The practice of sacramental confession in the Catholic Church dropped off precipitously and practically overnight about forty years ago. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, Catholics came regularly and in great numbers to confess their sins to a priest, but then, just like that, they stopped coming. Analysts have proposed a variety of reasons for this sharp decline—a greater stress on God’s love, a desire to move away from a fussy preoccupation with sexual peccadilloes, the sense that confession is not necessary for salvation, etc.—but whatever the cause or causes, the practice has certainly fallen into desuetude. Fr. Andrew Greeley, the well-known priest-sociologist, once formulated the principle that whatever Catholics drop, someone else inevitably picks up. So, for example, we Catholics, after the Council, stopped talking about the soul, out of fear that the category would encourage dualistic thinking—and then we discovered, in the secular culture, a plethora of books on the care of the soul, including a wildly popular series on “chicken soup for the soul.” Similarly, the Catholic Church became reluctant to speak of angels and devils—and then we witnessed, in the wider society, an explosion of books and films about these fascinating spiritual creatures.
A few months ago, I was in a cab with some of my Word on Fire colleagues, heading to the Baltimore airport. Our driver, an African American woman, enquired who we all were. When I responded that we were part of a team working for the Catholic Church, she launched into an anti-Catholic diatribe that lasted, pretty much without interruption, until we arrived at the airport. She complained about many of the usual subjects—birth control, women’s ordination, the sex abuse crisis, the Pope, etc.—but her strongest and most passionate words were directed against the church’s prohibition of abortion. “Don’t you realize,” she asked, “that women have a right to choose what to do with their own bodies?” I’ll confess that, probably out of fatigue or cowardice, I didn’t really engage this lady in debate, but she came back to my mind rather vividly last week when I read some shocking statistics that came out of New York. According to a recent study, 41% of pregnancies in New York City end in abortion. That figure, of course, is breathtaking enough, but consider this specification: among black women, the number rises to 60%! My cab driver friend was complaining bitterly about a Catholic church that opposes itself to abortion, when a genocide of the unborn among her own people—fully sanctioned and protected by the law of the land—is proceeding apace. This kind of confusion is all too typical, I’m afraid, among the adepts of the anti-anti-abortion position.
“True Grit,” the 1969 film starring John Wayne, was the first “grown-up” movie I saw as a kid. I was nine years old at the time, and I remember the experience vividly. I also discovered, through that film, that I had a gift for mimicry. For years afterward, at family parties, I was invited to reproduce the Duke’s distinctive drawl: “I wouldn’t a-asked you to bury him if he wann’t dead.” The Coen brothers, the auteurs behind “Fargo,” “No Country For Old Men,” and “A Serious Man” are among the best and most spiritually alert filmmakers on the scene today. And so it was with great excitement that I learned that the Coens had produced a re-make of “True Grit.” Though their version is far different from the original, I found it compelling, especially in the measure that it brings the religious dimension of the story to the fore.
It is the custom of the Pope to offer Christmas greetings to his official family, the bishops and Cardinals who direct the various departments of the Roman Curia. But his words at this occasion are typically much more than mere pleasantries. They constitute, usually, a kind of review of the previous year from the perspective of the Bishop of Rome. The Christmas statement that Benedict XVI made just this morning to his official entourage was of particular gravity, precisely because it represents one of his most thorough and insightful assessments of the clerical sex abuse scandal.
There are, to be sure, family values on display in the Bible, but they’re probably not the ones we would naturally expect. We might in fact be taken aback when we see just how harsh, blunt, and demanding are most Biblical accounts of family relations. We tend to be rather sentimental when it comes to families (especially this time of year), and there’s nothing wrong with warm family feelings. But the Scriptural attitude toward families isn’t sentimental; it’s theological and mission-focused.