Penance as Social Technology

In December, we were treated to the annual spectacle of the “War on Christmas.”  In contrast, the “War on Advent” was lost long ago.  In traditional Catholicism, Advent – the “Little Lent” – is a penitential season preparing the faithful for Christmas.  Today, Advent in America is graced by little that reflects its penitential character.  Penance is a word not used much anymore.  Informally, penance is the entire complex of behaviors motivated by the need to make reparation for sin.  Sin is also a word not used much anymore.

While the various Christian bodies may have different views on what penance is and whether it is desirable, my concern here is to try to explain penance as a social technology.  My particular focus is the traditional Catholic conception of penance, which has largely gone into desuetude in the decades following the Second Vatican Council.  I believe this is a direct consequence of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church having no conception of, or outright hostility to, penance as a social technology as opposed to a purely nominal religious ritual.

Penance as practiced in the past was a reactionary social technology with following main functions and dynamics:

  1. Penance provided Catholics with group identity and built communitarian bonds. This prevented “entryism” and permitted the Church to focus its energies on its real mission, rather than being co-opted by secular factions.
  2. Penance channeled the energy of the faithful into high agency interactions where they could learn virtues and discipline, rather than engage in pointless status seeking and virtue signaling.
  3. The penitential faithful concretely practiced high time preference and deferred gratification, as they observed the fast before celebrating the feast and “offered up” the daily sufferings of life.

Introduction to Traditional Catholic Penance

Our guide in attempting to construct the penitential practice of American Catholics in the mid-twentieth century is Maria C. Morrow’s Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession 1955–1975 (CUA Press, 2016).  To briefly outline mid-century Catholic faith and practice for unfamiliar readers, the central anthropological focus of Catholicism is Man’s sinfulness: the individual’s personal violation of God’s law.  The Roman Catholic Church makes numerous distinctions between kinds of sin, but the most relevant distinction here is the belief that punishment for sin has both a temporal and an eternal component.  While “eternal” focuses on the ultimate punishment for sin in one’s life in the world to come, “temporal” focuses on the punishment experienced for sin in this life.

The sacrament of penance, also called confession or reconciliation, is the ordinary method by which the faithful are forgiven of serious sins after baptism.  The confession and absolution proper address and remit the eternal punishment.  But the penitent will also receive a penance from the confessor, which is intended to reflect some portion of the temporal punishment due to the confessed sins.  A common penance would be saying additional prayers not otherwise required.

The concept of suffering as “reparative” has a prominent place in Catholic teaching.  Not only can one suffer for the sins one has committed, and make reparation thereby, one can also suffer for other people’s sins.  Because sin is so odious in the sight of God, nothing is more natural than to try to do whatever can be done to make up for it, even in cases when someone else is responsible for the sin.

Temporal satisfaction is so serious that, where temporal punishment has not been satisfied in life, a faithful, baptized Catholic may be called upon to complete the temporal punishment for sin in the next life in Purgatory, where the believer’s impurities are purged by fire before being granted admission to Paradise.  A related teaching is that on indulgences, which are specific practices, such as devotions, that the Church has determined remit the temporal punishments due to sin.

During the 1950s, Church-mandated penitential days of fasting and abstinence were an extremely distinctive feature of Catholic faith and practice.  First, adult Catholics were required to abstain from meat on almost every Friday of the year (with some exceptions).  Some Americans derisively referred to their Catholic neighbors as “fish eaters,” and Friday fish fries still continue in certain parts of the country, stripped of their religious significance.  The season of Lent, the forty days before Easter, was characterized by the Lenten fast and partial abstinence, which limited meat to the single permitted main meal of the day.  Other days throughout the Church calendar, prominently the vigils of major feasts and the Ember Wednesdays and Fridays each quarter, had similar restrictions.  For example, the Ember Wednesday and Friday in December fall during Advent and reflect its penitential nature by being days of partial fasting and abstinence.

In and Out Group Dynamics

Using contemporary social theory, it is evident what dynamics were at work in the old penance regime.  To survive in a pluralistic society, groups must establish boundaries: who is in and who is out.  Only those inside the boundaries can obtain the benefits of being in the group, otherwise why would anyone join?  Joining and staying in the group should be difficult or costly to avoid “entryism” (i.e., those seeking the benefits of membership without any real interest in advancing the group’s aims).

Morrow provides evidence of this defense against entryism with a description of the “ticket punching” practices implanted in certain ethnic parishes during the period.  Parishioners were required to retain documentary evidence that they had fulfilled their obligations at Easter to go to confession and to receive Holy Communion.  Without this proof, their children would not be permitted to have access to parish activities, such as catechism class or diocesan athletic leagues.

Similarly, fasting and abstinence worked together to police group boundaries for American Catholics.  First, these rules were mandatory and were set forth in documents that had the force of law within the Church.  The rules of fasting and abstinence, what could and could not be eaten and when, were very clear, and it was repeatedly taught by the Church that the failure to observe them was sinful.  Confession, where the penitent was required to use his or her own conscience to determine whether thoughts, words and actions were in fact sins, was mandatory, both in the absolute requirement that a Catholic confess at least once a year, and also in the repeated teaching that the failure to confess serious sins before receiving Holy Communion was the sin of sacrilege.

Second, penance was universal.  Everyone went to confession, except very small children.  Almost everyone fasted and abstained, except the very young and very old.  Those who did not were doing so under clear and explicit exemptions, either by general rule or by personally requested dispensation.  Penance was something everyone did together at the same time.

Third, penance was distinctive.  Confession, fasting and abstinence were clearly and characteristically Catholic.  While these ancient practices were engaged in by many groups throughout history, the only ones doing them in mid-century America were Catholics.

It is often said America is a Protestant country.  It is more accurate to say it is a Deist country.  The Enlightenment pretensions of the Founding Fathers are reflected in First Amendment, which completely privatizes religious faith.  Catholic emigres to America, often accustomed to state hostility to Catholicism, appreciated the opportunity presented build a Church free from this interference.  But they were also cognizant of the dangers, as evidenced by the creation of a parallel educational infrastructure at all levels, from grade school to university.  Penance was an important part of a distinctly Catholic way of life in America.  Without penance, being Catholic has become less distinctive in America.  Catholics have therefore sought their identity in other groupings, whether racial or socio-economic.

Holiness Spirals

One of the great benefits the culture of penance provided was protection against destructive status seeking.  In Neo-Reactionary thinking, this is most frequently discussed in terms of “holiness spirals,” which is actually a specific case of a more general phenomenon: a characteristic of Modernity is individuals pursuing religious ideas, religious feelings, and religious beliefs based on their own personal reactions and experience.  Each seeks to outdo the others, asking “am I not also a prophet?”

In the pre-Conciliar period, the Catholic laity was condemned by enthusiastic reformers in their own Church for not having had a sufficient “change of heart,” the first step in a new teaching that subjective religious feeling was what mattered, rather than discipline, self-control, obedience and tradition.  The critics of mid-century penitential practice often focused on the lack of “genuineness,” in that observing mandatory practices like fasting and abstinence were not motivated by internal feelings of sorrow or regret but rather by a desire to obey the rules correctly.

Attacks on “legalism” almost always start by misunderstanding Christ’s condemnation of hypocrisy.  In the Gospels, Jesus condemns the Pharisees not for fasting but for wanting to be seen to be fasting, and therefore to be recognized as holy by their fellows.  This is the same phenomenon as “virtue signaling” that one is a good person by correct speech or communicative action.  The solipsistic twist of the contemporary Progressive is not the desire to be seen as holy by others, but rather wanting to obtain an interior “good feeling” for having done something, said something, or even having felt something deemed worthy.  This is the ongoing rot that comes from believing religion is about internal mental and emotional states, rather than being a fundamentally social institution of shared beliefs, statements and practices.

Not without coincidence did the American bishops’ 1966 “Pastoral Statement on Race Relations and Poverty” reflect the ubiquitous criticism of penance that, by focusing on an individual’s own personal sins (such as drunkenness, missing Mass, or using birth-control), penance obscured the individual’s role in perpetuating “social” or “collective” sins, such as racism, sexism and economic oppression.  Catholic “neo-conservative” Michael Novak, specifically referencing the Lenten sacrifices, worried penance would be ineffectual in generating a proper concern among American Catholics for “the poor” and “their Negro brothers.”  Instead, the focus should turn to “social life, civic life, political life.”  Because fasting and abstinence did nothing to uplift the poor, ethnic minorities, and oppressed women, it was worse than useless, putting a stumbling block of “individualism” in front of social mission and allowing the perpetuation of “social sins.”

It should be no surprise that these “social sins” make-up the worldview of the late 1960s Progressives, stewed in academic Marxism and the Frankfurt School.  Instead of focusing on the concrete and objective prohibitions of the Ten Commandments, the new emphasis on “social sins” abstracted people into good and bad based on their social and economic class.  Middle class whites were now relegated to the “bad” class of oppressors, with poor non-white minorities in the “good” class of victims of systematic oppression.  Instead of what an individual had or had not done, the focus was shifted to his place in a culture of oppression and “sins” had never in the past been a concern of the Church.

People who spend their time and efforts obtaining Church granted indulgences are not spending their time and efforts advancing trendy “social justice” causes.  Contrariwise, eliminating indulgences does not stop people from seeking the same affirmations of worth, status and virtue based on what they have been told by secular elites.

Time Preference and Deferred Gratification

An essential part of the culture of penance was a practical theology on the role of suffering.  It was recognized that suffering in life could be either deserved or undeserved; it could represent a penalty for one’s own sin and those of others.  Therefore, the appropriate response to suffering was to see it as a form of penance and “offer it up,” i.e., to accept it as a penance without complaint or grumbling.  “Offering it up” was a practical technique for managing hardships and disappointments and was a key practical fact of penance, which permitted the Catholic to trade temporary pains and hardships for lasting, even eternal, benefits.

Religious studies professor Robert Orsini described the penitential cultural of long-suffering Catholic women in his monograph Thank You, St. Jude: Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (Yale, 1996.)  He observes: “The prominent devotional magazine Ave Maria began a long-running series of stories in 1955 by Anna-Margaret Record about a character named ‘Marcy Balaird,’ a married woman with six children.”  This was reality of the Catholic ethnic neighborhood with large extended families, small, urban living space, and the concomitant lack of privacy.  While a breadwinning father worked an industrial or middle management job, the wife and mother stayed home, filling her day with cooking, cleaning, child care, and literal nursing.  The “Marcy Balairds” of American Catholicism had many worries, disappointments and pains, physical, mental and emotional.  She offered them up and taught her children to do the same thing.

Orsini see this as something especially undesirable for blocking a feminist agenda: “The path marked out for women was clear: rebellion, autonomy, ambition wrought terrible punishment, while suffering and pain made women beloved, graceful, capable of healing and helping.”  Apparently, the conclusion was that women should pursue rebellion, autonomy, and ambition because this would make them happier than “offering it up.”  In the new value system, it was obvious that sacrificing yourself so that children could benefit was foolish, especially when all those extra kids really weren’t necessary if you had just used contraceptives.

The end came with the American bishops’ “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence,” which most prominently abolished Friday abstinence from meat.  Many critics had already made the point that meat was common in America, not a luxury, and therefore there was nothing penitential about having crawfish etouffee instead of McDonald’s.  But, as Morrow notes, the Church did not respond to this criticism by mandating abstinence from coffee, cigarettes or alcohol on Friday as a more appropriate penance.  Instead, the American bishops wanted penance to become more “effective” by being voluntarily chosen.  Given this choice, few American Catholics chose to do anything at all.  The older common sense wisdom was lost that few people will impose on themselves hardships that they aren’t required to bear.

“Enter by the narrow gate.  For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”  (Matthew 7:13-14)

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