Is Confession in Crisis?

Is the sacrament of penance in crisis? One often hears that claim today, but it needs a closer look. My guess is that there’s a crisis all right — but not exactly this one.
Yes, Catholic confessions have plummeted in the last 40 years. But who would care to say that the awareness of guilt has disappeared? In some ways, in fact, the sense of sin appears to be thriving. People just don’t care to admit it or do much about it anymore.
I was reminded of these things by the word from Rome that publication of Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical is imminent. It will be on social justice, we’re told. Actually, it was supposed to come out a year ago, but it got delayed for adjustments to reflect the global economic crisis.
Lately, Benedict has been giving previews about what’s in the document. In one such talk, he said the fundamental source of the economic crisis is greed. Many other people have said the same thing. I surely would agree with that, although to greed I’d add arrogance and culpable stupidity.
This is not about the economic crisis, though. My point at the moment is that in an emergency like this one, people spontaneously look to moral failure as an explanation for what went wrong. Whether the analysis is correct is a different question. People take it for granted that it is — that is to say, they place the blame for what happened on sin.
Now if human beings really do have some sort of innate, built-in awareness that sin is the root cause of many problems, why has the huge drop-off in reception of the sacrament of penance occurred in the last 40 years? Why do so many Catholics these days go to confession very seldom or not at all?
For me, a large part of the solution to this puzzle is symbolized in a particular event.
Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical reaffirming the Church condemnation of artificial birth control, came out in late July of 1968. The following Sunday, I went to Mass at a certain parish and there was treated to a homily explaining why the pope was wrong and contraception was okay. When the priest finished, a substantial segment of the congregation stood and applauded.
I don’t mean to say that sexual sins are the only sins or that contraception is the worst sin of all. I mention this incident instead because it so clearly illustrates the denial on the part of Catholics of the Church’s ability to teach authoritatively about these matters.
But if these matters, why not other matters, too? For me, at least, the events of that Sunday morning more than four decades ago mark the starting point of the slippery slope that has led many Catholics to reject the authority of the Church on moral questions and, along with it, the sacrament of penance. It goes without saying that other people are welcome to situate the moment at which they first perceived this process at work somewhere else.
The observation has often been made — and I’m not going to belabor it here — that for years we’ve heard little or nothing in homilies and catechesis about personal fault for the kinds of sins most people actually commit. Frequently, of course, we are urged to take our responsibilities to God and neighbor seriously, but it’s usually left unclear what those concrete, real-life responsibilities actually are — and, especially, what the consequences of not living up to them might be.
Obviously the popular culture is of virtually no help at all here. Indeed, the prevailing consensus in popular culture appears to be that the only significant wrongdoing consists of denying somebody else his or her right to do whatever he or she wants, especially when the subject is sex. I am reminded of a sociologist’s remark a few years back that the only commandment that seems to count for many Americans anymore is the new, eleventh one: “Thou shalt not judge.”
And yet, as suggested, the reality of guilt persists — widely denied, to be sure, yet eating away at many hearts.
There was a kind of residual guilt implied in President Barack Obama’s announcement that he was taking the lid off federal funding of stem cell research that involves killing human embryos.
The president said he had ordered the drafting of “strict guidelines” to prevent “misuse or abuse.” But if killing embryos by way of stem cell research is ethically clean, there’s no need for guidelines; and if it isn’t ethically clean, guidelines for doing it won’t alter that fact but will merely reassure obtuse consciences that something that is ethically impermissible is permissible after all. The government says so, doesn’t it?
But all that is neither here nor there at the moment.
As far as the Catholic community and the sacrament of penance are concerned, my guess is that the so-called crisis of penance isn’t really that — it’s a crisis of bad conscience instead. Many people will not — and, as a result of persistent catechetical failure, in a certain sense cannot — face up to the fact of their sinfulness and guilt. Yet despite decades of rationalization and denial, the awareness of these existential realities persists.

And if it’s true that it does, then the crisis is even more serious than we thought.

Russell Shaw’s 19th book is
Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 2008).

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • Chris Castagnoli

    Thanks for this excellent look at what’s really troubling these days. Everyone’s pointing fingers at each other and not looking inward at their own sinfulness. It’s even more tragic because our Lord has time and time again asked that we seek His mercy and forgiveness in frequent Confession. And think of the graces people lose by not partaking of this vital sacrament!

    There is some good news to report, however. Two weeks ago the St. Patrick’s Cathedral Young Adults Group and the Archdiocese of New York sponsored a special “24 hours of Confession” event. Over 1200 people went to Confession in parishes all over Manhattan from March 6th-March 7th.

    Perhaps this can help inspire people in other communities to try something similiar. All it takes is time and people who care who can coordinate parish schedules, and get the word our about how important this sacrament is, especially in hard times!

  • Ken

    Like the novus ordo, we can’t be surprised that a sacrament is less respected when it becomes banal.

    The typical parish “reconciliation” room, with its mood lighting and tissues, makes a mockery of confession. Compare this “sample” to the way things have been since Vatican II:

    In addition to the therapist session atmosphere to the sacrament of penance, it doesn’t help that four priests in four boxes from 1-5 p.m. on Saturdays and 45 minutes before each Mass (and often during Mass up to the consecration) is now one priest in a reconciliation room for 15 minutes a week.

    Like the Mass, when confession is returned to something respectable and correct teaching on it is preached (i.e. no communion outside the state of grace) it will regain popularity among Catholics.

  • Bill Sr.
  • Terik Ororke

    The problem with the church is that it forgets its history and says that the “rite” can only be this way. In the early church, confession was celebrated in many ways and the sacrament was always valid. It seems that we put too much effort into “perfect” rituals which we tend to idolize for all times, and not really in the effect of the Sacrament, which is God’s loving kindnesses.

  • Bob

    I was nearly thirty years outside the Church. It was over the death of a child, my son. He died about a week after birth and was a child that was loved and truly wanted. I blamed God for taking him and felt that anger for a long time. I was finally able to resolve it with the help of a friend who is a priest. I realized that my son had been baptized before his death obviously resides in heaven and finally went to confession after all that time. Guess what? God, in His great mercy, allowed me to spin my wheels and do what I wanted for all those years but when the time came, He was there waiting for me with open arms. After going to confession, I felt as though a ton of weight had been lifted off me and I was at last free. Today, I recommend Divine Mercy to anyone, and say the Divine Mercy Chaplet every night before going to sleep. Trust in God’s unfathomable Mercy and He will take care of you.

  • Sandy Bierly

    I am a cradle Catholic and attended Catholic school for thirteen years. During my young adult years during the sixties, I only frequented the sacrament of Confession occasionally. Then during the next forty years, I seldom went because I saw myself as everyone else and felt that I didn’t need to go, that I could take my sins straight to God. How wrong I was! On March 11, 2000, I went to the Sacrament because my soul was aching due to a misunderstanding at my work. The priest merely said, “Welcome back,” when I told him that I could not remember the last time I had been to Confession. When he went to absolve me from my sins, fire went through me beginning in the center of my head and exiting both feet in a split second. Immediately I thought of St. Paul and his experience on the road to Damascus, and Moses and the burning bush. All of the heaviness of my heart just dissipated and I could have shouted from the rooftop that Jesus Christ is Lord. I knew that something powerful had taken place, but I didn’t understand it. I had smoked cigarettes since I was sixteen and went to my car, took the pack of cigarettes and threw it in the dumpster next to the Church. I could not sing a note because of the damage to my vocal chords, and now am in our traditional choir singing soprano. It was several months later after many spiritual gifts were given to me, that I realized that I had been baptized in the spirit. I can’t stop witnessing to the grace that comes from this Sacrament and frequent it two or three times a week in order to grow in grace and virtue. Also, I know how weak I am without this Sacrament. I have told our priest that I will not come as often when other parishioners recognize the power of the Sacrament and begin to frequent it. I am so grateful for this Sacrament and know that Confession and Eucharist go together.

  • Dan

    Confession is, unfortunately, the best-kept secret in the Catholic church. My only problem is, as the title points out, the headaches after confession.

    There is a palpable joy after absolution and I feel as though I’m walking two feet off the ground as I leave the confessional. Unfortunately, I forget to “duck” and then, “ouch,” the head! (Of course, just kidding.)

    People rightfully exclaim the beauty of the Eucharist, but Confession is a necessary second part to Catholic life, like salt goes with pepper. What a wonderful God we have!

    God bless,

  • Anonymous, because I’m a priest

    [smiley=shock]It’s ralatively easy to confess sins, but don’t peole ofen feel that there’s something more they haven’t said, but don’t know what. It may be a sense of not sins, but sinfulness. And how does one confess that? Perhaps these are sinful attitudes that haven’t been acted upon, but they are still there, e.g.. predjudice, lack of a desire to pray, a spirit of stingyness, giving but with clenched teeth, a lazy attitude toward taking care of one’s health, a generalized lack of trust in God, etc.? It’s difficult to confess these things without being able to point to a specifict act, and yet these are areas that neeed to be healed.

  • Donato

    I live in the Diocese of Bridgeport where Bishop William E. Lori began a Lenten Confession campaign that is proving to be very fruitful. Basically, in addition to the regularly scheduled confessions, confessions are also being heard every Tuesday during Lent from 7:00 to 9:00 pm in all 87 parishes in the Dioceses. In our parish, the penitents have been virtually non-stop for the entire two hours. This is nothing unusual. Even at regularly scheduled Saturday afternoon confessions, there are plenty of penitents and a line forms even before the priest arrives. Confession may be in a state of crisis in other dioceses and parishes, but not in the Diocese of Bridgport and certainly not in my parish in Stratford, Connecticut. Of course, it helps when the priests preach about this wonderful sacrament, which they do in my parish and the spiritual fruits are quite evident.

  • JM

    As a child of the 70s, I think the biggest problem with penance is the lack of catechesis amongst people my age group (35 – 50). We went to “group reconciliation” and had little or no training in what exactly sin is. If private reconciliation was available, it was “face to face”. Who wants that? I understand that an overworked priest may or may not recognize my face and my sin, but I would much rather have an anonymous confession. So an entire generation of Catholics have been turned off by this “user friendly” approach. My brother, who is a Catholic priest always says that sexual sins are the good ones, everybody knows what they are, and they confess them. It’s the dangerous sin of pride that keeps people out of the confessional.

  • Chris

    Witness the plague of addiction to lust. I discussed this with our pastor and mentioned to him one statistic that thirty percent of the men in the pews are struggling with porn. He stated that from what he hears in the confessional it is much higher. So with so many families being destroyed by porn, which I firmly believe the contraceptive mentality is the door way which opens to allow this addiction to proliferate, why is the church so silent on this issue? No wonder so few are going to confession because the teachings of chastity and purity are not being taught. In the mean time, many souls are in serious danger.

  • Cody

    Where people are truly seeking and receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, there it so also flourishes. We should be proponents of Confession, not joking of it or making light of it, but definitely bringing it out into some form of non-private life to encourage and speak of it’s supreme benefits.

    Generalizations about “typical Churches” in America, or creating some false sense about how most people confess in America, pushing for more of a seemingly “traditional” view, I believe, to be the wrong way to gauge the use of the Sacrament … which in itself should be of no concern to persons outside themselves. We can look at interesting statistics about how Confession is underused in our current times, but we should never be judging how Confession looks like, whether there are tissues, or what the people there are doing. It’s a Sacrament taking place between you and God with an ordained presbyter as an intermediary.

    Our culture and current times will hopefully repent. We see the effects every day of a culture that turns and runs from God in all of his commands. If we don’t foster and uplift good Priests who value Confessions, if we don’t speak of it’s healing and of it’s power, if we’re judging how others use confession and what it looks like, we’re doing more damage than can possibly be perceived.

  • Lisa

    I teach Faith Formation for Confirmation kids this year. I’ve “moved up” with these kids since 6th grade (8th now). I have one child, whose mom helps in the FF office at class time and plays organ, who has not been to Confession since 2nd grade (in order to receive First Holy Communion).
    None of my kids drive yet.
    Not only is the “first” generation missing it, now the kids are too.
    Pray for me tomorrow. Father is having a special Confession time just for Confirmation kids. I have strongly encouraged my class to go and gone over with them how to receive Confession and how to prepare.
    Pray, please that they ALL show up!

  • Joseph

    I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon souls who approach the fount of My mercy. The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment(Diary,699).
    Christ speaking to St. Faustina on Divine Mercy.
    April 19th don’t miss the boat.

  • meg

    A moving anecdote from Father Zuhlsdorf in a recent post:

    “I will never forget one somewhat slow afternoon in a confessional

  • a catechist

    I’m a parish catechist & I think it’s pretty rare to find an adult who’s happy to talk about Confession. Most adults talk about it as though it’s the dentist’s office. They might convey that it helps you “feel better” or return to some sort of status quo, but fewer are willing to talk about it in a more positive witness–that it opens up channels of grace! That it can change your life! How many catechists talk about this sacrament with love and enthusiasm?

    If you love the sacrament, please consider volunteering to talk to “other people’s children” about it. You don’t have to be a catechist every week–call the DRE and ask if they’d like someone to talk about Confession. Most classes will be good for a guest speaker.

  • Lisa

    Today went better than expected, I think. All said and done, I’d say about 1/3 of ALL the Confirmation students came for Confession today.
    Thank you all for your prayers!

  • James D

    My parish has over 5500 families making about 15000 individuals.

    Confessions are offered for one hour on Saturday afternoon and “by appointment”. I know the priests are busy but really, one hour? And the “by appointment” is a joke, you can’t get one.

    It seems if daily Mass/Communion can be offered, why not daily confession?

  • Robert

    Jesus said that the Feast of Mercy would be the last hope of salvation. We all need to wake-up and smell the coffee. Jesus is coming and He has made an incredible promise for the total forgiveness of all sins and all punishment for anyone who goes to Confession and receives Holy Communion on that feast.

    The Church made that an official feast in the year 2000 and then Pope John Paul died on that feast in 2005. Make no doubt about it, everything is in place for the Second Coming of Jesus. Our priests and bishops better get busy trying to get Luke-warm and Lapsed Catholics back to the practice of their faith because they have that special duty.

    They should be obedient to the Vatican and follow the duties of priests listed in the indulgence for Divine Mercy Sunday. It instructs them that they should tell everyone about the indulgence. Don’t be fooled, the Church acted because it believed what Jesus said about the total forgiveness of sins and punishment and the Feast of Mercy being the last hope of salvation.

    It is about time that we all listen to Jesus and make a good effort try to go out and get the lost sheep. Let’s get off our bottoms and get to work!

    There is probably little time left for us.

    Check out

  • Thaddeus

    Why has the Church de-emphasized this sacrament? It’s become the Saturday sacrament. Saturday’s only from 4:15 – 5:15 for a 5000 member parish is not a lot of time for confessions, and it certainly is very inconvenient. They might as well make it at 12 midnight for most parishioners.

    St. Padre Pio and St. John Vianney used to hear confessions all day long. Which is more important – The spiritual health of the parishioners, or attending committee meetings?

    I know there’s a priest shortage, but 1 hour on Saturdays only is ridiculous. It needs to be EVERY day at a convenient hour for families, like from 7-9 PM or something like that. You will see confessions go through the roof then.

  • Bill

    I perceive the ‘reconciliation rooms’ evidence the victory of the therapeutic role of the Confessor. Fathers, We are not looking for a new buddy or sympathizer. We’re looking for Forgiveness.

    Most men don’t want to confess certain sins and then meet the guy in the vestibule, or worse in the barbershop. Three cheers for anonymity!

    And Father, when did you lat confess ??


  • Marjorie Campbell

    I would like to thank everyone for these wonderful comments. A charitable sharing and exchange like this reminds me how beautiful our Church truly is when we all listen, speak and respond with love. Stories like Bob’s above – so short, to the point and understated – are a miracle in my day and I am so grateful to you who take the time. This also gives us the chance to pray for our front line evangelists, like Lisa who truly does God’s work – with teenagers and Baby Boomer parents! ~now there’s a field in need of cultivation. I also benefit deeply from comments like Sins and Sinfulness from “anonymous, because I’m a priest”. That one has me reflecting in anticipation of my next confession. Thank you all – I enjoyed the article AND the comments.

  • L. C.

    Communal confessions have been suspended in our l,200 people parish. We are now asked to repent on Satdurday confessions from 3:30 to 4:30.

    Why has our bishop indicated by banning communal penance that that sacrament is no longer a worthy sacrament/.

    So why go to Mass (a non-scacrament) and receive communion—-llumion each week (a sacrament)….and ban confession (a sacrament).

  • Rose

    [smiley=wink]I don’t understand people who don’t need confession.And I don’t understand why the church only has it once a week for 1 hour. I know for me I try to go at least 2 times a month. Its not that I have gravely sinned it’s just that I feel better when my soul feels cleansed. You never know when Jesus will be knocking on your door! In this world today especially it doesn’t take long for me to screw up again. It could be days ahead or right after church even! If you can’t understand your concious and what it’s there for, then how can you say you know God? Our concious is a blessing, a free grace from God. Think about how when you clean your coffee-table how much longer does it take for dust to be right back on it. Our soul is just like that, it doesn’t take long for dust to smear it right after it was clean! Thank God for confession!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • John


    I assume that by “communal confession” you are referring to general absolution? If so, this is actually forbidden except in cases of genuine emergency. It seems like your bishop has corrected a gross misuse of the sacrament – God bless him for shepherding his flock! He didn’t ban confession, he put it into its proper context.

    And how is Mass a “non-sacrament?” It is the sacrament of the highest caliber – the source and summit of the Christian life.

    You need to – quick – get a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and start reading…

  • Staten Island Pilgrim

    In my neck of the woods, the churches devote maybe 45 minutes to it on Saturday afternoon. We must either be the holiest diocese on earth or are priests are not guiding their flocks toward reconciliation.

  • Chris

    I assume that by “communal confession” you are referring to general absolution? If so, this is actually forbidden except in cases of genuine emergency. It seems like your bishop has corrected a gross misuse of the sacrament – God bless him for shepherding his flock! He didn’t ban confession, he put it into its proper context.

    I agree with your assumption, John. The communal confession must really have been a routine general absolution for a bishop to have abandoned it. However, I must admit to a certain ignorance about what is sometimes reported as “communal confession” or a “reconciliation service.” In our neck of the woods (Galveston-Houston), a “reconciliation service” is when several parishes band together in order to bring ten or fifteen or twenty priests into a single parish for an evening of penitent-to-priest confession. It is absolutely a communal service. In every single one I have attended, there has been reverent music and reverent scriptural readings while the attending priests each hear confessions one penitent at a time. So when people say “communal confession” or “reconciliation service,” I tend to liken it to my experience.

    Though I must admit that I have been informed that a Galveston-Houston “reconciliation service” is not quite the same as similarly named gaterings elsewhere.

  • Beth

    I think it would be helpful if our priests could focus mainly on the sacraments for their ministry. The priests around here have way to many responsibilities and their load should be lightened. Realistically, they would not have enough time to hear every parishioners confession, even once a month.

  • Michael Hebert

    As a child of the 70s, I think the biggest problem with penance is the lack of catechesis amongst people my age group (35 – 50). We went to “group reconciliation” and had little or no training in what exactly sin is. If private reconciliation was available, it was “face to face”. Who wants that? I understand that an overworked priest may or may not recognize my face and my sin, but I would much rather have an anonymous confession. So an entire generation of Catholics have been turned off by this “user friendly” approach. My brother, who is a Catholic priest always says that sexual sins are the good ones, everybody knows what they are, and they confess them. It’s the dangerous sin of pride that keeps people out of the confessional.

    I agree. While I am in the minority (I think) on this site in thinking Vatican II was a real step forward, the one thing I’d be gratified to see dialed back is Confession. There are things I just don’t want to confess face to face. Anonymous confession emphasizes the process of forgiveness, while face-to-face confession seems to validate the therapeutic aspect of seeing another human being in the confessional.

    If I want a therapist, I’ll pay for one, thanks. What I want in the confessional is grace. I’ll admit I’m a coward; just let me confess anonymously.

  • anonymous

    Those who do not live in ultra-liberal areas of the nation probably will not relate, but in this area of the country, two huge issues with confession persist — (1) many priests simply do not believe in “sin” or “hell” any longer (some liberal priests revise the proper of the Mass to reflect their liberal views regarding sin and Hell), and therefore, due to their misguided hemegony that “everyone will be saved,” place little emphasis on the SACRAMENT of confession (this also includes the “Lavender” priests who either personally embrace homosexuality or downplay the Church’s official position on the subject), and (2) many priests who hear confessions simply do not have the proper attitude, treating their “duty” to be available for confessions as simply something else they must check off the “to do” list, rushing people through the line/downplaying what is said (cannot recall how many times liberal priests have said something to the effect, “we don’t consider that a sin any longer” or “I don’t hear any sins — this is a waste of time” and also how many have responded to the confession of sins with a banal response that is so rehearsed it seems as though he’s on “auto-pilot”).