of course, these two facts are not bombshell discoveries; sociologists, theologians and priests have routinely noted them, and church leaders have repeatedly devised new pastoral approaches to make the practice of both nonsacramental and sacramental penance widespread again. The original contribution of her book, Morrow claims, is her affirmation and analysis of the intrinsic, even causal, correlation between sacramental and nonsacramental penitential practices, so that the fortune of one, whether flourishing or disappearing, depends on that of the other. Thus, any pastoral approach that attempts to promote one without at the same time fostering the other is doomed to failure.

Sin in the Sixtiesby Maria C. Morrow

The Catholic University of America Press. 264p $65

Morrow begins by rehearsing the well-known history of the practice of “public penance” and the rise of individual confession in the early church and emphasizes the connection of these modes of sacramental penance with nonsacramental penance. Underlying both sacramental and nonsacramental penance is the concept of sin as an actual personal evil deed, as “particular, discrete, confessable actions,” traditionally classified into “mortal” and “venial” sins according to their “matter.” This conception of sin underwent a radical shift in the United States in the two decades under consideration.

Chapters 2 and 3 offer an informative account of how and why this conceptual shift occurred, a shift from an act-centered to a person-centered understanding of sin, or, as Morrow puts it somewhat less precisely, “from specific to general and from objective to subjective.” The factors contributing to this seismic change are many and varied, chief among them the dissolution of the American Catholic subculture (“From Ghetto to World”), the rise of counseling and psychology (“From Confessional to Couch”), the rejection of Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“From Confessional to Bedroom”) and the emphasis on conscience and responsibility (“From Obedience to Freedom”). Moral theologians played a key role in this transformation, too. Morrow singles out the Redemptorist Bernard Häring as the standard-bearer of the movement, with his immensely popular two-volume The Law of Christ.

What impact does this theological shift have on American Catholic life? First, Morrow highlights the disappearance of nonsacramental penitential practices. These practices include abstinence from meat on Fridays throughout the year, the Lenten fast, the “Little Lent” of Advent, fasting on the vigils of major feasts, the Ember Days and the patient endurance of daily pains and sufferings. Second she describes the decline of “confession,” understood as individual auricular confession of sins to a priest in the confessional box.

These two facts are so well established that any attempt at producing “alternative facts” only invites scorn. What is new are Morrow’s three claims: that they are the direct results of the four factors listed above; that there is a causal connection between the rise and fall of sacramental and nonsacramental penance; and that the decline of auricular confession constitutes a spiritual disaster. To be fair, Morrow does not come out and state the last thesis as baldly as I have put it. But unless I am wrong (and if so, will humbly stand corrected), the whole tenor of her argument tends in that direction.

What is new are Morrow’s three claims: that they are the direct results of the four factors listed above; that there is a causal connection between the rise and fall of sacramental and nonsacramental penance; and that the decline of auricular confession constitutes a spiritual disaster.

Chapter 5 discusses the National Catholic Conference of Bishops’ “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence,” released in 1966. While acknowledging the document’s importance, Morrow says it failed to promote sacramental penitential practice because the bishops did not understand that by diminishing the obligatory days and seasons of nonsacramental penance, they were undercutting the very source of sacramental penance and vice versa—which is Morrow’s second thesis.

The last chapter, with the double-entendre title, “Thinking Outside the Box,” discusses various forms of sacramental penance, including devotional confession and special-occasion confession. Though lamenting the decline of devotional confession, Morrow is no hankerer after the confessional box; she is deeply aware of the many theological, spiritual and pastoral pitfalls these practices carry, especially for children. For her, however, auricular confession alone affords the opportunity for naming sins as one’s personal evil acts, accepting full accountability and responsibility for them, practicing humility in confessing them and making satisfaction for them.

Here lies her Achilles’ heel. There is neither incontrovertible evidence nor convincing reasons for thinking auricular confession can by itself do all the good things Morrow claims for it, nor for why the second and third forms of the new Rite of Penance cannot do exactly what she recommends. The issue is not which form of sacramental penance is best but what kind of theological and spiritual formation and preparation is given when its various forms are performed. Nor is it obvious that a frequent nonsacramental penitential practice necessarily leads to a spiritually fruitful sacramental penitential practice, especially if by nonsacramental penance one means abstention from meat, fasting and patience under life’s sufferings, the staple of the Catholic subculture (Morrow’s first thesis). Indeed, auricular confession had already been beset with numerous problems even when nonsacramental practice of penance was in full swing!

Sin in the Sixties belongs to the genre of history; so it marshals already widely known facts into a coherent and rich narrative of how American Catholics practiced sacramental penance from 1955 to 1975. It reads very well, with captivating illustrations to boot. But if you are a pastor looking for ways to make the sacrament of reconciliation (not “confession”!) viable again, the book offers few useful hints and little practical guidance.

Perhaps this remark is not to the point, since the book is not intended to be an exercise in systematic and pastoral theology. For this, one should look to what Pope Francis has said about mercy and, above all, meditate on the scene when in St. Peter’s Basilica, to the utter discombobulation of the master of ceremonies, he walked to one of the confessional boxes and knelt down to receive the sacrament of reconciliation when he was supposed to administer the sacrament to others! Who has ever seen a pope, who is addressed as His Holiness, “go to confession” in public before? If the pope does, why not the rest of us? Then maybe the folks at the Friday fish fry at Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee will understand why such a dining practice is so popular, even today, when Catholic subculture has been long gone.

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Barbara Gruner
1 year 6 months ago

Fr. Phan,
I have enjoyed reading your review and hope to read the book with your discussion in mind. As always, your discussion is clear and thought provoking. It was a treat to read an article written by you in America. (I was a student at University of Dallas from 1976-1980 and met you at freshman orientation. I was in your theology class during my Rome semester.)


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