Rorate Caeli

"Francis Effect" analysis: Confessions in sharp decline
Why? Saint Thomas Aquinas explains

As we first reported yesterday, Pew's poll on the first anniversary of the new pontificate revealed several stagnant trends, both in Catholic self-identification and church attendance. Jeff Culbreath has a particularly sharp analysis of one trend that cannot be overlooked: one that went sharply down.

Nearly six in 10 American Catholics in the poll said they expected the church would definitely or probably lift its prohibition on birth control by the year 2050, while half said the church would allow priests to marry. Four in 10 said it would ordain women as priests, and more than two-thirds said it would recognize same-sex marriages by 2050. Large majorities of American Catholics said they wanted the church to change on the first three matters, and half wanted the church to recognize same-sex marriages.

This is highly significant. Pope Francis is wildly popular, but that popularity seems to be rooted in what is perceived as a papal blessing for moral laxity and doctrinal indifference. Furthermore, the pope appears to be encouraging false expectations that the Church will soon be changing her moral teachings. Also significant is that Pope Francis seems to be having a negative effect when it comes to the most fundamental disposition of the Christian life – repentance.
As for confession, only 5 percent of Catholics said they went more in the past year, compared with 22 percent who went less.

Let’s be clear: enthusiasm for Pope Francis is directly correlated with a sharp decline in Catholics going to confession. Before Pope Francis, the numbers were already dismal with only 26 percent of Catholics confessing even once a year – the bare minimum. That Pope Francis has influenced Catholics in this way should not be a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. The Holy Father has consistently lambasted what he calls “rigorism”, “legalism”, and “small-minded rules” but without specifically identifying which rules he has in mind. Following the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics have come to view the requirement to confess mortal sins as just another a “small-minded rule”, and Pope Francis appears to have confirmed them in this perspective. His own dismissal of rules he doesn’t like, such as his washing the feet of a Muslim woman on Holy Thursday last year, also sets a powerful example.[Source.]

How to explain this apparently strange disconnect, especially regarding confessions? How is it that despite so much talk of confession in theory, in practice this is the only part of Catholic life in America that has collapsed so low in one year that its downward movement was measurable in the poll? We could try to explain it, but why do it, when we can leave it up to the Saint of the Day, the Common Doctor:

[S]hamefacedness is fear of some disgrace. Now it may happen in two ways that an evil is not feared: first, because it is not reckoned an evil; secondly because one reckons it impossible with regard to oneself, or as not difficult to avoid.

Accordingly shame may be lacking in a person in two ways. First, because the things that should make him ashamed are not deemed by him to be disgraceful; and in this way those who are steeped in sin are without shame, for instead of disapproving of their sins, they boast of them. Secondly, because they apprehend disgrace as impossible to themselves, or as easy to avoid. On this way the old and the virtuous are not shamefaced. (S. Th., II-II, q. 144, art. 4)

If there is no "fear of disgrace," in this life or in the next one, out of a sense of acceptance or normalization of sin, even if that sense is unwarranted, a major psychological incentive disappears, and with it the urge to confess.

Since usually the path to conversion is a longer one (and, perhaps, considering the very large total number of nominal Catholics, statistically difficult to measure by polling in the United States), it will take some time before the effect is noticeable there, too. We tend to believe there is bound to be a smaller inclination to join the Church if there is an increased sense that the future of one's soul (if one believes in an immortal soul...) is not affected by one's religious beliefs and practices.