Lights Out

The “What, Me Worry?” school of casuistry.

For Lent, Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley announced an initiative to bring Catholics back to the sacrament of reconciliation. He asked all pastors of the archdiocese to arrange for confessions every Wednesday evening between 6:30 and 8:00.

The program, with the theme “The Light Is On for You,” drew some favorable publicity, and rightly so. Any effort to encourage confessions is a step in the right direction. But did it work? A Boston Globe report was sympathetic but skeptical. The Lenten program made it easier for the faithful to schedule a confession, the Globe conceded, but most Catholics in the Boston area didn’t feel the need. The article was revealing— not because it contained any deep theological analysis, but rather because it reflected what so many people take for granted as The Way Things Are: “The days of long lines at confessionals are gone for a variety of reasons. Saturday afternoon hours are inconvenient for many families.”

True. But pastors can schedule confessions whenever they want. If they choose a 15-minute slot in the middle of Saturday afternoon, they’re sending a message. “Many parishioners and priests take a more liberal view of sin and forgiveness these days.”

True again. Read on. Later in the story the Globe reported: “One veteran priest says he hardly ever hears confessions and hasn’t had a single person come to the Wednesday night sessions—‘which I consider the sign of a healthy parish.’”

Bingo. This priest doesn’t want to hear confessions. Is his parish “healthy” in the sense that no one sins? No; it’s healthy in his mind because it has lost the sense of sin. Archbishop Sheen, call your office.

The priest, who asked not to be identified because he doesn’t want to alienate the archdiocese…

How thoughtful: he didn’t want to “alienate” the archdiocese! But what he said was objectively alien to the purposes of the archdiocese. So his real intent, evidently, was to avoid calling attention to the fact that he was not doing what he was required to do. He would, however, continue cashing the paychecks that the archdiocese sent him—so as to avoid alienating the payroll clerks, I’m sure.

…says he thinks that many Catholics today have a more modern view of forgiveness.

Ah! More modern. More up-to-date than the view that the priest, acting in the person of Jesus Christ, absolves sins. Regrettably the Globe did not provide the details of this modern concept of forgiveness. What we have here seems to be a huge theological breakthrough: an improvement on the sacrament established by Jesus Christ! How unfortunate that the anonymous priest was not allowed fully to share his modern vision—but perhaps his reticence in this respect is necessary, too, to avoid alienating other people. Come to think of it, Jesus got in trouble by alienating people, didn’t he? Don’t want to go down that unhappy road, that Via Dolorosa. Especially not during Lent.

The Globe’s anonymous clerical informant, who was happy that no one came to confession, had an ideological ally somewhere else in the archdiocese: a pastor who flatly refused the archdiocesan directive, informing parishioners that he couldn’t be bothered sitting around waiting for them to come to confession. In a face-to-face interview with Cardinal O’Malley, a correspondent for New England Cable News brought up that incident:

But at least one priest of the archdiocese that we’re aware of has told his congregation—the light won’t be on for you here. Flatly refused to do that Wednesday night confession. We didn’t name names but we did tell the cardinal about that.

Aren’t priests supposed to be there to save our souls?

O’Malley: “They certainly are. And we hope that that gentleman has a conversion before next Wednesday.”

What makes you think he’s a “gentleman,” Your Eminence? A gentleman wouldn’t take payment for work he refused to do. But wait; didn’t the ancien régime draw a distinction between the nobility—the “gentlemen”—and the clergy? Is the cardinal subtly making the point that this cleric seems to identify with the landed gentry, the privileged class, rather than with the workers in the Lord’s vineyard?

If only. Cardinal O’Malley did not seem a bit surprised to learn that one of his priests is defying him. Nor did he show signs of anger—which would certainly by justifiable, indeed righteous— or of determination to find and punish the errant pastor. Instead he voiced a meek, pious hope that the priest will experience a conversion.

According to the TV correspondent, the pastor in question “told his congregation” about his decision to defy the archbishop. It wasn’t a secret. Cardinal O’Malley could easily have identified him, with the help of a bit of detective work by his staff. Maybe, as he gave that mild answer to the interviewer, the cardinal made a mental note to do exactly that.

Or maybe the cardinal was—as, regrettably,he appeared to be—content to say how things ought to be, without doing anything to bring about the desired result. It appeared that the archbishop could only voice a vague “hope” for the conversion of a man under his direct authority, a man to whom he entrusts the care of souls.

So here we seemed to have: A pastor who didn’t worry about his parishioners’ disinclination to confess their sins. A prelate who didn’t worry about a pastor’s disinclination to hear confessions. Maybe it’s all that “more modern view of forgiveness” again, and I do wish that someone would bring me up to speed. But if an archbishop isn’t concerned about the laxity of a pastor of souls, and a pastor isn’t worried about the complacency of his flock, good luck getting the ordinary Joe Catholic to worry about the absolution of his sins.


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