Restoring the authority of the priesthood.
This is the agenda of a recent “pastoral exhortation” on penance released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This call for a return to Sacrament of Penance [also called “reconciliation,” or simply “confession”] is intended to be distributed to parishes on the eve of the penitential season of Lent.
The document is titled “God’s Gift of Forgiveness.” It is short, and it is welcoming. The calm and reassuring language was well chosen because the bishops’ statement is responding to two real crises in American Catholicism: the decline in participation in the sacraments, and the decline of the authority of the priesthood.
When I first looked at the layout of “God’s Gift of Forgiveness,” I was a little taken aback. It looked like some of the tracts given to me by some of my Jehovah’s Witnesses friends. There’s picture of a father hugging his son, along with a reference to the “Parable of the Lost Son” in Luke 15. But the logo of the USCCB did tell you upfront where it came from.
The document does not draw upon fears of hellfire or threats of damnation. Instead, it emphasizes how God wishes everyone to have the experience of forgiveness. The bishops’ statement talks about how priests are ready to help Catholics who haven’t received the sacrament in a long time and might be hesitant about it. The entire feel of the document is kind; there’s much more on reconciliation and forgiveness than there is on sinfulness and penance.
Sacraments like penance are central to the religious life of Catholicism. They not only structure the collective and communal aspects of the Catholic church, but they are also understood as special opportunities for the reception of grace. Recent surveys, however, have noted that while a majority of Catholics “can’t imagine being anything but Catholic,” Mass attendance has declined among most generational groups. Seen as a whole, American Catholicism appears like a series of concentric circles around participation in the ritual life of the church. While there remains a core group of Catholics who attend Mass each Sunday, there is an ever-growing number of Catholics who participate in the life of the church selectively, sporadically, or at distance.
Being welcoming about the sacrament of penance is one way to draw these Catholics back and allow them to be “reconciled” both with God and the church.
Every Catholic of my generation has a confession story, though it’s rare that we share the specifics of what we actually confessed--or the details of how the priest responded. I can say that for myself, the experience of confession has been transformative. I can chart crucial turning points in my life in relation to the times that I went to confession. It is a sacrament that emphasizes both responsibility and mercy in a way that can be profoundly liberating.
But confession isn’t like meeting with a therapist. It’s also fundamentally different from the “fifth step” as practiced in recovery programs. What makes Catholic confession different is the authority of the priest. A priest, as the bishops’ statement makes clear, is ordained by Christ to minister “forgiveness in His name.”
If the bishops’ document is about welcoming Catholics back, it’s also about reminding them that the priest has a central role in the process.
There are a number of theories about the decline of Catholicism in North America and Europe. One explanation that I have heard quite often is that it all has to do with the decline in the authority of the priest. This chain of argument has a number of links: because the special authority of the priest has been de-emphasized, the priesthood is less attractive; because the distinction between priests and laity has been lessened, the power of Catholic rituals to convey the sacred has been almost lost. The sexual abuse scandal has also damaged the reputation of the Catholic priesthood in fundamental ways.
In one sense, underlining the authority of the priest as a mediator for the forgiveness of sins gives an assurance that sins actually can be forgiven. In another sense, what is being re-articulated is sacramental specialness of the priest himself.
For a good number of American Catholics nowadays, the authority of the priest raises deeply conflicting thoughts and feelings. Part of this has to do with a cultural climate that makes the whole idea of a priesthood difficult to articulate. But as far as the sacrament of penance is concerned, I think many individual Catholics find themselves painfully confronting their own attitudes about priestly authority when considering whether to go to confession. For some, these attitudes might very well involve doctrinal questions. But for most, they have to do with interpersonal issues and experiences that have yet to be acknowledged and “reconciled.”
Against this background, I found the most hopeful part of the document to be the bishops’ statement that: “We want to offer ourselves to you as forgiven sinners seeking to serve in the Lord’s name.” There’s still much work to be done in repairing the relationship between priests and laity in today’s Catholic church. Penance begins with confession but it doesn’t end there. The spirit of the sacrament lies in recognizing that we continually need to reconcile ourselves with one another.