Almost 50 years ago, Dr. Karl Menninger raised a concern for both psychiatrists and religious leaders. His book, Whatever Became of Sin?, noted that our understanding of the sins which caused us to need healing and forgiveness had passed over to something outside of oneself, the famed excuse that “the Devil made me do it.” Personal responsibility was lost; victimhood took its place. Half a century later, his book still stands as a challenge to our own contemporary world.
In Catholic circles in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, patterns of regular confession that were once in abundance began to fade. And that raises a similar question: Whatever became of confession? While frequent confession became a thing of the past, Catholics continued to receive Communion. A traditionally minded Catholic response was that people treated Communion lightly, and their moral consciences were badly distorted. Those on the other end of the spectrum saw Communion itself as the healing remedy. It did not require confession to prepare for it.
The question remains alive today, perhaps even more so after a year of living through the Covid-19 pandemic. But today it might be rephrased as two different questions for two different audiences: “How shall one go to confession now?” and “Why go to confession at all?” Neither of these questions are necessarily evidence of scepticism, doubt or cynicism. They are carried within the human heart and reflect a grace-filled desire to touch again the sacramental tradition of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation.
The question of “how to” comes from many Catholics for whom confession has not been available, and who may wonder if their customary pattern makes sense any longer. The question of “why” comes from a different source, from people who have abandoned the church and its rituals for some time, and who now feel that the need for healing and forgiveness is calling out to them. What kind of pastoral response might address these two questions?
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Peter Fink, S.J., is a retreat director at Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Centre in Atlanta. He was formerly a professor of sacramental and liturgical theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, in Cambridge, Mass., and an associate pastor at Saint Francis Xavier Church in New York City.
With thanks to America Magazine and Peter Fink SJ, where this article originally appeared.