A Catholic friend of mine recently went to confession at her parish church for the first time in years. She had personal reasons for wanting to seek absolution, but there was this, too: She said she'd long felt a little sorry for the priests sitting alone in their confessional boxes, waiting for sinners to arrive.
A generation ago, you'd see a lot of us lined up inside Catholic churches on Saturday afternoons, waiting to take our turn in one of the confessionals. We'd recite the familiar phrases ("Bless me Father, for I have sinned"), list our transgressions and the number of times we'd committed them, maybe endure a priestly lecture, and emerge to recite a few Hail Marys as an act of penance. In some parishes, the machinery of forgiveness was so well-oiled you could see the line move. Confession was essential to Catholic faith and a badge of Catholic identity. It also carried with it the promise of personal renewal. Yet in most parishes, the lines for the confessionals have pretty much disappeared. Confession—or the sacrament of reconciliation, as it's officially known—has become the one sacrament casual Catholics feel free to skip. We'll get married in church, we'll be buried from church, and we'll take Communion at Mass. But regularly confessing one's sins to God and the parish priest seems to be a part of fewer and fewer Catholic lives. Where have all the sinners gone?
On the surface, the drop-off in confessors might seem like no surprise.
To congregations scarred by the recent sex-abuse scandal, the thought of turning to a priest for forgiveness might not hold the attraction that it once did. And regular penance is not the only Catholic sacrament that has declined in practice recently: The scant number of young Catholic men training for the sacrament of holy orders, or ordination, for example, has left the church with a serious shortage of priests.
But it's strange that so many lay Catholics should have abandoned the confessional even while secular culture is increasingly awash in confession, apology, and acts of contrition of every sort. Parents own up to pedophilia on Jerry Springer. Authors reveal their fetishes and infidelities in self-lacerating memoirs. On Web sites like Daily Confession and Not Proud, the anonymous poster can unburden his conscience electronically. The confessions on these sites are displayed in categories borrowed from Sunday school lessons: the Ten Commandments or the seven deadly sins. At least one posting I read was framed in the language of the Catholic confessional. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," it began before going on to catalog a series of mostly mundane misdeeds. (Others are simply odd: "I eat ants but only the little red ones. They're sweet as hell and I just can't get enough.")
All this public confessing testifies to the impulse to share our deepest shame. So, why isn't that impulse manifesting itself in Catholics practicing the ritual that was created expressly for that purpose? Of course, Catholic penance—whether it's done in a confessional booth or in a face-to-face meeting with a priest, an innovation introduced in 1973—is supposed to be private and confidential. It may be that in an age of media-fueled exhibitionism, some people want more attention for our misdeeds than can be had from whispering a list of sins in a box in a church. But those Internet confessions won't count toward absolution in the eyes of the church any time soon. "There are no sacraments on the Internet," declared the Pontifical Council for Social Communication unequivocally in 2002.
The Catholic tradition of listing the number and kinds of one's sins in regular, private confessions became standard practice after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Penance took root in Catholic ritual and established itself as, in the words of religion writer Peter Steinfels, "the linchpin of the Catholic sacramental economy." The Eucharist and the other sacraments, Steinfels points out, provided access to God's grace. But expressing contrition in confession could mean the difference between going to heaven or hell: Dying with unconfessed mortal sin on your soul meant eternal torment. Early 20th-century Catholics might have taken Communion only once a year—some referred to it as their Easter duty—but they generally confessed their sins far more regularly. As recently as 40 years ago, many Catholics would not have thought of accepting the Eucharist until after they'd cleansed their souls.
Today the situation is almost exactly the reverse: Entire congregations receive Communion, while the confessionals remain mostly empty. Between 1965 and 1975, according to the National Opinion Research Council, the proportion of Catholics who confessed monthly fell from 38 percent to 17 percent. A University of Notre Dame study in the 1980s showed the decline continuing. In a 1997 poll by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, only 10 percent of Catholics surveyed said that they confessed at least once a month; another 10 percent said they never went to confession at all.
Like most of the recent changes in the church, the shift occurred in the wake of the Vatican II reforms. The program of renewal for the church that emerged from the Vatican II council said almost nothing about penance and reconciliation. The church's emphasis after Vatican II seemed to be less on guilt and damnation and more on love and forgiveness. The sacrament was given its current kinder, gentler name—reconciliation. Which seemed to reduce the stakes: If priests rarely talked about going to hell anymore, why bother confessing to them? To the extent that confession seemed necessary, the church's post-Vatican II efforts to empower the people in the pews left some Catholics figuring that they could confess their sins directly to God in prayer. At the same time, baby boomers who had been educated in the arcane legalisms of Catholic transgression—is eating meat on Friday a mortal or venial sin?—found themselves as adults thinking less about whether they were breaking the rules and more about their attitudes, intentions, and ideas about how to live a Christian life.
Last but surely not least, there was the growing gap between church teachings and the daily practices of American Catholics, especially when it came to sex and contraception. If you practiced birth control or had sex outside marriage, and you were scrupulous about confession, you might end up spending a lot of time in the confessional sharing every detail of your personal life with the (celibate and male) parish priest. That prospect is particularly bothersome to some Catholic women. I know one who says she'll go back to confession when she can confide in a female priest.
The biggest barrier between Catholics and the confessional, however, may be the real effort it requires. Unloading your transgressions on the Internet takes a few computer clicks—you can do it on your coffee break. But done right, Catholic confession demands a rigorous examination of conscience and real contrition, to say nothing of the prayers you may be assigned for penance and the thinking a priest may ask you to do about the ways you've let yourself and God down. No wonder we are more comfortable with the Eucharist service, which demands only that we line up like consumers and accept something for free. Dorothy Day wrote of having to "rack your brain for even the beginnings of sin." That's work.