Maybe it’s time to rethink how we do confession

In the BBC remake of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mystery novels (I confess: I have never read the books), the intrepid title character sometimes makes use of certain special knowledge when sleuthing crimes. This particular superpower is not the result of radioactive mutation or dark magic. It has to do with his priesthood, but it is not the Holy Spirit, exactly. It is the Sacrament of Reconciliation—or a side effect thereof. It is hearing confessions.

Father Brown does not violate the seal of the confessional, thank goodness. He never reveals what he is told. But he can occasionally take a hint from privileged information that comes by way of a parishioner, something that helps him comprehend the goings-on of his community as no one else can. (He also benefits from a confessor’s keen awareness of human frailty.) In the stories, this is mainly for the good—more mysteries solved. But what good could be done if his superpower were shared more widely?

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Confession has been falling out of use. There are various theories as to why; surely our need for repentance is not on the decline.

Confession has been falling out of use altogether. There are various theories as to why; surely our need for repentance is not on the decline. Some say it is because of an ego-centered culture that teaches people they can do no wrong. Maybe that is part of it, but I think there are more charitable explanations, too. For instance, many families have come to teach their children to communicate more on the basis of mutual respect than hierarchical roles. For their own safety, many people are also raised to avoid becoming too vulnerable among those with authority over them. I know I find it easier to allow myself to be vulnerable when the people around me are on the same level and are vulnerable, too.

Compounding this, young people often face a daunting generation gap with priests in whom they are expected to confide. It is not the priests’ fault, but a lack of comfort with a priestly one-on-one could end up keeping people from the grace of the sacrament. Perhaps it is time to explore ways of rediscovering the sacrament. Perhaps confession deserves a wider repertoire.

Perhaps confession deserves a wider repertoire.

The “reconciliation” we are talking about, remember, is not simply reconciliation with a priest. We confess sins to seek forgiveness from God and realignment with the church, the community. Christ entrusted the apostles with the keys to guide each other through the world and toward our God. In the confessional, the priest represents this power, and he represents the community of the church. One reason we confess to a person and not just to God in private prayer is to acknowledge our responsibility to set an example for fellow Christians, as best we can, of repentance and humility. The Book of James instructs, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

The church is more than any one priest, but current practice inclines us to forget this. Ancient Christians would sometimes confess their sins in public, to the gathered assembly. Announcing sins out loud like that must have taken courage, but it also enlisted the whole community in helping them to do better. “Communal celebration expresses more clearly the ecclesial character of penance,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And such confessions would broadcast a reminder that we do not always get from week-to-week churchgoing: We are all sinners, however uprightly we seem to sit in our pews.

We are all sinners, however uprightly we seem to sit in our pews.

Public confessions would not themselves be sacramental, so a public ritual should be accompanied by the private, sacramental one with a priest. And public confession might scare even more people away than confessing to a single priest does. It need not be the only alternative.

Consider, for instance, friends or spouses serving as ministers of reconciliation for each other. This kind of confession could be part of spiritual direction or a dimension of intimacy in a marriage. Again, this would need to come alongside private confession with a priest to make the sacrament valid.

Some people feel most able to express themselves in small groups—this is another approach, recalling Christ’s promise to be present when believers gather together. A group of parishioners could decide to meet at certain intervals for “confession circles,” acting as a kind of regular support group and committing to keep secret what others share, as in Alcoholics Anonymous. Such groups might be a consistent set of people, or they might form in more ad hoc ways, such as among strangers who come together for a pilgrimage or a feast day. After the small-group meeting, a priest could meet with each participant privately for the sacrament itself.

The one-on-one, sacramental ritual need not stand alone.

There could be virtual confessors, too. This is a slippery slope with a very lonely hole at the bottom of it, but the right kinds of digital tools could help us see the bigger church to which we are confessing, beyond a local parish or national culture. Someone on the other side of the planet might be able to offer just the perspective on your peccadillos that you need. This kind of exchange is no substitute for the sacrament, but a virtual confession might at least help one prepare for a subsequent sacramental encounter.

If there were options such as these, how would you confess? No need to pick just one. Imagine being able to choose among different forms at different times to meet different needs. Of course, as the Catechism reminds us, “Individual, integral confession and absolution remain the only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile themselves with God and the Church.” But the one-on-one, sacramental ritual need not stand alone. Just as couples choose music that is meaningful to them for their wedding, we can make choices that help us to recognize God’s grace more fully and to serve each other as we do.

Father Brown’s special knowledge—for both solving crimes and glimpsing the condition of the faithful—need not be a monopoly. Our church is a community of sinners, a community where we can live in both sin and grace together, sharing both, and helping each other keep our eyes on the better half. Confession is where that sharing begins.

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Mike Evans
4 months 2 weeks ago

When Jesus came upon a sinner, his immediate statement was "your sins are forgiven." Then to prove he had such power, he would cure the person or even challenge them (and the bystanders) to be more faithful to the kingdom and even to come follow him. In our parish we used to have extremely popular communal reconciliation services where we made a communal examen in response to readings for the season, together recited the Confiteor, and then lined up as for communion to receive individual absolution from one of several priests present. We then followed that by a symbolic gesture or activity to celebrate and mark our newly forgiven status. The church would be filled to standing room only and people's response grew even greater each year. Those who felt they needed a deeper experience were invited to follow with a later private confession opportunity or additional pastoral counseling. The current rite in either the dark box or even face to face, is often perfunctory, non-pastoral, and over quickly. The penitent seldom feels "washed clean" or "healed" from the distress of sin. The communal process by contrast often had deeper meaning, a sense of having addressed the many social sins in our community, and the actual laying on of hands as part of the absolution given. Meanwhile, the priests present also offered absolution to each other as a further sign of our mutual participation in the reception in this sacrament.

Beth Cioffoletti
4 months 2 weeks ago

The 12 Steps are a good program for managing the guilt and confusion of our personal relational sins. Admit the nature of our wrongs to another person. Make amends to those we hurt. Take personal inventory.

Sacramental confession deals with getting right with God. Acknowledging the deeper sinfulness that is innate to being human. The flaw at our core. Our ego's constant need for approval & esteem, power & control, survival & security.

After 20 or 30 years of off and on trying the private, only with a priest, confessional mode of this sacrament, I'm still out for now. Too many weird things (warnings?) about those experiences that don't sit right with me.
If I had the opportunity to confess with Pope Francis, I wouldn't hesitate. Not because he is a celebrity, but because he is a person who looks like he really could reach in to the depths of my soul and heal it.

I would welcome a group reconciliation service wherein we name the structural sins of our culture and acknowledge our complicity (both personally and communally) in these sins. But that would probably get political and not go over well.

Tim Donovan
4 months ago

I agree that a group reconciliation service in which each person admits to our immoral acts both collectively and individually regarding structural sins would be useful, but unfortunately would become too political in nature. I didn't go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation for many years because of being gay. I'm 55 years old, and for most of my life have been celibate. However, many years ago I for a period of about three years had sex with a number of men. I was rightfully ashamed of my promiscuity. At first I went to confession anonymously (that is, in the traditional confessional). However, I found that this wasn't fulfilling to me, that is, I didn't feel a sense of conolation. I found that I preferred face-to-face confession. I believe that it's crucial to find a priest that one feels very comfortable talking to. I also feel that it's important to go to a priest who will take the time to carefully listen to your sins, is compassionate, but is orthodox. I know many people want. a priest who will "excuse" them easily of their sins. However, I may,be old fashioned, but I do believe that while God is merciful, that he also does hold us accountable for our failings. When I go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I not only say the Act of Contrition and whatever other prayers the priest gives me to pray for my reconciliation to God, but he also provides me with guidance about practical ways to reform my ways. I think this is also an important practice. While it's important in my opinion to say traditional prayers, I also think it's necessary, so to speak, to do my best to change my ways. Finally, I do on occasion pray the rosary, focusing on the life of Jesus with Mary being given honor as His mother, as well as make up my own prayers to God, asking Him for forgiveness as well as not only my intentions, but those of my family, friends, the people I live with (I live in a good nursing home/rehabilitation center).

Anne Chapman
4 months 2 weeks ago

First, please get over the idea that priests have "superpowers" that they use in confession. They do not. They are human, they do not forgive sins, God does that, and there is no need for anyone to submit themselves to the ritual of one-on-one confession with a priest simply to hear spoken words of absolution.

As most know, everyone may confess directly to God and know that they are heard and absolved. No human intermediary needed.

James was not suggesting that people go to one on one confession to a Catholic priest. James was urging people to examine where they have sinned against others and to seek reconciliation with them. Going to a priest you don't know and "confessing" privately does not begin to satisfy this need, nor does it provide healing, especially without the person reconciling with those sinned against.

One-on-one confession to a priest was not the standard practice for the first several hundreds of years of church history. It was introduced by Irish monks and eventually was incorporated into standard church practice. The people of the early church were quite able to examine their consciences, confess their sins to God or to the people they need to seek forgiveness from, and seek reconciliation without one-on-one confession to a priest. It wasn't needed then, and it isn't needed now - at least not for most people. Some people like to go to confession to a priest. It's sometimes easier than doing what they really need to do. Or they think they get some cheap grace - 10 minutes in the box and they are good to go with some "high-test" sacramental grace. For some reason they think God's grace is not accessible to all, at all times and in all places, and that it comes in grades, like gasoline.

Mike Evans has noted that community penance services are usually very well attended and provide a structured environment where people can focus on examining their consciences with guidance, and confessing to God privately. Those who wish to confess to a priest may. The RCC should think of adopting the Anglican view of the sacrament of Reconciliation, "All may, none must, some should". The perfunctory sessions with a priest for those driven to confession because they think they must, seem to do little good. Without real spiritual direction being part of it, there is little point to going through the motions, and most Catholics realize this.

What is needed is encouragement for all to regularly examine their own consciences , in conjunction with regular spiritual reading and reflection, and regular discussion and guidance from a good spiritual director. Few priests are good spiritual directors. As Beth C has noted - too many people have had negative or creepy experiences in one-on-one confession with a priest, and too few have experienced real healing.

The parishes should offer monthly communal reconciliation services (Mike Evans), and they should help people find good spiritual directors. As a married woman and mother, I seek spiritual direction from a woman who is also married, and a mother. The last person I would seek out would be a male, celibate.

Bruce Snowden
4 months 2 weeks ago

Hello Anne, I think you've over-cooked the "beef" you have with Sacramental Confession by saying, "the last person I would seek out for (for Confession?) would be a male celibate." What about Jesus, a male celibate, the Second Person of the Triune God, through Whom forgiveness comes, the One who established the Sacrament on Easter Sunday evening when He breathed on the Embryonic Church of Eleven saying, "Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven, and whose sins you shall retain are retained." Those word constitute the only reason why I go to a male celibate, sinner, or saint, to confess my sins seeking forgiveness from the Male Celibate, Jesus, who started it all.

I do believe there ought to be more than one form of Sacramental Confession offered to us, the Unfaithful Faithful, administered by Jesus through His visible Presence in the person of the priest, be he a male celibate, or a married man. Married priests are coming down the pike and they will be more than exceptional, but at the same time the charisma of celibacy will continue to flourish, side by side with the charisma of Sacramental Christian Marriage, both exquisite Gifts from God beneficial to the Church whom we are.

The few unpleasant confessional experiences I've endured in my eighty-six years of life haven't prevented me from gratitude for the spiritual satisfaction of all the others, starting with my very first confession as a little boy. In our home brown sugar was used at the table and I like the stuff so much that I used to take spoonsful and run and hide, thinking I had stolen it. So, trying to figure out what sin to confess in my First Confession, I decided that since I "stole" sugar, I must be a "thief." Thus, my first confessed "sin"was "I stole sugar." Thanks God for that male celibate Redemptorist priest who set me straight. His words of wisdom to me were, "Young man, I want you to remember for the rest of your life, you cannot steal what belongs to you. As a member of your family if you take sugar, or bread, or milk, or whatever, you are not stealing. But if your parents told you not to take something and you did, you would be guilty of the Sin of Disobedience, not the Sin of Stealing. I love to tell that story as it taught me early on distinctions are necessary to properly confess, helpful to me over the years. I think I've said all I need to say, so thanks for hearing me out. Maybe you may say I didn't cook the "beef" enough!

Anne Chapman
4 months 2 weeks ago

Hi, Bruce. Glad you are well. I'm also glad for you that you are fine going to a male celibate priest for confession. But, while Jesus was male, and perhaps a lifetime celibate, priests are not Jesus. His marital history is actually not known, and it is unlikely that he was never married. We know little about Jesus life, especially between the ages of 13 and 30 or so. In the first century, Jewish law required males to marry, preferably in their late teens. They were also religiously obligated to have children. But, some couples were infertile then, just as they are now, and there is no mention of Jesus' wife or children. It's possible his wife might have died young, as so many people did at that time, especially women, who often died in childbirth. From 30 on he was apparently unmarried, but wives in general didn't get much ink in the gospels anyway. Women weren't very important in that culture.

And, priests are not Jesus, even if they are male and are celibate. Married male priests are also, well, male. Since Jesus isn't around, and no human priest is remotely like Jesus, I still would never go to confession to a Catholic priest, celibate or married. Only a woman, and only a woman who is or was married and had children. Jesus' presence is no more visible in the priest than it is in you - or in me, a woman. Peace!

Bruce Snowden
4 months 2 weeks ago

Hello Anne, It seems to me when talking about the Soul of the Church, Jesus, Source and Summit of all Sacraments, we are dealing with something all together "other" applicable to the here-and-now but intrinsically beyond it. In a word, with "Mystery." As you know mystery does not contradict reason, enhancing it instead, so, while true as you said, priests are not Jesus, mysteriously in Sacrament they act in persona Christi, what they do sacramentally they personally do as Jesus, no hocus pocus there, simply the unfathomable Mystery that is God at work, with unconditional and absolute love. And we the Baptized participate in the activities of the Godhead where Jesus resides, his singular and unique persona truly Human, truly Divine pre-made Him inconsequential to marriage. Jesus was and is ever male, ever celibate by God's design, I mean His Own, His Decision, His Choice. This is how I understand that the Mystery that is God saturates us gratuitously a Sacramental configuration by and to Christ, Wide-eyed like a little child looking at a starlit sky my response has been, "Wow! Daddy God did this for me!"

Anne, don't know if any of this makes sense to you, but honestly it makes a hell of a lot of sense to me, its clumsy theological explanation et al. Thanks for responding and keep me, my wife, children, grandkids and family, in your prayers.

Anne Chapman
4 months ago

HI, Bruce. Sorry to be so late getting back to you. Busy. What you put forth is pretty much standard Catholic teaching. It is what I was taught. I don't want to go into a detailed, point by point discussion, but to focus on just one point. You imply that because Jesus was male, then it was God's choice that all priests be male - and celibate. First, as mentioned before, many scholars question the conclusion that Jesus lived his entire adult life unmarried, as it was considered a religious obligation for Jewish men to marry. The bible has nothing to say about what he was doing, where, and with whom from the age of 12 until about age 30. So insisting that God made the choice that Jesus be celibate seems to not only be presumptious, but is based on a conclusion that is not actually supported in scripture.
It is always very important to put the scriptures into the context of the era in which Jesus lived, and into its culture. First century Jewish culture made marriage pretty mandatory for males. Secondly, women in the first century were considered inferior human beings, an unfortunate legacy that has come down through the church to this day. Aquinas considered women to be inferior to males, and tolerated only because they were needed to perpetuate the human race. Augustine saw women primarily as a source of new human beings, and as temptresses, luring males to sin. Since women were considered the property of their fathers, and then of their husbands, inferior (lumped in with other possessions, including "asses" (donkeys" in the Ten Commandments as written in the Hebrew scriptures), how likely do you think it would have been for Jesus, if a female, to be able to roam the countryside and preach? Who would have listened to him, considered him to be a teacher if he had been a she? It says in Genesis that God made them male AND female in God's image. But the patriarchs of old, and of the current day, prefer to ignore the feminine in God, they choose to continue to insult God by denying the feminine in God. Jesus was a human being. As a practical matter, in his society of the first century CE, he could not have done the work of teaching if he had not been a man. If he had been a woman, not only would he not have been respected and listened to as a teacher, he would have been prohibited from traveling around where needed, since no woman could travel without a husband or father as an escort.
Priests are simply male human beings. Most in the RCC are celibate, but some are not. The eastern rite priests are not, nor are the priests who served as ministers in other denominations before becoming Catholic. Jesus' disciples were married, as were priests for most of the first thousand years of the church. So, obviously celibacy is not required. The idea that priests are somehow magically endowed with being in persona Christi is a fairly late invention, and has nothing to do with anything that Jesus taught. The idea that priests are needed as intermediaries between people and God when they seek to confess to God, to express their sorrow, and to be absolved/forgiven is also not only something that was part of the first centuries of the church, it is not necessary ever. It is the height of arrogance and pride for men to claim that they can d are needed to do God's work for him.

P

Bruce Snowden
4 months ago

Hello Anne, Got home yesterday following a five day stay in a hospital, due to a heart attack August 12. I feel good but kind of fatigued, normal I guess. Had one stent inserted and that's the "exstent" of it! Just love play on words! Thanks for your interest in my point of view although yours is different and that's O.K. But allow me to simply let it go at that, looking forward for other back-and-forths in the future. Let Joy abound!

Jmichaelortiz .
4 months ago

Do you consider your self Roman Catholic?

David Philippart
4 months 2 weeks ago

Similar to what Mike Evans reports, when the third form of sacramental penance (often called "general absolution") was celebrated in parishes I attended in Detroit and Chicago, the church building was filled to capacity and hundreds of people at a time celebrated the sacrament twice a year. Immediately upon being given three ways to celebrate the sacrament of penance by Vatican II, the popes began taking away the third form--first Paul VI and then pretty definitively John Paul II. We have the way forward for this sacrament. Make it licit again for pastors to celebrate all three forms of the sacrament: individual confession with individual absolution (form 1), the communal celebration that includes individual confession and individual absolution (form 2), and the communal celebration with general confession of sins and general absolution (form 3).

Joan Piwowar
4 months 2 weeks ago

Could you tell me which document of Vatican II approves general absolution? I have read most of the documents and haven't seen it. Maybe I missed it. It was my understanding that general confession and absolution was only licit in times of great distress, emergency situations, life threatening, etc. Thanks.

Jonathan Lunine
4 months 2 weeks ago

Let us not imagine changing this sacrament. Yes, it takes a certain resolve to go to confession and admit your sins before God and ask His forgiveness, through the ministry of His Church. And that's good...because it means that a simple reflexive "sorry" just isn't enough.

Eduardo Espiritu
4 months 2 weeks ago

Confessing after a beer at a pub with Father Brown makes sense. The tv character's solid sense of sin makes the mercy of his God an impressive claim. Mercy is not awesome if ordinary sin is seen as trivial.

Michael Barberi
4 months 2 weeks ago

I go to confession because I got into a habit of doing it. I do respect the sacrament of reconciliation but there are legitimate reasons to consider changes. Some of these reasons have been mentioned.

1. What we know of confession today was not relevant in ancient times. Monks were expected to confess sins to their superiors but Catholics were not required to confess their sins to a priest. Of course, this changed. Moral manuals were eventually developed to help priest determine the actions that constituted sins and then to discern an appropriate penance. However, in ancient times some people were banned from the community for years as a penance. Times have changed, read on.

2. There are certain practices in confession today that seem inconsistent and even contradictory. For example, 80% of Catholics practice contraception but few priests who know this ever refuse to give absolution or the Eucharist to these Catholics. While most Catholics do not confess contraception as a sin, those that mention it in confession and say they don't believe it is a sin in good conscience are offered absolution according to the principle of 'graduation'. Yet up until Amoris Laetitia (AL), divorced and remarried Catholics were never given absolution based on a theology of conscience or the principle of graduation. In the case of contraception and divorce and remarriage, each person does not intend to stop either taking the pill or having sexual relations. In other words, each do not have a 'firm purpose of amendment' but each so-called sinner seems to be treated differently. Equally important, how will the Church square this if priests continue to refuse to give absolution to those LGBT persons who are in irregular marriages?

2. One reason stated in this article is that confession enables the penitent to receive some spiritual direction by the priest. In my experience, there is little, if any, spiritual direction given to penitents in confessions. Most confessions last about 10 minutes, some only 5 minutes. If you made a good confession according to the priest, he would usually tell you so. However, if you did not, few if any priests would help you think about the many ways you might have offended God, for example by asking you questions. Granted priests have little time to do give adequate spiritual direction to penitents when there is a long line waiting for confession. However, the fact that a person is in confession reflects his or her sincerity of heart and God pours out His forgiveness and grace even if they are ignorant of the many ways they may have offended Him. Nevertheless, the Church would help all parishioners if they frequently provided instructional information every 6 months on how to examine one's conscience. Of course, this would only reach those who attend weekly Mass.

3. I know many people that are very uncomfortable in confessing their sins to a priest. This includes both men and women. For the weekly Mass parishioner, this is not a big issue. However, only 24% of Catholics attend weekly or monthly Mass. However, many of the other 76% strive to live morally upright lives even though they don't attend weekly Mass or Mass at all. Many pray to God and confess their sins to Him. I do not believe that God will refuse His forgiveness to Catholics who sincerely confess their sins to Him in prayer, but do not confess their sins to a priest.

4. One idea would be a communal confession session lead by a priest who would help those in attendance in the Church to examine their consciences with examples given to stimulate the parishioners to think about the ways that might offend God. In this way, the priest has much more time to offer spiritual advise on a whole host of issues that often come up in confession without his advise being focused on a particular individual who may sky away from the person-to-priest confessional encounter.

Deacon Chris Schneider
4 months 2 weeks ago

We've got lines for the Sacrament of Reconciliation... not 'falling out of use' here in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

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