Veteran readers of GetReligion may have noticed two trends linked to this site's commentary on news coverage of a specific issue in modern Catholicism. The issue is Confession, also known as the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
News trend No. 1 is that I am convinced that the radical decline in the number of Catholics, at least in North America and the modern West, going to Confession is one of the most important, and least covered, stories on the Godbeat today. Basically, it seems that millions and millions of Catholics have lost a sense that "sin" is a word that applies to them. Thus, they see no connection between the sacrament of Confession and taking Holy Communion in the Mass. That's a huge change in the practice of the Catholic faith.
News trend No. 2 is that Pope Francis constantly talks about sin and he is constantly talking about Confession and making symbolic gestures that point to the centrality of this sacrament. The mainstream press likes to talk about his emphasis on mercy, without discussing the fact that this mercy is offered in response to repentance. Do you see this in news coverage?
To see what I am talking about, please take a look at the New York Times piece -- yes, it's another post Synod of Bishops thumbsucker -- that ran under the headline, "Catholic Paper on Family Is Hailed by All Sides, Raising Fears of Disputes." This is an interesting thumbsucker since it is a thumbsucker that appears to have been based almost totally on quotes from other thumbsuckers. It's almost a Zen kind of thing.
The key passage focuses on the most intensely debated section of the post synod report, which focuses on divorce and Holy Communion. Read this long passage carefully.
Those divisions emerged most clearly and deeply in the passages on divorced Catholics who later get civil marriages and are considered to be living in sin if their first marriage has not been annulled. Voting suggested that nearly one in three bishops still holds that the current teaching should not be changed. ...
Another section delineating how the remarried Catholics might be more fully integrated into church life through a process of reflection and penitence with a priest barely made the necessary two-thirds majority, with a vote of 178 to 80. Receiving communion is not mentioned in either section, “because that was the only way the paragraphs could get a two-thirds majority,” Father Reese wrote in The National Catholic Reporter.
The implication, however, is that the door is left open for people who had no options before, to at least initiate a “dialogue with a priest,” as the document states, which could lead to some form of fuller participation.
That notion of dialogue emerged in the pope’s homily on Sunday, at a Mass to observe the end of the synod. Jesus, he said, “wants to hear our needs.”
Now, what might this "process of reflection and penitence" look like in practice?
Might this, in reality, be a reference to divorced people needing to go to Confession and deal with issues of sin and brokenness, in the wake of divorce?
Also, note the word "process." The implication is that this would be multiple trips to Confession over a period of time, perhaps even a permanent commitment to a spiritual discipline?
However, if you search the mainstream news coverage of this final synod document (that is, final until Pope Francis releases his own statement, which is the one that matters) you will find that the word "Confession" is -- unless I am missing some key stories -- nowhere to be seen.
Also, the research that I have seen (and there isn't much of it, which is an issue in and of itself) indicates that the Catholics who are going to Confession are the most traditional, loyal and most doctrinally conservative folks in the pews. Are estranged Catholics going to be open to a process of repentance, penance and reconciliation? Will they confess their sins as "sins"?
At the very least, depending on what Pope Francis has to say in a week or two, this is an issue that needs to be explored in research and reporting.
Let me offer one other comment about this rather meta Times thumbsucker about the thumbsuckers. As I said, most of this piece appears to consist of quotes from published pieces in religious and mainstream publications or online sources.
This is becoming more and more common in our digital age of rushed reporting deadlines. In these journalistic conditions, is the ultimate sign of respect journalists can bestow the act of actually calling up sources and talking with them on the telephone? So often today, for example, journalists talk to the people whose views they respect and want to promote and then demote the dissenting voices to a mere paragraph or two from an online source.
So anyone want to guess which Catholic source in this piece appears to have been given the grace of an actual interview? I think I only see one such quote in this piece.
Hint: It's not the omnipresent Father Reese, the all-but-official chaplain to the national press corps. So who received this salute from the world's most powerful newspaper?