Catholics, Repentance, and Forgiveness in America

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Patrick W. Carey
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     392 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What do the remedial practices of religion offer in a badly broken world? This is the difficult but worthy question taken up by the distinguished historian of American Catholicism, Patrick W. Carey, in his recent book Confession: Catholics, Repentance, and Forgiveness in America. Weaving together elements of intellectual, liturgical, and institutional history, Carey approaches this subject with at least two major objectives: first, to bring to light the history behind a surprisingly complex and frequently misunderstood dimension of American Catholicism; and second, to situate that history in the contexts of American religion and society at large. What Carey has produced is, correspondingly, both a specialized history of American Catholicism and an attempt toward broader illumination. The book discloses how a sizable number of Americans have—and, perhaps, how many Americans may yet still—grapple with their sins and attain peace, healing, and reconciliation.

Confession tracks the history of Catholic penance from the American colonial era to the 21st century and, in doing so, produces an unlooked-for account of change. Far from being merely an ancient fundament upon which American Catholicism has rested, the church’s liturgy of penance has evolved significantly over time. Carey shows how, over the course of several centuries, this tradition of penance (both a sector of theology and family of linked practices) has intersected with a wide variety of historical developments. The result is complex, involving not only significant debates and episodes of turmoil within the institutional structures of Catholicism (e.g., controversies over modernism, various American minority reform movements of the 20th century, and Vatican II), but also encounters with wider cultural forces (e.g., the hostility of American Protestants, the rise of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, the cultural revolutions of the 1960s). Attempting to narrate these developments, Carey presents penance in the US as a centuries-long story of neglect, revival, and most recently, collapse.

In Carey’s vaguely periodized narrative, “neglect” is the trope that characterizes Catholic penance in the American colonies and in the new Republic through approximately the mid-19th century. Penance was reaffirmed forcefully against its Protestant critics at the Council of Trent, and in theological and liturgical terms, Catholic penance in early America was closely bound to Tridentine formulations. But ‘diasporic’ conditions among Catholics in the early United States were a significant impediment to its implementation. Perhaps even more significantly, the tradition of penance was hampered by apparently widespread apathy among lay Catholics and by the fact that it was formally required only once a year. This did not stop Catholic bishops from exhorting their followers to embrace it, or from laboring on texts which doubled as apologetics and catechesis. During the first half of the 19th century, meanwhile, confession represented a flashpoint in an era of both good and bad feelings between American Catholics and Protestant fellow-citizens. The confessional seal of privacy was, in what Carey depicts as a pivotal 1813 legal case, ratified by a congenial court in New York civil law. Yet as hostility to Catholic immigration rose and nativist political anxieties deepened, the confessional became a focal point for hostile Protestants, who assaulted it with a spectacular array of criticism.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, confession remained embattled, but it also proliferated into “a major locus of vital Catholic religious practice” (32). During this phase, a relative “revival” of Catholic penance opened, driven partly by parish missions, partly by effective church leadership, and partly by the need to appropriately absorb a rapid stream of new immigrants. Exhortations to frequent confession finally took hold, and American Catholics undertook not only sacramental confession, but frequent “devotional confessions” as well, which were directed less at expiation than on spiritual growth. Confession, moreover, became enmeshed in a larger set of penitential practices, such as prayer, fasting, works of charity, and almsgiving, which anchored penitential culture in Catholic homes, as well as in the church. The sacrament of penance thus became part of a broader and denser penitential culture.

Then suddenly, during the latter half of the 20th century, this penitential culture in American Catholicism all but collapsed. Its rapid decline is the most dramatic turn in Carey’s narrative, arriving with a suddenness, he suggests, that rivals the transformations of the Reformation era (7). The reasons for this dramatic shift are complex, but the most critical inflection point, as in so much else, was Vatican II, which produced a critical paradigmatic shift in Catholic conceptions of penance from an ideal of “confession” to one of “reconciliation”  (225). Vatican II also initiated reformulations of the Eucharistic and penitential liturgies, and promoted the recovery of a collective sensibility. All of these developments would have crucial effects on penance. The determinations of the council, moreover, forced a reckoning among American Catholics, who were at the same time navigating the transformation, even the “loss,” of a common “sense of sin” in American culture. Carey shows how Catholic theologians, reformers, and bishops in the United States debated the boundaries and character of “mortal sin,” the category of error closely linked with confession, as well as numerous other related issues. Ironically, Carey demonstrates, the results of these debates among American leaders inadvertently accelerated penance’s swift decline. This is where the tradition of penance remains in the early 21st century.

The quantitative narrative of neglect, revival, and collapse in Confession seems compelling, and is probably critical, since it offers a sense of coherence. But one should note that this overarching narrative scarcely drives the book, which typically has a much a more qualitative flavor. Much of Carey’s most extensive and engaging analysis—such as his careful dissections of the influence of historical-critical thought, his attentiveness to evolving Catholic apologetics, and his account of debates over psychology—actually have little to no bearing on the book’s historical narrative.

Two criticisms of this valuable study seem unavoidable. One critical issue is a gaping absence of the Catholic laity. Despite Carey’s clear mastery of elite and institutional texts on penance—polemics, theological treatises, catechisms, seminary texts, pastoral manuals, episcopal legislation—one looks in vain for any substantive connection with the penitents whose souls were actually at stake in all of this. Second, even as Carey advances his narrative from colonial America up through the year 2015, Confession averts its gaze entirely from the saga of clerical sex abuse. No rationale is given for this, but it is difficult to imagine any that could be sufficient. Given the book’s title, its silence on this point carries a special irony.

Despite these problems, Confession is an important study of American Catholicism, and it makes other helpful, distinctive contributions, as well. For instance, it demonstrates once again how religion in the United States is critically a matter of the body. Carey adopts and executes a welcome liturgical approach that attends both to religious concepts and to embodied forms of practice. The book also offers modest social and moral arguments, as well as historical ones. It makes a creditable case in particular for the continuing value of penitential language and practices in contemporary American society. Unfashionable as they have become, coercive-sounding words like “sin,” “confess,” and “repent,” Carey argues, have important value. They can provide individuals and society with a potent lexicon of reform and renewal. They can catalyze healing and reconciliation. Confession offers no prescriptions, but it provides Catholics and other Americans with a historical index of these ideals, and of the kinds of concrete practices which bind them into religion and politics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ryan Tobler is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Patrick W. Carey is Emeritus Professor of Theology at Marquette University. He was the William J. Kelly Chair in Catholic Theology, the former Chair of Marquette's Department of Theology, a past president of the American Catholic Historical Association, author of over thirty articles on American Catholic life and thought, and the author or editor of twenty books, including his 2010 intellectual biography, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ: A Model Theologian.


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