To make confession less intimidating, Protestant churches have urged believers to shred their sins in paper shredders or write them on rocks and cast them into a "desert" symbolized by a giant sand pile in the sanctuary.Now, before you get all superior about this, let me tell you that when I was living in North Carolina I attended an Ash Wednesday service at an otherwise Roman Catholic parish where we were instructed to write our sins on little slips of paper, which were then collected in a bowl and set ablaze at the foot of the altar, so let's just say that liturgical weirdness is not restricted to your garden-variety Protestant wackiness.
The author of the article, Alexandra Alter (nope, I'm not kidding, that really is her name) suggests that this renewed interest in confession is due, at least in part, to "aggressive marketing" by churches and the current popular culture fascination with therapy and self-help. As explanations go this one, I suppose, is no worse than any other just-so story one could dream up after a little desultory poking around but, like any other fundamentally empirical investigation into a non-materialist phenomenon, it falls rather flat. My own view, supported by no empirical evidence whatsoever, is that confession has been falling off in popularity in the materialist West because the materialist West is populated by materialist Westerners. People who, for the most part, aren't particularly introspective to begin with and, when they are, have a tendency to blame things other than their own free choice of the will when they find that something has gone wrong. And one statistic cited by Alter struck me as particularly relevant to American Catholics. Only 26% said in a recent poll that they had been to confession in the past year. Only 26% in the past year, when any well-educated Catholic knows that, whatever else you may think about confession, you know that you're supposed to go at least once a year. Contrast that 26% who went to confession with the nearly 100% percent who go up to receive Holy Communion every Sunday, and you begin to realize that there is a kind of cognitive disconnect in your average American Catholic's head between the need for reconciliation with God and Man and the unitive meaning of the Sacrament of Eucharist. In short, the vast majority of American Catholics (roughly 74%, apparently) do not understand their faith well enough to practice it correctly. (But then, polls about abortion and contraception already told us that, or worse.)
What's up with that? Is it just the straightforward fact that, in our narcissistic society, nobody thinks that s/he really does anything that's all that bad? Or do they think that receiving Holy Communion is just something you do at Church on Sunday, a purely symbolic act and not the miraculous reception into one's own body of God himself in substance under the veil of bread and wine? Perhaps they don't fully understand what sin really is, or why it needs to be confessed, or perhaps they haven't got that Sacramental view of life that is the Christian's particular gift. Whatever the reason, it's a shameful situation. People who haven't been to confession in a year but who receive Holy Communion every Sunday as though it were mere ritual ought to be ashamed of themselves. Few of them are; some of them are probably extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (though they will call themselves "Eucharistic Ministers" and think of themselves as doing their parish a favor).
Well, it looks like I need to go to confession myself now, what with all that judgmental dissing of my co-religionists and all. The good news is, when I go tomorrow afternoon, I won't have to wait in line.