Good-by to the Confessional?

Revised Rites for the Roman Catholic Sacrament of Penance

Raoul Dederen,, is professor of theology, SDA Theological Seminary, Andrews University, and an associate editor of The Ministry.


AMONG the remarkable developments that have marked the Roman Catholic Church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council is the widespread abandonment by Catholics of the sacrament of penance—or confession, most keenly associated in our minds with the confessional box. In recent years more and more Catholics have been dissatisfied with the traditional under standing of the rite. They find it monotonous, juridical, and a mechanical, lifeless enumeration of sins to be adjucated as for given.

The sacrament is all but ignored by young people with fresh ideas about life, and by adults rebellious against a rigid past. Where quiet lines of penitents once gathered to wait near the confessional booth on a Saturday after noon, a priest may now sit in the box for the entire time set aside for confession without anyone coming. In increasing numbers, middle-of-the-road Catholics have been shunning the dark, close quarters of the confessional, choosing to meet their priest in more normal surroundings for a face-to-face talk.

Many parishes therefore, especially during the past five years, have begun holding communal penitential services of one kind or another. The New York Times (Feb. 7, 1974) estimates that "at least half of the parishes in New York have done this to some ex tent and a few have it regularly." In some cases, particularly on college campuses and in progressive parishes, priests have gone to the extreme of granting "general ab solution" to all the assembled faithful without requiring individual confession of sins. Such services generally include the beginning of the mass, readings from the Scriptures, a sermon, and a general expression of guilt in which the priest lists various transgressions he figures are likely to be on the minds of many of his congregation.

A New Document on Confession

A few months ago, and in the context of these developments, the Vatican published a new document of liturgical reforms approved by Pope Paul VI, the Ordo Paenitentiae—"Order of Penance." The 121-page Latin text, released on February 7, 1974, by the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome, marks the final stage of the liturgical revisions called for in the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Liturgy approved ten years ago. It follows updated versions of other aspects of Catholic liturgy: communion service, baptism, and the four other Catholic sacraments. All have been issued over the past five years.

Ordinarily, according to Catholic law going back as far as the Council of Trent (1645-1663), Catholics have the obligation of confessing serious, or "mortal," sins orally to a priest authorized to hear confessions in a given diocese. There have been exceptions to this requirement, and one is general absolution. Military chaplains, for instance, may grant ab solution to a group of men going into battle without hearing each one's confession. In such a case serious sins are forgiven, according to Catholic theology, if the individual has the proper repent ant spirit and if he has the intention of later confessing those sins, should he have the opportunity to do so.

Requirements for general absolution are contained in an instruction of the Sacred Penitentiary— a Vatican tribunal—issued March 25, 1944. Pope Paul's Ordo Paeni tentiae intends to update that instruction and to clarify the con fusion created by such group experimentation services as those mentioned above, which are regarded by many as one form of granting forgiveness of sins.

Three Different Forms of Confession

The new ordo formalizes some of the experiments, but sharply limits others. It stresses the sacrament of penance as a means of "reconciliation" between God and man, putting less emphasis on the confessional aspects, as has been the case. Although communal celebrations of the sacrament are encouraged, the new rite retains the traditional sense of penance the individual confession of sins to a priest and requires that all mortal sins must be con fessed. While it expresses a number of doctrinal principles related to the sacrament itself, the most significant aspect of the document remains unquestionably its ritual instructions, the how-it-is-done-in-practice elements. Here the liturgical reform contemplates three different forms of penance-confession, all dealing with individual confession and absolution.

The first form is the individual one, the form used at present, but emphasized with a number of details. The parts of the celebration are: reception of the penitent by the priest "with words of friend ship"; the sign of the cross; an exhortation to trust in God; the reading of a text of Scripture; the penitent's confession of sins; the manifestation of repentance; the imploring of God's indulgence through the ministry of the church; the formula of absolution; the exaltation of God's mercy, and the dismissal. Some of these elements are optional, such as the reading of Scriptures.

Readers of The Ministry will be interested to know that the essential words for the absolution of sins have not been changed, but have been inserted into a new single formula, which intends to ex press more clearly the concept that the reconciliation of the penitent proceeds from the love of God the Father.

Under current procedures, an individual goes to a priest in a confessional booth and says, "Bless me, father, for I have sinned." After the penitent re counts the mortal sins he has committed, the priest responds with the words "May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you, and by His authority I absolve you for your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

The new ordo provides a new formula of absolution, which reads: "God, the Father of mercies, has reconciled the world to Himself through the death and resurrection of His Son and has poured forth the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins. May He grant you pardon and peace through the ministry of the Church. And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

Collective Preparation and Individual Confession

The second type of rite for penance is that of collective preparation, followed by individual confession and absolution. This is a new ritual for the Roman Catholic Church in modern times and embraces several major themes of Vatican II. In this case the structure of the individual confession is adapted for a larger group. The communal celebration begins with congregational singing and an opening prayer, readings from the Bible, and a sermon. This is followed by a period of silent meditation, a public expression of sorrow for sin, and a petition for pardon. Next comes individual confession, after which the congregation reassembles for final hymns and prayers of thanksgiving.

There is, in this community act, an unmistakable emphasis on the social dimensions of sin and reconciliation. But while meeting be tween individual faithful and priests in the course of such a communal service will inevitably be much briefer than in the rite for private confession, the meeting of priest and penitent nevertheless remains an essential element.

Absolution is still granted on an individual basis. Although the rite for that very reason presupposes the simultaneous presence of several priests, Pope Paul VI describes it as "the best possible form for our people, when it is possible." He also expressed the hope that it "will be celebrated more often." 1

"When it is possible," specified Paul VI. The Ordo Paenitentiae, in fact, provides that in very special situations general absolution may be given at the discretion of the bishops, with the individual confession of sins being postponed to a future time. When an absolution of this kind has been given, each individual penitent should later confess his serious sins in a subsequent private confession, when this becomes possible. This is the third rite described by the new liturgy.

This alternative is designed for countries where there are not enough confessors to hear the individual confessions in a satisfactory period of time. The diocese of Juneau, Alaska, is for instance the only American diocese where general absolution is practiced. This is due to the small number of priests and the distribution of the Catholic population over a large land area. There may be other legitimate occasions, but it is up to the bishops of each country to decide on these.

The New Order of Penance: Its Implications

The new Order of Penance, the fruit of a long and patient investigation, is now in the hands of national hierarchies around the world to be studied and applied to local situations. The pattern of implementation is likely to vary widely from country to country. In Latin America, for instance, where there is a severe shortage of priests, general absolution could well become a more general practice. In the United States, however, signs indicate that the communal rite followed by private confession is likely to become normative. The Vatican text is in fact expected to accelerate a trend already evident in many parishes toward hearing individual confessions in an informal "conference room" setting rather than in the traditional confessional booth with a screen be tween the priest and the penitent.

Individual confessions, how ever, will not cease. Communal rites are encouraged by the re vised liturgy, to be sure. But so there be no misunderstanding, this still requires individual confession before absolution. Nor is the confessional out, as some might have been led to believe by secular news accounts.

When the reformed Order of Penance says that at absolution the priest should place both hands (or one at least) over the head of the penitent this is obviously impossible in the setting of a confessional booth. But this does not mean that the document requires elimination of confessionals. The revised liturgy provides that in case of the use of confessional booths the right hand be ex tended in the direction of the penitent. Interestingly enough, the Latin text speaks of "places of confession" and declares that individual bishops' conferences have the right to determine guide lines for appropriate places of confession in their respective countries.

In any event, the same document provides for perpetuation of the present practice of individual private confession without the communal setting, and Catholic officials have indicated that they expect many faithful, especially devout ones who regard this sacrament as important for spiritual growth, to continue to participate under the traditional form.

The use of the confessional booth will not be abandoned in those societies and cultures in which bishops decide it is still necessary. "The confessional, as a protective screen between the minister and the penitent, to guarantee the absolute secrecy of the conversation imposed of them and reserved for them must, it is clear, remain," declared Pope Paul VI in an attempt to clarify certain misinformation being circulated about the renewed rite. 2

No Reform of the Doctrine

The manner in which a person confesses to a priest will vary from nation to nation. Many will prefer face-to-face confession in a room with chairs, and the confessional may very well in the long run disappear. But here, as in the case of other recent Roman Catholic renewals, the new reform is not to be found in doctrine, "but in the pastoral directives and indications for the renewal of the practice of the sacrament" as specified in the explanatory statement issued by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship when the new ordo was re leased.3 The changes stem from historical conditioning and manmade rules, which can be changed if pastoral needs require it. But the constitutive elements of the Catholic doctrine of confession are presented in full accordance with the traditional Roman Catholic teaching, including its most controversial aspect.

What remains constant in the new ordo is not merely the Biblical themes of sorrow, confession, reparation, and forgiveness-absolution, but the teaching that Jesus left the Catholic Church a true and efficacious power to forgive and/or retain any and every sin of the Christian committed after baptism. This power is claimed to have been committed in a special way to the apostles and their successors in the Catholic Church who authoritatively decide under what conditions it is to be exercised.

The manner in which a person confesses to a Catholic priest has undergone another change in our own lifetime, but the old issue as to whether a minister of the gospel has the authority to declare the terms on which Cod forgives or has executive and judicial power to sit as a judge and forgive or re fuse to forgive sins in the name of God remains as devisive today as in the days of the Reformers.


1 In his general audience of April 3, 1974. See The Wanderer, April 18,1974.

2 Ibid.

3 See "New Penance Ritual," in The Catholic Mind, June, 1974, p. 2.

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Raoul Dederen,, is professor of theology, SDA Theological Seminary, Andrews University, and an associate editor of The Ministry.

January 1975

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