Survey of the Current Roman Catholic Practice Regarding the Sacrament of Reconciliation 

Over the past 25 years I have given a "survey"  to a variety of groups:  parents of children who are preparing for First Reconciliation, parish retreats, parish leaders, catechists, seminarians, transitional deacons, parish life coordinators [non-ordained pastors], priests, and bishops.   I usually talk through the questions one by one and ask the group to answer anonymously.  The (one page, front and back) survey serves as an introduction to my talk or workshop on the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  The fifteen (15) questions of the survey are reprinted below in bold print.

I ask that you do not publish or reproduce this information.  I am just beginning a research project and these results are not sufficient to lead to any "conclusions." 

The responses printed below came from the following groups:

Group A = Responses from several groups of deacons (for the most part) studying the Sacrament of Reconciliation in preparation for priestly ordination.  Dates:  1997, 1998, 2000, 2002.  Number of respondents:  63

Group B = Responses from a group of priests, deacons, men and women religious, and parish leaders of a large northern diocese during a workshop on the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Date:  September, 1999.  Number of respondents:  65

Group C =  Responses from a group of priests, deacons, men and women religious, and parish leaders from several southern states during a workshop on the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Date: June, 1999.  Number of Respondents:  50

Group D =  Responses from Parish Leaders from 1 of the Parishes listed by Paul Wilkes in his book Excellent Catholic Parishes.  Date:  January 19, 2002.  Number or Respondents: 12

Group E = Responses from a group of parents of children preparing to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time in a midsize parish in the Midwest.  Date:  February 2002.  Number of Respondents:  37

The survey begins with the following paragraph of introduction: 

A variety of practices and understandings currently exist in the Church regarding the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In order to discover in some general way the practice of those here today, please answer the following questions. Circle one answer for each question. This is not a "scientific" survey. It will not be used to arrive at any "conclusions" or "judgments." It is merely a tool to help us understand the audience of today’s talks and discussions. (Note: in the questions which follow, the phrases "going to confession" and "celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation" are to be understood as meaning the same thing.)

1. How many times do you celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation during the course of an average year?

0 — 1 — 2 — 3 — 4 — 6 — 8 — 12 — 24 — 50 — 50+

Response Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
0 5% 0% 17% 0% 70%
1 3% 5% 19% 33% 22%
2 8% 25% 15% 42% 8%
3 16% 19% 11% 8% 0%
4 29% 39% 30% 17% 0%
6 10% 3% 2% 0% 0%
8 6% 1% 0% 0% 0%
12 11% 5% 2% 0% 0%
24 10% 3% 0% 0% 0%
50 2% 0% 0% 0% 0%
50+ 0% 0% 4% 0% 0%

Comment:  It is obvious not only from this survey, but from ordinary observation (confirmed by studies done by the USCCB) that most lay Catholics have stopped celebrating the Sacrament.  Leo Hey, and others, think this is due to the increased awareness of the Sacrament of Eucharist as a Sacrament of Reconciliation. "It is no surprise that the lines for Saturday confession got shorter as the lines for Holy Communion got longer."  Most active Catholics who celebrate the Sacrament celebrate 2-4 times a year.  It is mainly religious who continue the practice of confessing every two weeks.

2. The current Roman Catholic Rite of Penance gives three ways of celebrating the sacrament. When you celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, how often do you use the individual rite with private confession and absolution (= Rite One)?

Always — Usually — Sometimes — Rarely — Never

Response Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
Always 22 2% 15% 0% 8%
Usually 55 22% 14% 0% 3%
Sometimes 16 35% 21% 16% 0%
Rarely 5 32% 15% 42% 11%
Never 2 9% 30% 42% 78%

Comment:  I think that this is a very important finding of the survey.  If most Catholics experience the Sacrament during a communal celebration during Lent and Advent and if most seminarians preparing to minister with them celebrate the Sacrament primarily, or even always, using Rite One we are faced with a ministerial situation in which what the minister wants to give is different from what the laity want to receive.

Also, if the primary objective of this course is to help the student prepare and preside well at Rite II this will be difficult for those students who do not experience this form of the Sacrament as their ordinary means of spiritual growth.

Note that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy prefers Rite Two (or Three):

26. Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations belonging to the Church, which is the "sacrament of unity," namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops.

Therefore liturgical services involve the whole Body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they also concern the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their different orders, offices, and actual participation.

27. Whenever rites, according to their specific nature, make provision for communal celebration involving the presence and active participation of the faithful, it is to be stressed that this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, as far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and, so to speak, private.

3. When you celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, how often do you use the communal celebration with individual confession of sins and absolution (= Rite Two)?

Always — Usually — Sometimes — Rarely — Never

Response Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
Always 0% 12% 13% 8% 12%
Usually 14% 48% 33% 25% 8%
Sometimes 41% 26% 29% 34% 11%
Rarely 31% 9% 12% 8% 4%
Never 14% 5% 13% 25% 65%

Comment:  An increasing number of priests and religious are taking the Vatican Council seriously when it said that, "The communal forms of the Sacrament are to be preferred."  There is an increasing number of priests who would answer "Always" or "Usually" to this question.  I find that it is interesting that no seminarians answered the question in this way.

4. When you celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, how often do you use the communal celebration where general absolution is given without individual confession of sins (= Rite Three)?

Always — Usually — Sometimes — Rarely — Never

Response Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
Always 0% 0% 2% 25% 0%
Usually 2% 3% 4% 34% 3%
Sometimes 5% 7% 9% 34% 0%
Rarely 14% 14% 19% 7% 0%
Never 79% 76% 66% 0% 97%

Comment:  In the light of the current legislation regarding Rite III, it would seem that all groups would answer, "Never" to this question.  The Bishops of the United States have said on several occasions that in their opinion there are no pastoral situations in the United States today which warrant the use of Rite III.  However many pastors are finding that the shortage of priests does not permit the use of Rite II.  (A small percentage of the parish using Rite I and in this case the priest shortage is not an issue.)  However it is the experience of many of these pastors that Rite III is not only a practical necessity it is also preferable for pastoral and liturgical reasons.

5. Rate (on a scale of 1 to 5) your very best experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

1 — I have never had a positive experience
2 — my best experience was poor
3 — my best experience was ok
4 — my best experience was a good, positive experience
5 — my best experience was an exceptionally positive, healing event in my faith journey

Response Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
1 2% 0% 0% 0% 6%
2 5% 6% 15% 0% 3%
3 6% 11% 5% 7% 38%
4 30% 40% 40% 50% 50%
5 57% 43% 40% 43% 3%

Comment:  More than half of the respondents have had very positive experiences of the Sacrament of Reconciliation--both Rite I, Rite II, and Rite III.  From this question and the following question, one can conclude that the drop off in the number of Catholics celebrating the Sacrament is not due to the fact that they do not find the Sacrament useful.  Note that Group D had very positive experiences of the Sacrament of Reconciliation; note that this group responded that they never (or seldom) use the individual Rite.

6. Rate (on a scale of 1 to 5) your worst experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

1 — I have never had a "bad experience" with the Sacrament
2 — my worst experience was still what I would call "good"
3 — my worst experience was a "mechanical" confession
4 — my worst experience was a painful event in my faith journey

5 — my worst experience was so bad that I stopped going to confession

Response Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
1 24% 40% 24% 17% 54%
2 4% 33% 38% 0% 23%
3 26% 23% 27% 58% 20%
4 10% 2% 8% 17% 3%
5 6% 2% 3% 8% 0%

Comment:  Few respondents report having a "painful" experience of the Sacrament.  Even those who have never had a "bad" experience have frequently stopped celebrating the Sacrament.

7. When telling your sins to the priest, you can confess anonymously, behind the screen where the priest does not know who you are, or you can speak to the priest face to face. How often do you confess face to face?

Always — Usually — Sometimes — Rarely — Never — Not Applicable

Response Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
Always 46% 78% 61% 42% 25%
Usually 35% 13% 17% 25% 22%
Sometimes 12% 2% 9% 0% 8%
Rarely 5% 2% 9% 0% 8%
Never 2% 2% 2% 0% 28%
N. A. 0% 3% 2% 33% 8%

Comment:  As more and more people celebrate using Rite II one would expect that the "face to face" option would become more and more the usual way of celebrating the Sacrament.  Priests and religious who use Rite I generally opt for "face to face" where as the laity, in general, prefer the traditional way of celebrating Rite I; the continued to "go to to confession."

8. Are your spiritual director and your confessor the same person?

Always — Usually — Sometimes — Rarely — Never — Not Applicable
[NA = Not Applicable = I don’t have a spiritual director.]

Response Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
Always 5% 5% 7% 0% 0%
Usually 17% 15% 7% 8% 0%
Sometimes 32% 19% 18% 8% 0%
Rarely 22% 9% 13% 0% 0%
Never 22% 9% 11% 25% 0%
N. A. 2% 44% 44% 59% 100%

Comment:  Most priests and religious and an increasing number of lay religious leaders have a spiritual director. 

9. When you are seeing your spiritual director, do you also on that occasion go to confession?

Always — Usually — Sometimes — Rarely — Never — Not Applicable
[NA = Not Applicable = I don’t have a spiritual director.]

Response Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
Always 3% 5% 2% 0% 0%
Usually 5% 3815% 11% 8% 0%
Sometimes 38% 9% 2% 0% 0%
Rarely 24% 21% 13% 8% 0%
Never 27% 10% 24% 34% 0%
N. A. 3% 40% 46% 50% 100%

Comment:  It has been my experience that during the past 50 years many priests and religious seminarians combined spiritual direction and confession.  Many still do. 

It is interesting to note that The Instruction on Liturgical Formation in Seminaries, 1979, published in the United states by the NCCB on January 5, 1984, page 20, states that "Generally, it [The Sacrament of Reconciliation] is to be distinct from spiritual direction.

10. In your current parish, how many times during the course of a year is a communal celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation made available?

Response Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
0 6% 0% 13% 0% 0%
1 6% 0% 7% 0% 0%
2 71% 80% 66% 0% 100%
3 16% 12% 7% 100% 0%
4 1% 6% 7% 0% 0%
6 0% 0% 4% 0% 0%
8 0% 2% 0% 0% 0%
12 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
24 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
50 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
50+ 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%

Comment:  Most parishes offer Rite II during Lent and Advent.  An increasing number of parishes are making this form of the Sacrament available more frequently this is especially important as more and more people use the communal Rite exclusively.

11. Which one of the following reasons best explains why Catholics do not go to Confession as often now as they did 30 years ago:

a — The confessional box and screen make it too impersonal
b — They get nothing out of it
c — Priests discourage it
d — Many do not believe in it any more
e — They are afraid of it
f — They do not understand it
g — Our idea of sin has changed
h — Other: ______________________

Response Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
a 0% 0% 0% 0% 3%
b 0% 3% 3% 17% 12%
c 5% 0% 0% 0% 0%
d 16% 22% 20% 33% 2%
e 18% 4% 11% 0% 12%
f 23% 24% 40% 25% 12%
g 33% 39% 26% 25% 12%
h 5% 8% 0% 0% 20%

Comment:  This question is copied from a much larger survey that was given throughout the Cincinnati Archdioceses in preparation for a Synod.  The questionnaire was filled out in every parish throughout the dioceses.  The overwhelming majority of responses indicated "g -- Our Idea of sin has changed."  As the Holy Father keeps reminding us that every sin is social, communal sin calls for communal celebrations of Reconciliation.

12. The death penalty should be abolished for all crimes.

Agree – Disagree – Undecided

Response Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
Agree 72% not asked not asked 83% 20%
Disagree 16% not asked not asked 0% 49%
Undecided 12% not asked not asked 17% 31%

Comment:  I've recently added this question not so much because of its moral implications, but because the way a person answers this question gives an indication of their concept of God and divine justice. 

13. A person who is conscious having committed grave sin is not to receive the Eucharist without prior sacramental confession. In your estimation how many grave sins does an average Catholic commit during an average lifetime?

0 — 1 — 2 — 5 — 25 — 50 — 100 — 500 — 1000 — 3000 — 5000 — 5000+

Response Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
0 17% 20% 38% 30% 48%
1 11% 11% 12% 20% 20%
2 8% 15% 21% 20% 8%
5 14% 30% 21% 10% 15%
25 13% 9% 6% 0% 6%
50 8% 6% 0% 20% 3%
100 6% 6% 0% 0% 0%
500 10% 1% 2% 0% 0%
1000 8% 0% 0% 0% 0%
3000 3% 1% 0% 0% 0%
5000 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
5000 + 2% 1% 0% 0% 0%


Comment:  I find it interesting that students who have had nearly identical intellectual and spiritual formation over the course of a number of years can have such a range of opinions on this issue.  It is also interesting that seminarians seem more ready to see sin than do the laity.  Is this because the laity have lost the sense of sin?  Or is it because, as parents themselves, they have deeper understanding of the parental love of God?

14. At the end of time (e.g. after the "Last Judgment") what percent of the human race do you think will be will be in heaven and what percent in hell?

Heven25% 50% 75% 90% 95% 100%
Hell 75% 50% 25% 10% 5% 0%

 

Response Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
25% - 75% 2% 0% 0% 0% 6%
50% - 50% 2% 7% 3% 0% 17%
75% - 25% 17% 3% 9% 0% 17%
90% - 10% 10% 19% 9% 0% 17%
95% - 5% 19% 51% 27% 17% 31%
100% - 0% 50% 20% 52% 83% 12%

Comment:  The way one answers this question depends primarily on ones image of God. 

15. As pastor (or: if you were pastor) of a parish today, how many times during the course of a year do you think the active Catholics in your parish should celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation?

0 — 1 — 2 — 3 — 4 — 6 — 8 — 12 — 24 — 50 — 50+

Response Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
0 0% 0% 0% 0% 3%
1 1% 0% 8% 0% 20%
2 13% 30% 36% 30% 46%
3 6% 13% 8% 50% 0%
4 33% 43% 25% 20% 17%
6 16% 7% 0% 0% 0%
8 4% 0% 2% 0% 0%
12 19% 7% 16% 0% 11%
24 4% 0% 0% 0% 3%
50 4% 0% 0% 0% 0%
50+ 0% 0% 5% 0% 0%

Question 15 compared to Question 1 --  Question1 ask the respondent "how many times they celebrate the sacrament,  Question 15 asks how many times the would expect others to celebrate the sacrament.  I compared how many said that others should celebrate the sacrament more often than they themselves do, as often as they themselves do, or less often than they themselves celebrate the sacrament. 

Response Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E
More 35% 28% 49% 90% 86%
Equal 31% 44% 34% 10% 0%
Less 34% 28% 17% 0% 14%

Comment:  Question 15 is identical to Question 1.  Question 1 asks how often the respondent celebrates the Sacrament.  Question 15 asks how often the respondent feels others should celebrate the Sacrament.  I find it interesting that such a large percentage of respondents would make greater demands on others than they make on themselves. 

Tentative Conclusions

"Confession" (by that I mean the sacrament of confession as practiced in the USA in the 1950s and 1960s ) is dying or dead.  Most "good Catholics" simply do not "go to confession" any longer.  I think this is a positive development in the Church and its liturgy.  I am convinced that the Sacrament of Reconciliation given to us by the Second Vatican Council is radically different from (the scholastic practice of ) Confession.  [On this point see my videos available at www.americancatholic.org and the concluding chapter of my lectures of the history of reconciliation,  "historical grid" summarizing this development.]

Confession was an ascetical practice to eradicate private sins.  It has been replaced by spiritual direction, support groups, prayer groups, study groups, bible reading, etc.   Liturgically, most Christians experience and celebrate "forgiveness of sins" at the Eucharist. 

Each time that they participate in the Eucharist, the Christian faithful are instructed (now that they can hear and understand the words of the prayers in their own language) that the Eucharist, not only forgives all sins, the Eucharist is the ordinary way in which their sins are forgiven.  The Eucharis is the ordinary and normal "Sacrament of Reconciliation" for all Christians. 

Vatican II, Constitution on the Liturgy 33. Although the liturgy is above all things the worship of the divine majesty, it likewise contains rich instruction for the faithful. For in the liturgy God is speaking to his people and Christ is still proclaiming his Gospel. And the people are responding to God by both song and prayer.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a sacrament, a celebration of the Church, a liturgical act.

Vatican II, Constitution on the Liturgy 59. The purpose of the sacraments is to make people holy, to build up the Body of Christ, and finally to give worship to God; ...

Vatican II, Constitution on the Liturgy 26. Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations belonging to the Church, which is the "sacrament of unity," namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops.  Therefore liturgical services involve the whole Body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they also concern the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their different orders, offices, and actual participation.

Vatican II, Constitution on the Liturgy 27. Whenever rites, according to their specific nature, make provision for communal celebration involving the presence and active participation of the faithful, it is to be stressed that this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, as far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and, so to speak, private.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation has a rich and fruitful future in the Church.  This future, in my opinion, depends on Church leaders thinking about (and preparing and celebrating) the sacrament from the paradigm "Eucharist" rather than from the paradigm "Confession." 

Catholics do not always understand the "why's" of the changes taking place in confessional practice and consequently while they no longer "go to confession" they often "feel guilty" about not going and wish others would go even if they do not.  Parents are willing to introduce their children to the sacrament even though they (the parents) no longer go themselves.  [Often at these meetings and celebrations the parents learn that there is something entirely new out there that has replaced the confession of their youth.]

Priests, seminarians, and some vowed-religious continue to combine spiritual direction with confession.  For them, "confession" is a time of soul searching, discussion with a spiritual director, moral instruction, fraternal correction, and spiritual encouragement.  They perhaps imagine that their own experience is the experience of most people in the pews.  It is not. 

Those people who continue to "go to confession" in parishes are (with exceptions) pious and devout older Catholics who are continuing ascetical practices of their youth, much as they continue to pray the rosary and adore the reserved Sacrament.  In some cases they are scrupulous Christians for whom the confessional does more harm than good, and for whom spiritual direction or psychological  would be a more fruitful practice.  In some cases they are coming to ask for advice or information [which might better be given in a different place, but this is the only place they know they will find a priest available.]

I find at least five reasons for hope:  1) the understanding that the Eucharist is the ordinary Sacrament of Reconciliation seems to be growing among Christians; (they can see that the lines for confession got shorter as the lines for Communion got longer);  2) fewer and fewer people are "going to confession" (even while more and more bishops are encouraging it); 3) more and more people are celebrating the sacrament communally, especially during Lent (and Advent); 4) children are being introduced to the communal celebration for their first (and following) experiences of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and will never have experienced "confession" or the "box" (and it will eventually cease to be a "devotional memory"); 5) more and more parishes are experiencing rite three (general absolution) where pastoral decisions are finding this form of the sacrament not only warranted but preferable even in the face of some bishops opposition.  I only regret that these parishes can not be given more liturgical and pastoral assistance in their planning and celebration of the Sacrament.

The "reasons for hope" mentioned above have evidently reached Rome for we see them cautioned against in the apostolic letter motu proprio of John Paul II on the sacrament of penance, Misericordia Dei, April 7, 2002.   "Confessions" can once again be "heard" during the celebration of the Eucharist (revoking the provision of Eucharisticum Mysterium of 1967) so that one is "cleansed of sin" before receiving the Eucharist -- rather than by receiving the Eucharist.  The apostolic letter limits the use of Rite Three with General Absolution and states that it can be used only in such cases as are "objectively exceptional, such as can occur in mission territories or in isolated communities of the faithful, where the priest can visit only once or very few times a year, or when war or weather conditions or similar factors permit."   In the future Chapter III of the Rite will be removed and printed as an Appendix to the Ritual.

Remember that 40 years ago, as the movement around the world to celebrate the Latin liturgy in vernacular languages was growing, Rome increasingly condemned the idea, (even dismissing from Vatican Offices those who were in any way in sympathy with the idea, e.g. Bugnini), publishing the Encyclical Letter (in form of an Apostolic Constitution, February 22, 1962) "Veterum Sapientiae", which stated that the Latin liturgy would always be in Latin.   And then, shortly after, the vernacular was permitted.  Recall a similar history of the legislation against receiving Holy Communion in the hand.  The condemnations increased in volume and force until suddenly they turned from condemnation to approval.  (See Richstatter, Liturgical Law:  New Style New Spirit, pp 122-124.)  History often repeats itself.

© Copyright: Tom Richstatter, Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist, Cincinnati Ohio, Order of Friars Minor. All Rights Reserved.  The information on this page is not to be published or reproduced in any way.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made, to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 06/21/03 .  Your comments on this site are welcome at webmaster2@tomrichstatter.org.