Confession and absolution

confession 02I wasn't keeping tally before last year, but it seems there has been a noticeable uptick in mainstream media coverage of confession in Christian churches. The New York Times' Neela Banerjee got the ball rolling a year ago with her coverage of evangelicals launching online confessional booths for virtual confessions. The Miami Herald's Jennifer Lebovich had a very interesting article on the same -- taking a local angle on the Florida megachurches that run some of the sites. When the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington launched a campaign this past Lent to get parishioners to return to the confessional, The Washington Post and National Public Radio covered it.

The latest entrant to the confession storyline is Alexandra Alter's piece in The Wall Street Journal headlined "Confession Makes a Comeback":

Sin never goes out of style, but confession is undergoing a revival.

This February at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI instructed priests to make confession a top priority. U.S. bishops have begun promoting it in diocesan newspapers, mass mailings and even billboard ads. And in a dramatic turnaround, some Protestant churches are following suit. This summer, the second-largest North American branch of the Lutheran Church passed a resolution supporting the rite, which it had all but ignored for more than 100 years.

Alter reports that several factors are feeding the resurgence, from marketing confession as self-improvement to using technology to broad acceptance of psychotherapy. She reports that the return to confession is also reflective of a return to churches as moral enforcers. I thought this bit was rather interesting:

Confession has been in steep decline for several decades. In 2005, just 26% of American Catholics said they went to confession at least once a year, down from 74% in the early 1980s, according to researchers at two Catholic universities. After the Vatican softened some of its doctrine on sin in the 1960s, the rite "went into a tailspin," says Prof. William D'Antonio, a sociologist at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

That's quite the dramatic downturn. The article attempts to accomplish quite a bit -- a concise explanation of 2,000 years of Christian history -- and the overview ends up bundling a bit too much under the Protestant umbrella. I've written before about how reporters tend to equate all confession practices and in so doing end up missing out on much of the story. While the naming of sins may seem like the exciting part, these stories tend to avoid discussing what happens afterward. In the case of the Lutheran understanding, sinners receive absolution for their sins -- with no strings attached. That aspect is missing from this vignette about a pastor I happen to be friends with and with whom I served on a board:

Protestant theologians are also rethinking the rite. This past summer, the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, a 2.5 million-member branch whose members are spread across North America, voted to revive private confession with a priest. Some theologians have pointed to the writings of Martin Luther and argued that the Protestant reformer, while criticizing the way the rite was administered, never advocated abolishing it. "Some of us were saying, 'Why in the world did we let that die out?'" says the Rev. Bruce Keseman, a Lutheran pastor in Freeburg, Ill.

The Rev. Keseman has sought to revive confession in his congregation by bringing it into pastoral counseling, giving demonstrations to youth groups and preaching about its benefits. Leslie Sramek, 48, a lifelong Lutheran and financial manager who lives near St. Louis, says she never heard about private confession and absolution in church when she was growing up. But two years ago, when the Rev. Keseman announced he would be taking confession privately, she decided to give it a try. At these sessions, the pastor wears vestments and stands near the altar while she kneels and recounts her sins. "I won't say that looking at my sins is pleasant, but they have to be dealt with," says Mrs. Sramek.

Everything written there is accurate and it's great to see my church body get some press. It's also nice to see a story on confession that includes more than the Catholic and online evangelical methods. It would just be nice if reporters would discuss in more detail what is alluded to in the second paragraph -- the benefits of absolution. In this case, I know that the Lutheran sources did emphasize the importance of absolution but their comments were not included. I understand that reporting on the various churches' response to confession, be it absolution, reconciliation or self-help suggestions, would be difficult. But this story about online confession is getting a bit stale and it's time for reporters to move the ball forward a bit.

To that end, I must mention this late August story from the inestimable Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times. She mentions the attempts at resurgence of the ancient rite as well as the online confessional sites. After noting some of the more salacious online confessions, she includes this line that I wish I'd thought of in my previous writings:

It quickly becomes clear that there's no such thing as an original sin.

I thought she did a nice job of contrasting different confessional approaches. Here's a snippet:

Scott Thumma, who studies the sociology of religion, sees sites like MySecret as marketing tools very much in keeping with modern mega-church philosophy.

Such churches often host spectacular performances (a Cirque du Soleil-style Easter play) and edgy websites (MyLameSexLife.org) to attract "unbelievers who otherwise would never darken the door of a church," Thumma said.

"Their strategy is not to go out, convert and bring [only] saved people into the sanctuary. The idea is to bring in the masses," said Thumma, coauthor of the new book "Beyond Megachurch Myths."

To keep the masses coming back, these pastors often turn sermons into self-help pep talks: How to build a good marriage; how to manage a hectic schedule; how to live debt-free. The brisk practicality of the online confession fits right into that culture.

The Catholic sacrament of confession, by contrast, is not about personal growth. It's about healing a ruptured relationship with God.

While I'm elated that so many reporters are looking at an issue of vital importance to the life of the Christian (heck, I'm elated that reporters are covering any nonpolitical religious issue), I think churches' various responses to the penitent -- be it reconciliation, absolution or accountability -- are interesting and worthy of coverage as well.

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