The Confessional, the Couch, and the Community: Analyzing the Sacrament of Penance in Theological, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives
Stotts, Jonathan Andrew
The sacrament of penance, known also as reconciliation and confession, plays a central role in Roman Catholic pastoral care, both as a practically significant ritual for a small percentage of American Roman Catholics and as a powerful symbol within American Roman Catholic culture even among the majority who do not make use of it. In light of penance’s significant historical complexity, this dissertation argues that monolithic or simplistic explanations of sacramental penance fail to attend to the plurality of ways that penance might be practiced and understood in contemporary Roman Catholic parishes, leading to a neglect of its potential pastoral impact in the everyday lives of the faithful. I show how psychoanalytic considerations of guilt and fault, often neglected by Catholic theologians, enrich how we conceptualize penance from the perspective of penitents. Then, in dialogue with psychoanalysts Antoine Vergote, Heinz Kohut, D.W. Winnicott, and Jessica Benjamin, I interpret significant changes in American Catholic culture in the mid-20th century as a shift from clerical and obediential guilt to a more diffused and less articulable sense of being at fault, requiring corresponding adaptations to parish penitential practice. Finally, against arguments supported by official Catholic teaching that individual confession to a priest constitutes the only normal way for Catholics to experience the forgiveness of sins, I identify three necessary and interdependent approaches to penance, each offering its own theological vision of sin and forgiveness: juridical approaches centered on clerical power, therapeutic or relational approaches that take place in interpersonal parish contexts, and communal approaches that offer opportunities for individuals and groups to symbolically and liturgically express their disparate experiences of fault as one public body. Without wider practices of penance and the attitudes and commitments flowing out of a penitential vocation, Catholics cannot come to share an understanding, let alone ritualize a common experience, of the many and multifaceted ways that God heals and redeems our failures and faults.