True confessions about confession

One of the trickiest words in all of journalism is "unprecedented." Consider the top of this Lenten story in The Boston Globe:

In an effort to get the reluctant faithful back to confession, the Archdiocese of Boston is launching an unprecedented campaign -- called "The Light Is On For You" -- using radio spots and a website to promote special confessional hours in nearly 300 parishes during Lent.

But the church faces an uphill battle: Three-quarters of American Catholics either don't participate in confession at all, or go less than once a year. In the Boston area, more than 80 percent of Catholics don't even attend church regularly. ... According to canon law, one should confess at least annually, and the first confession is made at age 7. ...

The days of long lines at confessionals are gone for a variety of reasons. Saturday afternoon hours are inconvenient for many families. Many parishioners and priests take a more liberal view of sin and forgiveness these days. Some parishioners feel they can pray directly to God for absolution. Others feel they don't need a priest as they unload to therapists, co-workers, and Facebook friends.

Whatever you think of the doctrinal issues involved, this is a huge story and one that has received very little news coverage -- especially in light of the fact that it represents a redefinition of the primary sacrament of the ancient Christian faith.

Say what? Yes, for centuries Christians believed that there was a direct link between confession and the act of receiving the Eucharist. Is this simply a fussy theological detail? I don't know. Ask Rep. Patrick Kennedy and some other postmodern Catholics about that.

The problem with the word "unprecedented" in the lede is that the campaign is new in Boston, but not elsewhere. I've been reading and writing about these kinds of campaigns throughout the past decade. All the lede had to do was saying that the Boston archdiocese was "joining" in an ongoing campaign, rather than saying it was "launching" an unprecedented campaign. This effort is new in Boston, in other words. It is not new -- period.

Later on, the Globe does make this clear.

The new initiative, which started last month on Ash Wednesday, follows a similar program in Washington, D.C., and other cities, and will be repeated each Advent and Easter at all churches in the Boston Archdiocese.

Priests are available every Wednesday from 6:30 to 8 p.m., with the last night for the Lenten season on March 31. Though the traditional confessional boxes remain, where the priest sits behind a screen and the confession is anonymous, parishioners may also make an appointment with a priest to confess face to face in the rectory or a "reconciliation room," designed for such encounters.

The story deals with part of the central issue -- which is the fact that American Catholics now have a few of sin and confession that is, essentially, Protestant. The story shows that, but never does the theological math.

And what about those pre-Vatican II Catholics? It is clear that older Catholics -- who still go to confession, as a rule -- have a different understanding of the faith than the post-Vatican II generations. But what is the essential difference here? What happened at the time of Vatican II, and after that seismic event?

The story is, for the most part, silent on that.

The biggest problem is that the story never explains the doctrinal link between confession and taking part in the Mass. While millions of Catholics no longer belief that they literally need to go to confession every week, before receiving Holy Communion, it is clear that the Catholic church continues to say that a link is there, one with eternal consequences. Weekly confession is no longer the norm, but never going to confession is not an option. You can look it up.

This is especially true during the 40-day season of Lent that leads up to Easter.

Why do so few Catholics go to confession during this pivotal season, before the most holy day on the Christian calendar? Several years ago, a priest here in Washington -- Father William H. Stetson of the Catholic Information Center near the White House -- put it this way, when I asked him precisely that question:

The biggest problem ... is that so many Catholics no longer think of themselves as sinners.

"There are all kinds of actions that the church teaches are seriously sinful that the typical modern Catholic no longer believes are seriously sinful," said Stetson, who, as a 75-year-old priest, has seen many changes sweep through the Church of Rome. "Therefore, these typical Catholics walk up to the altar week after week to receive Communion without a single thought entering their minds about repentance or confession or anything like that.

"So you have to take that into account when you talk about Lent. In a penitential season you are supposed to feel real sorrow for your sins, which can be hard to do if you really do not think that you're sinning."

And why has this change taken place?

Here is another piece of the puzzle -- a piece that is hinted at, briefly -- in the Globe article. But I ran into this view of the crisis over and over when I started researching this topic early in the past decade.

The bottom line: Look to the pulpits.

... (B)ishops and priests know that more Catholics need to go to confession. They know "The Catechism of the Catholic Church" still teaches "having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year."

This may come as news to millions of Catholics.

"This Easter will mark my 10th year as a Catholic," noted one convert, in an online discussion. "I have very rarely missed Sunday mass or a holy day of obligation. Sometimes I've even gone to daily mass. Point is, I've heard well over 500 sermons. Not once -- not once -- do I recall having heard confession mentioned. ... For most American Catholics today, confession is almost as rare and exotic a devotional practice as donning a hair shirt."

That's a story, a story that is much bigger than one publicity campaign in Boston.

It's even a good story for this time of year -- a season of repentance and forgiveness.

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