Working on our spiritual issues?

It was a "slack day" in the confessional, with "only 88" parishioners receiving the sacrament of penance, a New York City priest recorded in his diary for 1899.

Another day was even slower, when he heard a "few" confessions -- 71 at one sitting.

Several generations later, National Opinion Research Center surveys in 1965 and 1975 found that monthly confession among American Catholics fell from 38 to 17 percent during that interval, while those who never or almost never went rose from 18 to 38 percent. A decade later, noted historian James O'Toole, a University of Notre Dame study found that 26 percent of active, "core Catholics" never went to confession and another 35 percent went once a year.

Today, a typical parish priest may hear a dozen confessions a week.

"Catholics just don't want to do this anymore," said O'Toole, who teaches at Boston College. "They go to communion week after week and they simply don't go to confession. They no longer see a connection. ... Some people think that everything would change if the priests got tough again and started talking about sin and confession and hell. The reality is more complex than that."

This is Lent, when Catholics should be lining up to say their confessions before receiving Communion on Easter, which is April 15th. Even though this ancient tradition remains in effect, "I have never heard a priest point out this duty in Mass, not even in the days before Holy Week," said O'Toole. "This canonical standard ... seems to have vanished."

What happened? Writing in Commonweal, O'Toole noted that some women don't want to confess to males. Many Catholics now prefer to discuss institutional and societal sins, rather than personal ones. Some believe the Vatican II reforms undercut the need for private confession. And who believes in hell, anyway?

But while confession has faded, there has been a sharp rise among lay people in a practice called "spiritual direction." For centuries, priests, monks and nuns have met regularly with individual spiritual directors to receive spiritual guidance. This can include confession, but now the emphasis is on advice and mentoring.

"It's hard to talk about this without psychoanalyzing it a bit," said O'Toole. "The key is that a spiritual director is supposed to help you, quote, 'work on the spiritual issues in your life,' unquote. There are elements of the patient-counselor relationship in this. This is what people are going in for, these days."

Traditionally, spiritual directors have been monks and priests. In a convent, a sister would take spiritual direction from a mother abbess, then go to a priest to confess. Now, more nuns and lay people are assuming the role of spiritual directors and O'Toole said the students enrolled in seminary programs teaching this skill are overwhelmingly female. For many, counseling from a layperson has replaced confession to a priest.

Nevertheless, "working on your spiritual issues" is not the same thing as "confessing your sins," said O'Toole. Part of the problem is that, for generations, Catholics were expected to come to the confessional with lists of specific sins to confess as quickly and efficiently as possible. The emphasis was on the kinds of sins that could be counted on one's fingers. "Sin" was a highly legal, technical concept.

"Confessing your sins meant saying, 'I was angry with my kids five times. I kicked the cat three times,' " he said. "Today, Catholics are telling their spiritual directors, 'I've been angry and I don't know what's causing me to be so angry. Can you help?' ... The bottom line is that sin -- especially those embarrassing, specific sins -- just don't come up very often in what most people call 'spiritual direction.' "

So repentance is out and sympathy is in. People want spiritual advice, rather than penance. Once, confession was one of the rites of life that separated Catholics from Protestants. Now everybody goes to counseling.

"People want help," said O'Toole. "But what people are not doing is going to a priest and saying, 'I committed this sin and I know that I need to be forgiven.' That's not how they think, anymore. ... At some point, American Catholics stopped seeing the world that way."