As COVID-19 restrictions are starting to ease, many parishioners are cautiously returning to in-person services, but going to confession might not be one of those events. Studies in past years show that the number of Catholics seeking the sacrament of reconciliation has sharply declined: a 2005 study conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that 42% of Catholics said they never went to confession. Three years later, in a follow-up poll, that number had risen to 45%. A 2015 poll conducted by Pew Research Center found that just 43% of Catholics surveyed said they went to confession at least once a year. Among the reasons for this decline is a waning trust in institutions, the privatization of religion in our society (“I’m right with Jesus and that’s all that matters”) and a fear of shame and condemnation. An over-emphasis on individualism can blind us to the impact of sin in our lives, and the fear of condemnation is misplaced because the Gospel calls us to conversion. In the sacrament of reconciliation, we receive the grace necessary for this process of conversion. Whatever the reasons, Catholics are staying away from the sacrament of reconciliation and this has a detrimental effect on the Church.
The sacrament of reconciliation offers forgiveness, healing and hope. Perhaps part of the decline problem stems from so much misinformation about the nature of forgiveness. We mistakenly think that forgiving is condoning, ignoring, letting someone off the hook or forgetting. The phrase “forgive and forget” suggests what is both impossible and undesirable. Those who have experienced harm are not likely to “forget” what has happened to them, as evidenced by a growing body of research on the link between harm and maladaptive coping mechanisms such as substance abuse.
Around the world, people engage in regular remembrance ceremonies that are marked with pledges “not to forget.” We remember horrific events like the Holocaust as a way to honor the memories of the victims, but also because remembrance functions as a form of moral instruction to prevent a repetition of such evil.
Another misconception associated with forgiveness has to do with the emotional residue of harm, specifically, what to do with our anger and resentment. We mistakenly assume that if we forgive, then we will no longer have any anger or resentment and yet our common experience suggests otherwise. Does this mean that forgiveness is too naïve, too idealistic or just unattainable? How can we forgive if we are still angry and resentful?
St. Thomas Aquinas offered one solution to this problem in his teaching on anger (Q. 158). Aquinas notes that while many situations can cause anger, sometimes our outrage calls attention to a violation of justice. Aquinas notes that anger that is “in accordance with reason” or seeking to correct the injustice is not evil, but when our anger prompts us to seek revenge, then it is always wrong.
Five centuries later, Anglican bishop and theologian Joseph Butler offered additional clarification and insights in his Fifteen Sermons. Butler argued that forgiveness was not overcoming all resentment, but checking our impulse for revenge. Matthew 5: 43-44 commands us to forgive and to love our enemies. Butler believes that this command does not forbid indignation towards wrong done to others, nor forbids resentment of wrong done to oneself. He believes that resentment can function as a form of self-protection against further harm by the offender. Butler believes that what is forbidden in Matthew is the kind of resentment that goes beyond protection into the realm of “the excess and abuse” of resentment. We are commanded to love others, even our enemies. Resentment and a benevolent attitude towards others — even our enemies — can co-exist. Forgiveness is overcoming excessive or abusive resentment, for only then can we see our “enemy” for what they are — another child of God.
The early Church understood penance as a process of clearing away anything that prevented God’s vision for humanity from becoming reality. What is God’s vision for us? “I will be your God and you will be my people.” God’s vision for humanity is that we live in communities of justice and love. Over time, the understanding of penance and the sacrament of reconciliation changed, becoming focused more on individual holiness and less about liberating the community from the oppression of sin.
Vatican II reminds us of “only one holiness” of God, and discourages an understanding of holiness as a reward achieved by individuals. We share in God’s holiness as members of a community, which is why penance is a commitment to the human community. Penitential practices that we could take on might include intentionally entering into the lives of the marginalized, challenging the dominant cultural emphasis on wealth and power and practicing solidarity with those broken by oppression. The sacrament of reconciliation is a place where we can sort out our tangled emotions of anger, hurt and resentment in a space of loving acceptance and grace. The sacrament of reconciliation strengthens us in our efforts to become God’s people: a loving, forgiving and just community.
(Mara Fitzgibbon Adams is professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)