During the mid-1960s, traditional forms of private confession seemed to disappear abruptly from Roman Catholic practice, according to James O'Toole, associate professor of history at Boston College. The perfunctory nature of the confessional and changing notions of sin on the part of the laity led to the demise of this long-established ritual.
Does confession have a future? he wondered. O'Toole wasn't sure if there could be a recovery of old rites. Yet the disappearance of the traditional form for seeking reconciliation with God and with our neighbors has left a gap that has not yet been filled, he wrote.
Jim Forest, author of Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, sees a hopeful trend. He believes that this once-common discipline is today making a comeback. "While confession is most easily found in the Orthodox Church, Catholics are increasingly finding their way back to this ancient practice," he writes. "In Protestant churches various forms of spiritual guidance and counseling are on the rise, perhaps paving the way for the recovery of a lost sacrament."
Writing for an ecumenical audience, Forest, a convert to Orthodoxy, argues that for too long Christians have been neglecting classical Christian themes such as sin, guilt, forgiveness, and penance. He denies their irrelevancy, concluding that though currently out of fashion, the human condition they describe and seek to address remains unchanged.
Confession reconnects people with God. It is necessary for good mental health and revitalized relationships. It has healing effects not only for individuals but also for communities. Many see therapists today when what they may really need is a trusted and understanding confessor. Opening to God in Christ through another human who stands as witness, not as the object of confession itself, can be profoundly salutary.
The book includes a chapter on the history of confession—describing, for example, the practices of the early church, the Celtic Christian tradition in the West, and Russian monastic customs of the East. Private confession was deeply embedded in the Western church by the end of the first millennium. It survived in Catholicism, but not Protestantism, and the Second Vatican Council transformed it into an act centering on reconciliation.
THE NEW TESTAMENT is replete with confessional motifs such as Jesus' parables of the prodigal son (Luke 15); the Pharisee and tax collector (Luke 18); the narratives of the woman taken in adultery (John 8); and the anointing of Jesus' feet by Mary (John 12).
Forest also assesses Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment as a classic study on the nature of confession. He introduces tools for examining conscience and includes a collection of confession stories, a sermon, and related psalms.
Since not every priest is a good confessor, one of the book's most interesting chapters deals with finding the right guide. Forest encourages a relational fit, describes why some women may have problems with male confessors, and challenges those guided by trendy psychological theories while neglecting the church's biblical and theological tradition.
Augustine said confession is ultimately about praise. In a May 2000 issue of The New York Times Magazine, Father Lorenzo Albacete, professor of theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York, said that confession is not therapy or moral accounting. At its best, it is an affirmation that the ultimate truth of our interior life is our absolute poverty, our radical dependence, our unquenchable thirst, and our desperate need to be loved.
The Christian church in the West at least stands in a situation where, for many, older forms of confession and absolution are dying out or are simply non-existent. Newer forms have not yet emerged. Since the human need for confession won't go away, Forest's book is a good resource and helpful guide. A blueprint for how confession might be realistically and ecumenically redesigned, however, will require a lot more work.
Wayne A. Holst is a writer who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary. He was a Lutheran pastor, missionary, and church executive for 25 years.