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Catholics, Repentance, and Forgiveness in America

by patrick w. carey
oxford, 392 pages, $34.95

In the 2013 Joseph Gordon-­Levitt romantic comedy Don Jon, the porn-obsessed title character hits the confessional, reels off his ­usual list of sins against chastity, and then cheerfully heads to the gym to pray his Hail Marys while doing pull-ups. You won’t find this moment in Patrick W. Carey’s careful new study, Confession: Catholics, Repentance, and Forgiveness in America. Carey had to set sharp limits on his sources in order to keep the project manageable; he frames his arguments around aspirational texts, theological or hortatory, rather than real or fictional records of what people did and felt. Don Jon is much too sleazy for a history whose citations swarm with cardinals and professors. And yet this cinematic moment manages to capture several of the points Carey makes about the nature—and the failures—of confession among American Catholics.

Carey describes an early America in which confession was rare and opposition to Catholicism was present but relatively muted. This was a transplanted English, or at least Anglophone, Catholicism: a minority faith. Carey starts in the English colonies and then adds the Catholicisms of later territories only as they join the United States. This has the ­unintentional effect of minimizing other influences, like French and Spanish theologies and practices; virtually all the players in Confession are English-speaking white people who lived under Protestant-run ­governments.

When a more fervent anti-­Catholicism arose in the mid-­nineteenth century, confession was one of the flash points. One priest-turned-Protestant called confession “The Master-Key to Popery.” Protestants charged that Catholic confessors usurped the husband’s closeness with and control of his wife and daughters, and that they sexually abused their women penitents. (The latter charge was sometimes true, as Carey notes.) A mob burned down a Massachusetts Ursuline convent in 1834; although confession was not one of the motives for the attack, the later trial of the arsonists (all but one of whom were acquitted) included an extended interrogation of the mother superior on her nuns’ confession practices, in an attempt to discredit her testimony. Sensationalist accounts like ex-priest William Hogan’s Auricular Confession and Popish Nunneries and Rebecca Reed’s Six Months in a Convent linked their lurid tales from the confessional to the Ursuline arson. The confessional, with its potent contrasts of exposure and concealment, accusation and absolution, became in the anti-Catholic imagination a site of prurience and almost mesmeric control wielded by priests over the minds of their penitents. The priest worked like a pusher, withholding the narcotic—absolution—until the guilt-wracked penitent was willing to do anything for a fix.

We all now know that there have been priests who abused their penitents’ innocence in the confessional. But the more ordinary bad ­experience of confession—and therefore the more cutting criticism raised by ­nineteenth-century Protestant ­polemics—is the one depicted in Don Jon. There the priest is, in human rather than sacramental terms, a nonentity. He’s tired, and he’s heard all this before. Take three Hail Marys, and call me in the morning. Jon does his duty, his required reps with the Virgin. Confession, far from reminding him of his helplessness, becomes a part of his self-improvement regime. As Carey puts it, nineteenth-century American Protestant polemics argued that Catholic confession “denied or neglected Christ as the only mediator of the grace of forgiveness” and “was solely an outward form of religion, devoid of genuine conversion.”

Carey, however, finds theologians, bishops, and ordinary priests concerned with penitents’ genuine repentance and willingness to reestablish a damaged relationship with Jesus. The Catechism of the Council of Trent, for example, emphasizes that the forgiveness given in the confessional is God’s power, delegated to the Church, and that all penance flows from faith, “for without faith no man can turn to God.” The parish mission movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sought—successfully—to get Catholics into the confessionals. Mission sermons noted that certain sins, such as “drunkenness and impurity,” “broke the bonds of communion that should exist in the mystical body of Christ.” They emphasized both fear of God’s judgment and love in response to his “majesty and goodness.” In missions, in catechisms, and in prayer books, Catholics were consistently taught that salvation is rescue by God alone. When they stepped into church, American Catholics were reminded that they were not self-made men.

Carey never subordinates history to argument, but he does advance several claims. He notes that Catholic theology of confession was distorted under pressure to respond to Protestant criticisms. Catholics (including the Council of Trent) overreached, strip-mining the historical evidence to justify current practices. Carey wants us to remember the diversity of confession: Before everybody confessed in secrecy to a priest, there were public confessions; before there were “devotional confessions” of minor misdeeds, people confessed rarely, and only the gravest faults; in the early church, penance preceded absolution rather than following it.

Carey also suggests that the long confessional lines of the post-mission, pre–Vatican II Church were not an ­unmixed blessing. Priests in those days complained that penitents didn’t seem to get better. (When Don Jon gets home from his prayers at the gym, he opens up his computer and gets back to watching porn.) Priests, trained with legalistic manuals that were little more than “peccatometers,” became “robot dispensers of forgiveness.” Carey takes this criticism more seriously than I think warranted. I’m not convinced the confessional is there to make us act better. Even if it is—and of course we hope that sincere repentance and rededication to Christ will break down barriers to his grace in our hearts—many of us have experienced those long years when every week we confessed the same thing again and again. We see the same failure in ourselves that the priests see. What they may not see is the faith it takes to keep returning—even if we’re just there because it’s habit, or because it’s what you’re supposed to do. People often do change with heartbreaking slowness; and if they don’t change, sometimes they hang on, which can be hard enough.

Carey notes the explosion of mortal sins: missing Sunday Mass, hating your neighbors, and more. Once every­thing was a mortal sin, it was easy to forget the normal practices (prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) by which venial sins were forgiven without specific confession. And many Catholics have been taught a theology of mortal sin that makes them feel cut off from God, slinking through their spiritual lives like children afraid of waking an abusive parent. Still, maybe it’s salutary to remember how easy it is to do terrible things—and not only because it reminds us of God’s tender purity, against which even our smaller crimes must seem like gashes. If only a few things are really “mortal sin,” it’s all too easy to start thinking of oneself as a sheep in Goatworld. If, by contrast, mortal sin is something everybody does, maybe we can all be a little kinder.

In spite of his criticisms, Carey offers a defense of pre–Vatican II piety. He notes that priests often emphasized mercy and mutual forgiveness. Carey attributes the sharp decline in confession after Vatican II partly to the newly loosened requirements for fasting, which removed a sign that Catholics were “sinful and repentant as a community and not just as ­isolated individuals.”

The slow-burning argument beneath several smaller contentions in Confession is that individualism is the great enemy of the faith. Carey says, “It would be a mistake to consider [confession to a priest] a manifestation of Catholic individualism.” The confessional line was its own community of sinners; in the confessional, penitents encountered not solely the priest but the whole Church, and God himself; and the practice of making restitution guided penitents to repair the social bonds they had broken. Nonetheless, auricular confession focuses on the listing of personal sins, making it difficult to articulate and repent of our complicity in social or “structural sins” such as economic exploitation or racial injustice. And the practice of self-examination and private disclosure of faults is easily misunderstood in ways that reinforce individualism: Don Jon is an exaggerated portrait of a man who uses confession like he uses porn, transforming what should be a self-forgetting act of union into self-absorption.

Carey devotes much of his final chapter to “general absolution.” In the 1970s, some dioceses experimented with a new rite of reconciliation: “a communal celebration followed by general confession of sins and general absolution,” the participants of which were expected to make individual confession of serious sins within a year of their absolution. This rite was intended for use in times of “grave need,” but Bishop Carroll Dozier of Memphis used the celebration as a way to bring back alienated Catholics. The Vatican rebuked Bishop Dozier’s experiment, though the bishop claimed it had brought people back to church and increased individual confessions. Archbishops from Khartoum and Kingston also defended general absolution, Khartoum because of the practical difficulties his flock faced in meeting with a priest and Kingston because general absolution demonstrated that penance is a communal form of worship of God. But by the time John Paul II became pope, American experiments with general absolution had largely ended.

Carey believes that renewing ceremonies of general absolution can bring people back to a communal practice of the faith and counter the shocking decline in Catholic confession. (By 2007 almost half of American Catholics reported that they never went to confession.) I share Carey’s assessment of the weakness of auricular confession in helping us articulate our complicity in social sin. And I share his loathing of our enemy, the sovereign Self. I wish I believed that communal confession practices would, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “relieve [us] of the bondage of self” and liberate us into the Body of Christ.

But AA itself offers reason, in its fourth and fifth steps, to believe that repentance requires assessing what you personally did, to the best of your ability, and sharing that assessment with another person. Nothing is as humbling as humiliation; and nothing is as healing. Nothing can replace the moment when another person, knowing what we’ve done, nonetheless acts toward us with ­Jesus’s love. Moreover, proclaiming a kind of corporate guilt can become an exhibition of corporate enlightenment. Confessing our personal sins, in secret, offers less opportunity for performance.

As confession developed, “satisfaction” (penance and, where appro­priate, restitution) moved from before absolution to after it. This shift, while theologically illuminating—God forgives and pays our debt before we make whatever partial amends we can—tends to diminish the urgency of satisfaction. Carey himself notes, “penances became lighter and lighter” after penance was moved to follow absolution. Making confession itself follow general absolution may make confession seem equally vestigial and optional.

Part of the reason clerical abuse and cover-up are so devastating is that our priests are called to represent Christ to us. There is something a priest brings to the confessional that is hard to put into words. I can only note that films in which confession is treated as sacred—from ­Alfred Hitchcock’s lugubrious I ­Confess to the 2005 sordid schoolboy thriller Confession—are about the strangeness of the priest. He is the hinge; he is one of us but not one of us. In most Western Catholic churches, the priest’s celibacy is perhaps the most visible sign of his difference, and this difference is our reminder that we need rescue from outside. The strangeness of the priest is a reminder that Catholics (priests themselves included) can’t absolve themselves. The priest is as helpless in the face of our secrets as Christ is (Carey notes that a pioneering legal defense of Catholic religious liberty came as a defense of the seal of the confessional), and so he wields Christ’s power of forgiveness.

On the battlefield, at an airport, in a parking lot, or within the familiar, evocative “box,” the priest’s consecration helps us experience that exposed, protected intimacy in which, by displaying our own wounds, we shelter in Christ’s. 

Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C.