Friday, March 08, 2024

Concilium’s Attack on Confession (Part 2): Guilt as a Social Construct

This is second part of an article which Mr Phillip Campbell, author of the blog Unam Sanctam Catholicam, has very kindly shared with us, his investigation into what the “progressive” theological journal Consilium was saying about reform of the sacrament of Confession in the years which immediately followed the most recent ecumenical council. The first part was published on Shrove Tuesday.

The Confession, 1838, by the Milanese painter Giuseppe Molteni (1800-67); image from Wikimedia Commons, supplied by Fondazione Cariplo, CC BY-SA 3.0

The progressive attack on the sacrament of confession launched by the journal Concilium in 1971 was not restricted to rubrical considerations. The journal’s opening salvo against the sacrament began rather with an examination of the concept of guilt, addressed from purely sociological and psychological perspectives . Editor Edward Schillebeeckx set the stage for this approach in his introduction to the volume, arguing that, “As systems of value change, the sense of guilt changes with them.” [1] This will be a fundamental point in Concilium’s attack on the sacrament: traditional sacramental forms are no longer useful because the psychological and sociological categories of guilt presupposed by the sacrament have shifted. Schillebeeckx directly correlated shifting ideas about guilt to fewer people frequenting the sacrament, as “Within the Church, the change in the sense of guilt is manifested by a greatly diminished interest in the existing forms of forgiveness of sins.” [2] As we shall see, the Concilium authors will argue that advances in the psychological understanding of guilt and moral action rendered the traditional form of confession at best obsolete, and at worst positively harmful.

Remy: The Socially Constructed Nature of Human Guilt
This concept was fleshed out in considerable detail by Belgian sociologist Jean Remy (1928-2019) in Volume 61’s opening essay, “Fault and Guilt in the Perspective of Sociology.” Remy was a giant in the field of western European sociology. He was a professor of sociology at the Catholic University of Louvain and co-director of the Centre d’Études Sociologiques at the University of Saint-Louis in Brussels. The author of many works, and editor of the French language sociological journal Espaces et Sociétés, Remy specialized in dynamics of urban sociology and social transactions. During his long career, he trained an entire generation of French-language sociologists, and his influence continues to be felt in the field to this day. [3]
Remy begins with a definition of guilt as an interior dissonance that we experience “when one has the sense of failure with regard to an image of oneself to which an emotional value has been attributed.” [4] In other words, we experience the emotion of guilt when we fail to live up to an ideal version of ourselves we are invested in. Elsewhere he says, “guilt results from non-conformity with the image of self.” [5]
But from whence do we obtain our standards of what our ideal self ought to look like? Remy suggests we adopt it from the culture we inhabit; we are raised in a certain cultural milieu that feeds us our ideals of what a healthy, well-adjusted human being looks like. We internalize these standards and measure ourselves by them. Guilt, then, is ultimately socially determined, based on a self-image that is “to a great extent a social construction.” [6]
Guilt is not only a social construction, but a means for dominant groups to enforce their ethos — what Remy calls the institutionalization of cultural schemas. “Guilt supposes an individualization of responsibility, and thus becomes a way in which cultural schemas are institutionalized.” [7] Elsewhere he says that guilt can only be operative on an individual level “when the [cultural] norm has been interiorized, and adopted by the person in function of this image to oneself.” [8]
There is thus a profound link between guilt and social structure. If so, then what is the value of pardon and reconciliation? If guilt presupposes a deviation from internalized social norms, then pardon represents a reintegration into the community — a kind of auto-da-fé that serves as a reaffirmation of social norms. Remy says:
The sense of guilt is reinforced by the processes of pardon and reconciliation…Guilt appears as the sense of an individual departure from the norms of the group, even if this fact is not consciously perceived. On this basis guilt takes on, in a hidden way, the function of cultural reintegration. This means that guilt is a mechanism which assures institutionalization. [9]
To sum up, Remy asserts that guilt represents the way that the collective mores of society are enforced on individuals through an “individuation of responsibility” — the process by which “cultural schemas” are interiorized. [10] Remy has labored to establish the socially constructed nature of human guilt. When we cut through the proliferation of sociological jargon that characterizes his writing, the core of his idea is that guilt — and hence our moral system that guilt relates to — is a subjective determinant of the dominant culture:
If these analyses are correct, the concrete forms of guilt and hence moral feeling derive to some extent from criteria whose origin is not explicitly known to the person and which contribute, in a hidden way, to stabilize a social order by working out a system of evidences. [11]
“Rethinking the Nature of Sin”
We shall return momentarily to the idea of the “hidden” origin of our moral sensibilities, but for now we must ask: if guilt is a construct of the dominant culture, what happens when the dominant culture undergoes a paradigm shift? Suppose changes in society prompt a reevaluation of values — what then becomes of our experience of guilt?
Being a progressive, Remy presupposes that modern man — thanks to developments in the positive sciences — is in a fundamentally different position from that of all preceding generations. Ancient sureties no longer hold; the standards by which men measured their deeds can no longer be trusted. Remy never demonstrates this; like every progressive, he merely assumes it prima facie.
What is so different about modern man relating to perceptions of guilt? Remy says the evolution in modern morality relates to a shift away from individual towards a collective guilt. He is not the only Concilium writer to make this assertion; the point is hammered home by almost every contributor to the journal. James F. McCue insisted that a reevaluation of confession was needed because “our sense of sin has become more political and corporate” [12]; he cites “issues of world peace, colonialism, and racism” as the principal ethical questions modern men are preoccupied with. [13] Schillebeeckx argued that “Shortcomings in the private sector are regarded by many as of less importance than misdeeds which affect a wider sphere.” [14] Jean-Jacques von Allmen said, “Roman Catholic theologians are themselves rethinking the meaning of confession,” based on this shifting moral emphasis. “Even more fundamentally,” he adds, “these theologians are rethinking the nature of sin and Christian morality in general.” [15] In light of these new value systems, “the traditional rite [of confession] seems beside the point.” [16]
The Primacy of the Subconscious
The reformers thus desired that the Church’s discussion of sin focus on social sins rather than individual failings. But, we might ask, aren’t social sins merely the culmination of individual sins? Is not institutional racism merely the aggregate of countless individual acts of racism? Should we therefore not combat collective sins by starting with repentance for our own private sins?
Remy and the other Concilium authors unanimously disagree. This goes back to the concept of guilt. Guilty feelings presuppose some kind of culpability; we feel guilty because we feel responsible. But to what degree are we responsible for our own sins? In light of modern psychology’s discovery of the unconscious mind à la Freud, has it not been demonstrated that our conscious decisions proceed from a groundswell of primal urges deep within our subconscious? If this is true, how can a man be truly culpable for his actions, which he is incapable of even understanding? Recall that Remy had argued that moral principles “derive to some extent from criteria whose origin is not explicitly known to the person,” and are worked out in society “in a hidden way,” based on cultural and psychological factors outside the realm of conscious cognition. [17]
A famous photograph of Sigmund Fraud, 1921, by Max Halbertstadt. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 
James McCue observed that “We are more impressed than were our fathers with the multi-dimensionality of our simplest actions, and with the impossibility of seeing clearly into our own most hidden recesses.” [18] This is what should distinguish the modern Church’s praxis from the pre-modern Tridentine approach to confession — modern man now understands the “multi-dimensionality” of even our smallest actions. Fr. Carl Peter, professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University, contrasted this with the ethics of the Tridentine era, whose moral theologians piously but naively “believed that remarkably broad moral changes were possible.” [19] This fundamental supposition that underlies traditional confession is no longer tenable. “Private confession,” McCue says, “seemed to presuppose that sin (one’s sinfulness) was a series of discreet acts committed against a fairly well-defined legal code.” [20] Modern psychology, however, has revealed that our sins are not a series of deliberate acts against a well-defined code, but rather a conscious manifestation of subconscious processes we can barely understand, let alone be culpable for.
To be clear, the Concilium authors do not deny man’s free will, nor the moral nature of human actions. They do, however, argue that the subconscious genesis of our actions makes it difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain culpability. Something like an Examination of Conscience would therefore have little meaning — private confession, which is offered in response to guilt feelings on the part of the penitent, would similarly be of limited value, since the Concilium authors believe guilt feelings are social constructs.
“New Zones of Guilt Feelings”
Instead of handwringing about our own failings, Catholics should shift their attention to structural problems within society — racism, environmental issues, economic justice, etc. This will require a recontextualization of how we think about guilt. If guilt is a social construct, then the construct must change, so that our moral sensibilities are agitated by a new set of problems. The Dominican Christian Duquoc was eager to see the traditional guilt-construct jettisoned, which he saw as incompatible with the needs of the modern world, even calling it “useless” because it was incapable of resolving the social conflicts of the modern world. On whether Christians should worry that the elimination of private confession would render the reconciliation of Christ meaningless, Duquoc says:
The conviction that private confession is useless does not in any way call Christ’s ministry of reconciliation into question. On the contrary, all effective reconciliation is seen by these Christians as an act of Christ. They are aware of the concrete quality of reconciliation, of its truth at the heart of conflicts. But private penance seems to them to suppress these conflicts artificially through the subterfuge of an inward guilt and forgiveness that have no bearing on the real conditions of life. [21]
The new construct Duquoc envisions is no longer private; rather, it is characterized by a historicism that gives a platform to the fight for social justice. In this passage, he waxes positively Marxist about social struggle as the central component of reconciliation:
The current emphasis in Christianity on the dynamic and future character of reconciliation robs forgiveness of historicism, reduces it to a private dimension, in short, devalues it. Struggle, as the active and committed form of reconciliation, has pride of place. Forgiveness, seen as obsessed with the past, is an obstacle to the freedom required for political struggle. The shift in emphasis in reconciliation makes the sacrament of penance meaningless; the social import of forgiveness is underestimated. [22]
If, therefore, Christian reconciliation is not to become obsolete, the Church must find a new meaning — a social meaning — for the sacrament. Duquoc says it is a “frequently noted fact that the more seriously a Christian takes the historical struggle for reconciliation the less he perceives the meaning of the existing forms of sacramental reconciliation.” [23] By whom this “frequently noted fact” is asserted he does not say, but it matters not; ultimately, what is needed is a new message, a new social construct that can forge a link binding Christian reconciliation to social justice, so that
the social import of sacramental penance resides ultimately in the link it establishes between forgiveness and reconciliation in our history. This dimension requires that the forms of its symbolization in the Church should be ceaselessly defined and delimited by the meaning that is to be brought out [i.e., by the demands of the new message]. [24]
The Church should thus shift its emphasis to create what Remy calls “new zones of guilt feelings,” by which we can slowly create a new social construct to “modify zones of guilt,” [25] what amounts to a massive campaign of psychological reeducation based on the prevalent zeitgeist. Ultimately the Concilium authors all agree that any viable scheme for reform of reconciliation must be based on the prevalent culture. After all, guilt is a social construct. If you have “zones of guilt” that are not reflected in the dominant culture, the Church’s moral message will not be resonant with the people. “To be effective,” Remy says, “the appeal [to moral conscience] must also be based on the dominant culture.” [26] He says:
preaching to the general public often owes its efficacy to the fact that it is in keeping with the dominant culture. It sees its power of creating institutions decline where it no longer corresponds to the latent cultural models which have evolved under various collective pressures. [27]
All this is a trumped-up way to say that the Church must take its moral cues from culture. The Church cannot hope to change culture through its preaching; rather, it must identify the struggles the dominant culture deems important and “modify its zones of guilt” based upon them.
As we can see, this vision goes far beyond a reform of how penance is administered; it represents a monumental shift in the Church’s approach to penance, as von Allmen said, a “rethinking (of) the nature of sin and Christian morality in general.” [28] If implemented correctly, Remy believes that this new approach is capable of revolutionizing our social interactions. Purified of traditional notions of guilt and moral culpability, we can finally begin to better our society in a truly egalitarian way. Remy says:
Now that the techniques of the human sciences are building up towards mastery of relations with others and of social interventions, without making use directly of the mechanism of guilt, it is no doubt important, from the point of view of a Christian evaluation, to react consciously and lucidly with regard to something which — perhaps in a hidden way — is at the origin of a new concept of individual and collective destiny. [29]
Some Damning Omissions
Obviously there is much that can be critiqued here from a standpoint of traditional Catholic thought, so we will confine ourselves to a few brief observations.
First, Remy and the others completely ignore the place of natural law (in fact, the phrase “natural law” does not occur once in the entire issue of Concilium). It is true that social conditioning has a place in helping us understand right from wrong, as St. Paul says: “If it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’ ” (Rom. 7, 7). However, social mores are not the source of our moral sensibilities; they are rather a conduit through which the natural law is manifest to us (or, in deviant cultures, obscured from us). The Catechism says, “No one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man.” [30] Concilium’s emphasis on guilt as a social construct completely obscures the place of natural law in the moral life — and understandably so, for if Remy et al. admitted the place of an unchanging, universal moral law accessible by every man in his conscience, the argument that the Church’s moral preaching must adapt to the dominant culture collapses.
Second, the Concilium authors habitually confuse guilt and contrition. Remy, Duquoc and the rest see the sacrament of penance as being essentially about guilt, engendering “guilt to the point of neurosis,” as Duquoc sneered. [31] But guilt is fundamentally different than contrition, and it is not the experience of guilt feelings but the presence of contrition that is at the heart of the sacrament of penance. Guilt is a feeling; contrition is an acknowledgement of responsibility, an admission that one has done wrong. We cannot control our emotional reactions to things; this is why any confessor worth his salt will tell penitent that their own feelings of guilt are not reliable. One penitent may weep like Augustine at the theft of some pears, while another may confess adultery with a disposition of stoicism; both are acceptable so long as there is sincere contrition at the heart of the confession. The emotions felt by the penitent are far less important than the penitent’s admission of wrongdoing and resolution not to sin again. No authority says we must experience a particular emotion when we confess; all authorities agree that we must have contrition when we confess. The Concilium authors’ failure to distinguish between the two is a juvenile error. And, like “natural law”, the word “contrition” never appears in Volume 61.
The Conversion of St Augustine, 1430-35 ca., by Fra Angelico (1395 ca. 1455) and workshop. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Third, there is no discussion of penance (satisfaction). The authors lament the alleged inefficacy of the sacrament but omit any discussion of the obligation of Christians to do penance for their sins, which is one of the four basic components of the sacrament of confession. Given that everyone who has ever made progress in the spiritual life has done so through practicing ascesis, if we entirely jettison the idea of doing penance from our theology of reconciliation, of course there will be no progress. But if we are not entirely culpable for our sins to begin with, then what purpose can penance possibly serve? It becomes entirely redundant.
Fourth, the concept that we should base our moral preaching on the dominant culture is a diabolical inversion of the maxim of James 4, 4: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Even in epochs when the Church happens to support the dominant culture, it does not derive its moral compass from that culture. And the Church’s greatest social triumphs have always been in situations when it vigorously resisted the dominant culture. To argue that the Church’s moral sensibilities should be derived from the culture is to completely upend two millennia of settled ecclesiology.
Finally, we should vehemently push back against the Concilium authors’ insistence that private confession engenders an unhealthy habit of navel-gazing, a neurotic obsession with one’s own faults that creates psychological instability. This is a strawman characterization of confession more suited to a Jack Chick tract than any Catholic theological journal. The Catholic’s consideration of our sins is not meant to be obsessive or neurotic. Let us close with a meditation on the words of St. Francis de Sales on the subject, whose brief admonitions contain more spiritual wisdom than one would find in a hundred issues of Concilium. How different and wholesome is the vision of this great caretaker of souls from the drivel of Schillebeekx and his friends!
St Francis de Sales in His Study, 1760, by Peter Anton Lorenzoni (1721-2), in the parish church of St Sigismund in Salzburg, Austria. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0.)
We must not fret over our own imperfections… you must be sorry for the faults you commit with a repentance which is strong, level-headed, steady, and tranquil — a repentance that is not agitated, not worried, not discouraged.
… You must hate your faults, but you should do so calmly and peacefully, without fuss or anxiety. You must be patient when you see them and benefit from seeing your own lowliness. Unless you do this, your imperfections, of which you are acutely conscious, will disturb you even more and thus grow stronger, for nothing is more favorable to the growth of these weeds than our anxiety and over eagerness to get rid of them.
… Confess your fault and beg for mercy in the ear of your confessor to receive absolution. But when that is done, remain peaceful, and having detested the offense, embrace lovingly your lowliness.” [32]
[1] Edward Schillebeekx, “Editorial,” Concilium: Sacramental Reconciliation, Vol. 61, ed. Edward Schillebeeckx (New York: Herder & Herder, 1961), p. 7
[2] Ibid.
[3] For Remy’s importance and work, see Rob Shields, “Review: Jean Remy — Social Transaction,” Space and Culture, Oct. 21, 2020. Available online at
[4] Jean Remy, “Fault and Guilt in the Perspective of Sociology,” Concilium: Sacramental Reconciliation, Vol. 61, ed. Edward Schillebeeckx, trans. Kevin Smyth (New York: Herder & Herder, 1961), p. 10-11
[5] Ibid., 12
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 10-11
[8] Ibid., 12
[9] Ibid., 11, 12-13
[10] Ibid., 13
[11] Ibid., 16
[12] James F. McCue, “Penance as a Separate Sacramental Sign,” op cit., p. 57
[13] Ibid.
[14] Schillebeeckx, “Editorial,” op. cit., p. 7
[15] Jean-Jacques von Allmen, “The Forgiveness of Suns as a Sacrament in the Reformed Tradition,” op. cit., p 115.
[16] McCue, op. cit., 57
[17] Remy, 11
[18] McCue, 57
[19] Carl Peter, “Integral Confession and the Council of Trent,” op. cit., 101
[20] McCue, 56
[21] Christian Duquoc, “Real Reconciliation and Sacramental Reconciliation,” op. cit., 28
[22] Ibid., 29
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Remy, 18
[26] Ibid., 19
[27] Ibid.
[28] Von Allmen, 115
[29] Remy, 24
[30] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1860
[31] Duquoc, 31
[32] Golden Counsels of St. Francis de Sales, ed. Mary Paula McCarthy, VHM, trans. Peronne Marie Thibert, VHM (Monastery of the Visitation: St. Louis, MO., 1994), 16-17

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