Anybody who grew up Catholic in the 1950s has stories to tell about going to confession, some of them probably traumatic, but most, at least in my case, rather amusing. The whole idea of having kids starting at age seven—the age of reason according to Catholic theology—trot into a confessional once a month or so and recite to a priest a list of sins they have committed, including how many times for each sin, was a recipe for muddling the naturally budding awareness of the difference between right and wrong.
There was a little book that listed sins to help children with their examination of conscience. Sins included stuff like disobeying parents, which a child of seven or eight might actually commit, and quite a few sins that a child of seven or eight wouldn’t know how to commit if they wanted to.
I think many Catholic kids got it into their heads that priests needed to hear sins even if one had none to confess. A friend of mine remembers using the examination of conscience book when she went to confession at the age of seven or eight and just picking out sins that seemed reasonable. She got tired of confessing the same sins all the time, so she decided to pick out a new sin to tell and settled on “committing impure acts.”
After a long pause the priest asked, “Did you commit these acts by yourself or with others?” Maybe he was drawing on a confessor’s book of questions to ask regarding particular sins. My friend can remember thinking that it was probably best to spread the blame around and said, “With others.” After that, it was all a bit of a muddle with lots of coughing on the priest’s part.
I always had problems estimating the number of times I had committed a given sin. Once a priest pointed out to me that I had confessed to eating meat on Friday five times in a month that—like most months—had only four Fridays. Why I picked eating meat on Friday is a mystery since meat was never served in our house on Friday. Once, when I was a little older, I confessed to having impure thoughts occasioned by the dirty magazines in the barber shop I went to. Part of my penance was to switch barbers, which I never did.
In the Catholic elementary school I attended, the nuns took to us to the adjacent church to go to confession on the first Friday of every month. A friend and I had been calling a really tough kid named Mike on the phone and making anonymous threats in the name of the Phantom. We must have got the idea from a comic book. I was sitting in a pew waiting my turn to go into the confessional, when Mike, who was sitting in the pew ahead of me, turned around and said, “Hello, Phantom.” My heart sank. I had no idea how he found out it was me, but I knew that later that day he would beat me up.
It didn’t occur to me that making anonymous threats on the telephone was a sin that needed to be confessed, and I’m sure it didn’t occur to Mike that beating me up was either.
For many Catholics in the pre-Vatican II church, the habit of reciting a catalogue of generic sins in confession continued well into adulthood. While the practice may not have fostered a healthy moral introspection, for many, hearing the ritual absolution intoned in Latin—Ego te absolvo—really did give a sense of starting over with a clean slate, which was probably as helpful a anything they might have achieved in psychoanalysis.