I myself managed to avoid the sacrament from the day I was baptized until a particularly grievous sin forced me into the only confession that was ever meaningful to me. After that, I dabbled at the practice, trying to be a “good” Catholic, but not finding much to inspire me. I am not alone. According to Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate in 2008, 30% of Catholics went to confession less than once a year and 45% didn’t go at all. The decline is particularly noticeable in the Vatican II and post-Vatican II generations, when the Church left an opening for lay Catholics to determine how they would interact with the Magisterium. This annual survey, however, does not offer much insight into why Catholics are shunning the confessional beyond the fact that 62% agreed with the statement “I can be a good Catholic without celebrating the sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year.” Let’s fill in the gap.
1. Confession is boring and meaningless for both priest and penitent. All of us who have friends in the priesthood know that for most priests hearing confessions is far from a favorite activity. Hence the unimaginative “quick fix” penances. The following dialogues are real and only slightly edited:
ME: I’m really struggling with the anger I feel towards Mr. and Mrs. X who consider themselves the dueños de la Iglesia and treat the rest of us like peons. What should I do?
FATHER A (who doesn’t much care for Mr. and Mrs. X either): You can’t let those people treat you like that. I absolve you. Three “Hail Mary”s.
ME: You know, Father, I say at least 53 “Hail Mary”s every week when I pray the Rosary…
Later I invented a creative variant on this penance. Whenever Mrs. X comments about my shoes or bosses me around, I’m going to smile at her sweetly and say: “Dios te salve, María. Llena eres de gracia. El Señor es contigo….”
ME: The anger I’m feeling towards Mr. and Mrs. X is really burning me up. I wish they would just dry up and blow away.
FATHER B: Sometimes praying for people can help us be more compassionate. I want you to pick one person from home, one from work, and one from the church and pray for them.
ME: I already pray for several people from work and church.
FATHER B: Just pick one from each.
ME: But what about the others?
FATHER B: One each. I absolve you.
Now, to be fair, the man is consistent. He uses the same approach to volunteer recruitment. Handed out a bunch of forms and told us to each suggest 1 person for 1 ministry. “But Father, I got a lot of people to nominate who told me they wanna help.” “One person; one ministry.” Punto final. ¡Que locura! (I guess that’s another three “Hail Mary”s for arguing with a priest!)
ME (crying): I can’t take it any more in my parish. This couple treats the other lay leaders disrespectfully and it makes me really angry…
FATHER C: Believe me, I know. The same thing happened to me in my congregation. Let me tell you about it…
Half an hour later I got my absolution and an assignment to read the 51st psalm, but I felt like I had already done my penance by having to listen to the priest complain about his problems.
And this is just business as usual. Back in 2007, Riccardo Bocca, a reporter for the Italian news magazine L’Espresso, posed as a penitent and asked priests across Italy for help with common but controversial problems such as euthanasia, condom use, and homosexuality. He was stunned by the number of priests who, behind the secrecy of the confessional, gave responses that were contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church. The article he published and his journalistic ethics were immediately vilified by the Vatican.
2. The average American Catholic and the Church no longer have a common consensus on what constitutes a sin. Most of us wouldn’t dream of telling a priest when we masturbate, use a condom, cuss out the driver who cut us off, or use the office copier for personal business. “Everybody does it” and besides: “I got needs”, “Pablito and his novia used NFP and she got pregnant”, “All the drivers in this area are self-centered morons!”, “The company don’t pay me s---; I’m just getting what’s mine” and in any case: “It’s no big deal, Padre!” The average American Catholic would be astonished if they actually read the Catechism and found out the sins they didn’t know they were committing. “You mean I gotta confess all that? No way, Padre!” Which is how the “one or two juicy ones, etc…” approach to confession evolved. Neither priest nor penitent has the time or inclination to really delve into matters of conscience.
3. People don’t believe priests really keep secrets and/or they think the priest will treat them differently (hence the shopping around for a confessor we don’t know). They’re right. I used to earnestly explain in catechetical talks about the absolute secrecy of the confessional, that a priest can be excommunicated for violating it, that a priest is supposed to conceal what he hears even from himself. I hang out with priests who swear they forget everything they hear but, when you hang out with them a little longer, it’s clear that they don’t. They don’t attach a name to the story, but they don’t forget it either.
And as for the differential treatment, it’s real too. A woman whose priest fancied her once told me that she would confess to him about other sexual relationships and he would get so jealous that he would give her the cold shoulder for weeks. I told her to find another confessor and send that dude back to his spiritual director.
4. If you go to confession, you must be guilty of something. This is especially true in the small and gossipy world of the typical Hispanic parish. “Hey. I just saw hermano Fulanito go into the confessional. Wonder what he did…” “Pues, I did see him talking to la señorita Tal y Tal in the mercado last week…” And the chismosos are off and running! So if you have a reputation to protect, don’t be seen in that booth.
5. Last but not least, we’re embarrassed because we don’t know what to say or how much to confess. There are situations in which words fail us:
ME: Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I find you extremely attractive and I think I’m falling madly in love with you. What are you doing after Mass?
FATHER H (suppressing the urge to laugh): I absolve you. Three “Hail Mary”s. Hasta luego.
This dialogue didn't -- and never will -- happen, because actually most confessions are duller than dishwater. Titillating sex in the confessional only happens in Internet erotica because most Catholics don’t have the narrative abilities of porn script writers. Whatever sex tales you want to tell, your priest has heard them 100 times and he’s already half-asleep before you get to the first orgasm. One priest friend of mine who is an excellent confessor believes the Church focuses too much on sex and he actively discourages penitents from doing the same.
I’m sure I haven’t exhausted the reasons people avoid confession. I am also sure that some readers will think I’m too flippant, that I’m dissing one of the most cherished rituals of Catholicism. No, I’m using humor to suggest that it may be time to re-examine the sacrament and make it more meaningful to modern Catholics so it is no longer fodder for stand-up comedians.