Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Concilium’s Attack on Confession (Part 1): “A Crisis Moment”

Since it is Shrove Tuesday, a named which derives from the old English word for confession, “shriving”, it’s a good day to start this series, which Mr Phillip Campbell, author of the blog Unam Sanctam Catholicam, has very kindly shared with NLM. It is the result of his investigation into what the writers of the “progressive” theological journal Consilium were saying about reform of the sacrament of Confession in the years which immediately followed the most recent ecumenical council. I am certain that our readers will be very interested to see how brazen they were in proposing the erasure not just of the Church’s tradition, but even of the very Council after which they named their journal, since, of course, as with the reform of the Mass, none of what they were proposing actually comes from anything said by the Conciliar Fathers at Vatican II.

The year 1971 was perhaps the high water mark for the liturgical progressives. With the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae in 1969 and its implementation beginning in Advent of 1969, the decades-long goal of progressives to replace the traditional Roman rite had finally been attained. Riding high on the tide of this victory, they turned their attention to their second most urgent priority – the reform of the Sacrament of Penance.

A Confession, 1894, by the Spanish painter José Gallegos y Arnosa. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
It must be recalled that the elimination of the old rites for the other sacraments did not happen at once but was unrolled gradually throughout the late 60s and early 70s. In 1971 Catholics were celebrating the Novus Ordo Missae, but Confession was still being administered according to traditional rites – albeit with increasing experimentation, such as the priest using the vernacular, the addition of public penance services, the allowance of extemporaneous prayers, and so on. But the official text of the rites had yet to be altered (that would come in 1973). Having secured the overhaul of the Mass, the progressives therefore lobbied intensely for a reform of penance as the next item on their agenda. The reform of penance was not ancillary to their program; they viewed it as an integral part of their ecclesial vision, for it was in this sacrament that a Christian’s very notions of sin and redemption were formed. As the French Dominican Christian Duquoc said of the rites of penance, “The reform of rites is thus not an undertaking of secondary importance – it is the very condition of understanding what Christianity is about.” [1]

The progressive journal Concilium accordingly launched a broadside against the traditional rites of penance in 1971, dedicating an entire issue to pushing sacramental reform. Entitled “Sacramental Reconciliation,” this issue (vol. 61) attacked the traditional rites from every possible angle – from the perspectives of psychology, sacramental theology, soteriology, anthropology, ecumenism, pedagogy and more. The goal was to create a groundswell of support for reform, a kind of reformare subito momentum to radically revise how confession was administered.
Those who do not know the history of the post-Conciliar reform may be unaware of the radical nature of the proposed changes to confession. We may naively assume it was merely a matter of simplifying prayers or modifying a few gestures to make the sacrament more accessible. The progressives’ intention was vastly more revolutionary – in fact, they wanted nothing less than a complete overthrow of the sacrament as it was traditionally understood; some even advocated eliminating private auricular confession altogether, as we shall see.
To understand the progressives’ objections to the traditional administration of penance, we must understand what they were objecting to. The writings of the Concilium authors reflect an aversion to any mode of confession that shared the following characteristics:
  • Administered in private with individual absolution
  • Auricular, with enumeration of specific sins
  • Utilized a distinction between mortal and venial sins
  • Focused on introspection of personal faults
As we can see, these objections are far more substantial than merely tinkering with the text of the rite. Indeed, this program represented nothing less than an objection to the Church’s entire traditional praxis relating to the sacrament, as it had been understood since the late Middle Ages and codified at the Council of Trent.
This will be the first in a series of essays, wherein we shall explore what the progressives really envisioned for the Sacrament of Penance, as expressed in the pages of Concilium. All citations of progressive theologians in these essays will be taken from Concilium, volume 61 (1971), edited by Edward Schillibeekx. This essay will be introductory; further installments will explore the specifics in greater detail.
Assuming a Crisis
While they took different avenues of attack, the progressives all agreed that the Sacrament of Penance was in a state of crisis. They thus begin their assault under the guise of pastoral concerns. They worry about how the sacrament is perceived, how it attuned with modern sensibilities, how many people went to confession, and whether it was a pleasant experience for the faithful.
The French-Canadian Jean-Marie Tillard, O.P., wrote that there is a “deep dissatisfaction with the actual forms of sacramental penance…which are felt to be out of tune with the psychology of the present-day Christian.” [2] As we shall see, principles of psychology and the psychological concept of guilt will be invoked frequently in discussions about penance reform.
James F. McCue, Professor of Religion at the University of Iowa, lamented the “precipitous decline in the frequency of reception of the sacrament of penance” [3], and feared that “private confession will be but marginal in the life and practice of the Church, and for many within the Church it will play no role at all.” [4] McCue believed that Catholics were losing their attachment to the heritage received from tradition. “The moral and ethical prestige of the past and of tradition is low,” he said, “and seems to be going even rapidly lower.” [5] He expressed hope that the Church would discover “new forms of faith, action, and community” through a revision of the Sacrament of Penance – what McCue called a “new sacramental theology” that would solve “the problem of penance.” [6]
Edward Schillebeekx and French sociologist Jean Remy both argued that shifting perceptions of guilt in modernity were detaching the symbolic value of confession from its reconciliatory power. Remy said, “the categories of reconciliation and pardon, and even the category of guilt, are in danger of losing their meaning.” [7] Schillebeekx, meanwhile, wrote “as systems of value change, the sense of guilt changes with them…When a rite has lost all real significance, it ceases to be a sign. The faithful will quickly lose interest in such rites, when they ask themselves more clearly what they are doing.” [8]
Fr Schillebeeckx in 1979, wearing the updated habit of a Dominican Doctor of Theology. (Image from Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)
The Spanish activist priest José Ramos-Regidor said, “that there is a crisis now is generally recognized, and this fact makes renewal necessary.” [9] He also lambasted traditional rites as “subsumed in the sphere of legalism.” [10] The “new socio-cultural and religious situation in which Christians live” necessitated a “new future for this sacrament, one that we cannot foresee exactly now.” [11] For Ramos-Regidor, the problem with traditional confession was its manner of reception was too juridical, too mechanistic. He feared that the faithful were approaching it like a grace dispensing vending machine instead of an opportunity for spiritual reconciliation.
Fr. Carl Peter, an American theologian, member of the International Theological Commission, and professor at the Catholic University, went so far as to say that the traditional form was a “greater hindrance than help for very many ministers and penitents,” [12] while Jean-Jacques Von Allmen opined that the traditional rites were “the most humiliating way” of confessing sin. [13] Von Allmen suggested that not only should theologians be “rethinking the meaning of confession,” but “even more fundamentally” these theologians should consider “rethinking the nature of sin and Christian morality in general.” [14]
Fr. Felix Funke, a German theologian of the Picpus Fathers, said the new post-Conciliar era represented “a crisis moment” for confession and called the traditional practice a “liturgical poverty.” [15] Funke argued that the traditional administration of penance reflected an embarrassingly outdated “magical idea of the sacraments” which “modern psychology and anthropology have made it possible for theologians to free themselves from.” [16]
Dutch theologian Frans Heggen was dismayed that “many Christians are hardly capable of making a personal confession…there is consequently a prevalent feeling of unrest.” [17] Heggen argued that the contemporary situation required the “creation of rites of penance which are adapted to contemporary needs.” [18] He would go propose a vapid new form of children’s confession, which is examined in great detail on my own blog.
The most virulent critic in the pages of Concilium was the French Dominican Christian Duquoc, who stated that “there are fervent Christians, including priests and religious, who are unable to overcome their repugnance to its method of administration.” [19] He also claimed that “it is precisely where Christianity is taken most seriously that repugnance to the sacrament of penance is most apparent.” [20] In other words, a healthy, vibrant Christianity necessitated a repugnance for traditional confession, which “current criticism” had reduced to “insignificance.” [21] Duquoc colorfully described “fervent Christians” as having an “allergy” to confession and said the traditional practice “engenders guilt to the point of neurosis.” [22] Duquoc can scarcely write a page without expressing his disgust at the traditional rite: it is “unhealthy and inward looking” and ultimately of a “fictive nature” [23]; it reflects an “unhealthy desire for purity” [24]; it ultimately amounts to nothing more than “sacred therapy to appease consciences that are incapable of making their own the evangelical demands.” [25] The traditional Sacrament of Penance “gives rise to many reservations,” as it “robs sacramental penance of its social character and implies that forgiveness and reconciliation belong to an inner conscience.” [26] Duquoc thus viewed the traditional rite not only as needing a facelift, but as positively harmful and theologically erroneous.
On What Evidence?
The progressives thus argued forcefully that traditional confession was highly inadequate from a pastoral perspective. Despite the repetition of these assertions, however, not one of them cites any empirical evidence to support his claims; the “deep dissatisfaction” and “crisis moment” in the sacrament are simply assumed a priori. At most we get an appeal to vague anecdotal evidence and No True Scotsman fallacies (e.g., Duquoc’s claim that “the most fervent Christians” are repulsed by the traditional rite). The pastoral insufficiency of traditional penance is simply taken as self-evident. What constitutes a “state of crisis” is, of course, inherently subjective, for such a designation depends upon a comparison to some standard deemed normative. If the state of confession was in crisis in 1971, to what baseline are they comparing? Unfortunately, the Concilium authors never say. In fact, after introducing penance as a pastoral problem, they promptly abandon this line of discussion to focus on its more theoretical aspects.
We, however, should not be content to simply grant their assertions of a “crisis moment,” let alone their explanations for it. Empirical evidence suggests that confession was fairly healthy in the decades leading up to Vatican II, with average confessions available between three to five hours a day on Saturdays. [27] Additional confessional times were generally available as well as before, during, and after Sunday Masses with extra availability on the eves of First Fridays. Furthermore, surveys revealed that in 1965 – the year Vatican II closed – around 38% of Catholics were going to confession monthly. [28] It is not until 1965 that confession enters a crisis point, with the decade 1965 to 1975 seeing a monumental drop off in monthly confessions, from 38% of Catholics in 1965 to 17% in 1975. The number of Catholics who said they “never” went to confession also rose from 18% to 38% over the same decade. [29]
Mass and Confession times listed in a church bulletin in the 1950s.
Whatever the progressives were lamenting about in 1971, the data does not suggest the pre-Conciliar rite was the problem, for the tumultuous decline in confessing Catholics did not set in until after 1965, when progressives had begun tinkering with the sacrament, and the message from the pulpit was that God wasn’t interested in condemning people for their sin.
While we may think 38% of Catholics confessing monthly in the pre-Conciliar era isn’t that much, consider that since by the 1980s it has hovered around 6%. [30] This means the traditional rite the progressives were calling a “liturgical poverty” was drawing over six times more penitents than anything churned out since the Council. If the progressives were alarmed at the drop in penitents in 1971, is the traditional rite really to blame? If anything, the data suggests that it was the gradual dismantling of the traditional method – coupled with the downplaying of sin from the pulpit – that was likely to blame.
It is also noteworthy that not one of the progressives handwringing about the state of confession in the pages of Concilium ever consider that cultural factors were at fault. It never seemed to cross their mind that the cultural zeitgeist may have shifted in an unfavorable way, that modernity may be permeated by an anti-Christian ethos inimical to a penitential spirit. They rather hold modern social development in a uniformly positive regard – the advance of culture represents true progress, and it is the Church’s practice which must conform to culture, not vice versa.
Thus, as with every aspect of the liturgical revolution, the failures of the progressive platform are attributed to not implementing the program hard enough; the solution to the failures of revolution is more revolution.
In the next installment we will unpack the attempt of the Concilium progressives to undermine the traditional sacrament by arguing that concepts of sin and guilt are social constructs which the advances of psychology have rendered entirely mutable.
[1] Christian Duquoc, “Real Reconciliation and Sacramental Reconcilitation,” Concilium: Sacramental Reconciliation, Vol. 61, ed. Edward Schillebeeckx, trans. Barbara Wall (New York: Herder & Herder, 1961), p. 35
[2] Jean-Marie Tillard, “The Bread and Cup of Reconciliation,” op. cit., p. 54
[3] James F. McCue, “Penance as a Separate Sacramental Sign,” op. cit., p. 55
[4] ibid., p. 55
[5] ibid., p. 58
[6] ibid., p. 59
[7] Jean Remy, “Fault and Guilt in the Perspective of Sociology,” op. cit., p. 23
[8] Edward Schillebeekx, “Editorial,” op. cit., p. 7
[9] José Ramos-Regidor, “‘Reconciliation’ in the Primitive Church and its Lessons for Theology and Pastoral Practice Today,” op. cit., p. 76
[10] ibid., p. 85
[11] ibid., p. 76
[12] Carl Peter, “Integral Confession and the Council of Trent,” op. cit. p. 108
[13] Jean-Jacques Von Allmen, “The Forgiveness of Sins as a Sacrament in the Reformed Tradition,” op. cit., p. 118. Von Allmen was actually a Lutheran who was occasionally called upon to submit pieces to Concilium reflecting the Reformed perspective.
[14] ibid., 119
[15] Felix Funke, “Survey of Published Writings on Confession over the Past Ten Years,” op. cit., p. 128, 125
[16] ibid., 120
[17] Franz Heggen, “The Service of Penance,” op. cit., p. 135
[18] ibid., 137
[19] Christian Duquoc, “Real Reconciliation and Sacramental Reconciliation,” op. cit., p. 27
[20] ibid., 28
[21] ibid., 37
[22] ibid., 28-31
[23] ibid., 30-31
[24] ibid., 35
[25] ibid.
[26] 35, 27
[27] Brian Williams, “What Happened to Confession?” Sept. 3, 2013. https://liturgyguy.com/2013/09/03/what-happened-to-confession.
[28] Kenneth A. Briggs, “Catholics Changing Concept and Practice of Confession,” New York Times, March 6, 1976. (https://www.nytimes.com/1976/03/06/archives/catholics-changing-concept-and-practice-of-confession.html.) See also, Terry Mattingly, “Many Catholics No Longer Go to Confession. Does it Matter?” Knox News, May 4, 2023. Available online at https://www.knoxnews.com/story/entertainment/columnists/terry-mattingly/2023/05/04/terry-mattingly-if-catholics-dont-go-to-confession-does-it-matter/70170186007/
[29] Williams, op. cit.
[30] Bill Cosgrave, “The Decline in Confessions: Disaster or Return to Normal?” The Furrow, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Mar. 1994), 158

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