The practice of sacramental confession in the Catholic Church dropped off precipitously and practically overnight about forty years ago. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, Catholics came regularly and in great numbers to confess their sins to a priest, but then, just like that, they stopped coming. Analysts have proposed a variety of reasons for this sharp decline—a greater stress on God’s love, a desire to move away from a fussy preoccupation with sexual peccadilloes, the sense that confession is not necessary for salvation, etc.—but whatever the cause or causes, the practice has certainly fallen into desuetude. Fr. Andrew Greeley, the well-known priest-sociologist, once formulated the principle that whatever Catholics drop, someone else inevitably picks up. So, for example, we Catholics, after the Council, stopped talking about the soul, out of fear that the category would encourage dualistic thinking—and then we discovered, in the secular culture, a plethora of books on the care of the soul, including a wildly popular series on “chicken soup for the soul.” Similarly, the Catholic Church became reluctant to speak of angels and devils—and then we witnessed, in the wider society, an explosion of books and films about these fascinating spiritual creatures.
Well, a very good example of the Greeley principle is way in which the practice of sacramental confession—largely extinct in the church—pops up in somewhat distorted form all over the extra-ecclesial world. What do we witness on the daytime talk shows—Oprah, Jerry Springer, Montel, Maury, etc.—but a series of people coming forward to confess their sins, usually of a sexual nature? And what do we see on the numerous “judgment” shows—Judge Judy, Judge Mathis, American Idol, Dr. Phil, Dancing With the Stars, etc.—but people being forced to accept a kind of punishment for their bad or inadequate behavior? What this demonstrates, I would argue, is that the need to confess our sins and to receive some sort of judgment and/or word of comfort is hard-wired into our spirits. When we don’t have the opportunity to deal with our sin in the proper ecclesiastical context, we will desperately cast about for a substitute.
All of this came to mind when I read just recently about an iPhone application called “Confession: A Roman Catholic App” which is designed, not to forgive sins (you still need to see a priest for that!) but to prepare people for reconciliation. The app includes an examination of conscience, a step-by-step guide to the celebration of the sacrament, and other prayers. Official Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi weighed in yesterday to clarify that this program is not a substitute for actual confession to a priest, but he also noted that it might be a very helpful aid, especially for those who have been away from the sacrament for a long time as well as for young people who are attuned to the digital world.
I think that, on balance, this iPhone app is a good thing, for I strongly believe that whatever helps Catholics experience the beauty and power of confession is of great value. Many Catholics of a certain age can tell you horror stories about psychological abuse in the confessional by priests who were hung up on sexual sins, or all too eager to threaten eternal damnation, or perhaps just cranky from sitting in a box for hours. And many priests (including myself) could tell you tales of people coming to confession for trivial reasons or out of obsessive-compulsive neurosis. But as the Romans said long ago, abusus non tollit usum (just because something can be abused, doesn’t mean that we should get rid of it). I can honestly say that some of the best and most spiritually rewarding moments of my twenty-five years of priesthood have been in the context of hearing confessions. And I can’t tell you the number of people who have said to me over the years some version of “Father, I’m so grateful that I came to confession after all this time.” Not long ago, I was with a group of priests and we were discussing the issue of general absolution, and a number of my colleagues were suggesting that it would be a legitimate means to bring people back to the sacrament. But then one priest spoke up: “Don’t all of you go to a priest and confess your sins and receive individual absolution?” We all agreed. And then he said, “And don’t you all find it to be a powerful experience?” We all concurred. “Then why,” he continued, “do you want something less for lay people?” It was a very good question.
So I would say to my fellow Catholics—especially to those who have been away from Confession for a long time—try this app. It can’t hurt—and it might prove to be a way to encounter the Christ who came to forgive our sins.