Faith: Does confession still matter?
In the movies, the penitent enters a confession booth, kneels and whispers to a priest behind a lattice screen: “Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.”
This drama was, for centuries, at the center of Catholic life. But in recent decades, the number of Americans who go to confession has plunged to a shocking degree that church leaders have struggled to explain.
But Father David Michael Moses knows what happened during Holy Week this year, when he spent 65 hours “in the box” at his home parish, Christ the Good Shepherd, in Spring, Texas, and at St. Joseph near downtown Houston. In all, he heard 1,167 confessions.
“We are talking about a lot of sin, and lots of grace,” he said. “It’s about offering people help and hope. In the end, Jesus wins all the battles that people bring with them into confession. That’s what confession is all about.”
The 29-year-old priest began hearing confessions at 6 a.m. April 4, as Catholics made their way to nearby office towers. He continued until midnight, with a parish volunteer noting there were 100 people in line at 8 p.m. Another priest arrived two hours later, and everyone had an opportunity for the sacrament of penance.
“You keep thinking: ‘Do I go slow and just do my best? Do I try to speed things up?’ What you can’t do is let anyone feel that they were turned away,” said Father Moses, a Houston native who is the son of a Baptist mother and Lutheran father who converted to Catholicism.
Hearing confessions “is hard. It’s exhausting. But there is nothing in the world that I would rather be doing right now. This is what it means to be a priest. This is about salvation and the care of souls.”
As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, researchers said about 80% of American Catholics went to confession at least once a year. A clear majority said they went once a month.
Then the numbers began falling — sharply. A RealClear Opinion Research survey last year found that, among likely Catholic voters, 37% said they went to confession at least once a year, 28% less than annually and 35% said they never do. Catholic canon law teaches that every Catholic is “obliged to confess faithfully his or her grave sins at least once a year.”
The big issue — the heart of what some have called the “confession crisis” — is the evidence that a growing number of self-identified Catholics no longer believe that confession has anything to do with their life of faith and, to be specific, their ability to receive Holy Communion.
“We can talk about a confession crisis, but the larger issue is that people just don’t believe in sin anymore,” said journalist Russell Shaw, former communications director for the U.S. bishops and author of numerous books, including “Why We Need Confession.”
This points to a related fact — many Catholics no longer affirm many traditional, ancient teachings of the church, he said. This is especially true when details in the Catholic catechism clash with the doctrines of the sexual revolution.
When thinking about “grave” or “mortal” sins, many Catholics have decided this language simply does not apply to their own mistakes and struggles.
“The idea is that you don’t need to go to confession unless you’ve done something really, really bad,” said Shaw. “People say, ‘I’m a good person. I haven’t done anything bad, or I haven’t done anything I think is really bad — so I don’t have anything to confess.’ And many Catholics question whether the church should play any role in mediating this sin, repentance and forgiveness process.”
Father Moses agreed that “our culture is working hard to get rid of the concept of sin. … But sin is sin because it’s bad for us and lots of people are hurting. That’s reality.”
While stressing that “I’ve only been a priest for four years and I’m not an authority on anything,” he said he does believe priests now have a decision to make when preaching and teaching about confession.
“We have to ask, ‘Do we believe that the Gospel is good news? Do we believe that what we are teaching is true and that the sacraments are real?’ … If we do, then confession is an essential part of our faith.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.
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