The Crisis of the Confessional


confessionalIn a recent address to priests, Pope Francis exhorted priests to offer the Sacrament of Confession more frequently, to “open the doors of the Church” and “leave the light” of the confessional on longer.  I have some misgivings (readers can see them on my own blog) about this Pontificate, but statements like these are what offers me hope.  Indeed, I hope the Pope will write an encyclical on this stuff, because it is sorely needed.

Modern Catholicism suffers from a crisis of the confessional, especially here in America.  According to a study conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), Catholics hold the Sacrament of Confession in the lowest esteem.  An eye-popping Seventy Five percent celebrate the Sacrament of Confession less than once a year.  While there is often a trend in Catholicism for the younger generation to be more orthodox, the trend reverses when you talk about Confession.  50% of those before Vatican II found Confession very important.  Amongst my generation, the number is 30%.  Finally, frequent Mass attendance tends to lead to a greater respect for the Sacraments in general.  This however is not true amongst confession.  If you go to mass weekly, you are a percentage point more likely to say confession is important to you than someone who goes less than once a week.  That’s what we call statistical noise.

Some may wonder why any of this stuff even matters.  Without the sacrament of confession, a lot of these other sacraments don’t matter.  Church teaching is clear, you should not receive the sacraments (outside of baptism, confession, and the anointing of the Sick) in a state of mortal sin.  Yet while so few place much importance on confession, many of them do partake in communion.  Think of all the millenials engaged in cohabitation, yet receiving communion.   How many advocate abortion yet are the first in line every Sunday?  At best, these kinds of communions are worthless to the soul.  At worst, they are beyond worthless, they are a sacrilege which compounds mortal sin on top of mortal sin.

These gloomy numbers also matter because they make any lasting reform of the Church impossible.  The great reforms of the Church throughout history have shown that it is the individual holiness of her members that causes the Church to flourish.  Religious orders returned to spiritual prosperity once they stopped living like ordinary citizens of the world.  The Church after the Council of Trent was able to launch the Counter Reformation only after several questionable practices by priests were outlawed.  Finally, it will be impossible to bring people into the Church if we are not following the example we expect out of them.  The Church places great importance on confession in her teachings.  If we cannot abide by them, how do we expect the Protestant to, or worse, the non-Christian who is sincerely searching for God?

While all of this looks bleak, there are some numbers that should give us hope.  The more people celebrate the sacrament of confession, the more important it becomes to their faith life.  While this might seem a pointless truism (of course it is more important if they celebrate it more often!), Catholics need to understand why this is so.  What is it about the sacrament that causes a very small percentage of the population to be nevertheless diehard in their devotion towards it?  Furthermore, why are these statistically small individuals typically the strongest of Catholics by every measure? (Mass Attendance, frequency of receiving all sacraments, understanding of Church teaching, etc.)  Why did future saints like Blessed John Paul II go to confession on a weekly basis, sometimes even more frequently?  Why did Archbishop Fulton Sheen recall with delight how the nuns whose confessions he heard did not spare their venial sins in the confessional, even though Church law only requires the confession of mortal sins?

As we prepare to examine this sacrament in greater detail, it is fitting we do so on the eve of the first Sunday after Easter, which Blessed John Paul II declared “Divine Mercy Sunday”, which celebrates the message of devotion to Christ’s Divine Mercy, which is heavily influenced by the Sacrament of Confession.  To help us understand the sacrament better, we need to ponder anew the various parts, and what they signify.  Let us think about all these things as we continue in our study over the next few weeks.



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  • Jason

    If I’m not mistaken, I think the Venerable Fulton Sheen said hearing the confessions of nuns is like being stoned to death with popcorn. Hahaha! I’ve learned to love confession – it’s such a renewal and I feel such a release afterward. Living with mortal sin is like trying to endure underneath a tremendous weight – confession is that “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh…..” that you feel, knowing that it’s all behind you now.

  • We have confession 6 days a week and people come. For the feast day of the parish, there is confession for 12 hours and they come in droves. It is the large (or small) parishes with confession only offered 45 minutes on a Saturday or by appointment that have the crisis. They also do not have souls growing much in holiness. The priest is the one who needs to wake up and do what he was ordained to do! If he did not want a life of service, he should never have been ordained. I am sorry, but it is laziness and even a hatred for the sacrament from some priests and the lies that only ‘if you kill someone’ that you need confession that have caused this. The crisis started with the clergy, not the laity.

    • Fred

      Magdalene, I agree wholeheartedly. After five years of preaching regularly about the grace of this sacrament, and making it more available to our people, we have seen an explosion in the numbers coming and in the quality of their confessions. A thirteen hour “day of reconciliation” before Easter brought hundreds of people, some for the first time in years, to the sacrament. Adding Wed. evening confessions to our regular schedule has been a wonderful success. And I have seen a disdain for the sacrament on the part of some priests. But a renewal is already here is some places, and I believe it will continue and expand.

      • Kevin Tierney

        Where I go to Church in the big city, I’m lucky. They have several priests, and for an hour on Saturday, and with confession for roughly an hour before(and during) each Mass, all are hearings confessions, and each confessional is packed.
        Sadly not every Church has that luxury, but the least they can do is start offering it on a day during the week in the evening. And if they do offer it, silly as it sounds, make a “social event” out of it. Take several Catholics with you, all go to confession, then pray in Church/chapel afterwards, then go to dinner. Let the priest know that if he is willing to do it, people will show up.

    • Kevin Tierney

      As much as I love blaming the liberal AMchurch clergy for these kinds of lapses (and honestly, I do, they deserve 99% of the heat they get), it isn’t just them. While I won’t name his name here (so as to not detract from the manner at hand), there is a certain dynamic speaker today who spends his days on Catholicism’s proffessional lecture circut. He writes best selling books, and think tanks exist to promote his work. His primary message is how to use the wisdom of certain general audiences to overcome sin. Never once does this dynamic speaker of the most impeccable credentials ever mention the sacrament of confession, and when he touches upon concupisence (one of the things which if left unchecked leads us back to the confessional), it is almost to dismiss it entirely. (Okay, the smart ones in the crowd know who I’m talking about, as I’ve done everything I can within the bounds of not mentioning his name!)
      I fear the issue here is a lot more complicated. Normally even when you’ve got bad priests, various teachings are still promoted. Yet when it comes to confession, even in conservative orthodox circles, it is something which isn’t talked about enough.
      So yes, it starts with priests, but in the case we’ve gotta point the finger at ourselves as well.

  • Dado7

    The crisis of the confessional is directly to tied to the lack of preaching about sin and the wages of sin…death (i.e., Hell). If priests are not preaching about sin and the reality of Hell, then Confession is not really necessary. It becomes just a nice thing that those Catholics with guilty consciences do every so often.

  • goral

    Those who don’t agree with fasting end up on a diet plan.

    Those who don’t like praying get involved with some mother nature campaign, and
    those who are uncomfortable confessing their sins face the abuse of a head-shrink
    or the abuse of drugs, to deal with the guilt.
    The human condition is identical no matter what the religion. Confession opens the iron door, releases the chains and makes us free again.

    I like the idea of social nights for the purpose of Confession, milk and cookies to follow. Talking to fellow parishioners about problems is therapeutic in itself. Traditionally, these were social connections where we bore one anothers burdens.
    We’re loosing these connections in the smart phone, dumb person world.