BC Seal BCM Masthead
current issue
Linden Lane
Q and A
Works and Days
Letters to the Editor
BCM Home
Contact BCM
Coming Events
Hear no evil. Perhaps the most strking development in the practice of confession in the U.S. has been its disappearance

photo of a ConfessionalBY JAMES O'TOOLE

When I was a boy, church was different during confession hours. Absent was the brightly lit, flower-bedecked scene of the High Mass, the vast space of the nave filled with incense and music. Rather, the church was dark and shadowy, illuminated only by the sunlight striking the stained-glass windows and the flickering flames of the sanctuary lamp and votive candles. The air smelled not of incense but of wood and the varnish of the pews, and the only sound was the quiet shuffling of penitents as they made their way, one after another, into and out of the confessional box. Sometimes the rustle of indistinct whispers could be heard from inside one of the boxes, but etiquette demanded that one avoid making out the words. Confession was a supremely private ritual that happened to be carried out in public.

From roughly the beginning of organized Catholicism in the United States at the end of the 18th century through the early 1960s, confession was central for American Catholics. It was a sacrament--one of the seven established by Christ to bestow grace upon the living--and the means by which Catholics attained absolution for their sins. It was also something Catholics did that their Protestant and Jewish neighbors did not do, a distinctive marker of Catholic identity. Within the Catholic community, it served as a yardstick; priests sometimes measured a parish's spiritual well-being by the frequency with which parishioners went to confession. For more than a century Catholics confessed more often than they partook of communion, another one of the sacraments.

Then, in the mid-1960s, confession seemed to disappear almost completely from the fiber of Catholic identity and custom. The sacrament underwent a name change, as well. What once had officially been known as Penance became, in the wake of Vatican II, the sacrament of Reconciliation. But the change for American Catholics went deeper. Practically overnight, the lines on Saturday afternoons vanished and the hours appointed for confession dwindled as even the most ardent Catholics stayed away.

Because confession was (and still is) conducted privately, exploring the role it played--and then ceased to play--in the lives of American Catholics is difficult. Most Catholics who experienced it have their own stories to tell, but less anecdotal information can be harder to come by. In contrast to other sacraments, such as baptism and confirmation, there are no records of who has gone to confession and when; certainly no records have ever been made of what actually happened once an individual entered the confessional box.

"Auricular" confession--the expression itself is telling. A person's confession goes directly "into the ear" of the priest, and it vanishes with the sound of the spoken words. It is rare even to find priests or parishes that kept reliable counts of confessions, but a few fragmentary computations have survived to suggest the historical dimensions of confession in this country. Consider, for example, the experience of the Jesuit priests at St. Ignatius Loyola Church on Park Avenue in New York City. From July 1896 through June 1897, according to reports sent to their Jesuit superiors, the seven priests of the parish estimated that they heard a total of 78,000 confessions: 76,000 of these were "particular," recounting sins committed since a previous confession, and 2,000 were "general," covering a penitent's entire life.

One of those priests kept a more exact tally as he sat for hours in the confessional. With the precision and language of an accountant, Patrick Healy, SJ, added up his confessions every week in his diary, "brought forward" each sum into a monthly total, and then computed his annual "score." Between July 1, 1896, and June 30, 1897--like his confreres, Fr. Healy calculated on the fiscal year--he heard 9,047 separate confessions, about 11 percent of the parish total. These ranged from a monthly low of 253 in August (he was away on vacation in Maine for two weeks) to a high of 1,188 in October. Most of these penitents clustered on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. One Saturday, for example, Fr. Healy heard 73 confessions during unspecified hours in the afternoon, and then heard 102 more between 7:45 and 11 that night. The day's total (175) was apparently more or less normal. A few weeks later, when he heard "only 88," he thought the pace "slack." On another day, when he heard 124, he even managed to finish reading his daily office while sitting in the confessional box, waiting for penitents to come to him.

In Boston, another priest was recording similar crowds. Fr. James A. Walsh, who would later found the Maryknoll missionary order, was in the waning years of the 19th century a young curate in his first assignment at St. Patrick's parish in the Roxbury neighborhood, a densely packed working-class district of Irish immigrants and their upwardly mobile children. Walsh typically sat in the confessional for four to five hours on Saturdays, during which time he would hear between 100 and 150 confessions. The pace might be uneven. One Saturday in February 1899, just before the beginning of Lent, he heard 137. They seemed to come in waves: "solid" between 3 and 5 in the afternoon, "straggling" between 5 and 6, and then steady again between 7:20 and 9:20 that night.

Priests never discussed the details of the confessions they heard, but they often spoke warmly of the satisfaction they derived from the forgiveness of their parishioners' sins. They even boasted of reeling in "big fish"--meaning penitents who had been away for many years. "Landed a 17-year fish," Fr. Walsh exulted one day in Boston, while Fr. Healy (he was a Jesuit, after all) expressed his excitement in French: "Quelques gros poissons!"

For parish priests the confessional was the primary locus of their sacramental ministry. Mass and other sacraments, by comparison, took up only a small percentage of their working days and weeks.

These large numbers of confessions sketch out the broad outlines of Penance's place in American Catholicism. More important to understanding confession and its fate is the way in which the laity actually experienced the sacrament. Most Catholics were taught the proper form for confessing at an early age, and for the rest of their lives fell into its familiar rhythms.

"When the priest opens the little slide" in the confessional window, a 1930s textbook explained to elementary-school students, "make the Sign of the Cross, and then ask the priest to bless you. . . . Tell all of your sins, and always try to tell how many times you have committed each sin. It is well to begin your Confession with the most serious sin. . . . When you have confessed all your sins, you should say: 'Father, I am very sorry for these sins and all the sins of my past life.'"

At that point, the priest might offer a word or two of encouragement, then he assigned a penance to be accomplished, usually in the form of a number of prayers to be recited. The penitent next said a short Act of Contrition while the priest pronounced his prayer of absolution in Latin. The sacramental exchange ended there. On leaving the confessional box, the parishioner returned to a pew or to the church altar rail to recite the specified prayers of penance, and was then free to go.

The procedure was simple enough, but whenever ordinary Catholics discussed confession their comments concentrated at the positive and negative extremes. The social activist Dorothy Day, for example--not, to be sure, an "ordinary" Catholic in any sense of the word, but a woman who, by her own account, had some considerable experience with sin--remembered affectionately in her 1952 autobiography the "warm, dimly lit vastness" of the church as she waited her turn and the welcoming, "patient" attitude of the priest. As Day acknowledged, confession was "hard," forcing one to "rack [one's] brain for even the beginnings of sins against charity, chastity, sins of detraction, sloth, or gluttony." But many Catholics found confession worthwhile for just that reason. Its salutary effect derived in large measure from the very fact that it was a difficult and serious business.

At the same time, the clergy had a tendency to use the language of trial and punishment in talking about confession. This heightened the dread a penitent might feel before entering the box, and diminished the relief on leaving it. "The confessor is primarily a judge," one priest asserted in the 1950s, and the sacrament is conducted "after the manner of a judicial trial." Another priest went even further. At the altar, he wrote, a priest was "co-offerer with Christ," but in the confessional he was "co-jailer with Christ." Images of that kind led many to share the view of the layman who, in a 1966 letter to a national Catholic magazine, described confession as "the sacrament of fear."

Perhaps the most striking feature of the history of confession in the United States is the speed with which it collapsed. Catholic commentators began to note the falling numbers of penitents shortly after the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Vatican II had initiated many changes in Church practice--mandating that Mass be said in the language of the people, for instance, and turning the altar to face the congregation. But it had said practically nothing about confession, other than to authorize postconciliar work to "give more luminous expression to both the nature and effect of the sacrament." Even so, in 1968 a priest wrote in the Passionist Fathers' Sign magazine that "people are staying away from confession in droves."

Parish schedules confirm the decline. In 1900, for instance, Sacred Heart parish in middle-class Newton, Massachusetts, had settled into a pattern that would remain in place for more than half a century: Four priests heard confessions from 3:30 to 6 p.m. and again from 7 to 9:30, a total of five hours, every Saturday. "Housekeepers and all others whose duties will allow them to do so should go to confession in the afternoon," the pastor urged, "and leave the confessionals free in the evening for working people." In later years, as confessions declined, fewer hours were set aside. By 1972, with the decline fully underway, five hours were reduced to three (4 to 5:30 and 7:30 to 9 p.m.), and by 1991 that was cut to only an hour and a half (2 to 3:30), though the pastor was then also adding hopefully "anytime by appointment."

Polling data likewise document confession's disappearance. The National Opinion Research Center conducted extensive studies of American Catholics in 1965 and again in 1975. During that period, Catholics who went to confession once a month declined from 38 percent to 17 percent, while those who said that they "never" or "practically never" confessed increased from 18 percent to 38 percent. By the mid-1980s, the number of monthly penitents had fallen to 6 percent, according to a survey conducted by the University of Notre Dame. Even among Catholics who were most active in their parishes--volunteering, teaching religious-education classes, or serving in other capacities--15 percent reported that they never went to confession at all, while another 35 percent said they went only once a year.

How are we to understand so dramatic a change in American Catholic religious practice? In retrospect, it seems clear that as the 20th century advanced there was accumulating dissatisfaction with confession among the laity, and this eventually took its toll. One of the most common complaints was the unseemly speed with which the sacrament might be conducted.
Typically, the whole business lasted about two minutes. On January 7, 1899, for example, Boston's Fr. James Walsh heard 125 confessions in four and three-quarter hours, meaning that, on average, he was talking to a new penitent every two minutes and 15 seconds. Some confessions could take longer, but some could be shorter. At least once, Fr. Healy in New York averaged less than two minutes per penitent. All the data I have seen convince me that these experiences were normal.

Of course, two minutes is longer than it seems. A penitent might take only about five seconds to say the opening phrases of the rite, with perhaps another ten seconds at the end for the Act of Contrition and the absolution. The rest of the time could be devoted to the enumeration of offenses, and a fast talker could pack quite a number of sins into two minutes. The priest might interrupt to ask questions, but confessors were generally advised to keep such questioning to a minimum. The Jesuit priest Gerald Kelly's popular manual, The Good Confessor (1951), spelled out a number of "prudent don'ts" for priests, and the first of them was "Don't ask unnecessary questions." Confessors, particularly the newly ordained, were enjoined to give each penitent some particular words of advice or encouragement, but these too might become mechanical and not take up much time.

Increasingly, lay people complained that the pressure of long lines of penitents and the perfunctory nature of the encounter lent an air of the assembly line to confessional practice. When Detroit's Archbishop John Dearden assembled a group of lay people in 1962 to articulate concerns that they hoped the impending Vatican Council would address, prominent on their list was the hope that Penance could be transformed into "a means of spiritualizing the layman," rather than a mere "enumeration of sins and the provision of absolution."

Priests too objected to rushing confessions, at least in theory. The crowds who waited to receive the sacrament could create a temptation to hasten the process along, but this "slot-machine" approach had to be resisted, said the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, a magazine for parish priests, in 1920. After all, "what good is accomplished by hearing a great number of penitents in a slipshod and unprofitable manner?" At the same time, however, a common parish practice encouraged lay people to hurry through confession. Before Vatican II, it was not at all unusual for Catholics to go to confession during Mass itself. Since the liturgy at the time called for little active participation by the laity, parishioners could line up for confession as soon as Mass began. It was possible to confess while the Mass was going on, wrote Mary Perkins Ryan, the liturgist and educator, in 1938, and still have the "virtual intention"--strikingly contemporary language!--of assisting at the sacrifice, and thereby fulfilling the Sunday obligation. This kind of "doubling up" reinforced the practice of speedy confession.

More fundamental than procedural complaints in undercutting confession were changing notions of sin. Since the Middle Ages, auricular confession had been built on a clear distinction between mortal and venial sins. Strictly speaking, only mortal sins--those grave offenses that completely ruptured the believer's relationship with God--were "necessary matter" for confession. But the list of mortal sins kept expanding. In the 1930s, for instance, the popular magazine Messenger of the Sacred Heart added several: reading even part of a volume that was on the Index of Prohibited Books, doing more than two-and-a-half hours of "servile work" on Sunday, and (for women) wearing makeup "for the purpose of enticing or encouraging others to sins of impurity." Moreover, priests had long been in the habit of urging penitents to confess their venial sins as well. "It is not necessary to confess our venial sins," the Baltimore Catechism pointed out in its 1941 edition, "but it is better to do so." If one had committed no mortal sins, said this manual from which generations of American Catholics learned their faith, "we should confess our venial sins or [even] some sin told in a past confession, for which we are again sorry."

Suddenly, that advice no longer seemed right, as American Catholics rethought their understanding of sin. Writing in The Priest magazine in 1972, for example, William Allen, a pastor from Florida, expressed the increasingly common rejection of what he called an "act-dominated concept of sin." It was "well nigh impossible," he said, for anyone "in the normal course of events" to commit a sin serious enough to require confession. John Carmody, a Jesuit theologian, had written in the same magazine a few years earlier that sin was best thought of not as specific acts of commission or omission, but rather as a "negative constant"--"hanging like a smog of bad atmosphere around all human actions." The parish clergy were losing some of their old confidence. "Why do we say that some actions are 'wrong' while others are 'right'?" one priest asked the Homiletic and Pastoral Review in 1970. "Where does this idea come from?"

It is practically inconceivable that an American Catholic priest a hundred years earlier--or even 20 years earlier--would have been troubled by questions of that kind. In this apparent vacuum, lay Catholics may have begun to take upon themselves the responsibility to decide whether their actions were serious enough to lead them into the confessional. Increasingly, the conclusion was that they were not. "People have lost a clear-cut notion of what sin is," the lay editors of Commonweal observed in 1974, "and this new sense of the ambiguity of evil does not fit the popular understanding of confession."

Reconsideration of certain specific "sins" contributed to this shift in thinking, and no topic had more impact than birth control. Long before the publication of Pope Paul VI's encyclical on the subject, Humanae Vitae, in July 1968, priests knew that anything dealing with sexuality had to be treated very carefully in the confessional, but the experts disagreed on the best approach to take. One seminary textbook in pastoral theology urged confessors to "use the utmost prudence and discretion" in asking about matters "de sexto. Do not teach evil. It is often better to be silent on this matter." Another textbook took precisely the opposite view. Penitents, particularly the young, "must be questioned closely about sins against the Sixth Commandment," it advised. Whichever general approach a parish priest might adopt, he often had to address contraception during confession, especially as the 20th century advanced. In some dioceses, priests were specifically instructed to ask about the subject themselves, even if penitents did not bring it up. Widespread expectation that Pope Paul VI would change the Church's teaching on contraception gave way to confusion and anger when he did not.

Three months after the publication of Humanae Vitae, the anguish of one woman was perhaps typical. A year earlier, she explained in a letter to the magazine Sign, her priest had told her that she need not confess her use of birth control pills; "it was a very relaxed and wonderful year," she said. Now, with the restatement of the Church's traditional position, she did not know what to think or do. Neither giving up the practice of contraception nor going back to confessing it as sinful seemed satisfactory. "All of a sudden," wrote another lay person, "I see no sin involved in this practice." The American Catholic laity were getting used to the idea of deciding such moral questions on their own, perhaps even in spite of what official Church teaching might be. "Rome has squandered its own moral authority," Commonweal opined tersely.

A more general factor in changing Catholic notions of sin was a new "psychologizing" of confession. At first, many 20th-century Catholics had been horrified by the implications of Freudian theory. Not only did the Viennese psychiatrist overemphasize sex, one priest wrote in American Ecclesiastical Review in 1926, but also the role Freud accorded the unconscious seemed to undercut individual moral responsibility. What need was there to seek forgiveness for sins, the priest continued, if "men are puppets, moved in their actions by the strings of an irresponsible unconscious?" Interreligious tensions redoubled some of these suspicions. Since Freud and many of his disciples were Jewish, some Catholics thought it best to keep a safe distance. "Only the psychiatrist who subscribes wholeheartedly to the teachings of Christianity can be trusted with the soul of a Christian patient," one priest urged as late as 1960. What is more, Catholics long thought confession a better remedy for what bothered individuals, especially since it was so readily accessible. Why pay an analyst for what was available free every Saturday afternoon at the local parish?

Despite the persistence of such attitudes, Catholic caricatures of psychology and psychiatry were fading by midcentury among priests and laity alike, replaced by a greater appreciation of the compatibility of these sciences with confession. In fact, the sacrament was increasingly described in psychological terms. Some priests began to offer advice to their colleagues on how to deal with the "phobias" and "compulsions" of "neurotic" penitents. Regular practice of the sacrament even had many positive "psychotherapeutic aftereffects," one college and seminary textbook asserted. The systematic examination of conscience before confession could itself "promote a more complete self-awareness" and thereby contribute to "mental hygiene and prophylaxis."

At the same time, lay men and women, faced with a choice of confession or psychological counseling, were revising their estimate of which was likely to produce the better result. "My priest never had the training that my psychiatrist has," one woman told sociological researchers in the early 1980s. "I go to [my psychiatrist] out of an awareness that I want to change, to grow. My priest never allowed me to do that."

Also helping to accelerate the decline of confession was its shifting relationship with communion. The two sacraments had always been closely linked. Confessionals were crowded on Saturdays precisely because parishioners wanted to go to communion at Sunday Mass. Confession was also an independent devotional exercise, however, and throughout the 19th century the practice of Penance had almost always outrun reception of the Eucharist; statistics compiled by Jesuits in the eastern half of the United States between 1880 and 1940 show this. In 1886-87, for instance, priests of the Maryland-New York Jesuit province reported hearing more than 1.2 million confessions, while they distributed only about 850,000 communions. This ratio changed in the early years of the 20th century, particularly after the eucharistic reforms of Pope Pius X. With the lowering of the age of first communion, the gradual relaxing of the rules governing fasting before reception of the eucharist, and the active encouragement of more frequent communion by the laity, the rate of confessions dipped below that of communions and stayed there. In 1907-08, the Jesuits' tally of communions exceeded confessions for the first time (1.7 million to 1.4 million), and the gap steadily widened thereafter, eventually leveling off at a rough ratio of three to two. This balance prevailed until the precipitous decline of confession in the 1960s.

As American Catholics internalized the practice of more frequent reception of the Eucharist, they seemed to conclude that it was communion, not confession, that performed the all-important work of purification and reconciliation. One could take communion "weekly or even daily," with only the required annual confession, Sign magazine had said in 1954; "however, we do not recommend that practice as ideal, for a fruitful reception of Penance is one of the best preparations for a fruitful reception of the Eucharist." By 1969, the journal's priest-editors had changed their view. It was not only "permissible" for one to go to communion without first having gone to confession, they said, "it is and should be the most usual and normal procedure."

Other practical matters also contributed to the sharp decline of confession in Catholic America. Shortages of priests meant that those who remained were unable to sit for hours in the confessional as their predecessors had done, though the demand that they do so had fallen off before their ranks did. What is more, the authorization in 1970 of Saturday afternoon and evening "anticipation" Masses for Sunday got in the way of the traditional confession schedule. The result was confusion at best, active discouragement of confession at worst. Since Saturday Masses proved particularly popular with elderly parishioners, the spread of this practice siphoned off many of the people who were most likely to retain older habits of regular confession.

In February 1974, nine years after the close of Vatican II, the rethinking of confession that had been encouraged by the council bore fruit with the publication of the Rite of Penance, issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. This rite, which officially took effect in the United States on Ash Wednesday 1976 as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, endorsed and retained the traditional form of individual, auricular confession. But it also permitted other options: face-to-face encounters between the priest and the penitent, which could seem more like individual counseling sessions; communal penance services, in which private confession would be available (but not required) in the context of a public liturgical service; and the possibility of expanded recourse to general absolution, without individual confession, when circumstances seemed to the local bishop to justify it.

Though these options were initially greeted with optimism, particularly by priests, their real impact proved to be minimal. In response to a national survey in the mid-1980s, 65 percent of American priests reported that they were hearing fewer than 20 confessions per week--a far cry from Fr. Healy's 175 in a single day--and a majority (58 percent) of those few lay people still going to confession said that they preferred the anonymity of the confessional box to a more open-ended, personal conversation with their confessor in a newly redesigned "Reconciliation room."

Communal Penance services, meanwhile, have become a common feature of American Catholic life, although in most parishes these are at best twice-yearly events, usually once during Advent and once during Lent. The idea of general absolution, however, never really caught on, though a few bishops tried to experiment with it. In December 1976, some 12,000 Catholics crowded into an arena in Memphis, Tennessee, for a "Day of Reconciliation" presided over by Bishop Carroll Dozier, who offered general absolution at the end of the service. Vatican officials swiftly criticized the event, thinking it too broad an application of the new rules. Thereafter, such experimentation stopped.

Does confession have a future? As a historian, I am more comfortable describing and analyzing the past than predicting the future, but I find it difficult to believe that the long lines at the confessionals of earlier times will return. In the modern day, the power of evil is just as strong as it ever was (maybe stronger), but American Catholics no longer understand the world and their behavior in it through the precise distinctions between mortal and venial sins. They are only too fully aware of what Commonweal called "the ambiguity of evil," and they resort to many sources of moral authority--most notably, their own consciences--in facing that ambiguity. Even so, for many Catholics, myself included, the disappearance of the traditional form for seeking reconciliation, with God and with our neighbors, has left a gap that has not yet been filled.

A long, historical view reminds us that this sacrament has not always taken the same shape. The early Church practiced public Penance, an experience that Christians usually had only once in their lives, either at the time of their conversion or just before death. Private, auricular confession emerged (in Ireland first, then spreading to the rest of Europe) only about the sixth century, and the idea that believers might seek forgiveness repeatedly and on a regular basis did not become common until 200 years after that; annual confession was not mandated by the Church until 1215. The warp of the present moment is significant but not, after all, without precedent.

We stand today in the same position as Christians of the early Middle Ages: The older form of confession and absolution is dying out, and what the newer form will be is not clear.

James M. O'Toole '72, Ph.D. '87, is an associate professor of history at Boston College and teaches courses on American Catholicism and religion. He is the author of Militant and Triumphant: William Henry O'Connell and the Catholic Church in Boston, 1895-1944 (Notre Dame, 1992).

top of page

. . .
  »  Hear no Evil
  »  The hipster of
Joy Street
  »  The voyage of
the Monte Carlo

Photo of a Confessional
More images
from this article...
. . .
  »  Read more about
the history
of confession

alumni home
bc home

© Copyright 2001 The Trustees of Boston College