Got Confession? It’s About Time More Catholics Do!


Published: November 5, 2009

After weekly mass attendance, Confession of sins at least once yearly is the second precept of the Catholic Church. The precepts are the basic obligations that the Church requires of the faithful to keep them headed in the right direction spiritually. According to the catechism, “The obligatory character of these positive laws… is meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.” In other words, the precepts of the Church are designed to clearly explicate the bare minimum of what it means to be Catholic. For lay Catholics, this means that they absolutely must attend Confession, or the Sacrament of Reconciliation, at least once a year—even in the unlikely event that they are unaware of having committed any mortal sin. Though these mandates demonstrate that the Church presents Confession as an obligation, a skilled catechist will emphasize the spiritual benefits of Confession, presenting it as a free gift or privilege.

The number of Catholics that participate in Confession has reached an all-time low despite the ritual’s importance to the Catholic precepts. (Marti Eisenbrandt/The Observer)

Strangely, only 12 percent of Catholics participate in Confession at least once a year, according to a 2008 study by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Only two percent participate once a month or more. Consider this information in comparison to a Public Broadcasting Service survey, which determined that, in 1965, 38 percent of Catholics went to Confession at least once a month. In the early 20th century, it was not unheard of for a faithful Catholic to participate in Confession weekly.

This statistic suggests a connection between the decrease in Confession attendance and the Second Vatican Council, an Ecumenical Council held by the Roman Catholic Church from 1962-1965. Vatican II sought to find a renewed approach to ecumenism and the place of the Church in the modern world. It also sought to remedy what it saw as impediments to spirituality by making liturgical spirituality more accessible to lay people and by encouraging lay people to broaden their spiritualities of their own volition and not because of obligation. As a result, many Catholics came to be under the false impression that most things that were once obligatory were now completely optional. Indeed, the same Georgetown study found that significantly more Pre-Vatican II Catholics attend yearly Confession than Millennial Catholics. It is important to keep in mind that the fact that the Second Vatican Council was even held was reflective of an emerging world view that valued secularism, ecumenism and personal spirituality (as opposed to by-the-book religion).

So if one of the bare minimum requirements of the Catholic faith is (at least) once annual Confession, why is it that so few Catholics receive this Sacrament regularly? Are they unaware of their obligation to do so? Perhaps, considering almost one third of Catholics go to Confession less than once a year, and almost half never go.

Are they merely uncomfortable confessing? Perhaps the clergy are to blame. When was the last time you heard your priest stress the importance and relevance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation during his homily? I can’t remember the last time I did. Mass attendance, like Confession attendance, is down. But even people who attend Mass regularly seem to be unaware of their obligation.

It could be, though, that Confession isn’t so readily available. For instance, most Catholic Parishes have a block of time set aside on Saturday afternoon for Confession, usually from 4:30 until 5:00 p.m. On more than one occasion, however, I have shown up at church during that small window of time and found no priest in the confessional to absolve me of my sins, and no one waiting expectantly in the pews.

If these people really consider themselves Catholic and are losing out on the opportunity to participate in this Sacrament because they do not understand its importance and do not appreciate its mandatory nature, then I blame the bishops and the priests, who have been neglecting their congregations.

Perhaps many Catholics, inspired by a skewed understanding of Vatican II, feel that they can remain in good standing with the Church while ignoring one or more of its seven precepts. They may disagree with the whole concept of Confession. They may have adopted the very popular Protestant opinion that contests Confession on the basis that sins can only be confessed to God in the quiet of our hearts, in spite of Scriptural evidence to the contrary, like Matt 9:5-8 and John 20:21-23. Early Christian texts like the Didache, which was written in 70 A.D. as a guide to Christian life, also emphasize the importance of confessing one’s sins to a priest.

It seems to me that such Catholics are interpreting Confession as a punishment. It is so important to see it for what it was always intended to be: a gift. There are few things as comforting and satisfying as confiding the things we most regret, especially with the confidence that these things will be forgotten and never spoken of again. Those who argue against the importance of Confession may say that God forgives us for our sins no matter what. That’s true—He does. We are called to forgive others for their offenses against us, too. But if someone offends you, don’t you expect him to acknowledge his misgiving, even if you planned on forgiving him anyway?

When I participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I experience a kind of humility that is unique to the Confessional. Out loud, to a priest, I admit that I messed up. After all, the Classical Greek term, hamartia, which meant “sin” for early Christians, means “to miss the mark.” The Hebrew word for sin, het, means “to go astray.” I admit that, sometimes, when given the option of saying “yes” to God or saying “no,” I said “no.” Sometimes I admit things I could never admit even to my closest friends. I do more than just tell the priest what I did and how many times: I tell him about my struggles and my doubts; I tell him about my fears and weaknesses. When I’m done, the priest gives me advice on how to do better in the future, and then he tells me that it’s okay, that I have another chance, that the slate has been wiped clean. And in that moment, I can be confident that I am graced. A priest who has been given the power to “loose my sins” (John 20:21-23) has done so and I am given divine closure and a chance to move on.

So whether their avoidance has been due to personal opinion or simple ignorance, I ask Catholics to try to look at Confession in a different way. It’s not intended to be a punishment for when we miss the mark. It is a gift that is designed for humans and our inherently human needs. Our human nature makes us communicators. We long to express and to share. We also long to be reassured and comforted. We long to be forgiven. So go to Confession, where you will not be judged. In the Confessional, only one thing can happen if you are truly sorry for your sins: forgiveness.