Whatever happened to private confession? According to Annemarie Kidder’s recent book, Making Confession, Hearing Confession: A History of the Cure of Souls, it suffered deep misgivings among Protestants in the sixteenth century and among Roman Catholics in the twentieth, and in the process it simply moved out of church.
Kidder’s 22 chapters are divided into four parts, the first two of which trace the history of private confession from its biblical beginnings through the Reformations (Protestant and Catholic) of the sixteenth century. Beginning with the stated need for human conversion and practices of individual and corporate repentance described in the Old Testament, Kidder examines the Judaeo-Christian notions of sin and penitence that run through the biblical text, culminating in the teachings of Jesus, and the writings of Paul, the letter to the Hebrews and the Book of Revelation. Early Christian approaches to post-baptismal repentance and ongoing conversion are briefly examined, including the development of the Order of Penitents.
Four key chapters (3-6) lay out the evolution of private confession, from early practices of individual and group spiritual companionship among desert monastics through the fifth- through eighth-century Celtic monks. During this period, Kidder notes, confession was conversational and directive, with both women and men serving the role of the spiritual friend. Confessional practices were oriented toward spiritual development and growth, a laying-bare of self and soul to a trusted other; and that penance was assigned and undertaken along a medicinal model, to promote healing and strengthening along that developmental way. The gradual development of private confession of sins to a priest, which was emerging around the year 600, Kidder suggests was “at first more pastoral than penitential in nature, more focused on spiritual direction than on penitential practice and absolution” (43). While over time notions of balancing the scales, making up for the debt of sin, and the need for thorough examination of particular consciences would take hold, Kidder draws out the fact that, in theory (at least) the evolved form of sacramental confession never wholly lost its medicinal, corrective nature.
Kidder’s unique contribution to the historiography of confession comes through her tracing of the rise of private spiritual direction in a parallel and somewhat separate track with sacramental confession (chapter 7). As the penitential act became more focused on the confession of specific sins, the assignment of penance and the declaration of absolution, women and men, lay and ordained, sought spiritual counsel outside the context of the sacrament of penance. In this regard, the author notes the rise of the mendicant orders and their work as early “spiritual directors” in the modern sense, and the place of lay-confessors among the Beguines, religious third orders, anchorites and anchoresses, and the Friends of God and Devotio Moderna movements. That which could no longer be found in sacramental confession was sought, individually and in groups, elsewhere.
Kidder observes similar development among the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century (chapters 8, 10-11). Emphasis on the sole efficacy of Christ in the forgiveness of sin did not lessen the reformers’ sense of the need for repentance and confession; but direct auricular confession to a priest, minister or pastor, could not be viewed as necessary. Varying forms of public liturgical confession during Sunday services and practices of church discipline including excommunication took the place of individual confession to a priest, though there remained the option to lay bare one’s soul to a pastor or minister, and to receive assurance of God’s pardon and forgiveness. Emphasis among the Reformers on the “Priesthood of All Believers” prompted the growth of Pietism among Lutherans and Calvinists, and was one component in the rise of Methodism: all of these maintained practices of group and individual spiritual direction, including the confession of sin (chapter 9). While the Council of Trent emphasized the absolute need for confession to a priest of individual sins integrally (in species, number and circumstance), the ministry of religious priests (now including the Jesuits) helped maintain the connection between confession of sin and spiritual growth and direction (chapters 12-13).
The third part of the book is a mostly-successful examination of “Contemporary Practices of Confession,” including both theological and practical aspects of confession. Chapter 14, which opens this section, is largely repetitive of the first thirteen chapters; while it focuses attention in a new way on key themes from scripture and the history of penance — and introduces American developments, including the revivalist preaching of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the rise of Alcoholics Anonymous — much of what is covered here has already been rehearsed. Chapter 15 takes a hard look at the decline of private, sacramental confession from the mid-20th century forward, identifying developments in the fields of psychology and psychiatry, social work, as well as growth in spiritual direction and pastoral counselling movements, shifting theologies of sin, its nature and effects, as all contributing to a disuse of confession.
Kidder’s chapter (16) on “A Contemporary Theology of Confession” is a particularly rich and worthwhile read. Through the writings of Karl Rahner, SJ, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eugene Peterson and Adrienne von Speyer, Kidder is able to draw together a coherent ecumenical theology of sin and forgiveness that can support the practice of private confession in a variety of circumstances and across denominational lines.
The fourth section of the book, “Why Confession Matters: Practical Considerations” devotes six brief chapters to topics including the selection of a confessor, the ministry of a (good) confessor, examination of conscience, the nature of penance, rites of private confession and “Catechetical Considerations.” In this section, perhaps more than any other, Kidder’s desire to see private confession taken seriously in both theory and practice, especially among Protestant Christians, is evident.
At times throughout Making Confession, Hearing Confession, Kidder’s background as a Presbyterian Pastor is evident; her claims regarding Anglican doctrinal beliefs are colored by her Reformed reading of the evidences, and (in spite of the fact that she draws heavily on it), her knowledge of the two-rite system of the American Book of Common Prayer is limited. She seems much more familiar, and comfortable, with Roman Catholic texts and authors. One also notes the use of the term “litany” throughout the text in reference to contemporary rites for private confession: “The order for the sacrmanet of confession follows a clear outline. This outline is called a litany to indicate that confession is part of the larger church’s worship and liturgy” (314). This use is idiosyncratic to this book, with “litany” otherwise generally meaning a list of invocations with a common response — a small point, though recurring frequently enough throughout the book to suggest that a closer editorial reading would have been helpful.
These few issues do not detract from the overall value of Kidder’s book, which could serve in a variety of contexts as a general introduction to the history, theology and practice of sacramental confession. Seminarians in any Christian denomination, spiritual directors, adult education groups, and anyone looking to gain a deeper understanding of private confession, will benefit from reading this book.
Annemarie S. Kidder, Making Confession, Hearing Confession: A History of the Cure of Souls. Collegeville: Liturgical Press/A Michael Glazier Book, 2010. xvi + 349 pages, including appendices, bibliography and index.