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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Decline of Catholic Discipline

There’s a fascinating article that appeared yesterday in the Washington Post about the Catholic Church’s local efforts, via bus billboards and radio ads, among other public relations media, to get believers to go to confession. Timed to coincide with Lent, the Church’s traditional period for penance, the campaign is fighting a vast dropoff in the number of Catholics going into the booth on Saturday afternoons, or any other time.Michelle Boorstein’s piece on this subject tends to make it all about how Catholics seek psychological self-relief and self-fulfillment in and out of the confessional, but she doesn’t get into the sticks, as opposed to the carrots, that the Church used to deploy to get people to go to confession. The Big Stick was the tenet that taking communion while in a state of mortal sin–which included a fairly broad array of sins, including defiance of church teachings and just about any sexual transgression–was truly horrendous, perhaps even representing the scriptural “sin against the Holy Spirit” that could not be forgiven. Indeed, this holy terror of communion without confession helped produce a long period of rank-and-file Catholic reluctance to take communion, which endured from the Fourth Century A.D. until very recent times.The failure of the Big Stick of discouraging communion for those not immediately fresh from the confessional led to an big post-Vatican-II effort to get Catholics to take communion as a basic obligation of the faith. But this healthy eucharistic revival wasn’t accompanied by any enduring return to regular confession. And there’s not much doubt that this particular aspect of “cafeteria Catholicism,” in the U.S. at least, owed a lot to popular dissent against the Church’s moral theology, especially in matters of sex. Aside from the widespread practice of contraception among U.S. Catholics, there has been an even more widespread defiance of the Church’s ban on any sort of premarital sexual activity. Asked to choose between the injunction to take communion regularly and the warning to do so in a state of reconciliation with the Church, Catholics have largely taken the former route.It’s interesting that in the Archdiocese of Washington, at least, the Church has chosen to accentuate the positive aspects of confession. But in the long run, the disconnect between Church teachings and Catholic practice cannot help but undermine Catholic discipline, and keep the lines outside the confessional short.

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