For a renewal of the sacrament of penance

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

One of the rarely outlined consequences of the great disruption which followed the Vatican II Council is the collapse of the practice of confession. The phenomenon says a lot about the elimination of the sense of sin and more generally over the mutation of Catholicism, at least in its perception by those who subscribe to it. The return will be, in this regard, as necessary as difficult concerning the pastoral it will require for a true reform of the Church.

A brief history of the “second penance” after baptism

The warning Sancta sanctis, “Holy things for those who are saints!”, found in the eighth chapter of the Apostolic constitutions, written at the end of the IV century, exists today in most of the Eastern liturgies (and also in the Mozarabic liturgy), reminding the obligation of the purity of conscience to approach communion.

We should put in perspective the analysis of this phenomena in a history of this sacrament. It shows a continual tension between the necessity of the seriousness of conversion, and thus the verification by the priest, as much as possible, of the veracity of the firm commitment (that is to say the firm intention to not fall in sin again) to give absolution, for one, and the pastoral importance to allow access to the large number of Christians to give them the opportunity of this purification, for second. This can be represented in the change through a life time from a habit of rare confession to more regular confession, from public penance to a private penance.

Indeed, the “second penance” (Tertullian, De pænitentia), to be purified from sins committed after baptism, took place through a heavy public penance, long periods of expiation from grave sins (adultery, crime, denial of the faith), leading to a reconciliation performed by the bishop. But in the IV century, the Irish monks who came to the continent brought with them the practice of private penance, frequently renewable, a lay version of monastic use, with ascetic penance or commutations (for example, masses). A spiritual movement of an internalization of religion, notably in mendicant orders, became a favorable ground to the diffusion of frequent confession, yet aware that frequent communion, in this time, was rare.

The IV Council of the Lateran, in 1215, made obligatory for all lay persons having reached the age of discretion or age of reason (the age when one can distinguish good from evil), the annual confession and the annual Easter communion in one’s own parish. In fact, this came down to imposing a confession during Eastertide – sacramental acts described by the expression “making our Easter Duty” – the Council of the Lateran consecrated the auricular confession (to the ear of the priest) replacing public confession though it kept some supporters for a long time. The Council of Trent confirmed the discipline of Lateran IV, in the climate of contestation over the sacrament of penance initiated by protestantism.

After the Council of Trent, and up to the first part of the XIX century, the long quarrel between rigorists and Molinists, particularly in France and Italy, testifies again of the tension between these two pastoral but opposed views. The Gallican and Jansenist maxims prescribed to make often use of postponing absolution to be sure of the contrition of the repeated penitent (after confessing grave sins to the confessor, one should strive to not commit these sins anymore and return to him to receive absolution). Saint Alphonsus of Liguori, in the XVIII century, educated by the Jesuits, can be considered as the great figure of the Roman moral which though not lax did not fall in the kind of rigorism that eventually kept people away from the sacrament. In the XIX century, the rigorist moral lost ground in fact, in the mist of a vast movement favoring ultramontanism (ecclesiology, liturgy, soon Neo-Thomism philosophy, and moral). Thus the Curé d’Ars, confessor par excellence, during his pastoral career evolved from the severity, as found in the French way, to Liguorism. If the delay imposed for absolution became rare, the denial of absolution remained. Dedicated places and time for confession

started being organized, like for example in pilgrimage sanctuaries and during parochial missions.

But the balance of moral theology, tipping on one side of another, depending on the century and the schools, between exigency of a firm intention and condescendence (the smoking flax He will not quench), has been purely and simply left out the moment that in accordance with lax theories of “graduality” or “accompaniment” of the sinner towards a progressive way out of sin (for example from contraception, from adultery consecrated by remarriage after a divorce), the firm intention is by definition nonexistent.

Confession, in olden days a considerable task

Until Vatican II, the training received in the seminary on confession had an important place. It related to the considerable task that represents this sacrament in the life of priests in parishes. Without mentioning the regular crowds of penitents at pilgrimage sites like in the confession chapel in Lourdes, lines of penitents formed in front of the confessionals – though found in every churches, sadly unused today – as soon as a priest was present. On the eve of high feasts, specially when came Easter, confessors sat in the confessional all day. The parochial missions, as we said in a past article started by a predication calling on a “deep reflection” on death, last ends, and sin. Then, for several days, the confessions of parishioners were heard, as they were actually invited to make a general confession of their whole life[1]. In a society where the immense majority had been catechized as children, conversions of nonbelievers manifested itself essentially with a confession that served as a fracture with their past life[2].

In the fifties, years of great turbulence in the Church, were also, paradoxically, years of a more intense sacramental practice. In France, the inquiries of Canon Fernand Boulard[3] show that only 43% of French people made their Easter duties but that a bright spell occurred with the more common communion of men which had remained till then in some parts of the country rare. Particularly as the calls of Pius X to frequent communion (decree Sacra tridentina, of 20 December 1905) were more widely heard due to the reduction of the discipline regarding the eucharistic fast acted by Pius XII (no longer a fast since midnight, but of three hours for solid food and alcohol, and of one hour for non alcoholic beverages[4]).


“In the Church, what happened to confession was like jumping off a plane without a parachute. What happened to Confession happened nowhere else, whether the Eucharist, nor the Faith”, wrote a chaplain of the Catholic Action, Superior of a Major seminary, in a special issue of Pélerin magazine, 3 November 1974, quoted by Guillaume Cuchet[5], according to which “the crisis over confession is one of the most revealing aspects and most striking of the “Catholic crisis” between 1965 and 1978.”

It makes reference to the three polls available on the subject, the first one an Ifop poll from 1952, the second a Sofres poll in 1974 and the last one, by the Sofres again in 1983:

  • In 1952, 51% of adults Catholic reported going to confession at least once a year, of which 15%, frequent penitents, went to confession once a month, and among them 2% went every week.
  • In 1974, 29% only went to confession once a year, frequent penitents had mostly disappeared (1%).
  • In 1983, the annual penitents had fallen down to 14%.

Therefore there was a brutal rupture: whereas the flux of ordinary penitents diminished, the group of frequent penitents, Catholics who constituted the heart of the Church, practically disappeared.

The practice of “penitential ceremonies” (some of them followed by collective absolutions which, according to classic doctrine, are reserved to situations of grave peril of death, with the reserve to later confess their sins in confession if saved), has also contributed to undoing the habit of the faithful to go for individual confession. The Order pœnitentiæ of 1974,  followed by canon 961 tries to frame this evolution: the penitential celebration with collective absolution requires a grave necessity which is judged by the diocesan bishop in agreement with the Conference of Bishops. In many places, it became what ever is left of the practice of the sacrament of penance.

Certainly, in his motto proprio Misericordia Dei of 7 April 2002, John Paul II had tried to react: “the great crowd of penitents does not constitute in itself a sufficient necessity” (n.4).  It is actually probable that Catholics who responded to the 1974 and 1983 polls considered that by using these practices, they had confessed their sins.

But if confession has thus disappeared in the life of Catholics, communion has on the contrary generalized, to the point that during an “ordinary” mass, in the rite of Paul VI, the quasi totality of attendees took communion, including in ceremonies where it is obvious there are attendees who are very irregular. In reality, chapter VIII of Amoris lætitia, concerning remarried divorcees or the document of 22 February 2018 approved by the majority of German bishops aiming to allow spouses of confessional mixed marriages to participate together in the Eucharist, are only following and consecrating what is naturally practiced in parishes. Cardinal  Vingt-Trois who deployed a filtered critic of Amoris lætitia, pointed it out with his sarcastic humor: “Since we say that the Eucharist is a meal, therefore those who attend must eat.”

A necessary but difficult and penitential come back

And yet, it still remains that in some churches, at least in larger cities, priests on duty periods make confession available, sometimes even, as in Paris at Saint Louis d’Antin, several confessors offer a continuous sacramental activity. There is no doubt that “new priests” deploy many efforts to incite to return to the way of sacramental confession.

But the pastoral problem remains enormous and does not cease to increase in proportion to  the augmentation of the catechetical ignorance of Catholics. It is going to be about rebuilding the sacramental practice of Catholics who are going to remain in a Church reduced to not very much. The return to the practice of the sacrament of penance will surely be one of the ways to remodel a Christian people.

One of the difficulties will be that it might appear “rigorist” to support returning to the habit of assisting mass without necessarily receiving communion (perhaps by re-establishing a more strict eucharistic fast), like to ensure a specific frame to the rite of communion during ceremonies, burials, marriages, which also gather a large number of non-practicing or even non-believers who think that communion is a just natural passage in the ceremony, same as sprinkling holy water on a coffin.

What is needed is truly like an electric shock generated by a strong and long-term hierarchical predication, by bishops who are reformers so that a field-base catechesis can then be inaugurated.

Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] Cf. Res Novae, Preaching and catechizing on the last end.

[2] Cf., Frédéric Gugelot, La Conversion des Intellectuels au Catholicisme en France, 1885-1935, C.N.R.S. Éditions, 1998.

[3] Started after the war, in a very systematic way, in the dioceses and parishes, by Canon Boulard, on an initial idea for sociologue Gabriel Le Bras, it lead from 1947 to 1966 to the regular publication of maps (les « cartes Boulard). Cf. Fernand Boulard, Matériaux pour l’histoire religieuse du peuple français, XIX century-XX  century 4 vol, 1982, 1987, 1993 et 2011, Presses de Sciences Po, EHESS.

[4] After that, during the closing address to the third session of Vatican II, on 21 November 1964, Paul VI brought the Eucharistic fast down to one hour for all food and beverage.

[5] Comment notre monde a cessé d’être chrétien. Anatomie dun effondrement, Seuil, 2018, p. 200.