Living in sin
Confessionals may be empty, but local Catholics still ask for forgiveness
Confession is all the rage these days. Dishonored your mother and father by going on an underage drinking binge? Confess at the altar of MySpace or your blog, replete with images of your transgressions. Had sex with your daughter’s boyfriend? Confess to Maury Povich and his millions of viewers. Upset you’re not keeping up with the Joneses? Confess to your therapist.
The buzz and hum of Americans confessing their sins is loud, but, meanwhile, the original confessional, the wooden box with a priest on the other side of the screen, is more often quiet.
Last week, millions of Catholics filed through confessionals in anticipation of Easter communion, purging their souls during the season when scripture says Christ died for man’s (and woman’s) sins. But, according to surveys, the confessionals will soon quiet down again. Where in the past American priests spent hours listening to litanies of sin, now they spend only about two hours per week tending to a decreasing number of confessors.
A 1997 poll found only 10 percent of Catholics surveyed said they confessed at least once a month. Another 10 percent said they never confessed at all. In 1965, a similar study reported that a full 38 percent confessed at least once a month.
Empty confessionals don’t necessarily mean people have stopped asking for forgiveness, however. Some Catholics have a more personal relationship with God, owning up to sins directly, and at least one—Davis Catholic Ruth Asmundson—confesses over the Internet.
Raised in the Philippines, Asmundson goes to confession when she visits her home country and e-mails her confessions to two Filipino priests when she’s in Davis.
“I don’t really know whether these e-mail confessions are valid, but every time I’ve done them, I feel better and I feel purged,” Asmundson said. “Is this the wave of the future?”
Asmundson says she appreciates the privacy of the confessional booth, which came into vogue around 1215. At St. James, her church in Davis, the confessional booth is largely ignored, and priests take confession face to face.
“[In the confessional] the faithful feel more privacy and anonymity during confession,” she said. E-mailing her confessions gives her that same feeling of anonymity, even though she considers her two Filipino priests close friends.
In the Middle Ages, long before the Internet, people were expected to confess in front of their peers as well as their priests once a year, said Dr. Candace Gregory-Abbott, an assistant history professor at CSUS.
“You were actually discouraged from going to confession too often,” she said. “It was seen as vanity, that you were a little too self absorbed.”
But to skip that once-a-year confession was social suicide, with neighbors on all sides aware that there was a dirty and hell-bound soul living nearby. Modern Catholics also only are required to confess once a year at Easter, said Father Erik Deprey of St. Stephen’s in Sacramento, but are encouraged to do it more often. Deprey said the practice of confession is strong at his parish, possibly because the traditional Latin Mass performed there every Sunday encourages people to “do things right,” he said.
Like eye glasses, Deprey said, “It’s better to clean them more often. It makes a lighter load and, by the end of the year, you’re not so loaded down with things. You receive the grace and the inner eye of your soul starts to see things better.”
It’s that feeling of grace that draws people to the confessional, overcoming their fears of being judged.
“When I was younger, I always dreaded it like the plague. But afterward, I had that good, I’m-a-good-person-with-a-lily-white-soul feeling,” said Davis Catholic Michelle Stephens.
But adult sins are more complicated and more private, making the trip to confession an ornery proposition.
“It’s hard enough saying sorry when you’re in a fight with someone,” Stephens said. “You’re telling someone, who in your mind is a higher person than you morally, all your faults. It’s really, really difficult.”
Asmundson said that Catholics in the past saw a sharp line between good and evil. For modern Catholics, there’s a hazy gray area, leading them to justify their actions and conclude, without the help of a priest, that no sin has been committed.
Asmundson, for instance, said she used to confess her anger, but now analyzes it first.
“I think about it and ask myself, ‘Is my anger toward someone founded?’ Then I say, ‘What is sinful is what I do with that anger. Do I wish that someone ill? Do I wish that someone harm? Did I act on it?’”
Asmundson has discussed these questions with her Filipino priests online, she said. “What’s interesting about these confessions is the chance to get into more in-depth discussion and analysis afterward.”
Since Vatican II, the church has focused more on the benefits of confessing one’s sins than the consequences of not. But without societal pressure and doomsday connotations, it can be a lot easier for Catholics to avoid the practice altogether. It doesn’t help that the church has been rocked by several sex scandals in recent years, making people more reluctant to confess their sins to men who appear less than holy. But for those who attend church regularly, the thousands of priests who’ve not committed any crime can become friends.
For regular churchgoers, confession can be difficult, either because they’re not comfortable going to God through an intermediary or they’re not necessarily sorry for their sins—a prerequisite for confession.
“I take the whole concept very seriously,” Stephens said. “You have to be truly sorry. There are some sins that I’m not necessarily sorry for, so I don’t do confession and I don’t do communion. That’s not a condemnation of the Catholic Church, that’s something I need to deal with.”
Gregory-Abbott said she’s in a similar situation. “I actually haven’t confessed [for three years],” she said. “I married a non-Catholic, so I’m technically in a state of sin.”
As one of the oldest religions currently practiced, Catholicism constantly is evolving—some say too little, others say too much. Either way, Catholics are finding their own ways to absolution and unity with God, whether through quiet, personal confession or over the Internet.
One thing is certain, however: The confessional has lost its hold on modern Catholics.
“I don’t know that many Catholics who go to confession on a regular basis,” Gregory-Abbott said. “The thinking is that it’s up to each person to decide if they’re in a state of grace.”
Those who died with filthy souls once could get a post-mortem cleansing
In the past, sin eaters would take away the sins of the dead, but were never sanctioned by the church. For those who died without final rites—the deathbed confession and taking of communion—a sin eater could be hired for a small fee. An 1825 ritual, described in Funeral Customs, a 1926 book by Bertram S. Puckle, recounts the story of a sin eater in Llanwenog, Wales. The man was treated like a leper and banished to live in forest isolation until someone died. The sin eater was brought to the recently deceased and made to eat a piece of bread placed on the chest of the corpse and drink a bowl of ale passed over the body. In this way, the sin eater would take the sins of the dead into himself, leaving the deceased with a clean soul.
Sin eating was featured in the 2003 Catholic fright film The Order and, more prosaically, in the recently released The Last Sin Eater. The folk custom may be the basis for such practices as eating burial cakes in rural England, the Dutch doed-koecks, or dead cakes, marked with the initials of the dead and eaten by the bereaved and maybe, in a way, in the practice of pouring one out for one’s homey.