Cohabitation, Confession, Communion

For generations, people in pews knew what to call it when folks "shacked up" before marriage -- "living in sin." "Sin" is a harder word to use, today.

The Catholic archbishop of Santa Fe, N.M., recently raised eyebrows with a mere letter reminding his flock that cohabitation is a grave sin that Catholics must take to confession or there will be eternal consequences. Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan's priests read his sobering words from their pulpits on April 3, the fourth Sunday of Lent -- the penitential season before Easter.

Those who cohabit, stressed Sheehan, are "objectively living in a state of mortal sin and may not receive Holy Communion. They are in great spiritual danger. At the best ... they are ignorant of God's plan for man and woman. At the worst, they are contemptuous of God's commandments and His sacraments. ...

"Often their plea is that they 'cannot afford a church wedding' i.e. the external trappings, or that 'what difference does a piece of paper make?' -- as if a sacramental covenant is nothing more than a piece of paper! Such statements show religious ignorance, or a lack of faith and awareness of the evil of sin."

In addition to forbidding known cohabiters from receiving Communion, Sheehan urged priests to avoid public scandal by refusing to commission them to serve Communion. After all, he said, "one commits the sin of sacrilege by administering a Sacrament in the state of mortal sin."

Also, priests should prevent those who cohabitate from serving as godparents for baptisms and confirmations, since the documents for these rites say it's "critical for the sponsor to be a practicing Catholic." How, Sheehan added, "can anyone be seriously called a practicing Catholic who is not able to receive the sacraments because they are living in sin?"

This latest Communion controversy is not taking place in a vacuum. American bishops continue to debate whether or not to deny Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who reject church teachings on hot-button issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

At the same time, Catholic leaders are making special efforts -- especially during Lent -- to draw Catholics back to confession or, as it is now known, the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. After all, a 2008 study at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that 45 percent of American Catholics say they never go to confession and 12 percent say they go once a year. A generation or two after many Catholics lined up for confession on a weekly or monthly basis, a mere 2 percent say they participate in this sacrament once a month or more.

This is the context for Sheehan's letter, which raised additional issues central to the day-to-day lives of thousands of priests, parents and parish leaders. How should priests handle cohabitating couples that seek premarital counseling? Can these couples attend "Pre-Cana" programs for the engaged? How do priests convince these Catholics to seek forgiveness when they don't believe they are sinning?

Good luck with that, said commentator Heidi Schlumpf of the National Catholic Reporter. She gave Sheehan's letter a quick thumbs down, calling it a mere attempt to fire up traditionalists.

"I'm struck how un-persuasive this letter is," she wrote, online. "But then I wonder if that is its purpose. It seems Sheehan has no real interest in persuading or teaching, but rather only punishing those who disagree with him. Oh, and making those who already agree with him happy for 'laying down the law.' "

Father John Zuhlsdorf, author of the popular "What Does the Prayer Really Say?" weblog, stressed that the Santa Fe statement was blunt, but that silence and timidity would be even worse. The key, he said, is that Archbishop Sheehan dared to defend church teachings to the Catholics who are under this care.

"In this age of 'I'm OK, you're OK,' a bishop risks being called mean and uncompassionate if he does anything other than remain silent or wring his hands," said Zuhlsdorf, a former Lutheran who is completing his doctorate at the Patristic Institute "Augustinianum" in Rome.

"So how do you defend doctrines that many people think are offensive without committing what many people believe is the ultimate sin, which is offending people? ... Yet this is what bishops are supposed to do -- defend the teachings of the church. All of them. The whole package."

Orthodox bishop on hot spot

When an Orthodox bishop enters a sanctuary, he is traditionally greeted with the following words chanted in Greek -- "eis polla eti, despota."

In English this means, "Many years to you, Master." Witty bishops in the Orthodox Church in America have started using this sentiment as the punch line in a joke about the impact the episcopate can have on their egos.

"What happens to a guy?", said Bishop Jonah, during the church's All American Council in Pittsburgh. "You put him on a stand in the middle of the church, you dress him up like the Byzantine emperor and you tell him to live forever. You know?"

The audience of clergy and lay leaders laughed, but it was nervous laughter. The atmosphere in the recent gathering was so tense, Bishop Jonah said later, that some of the bishops were afraid that "everything was about to unravel."

Only 10 days earlier, the 49-year-old monk had been consecrated as assistant bishop of Dallas. Now, he was facing the clergy and lay leaders of a flock that was reeling after years of bitter scandal -- including the disappearance of $4 million -- that had forced the church's last two leaders out of office.

The new and, thus, unstained bishop volunteered to face the assembly and answer hard questions about reform. The bottom line, he said, was that investigators found a "fundamentally sick," corrupt culture inside the national headquarters that was rooted in fear and intimidation.

"Yes, we were betrayed. Yes, we were raped. It's over. It's over," said Bishop Jonah. In fact, whenever church members seek healing, "we have to confront the anger and the bitterness and the hurts and the pain and the resentment that we have born within us as reactions against the people who have hurt us.

"By forgiving, we're not excusing the actions. ? We're not justifying anything. What we're saying is, 'My reaction is destroying me and I need to stop it. If I value Jesus Christ and the Gospel and communion with God, I need to stop it and move on.' "

The audience responded with a standing ovation.

Then, 11 days after he became a bishop, the assembly -- in a move that shocked young and old -- elected Jonah as the new Metropolitan of All America and Canada. Current plans call for his enthronement at on Dec. 28th at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

The new leader of the Orthodox Church in America, which has its roots in Russia, was born James Paffhausen in Chicago and raised as an Episcopalian. He converted to Orthodoxy during his college years in California, went to seminary and, while studying in Russia in 1993, became a novice at the famous Valaam Monastery. After returning to America, he was ordained and spent 12 years building several missions and the Monastery of St. John of San Francisco in northern California.

Becoming a bishop turned his once secluded life upside down, explained Jonah. Now it's hard to even discuss his stunning election as primate on Nov. 12.

"They talk about 'his beatitude' and I wonder who that is," he said. "Your beatitude? Who? Where?"

On his 12th day as a bishop, he found himself delivering an address on his "vision for the church." The new Metropolitan Jonah stressed college ministry, calling for Orthodox housing facilities and evangelistic ministries near as many campuses as possible, to help students living in "Animal House" conditions rooted in "sex, drugs, alcohol and despair."

It's also time for leaders in the church's many ethnic U.S. jurisdictions to work together on charitable projects whenever and wherever they can, grassroots projects that he said will eventually produce Orthodox unity at the national, hierarchical level. Where are the Orthodox hospitals, schools and nursing homes?

If nationwide change is going to happen, said Jonah, it will have to grow out of respect and cooperation at all levels of the church.

"Hierarchy is only about responsibility, it's not all of this imperial nonsense," he said. "Thank God that we're Americans and we have cast that off. We don't need foreign despots. We are the only non-state Orthodox church. In other words, we are the only Orthodox church that does not exist under the thumb of a state -- either friendly or hostile.

"So the church is our responsibility, personally and collectively, individually and corporately. What are you going to do with it?"

Searching for Catholic sins

One tough challenge that Catholic shepherds face, Pope Benedict XVI said this past Lent, is that their flocks live in an age "in which the loss of the sense of sin is unfortunately becoming increasingly more widespread."

The pope has consistently described the forces at work as "pluralism," "relativism" and "secularism."

"Where God is excluded from the public forum the sense of offence against God -- the true sense of sin -- dissipates, just as when the absolute value of moral norms is relativized the categories of good or evil vanish, along with individual responsibility," he told a group of Canadian bishops, early in his papacy.

"Yet the human need to acknowledge and confront sin in fact never goes away. ... As St. John tells us: 'If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.' "

But there's a problem at pew level. Many American Catholics who regularly attend Mass simply do not agree with their church when it comes time to say what is sinful and what is not. In fact, according to a recent survey by Ellison Research in Phoenix, if the pope wanted to find large numbers of believers who share his views on sin he should spend more time with evangelical Protestants.

For example, 100 percent of evangelicals polled said adultery is sinful, while 82 percent of the active Catholics agreed. On other issues, 96 percent of evangelicals said racism is sin, compared to 79 percent of Catholics. Sex before marriage? That's sin, said 92 percent of the evangelicals, while only 47 percent of Catholics agreed.

On one of the hottest of hot-button issues, 94 percent of evangelicals said it's sinful to have an abortion, compared with 74 percent of American Catholics. And what about homosexual acts? Among evangelicals, 93 percent called this sin, as opposed to 49 percent of the Catholics.

The Catholics turned the tables when asked if it's sinful not to attend "religious worship services on a regular basis," with 39 percent saying this is sin, compared to 33 percent of the evangelicals.

In this survey, a Catholic was defined as "someone who attends Mass at a Catholic parish at least once a month or more," said Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research. The goal was to focus on the beliefs of active members, as opposed to ex-Catholics and "cultural Catholics" who rarely, or never, go to Mass.

The researchers also collected data on church-attending Protestants and this group -- mixing mainline Protestants and those in conservative churches -- tended to give answers that were more conservative than those from by Catholics, but more liberal than those given by evangelicals. Sellers said his team sifted evangelicals out of the larger Protestant pool by asking participants to affirm or question basic doctrinal statements, such as, "The Bible is the written word of God and is totally accurate in all that it teaches" and "Eternal salvation is possible through God's grace alone."

The split between Catholics and evangelicals jumped out of the statistics.

"It's hard to talk about what could have caused this without doing in-depth research that would let us move beyond speculation," he said. "But you can't look at these numbers without asking: Why are American evangelicals more likely to have a Catholic approach to sin than American Catholics?"

It's clear that most Americans are operating with definitions of sin that are highly personal and constantly evolving, said Sellers. These beliefs are linked to faith, morality, worship and the Bible, but are also affected by trends in media, education and politics. For example, 94 percent of political conservatives believe there is such a thing as sin, compared to 89 percent of political moderates and 77 percent of liberals.

The declining numbers on certain sins would have been even more striking if the Ellison researchers hadn't added a strategic word to its survey. The study defined "sin" as "something that is almost always considered wrong, particularly from a religious or moral perspective."

Note that linguistic cushion -- "almost."

"We had to put that 'almost' in there," said Sellers. "Most Americans do not believe in absolute truths, these days. So if you present them with a statement that contains an absolute truth, people are immediately going to start challenging you and looking for some wiggle room. ... They just can't deal with absolute statements and that messes up your survey."

One thing about Lent

Faithful fans of ESPN's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" know that former NFL lineman Mike Golic takes great pleasure in skewering his urbane shrimp of a partner, Mike Greenberg.

But in recent weeks, the sarcastic jabs by the University of Notre Dame graduate began drawing an ominous canned response from the producers -- a doomsday choir chanting "Golic's going to hell."

You see, Golic vowed to make a big sacrifice this year for Lent, the 40-day penitential season that precedes Easter. When he was in Catholic school, he told listeners, he was taught to give up one thing during Lent. This time around, Golic elected -- rather than donuts or another great pleasure -- to give up making fun of "Greeny."

When most people think of Lent, this "giving up one thing" concept is the one thing that comes to mind, even for many of America's 62 million Catholics. Now, many Protestants have adopted the same practice. This is, however, a modern innovation that has little or nothing to do with ancient Lenten traditions, in the West or the East.

"There are Catholics who don't practice their faith and they may not be up on what it really means to observe Lent," said Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics and evangelization for the Catholic Answers ( website. "But active Catholics know there is supposed to be real fasting and abstinence involved in Lent.

"The question is whether they want to do more, to add something extra. That is what the 'one thing' was supposed to be about."

Lenten traditions have evolved through the ages. For centuries, Catholics kept a strict fast in which they ate only one true meal a day, with no meat or fish. Over time, regulations were eased to allow small meals at two other times during the day.

Today, Catholics are supposed to observe a strict fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent and Good Friday at the end. In most parishes they are urged to avoid meat on Fridays. However, Lenten guidelines have been eased so much in recent decades that even dedicated Catholics may become confused. Akin tries to cover the basics online in what he calls his "Annual Lent Fight" roundup.

It's impossible to know how or when the idea of "giving up one thing" came to dominate the Lenten season, he said. The roots of the tradition may date back to the sixth century and the influential monastic Rule of St. Benedict, which added a wrinkle to the usual Lenten guidelines.

"During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God ... something above his prescribed measure," states the Rule. "Namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter."

The key, Akin explained, is that this was supposed to be an extra sacrifice. The Rule even tells the monks to seek the approval of their spiritual fathers before taking on an extra discipline, so as not to be tempted by pride.

"It's understandable that when you have a season in which you're supposed to do something -- like penance -- there will always be people who want to do more. They will want to observe both the letter and the spirit of the law," said Akin. "At the same time, you're going to have people who want to go in the opposite direction. They will want to find a way to do the bare minimum, to set the bar as low as possible."

It's also possible, he said, that the "give up one thing" tradition grew out of another understandable practice. Parents and Catholic teachers have long urged small children -- who cannot keep a true fast for health reasons -- to do what they can during Lent by surrendering something symbolic, such as candy or a favorite television show.

But if grownups stop practicing the true Lenten disciplines, then the "one thing" standard is what remains.

"You can have a good example set at home and then undermined at school or it can happen the other way around," said Akin. "Our children need to see the faith lived out at home and the school and in the parish. You need consistency."

Thou shalt not say 'adultery'

Journalist Pamela Druckerman didn't think it would be hard to discuss sex issues with Alain Giami of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research.

After all, he was one of the top sex researchers in a nation known for its freewheeling, laissez faire attitudes about matters of the heart. However, Giami silenced her when she used a dangerous word.

"What do you call 'infidelity'? I don't know what 'infidelity' is," he said, in what the former Wall Street Journal correspondent later described as a "rant."

"I don't share this view of things, so I would not use this word," he added, and then delivered the coup de grace. "It implies religious values."

Thank goodness Druckerman didn't say "adultery." For most researchers, this term has become a judgmental curse that cannot be used without implying the existence of the words "Thou shalt not commit." This issue came up over and over as she traveled the world doing interviews for her book "Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee."

"If I asked someone, 'Have you ever committed adultery?', it was like God entered the room at that moment," said Druckerman, reached at her home in Paris. "That really is the religious word, 'adultery.' I had to start saying 'infidelity' or use a more careful combination of words."

While she didn't set out to write a book about sex and religion, Druckerman found that in large parts of the world -- from Bible Belt cities to Orthodox Jewish enclaves, from Islamic nations to post-Soviet Russia -- it's hard to talk about infidelity without talking about sin, guilt, confession, healing and a flock of other religious topics.

However, she also reached a conclusion that many clergy will find disturbing. When push comes to shove, cheaters are going to do what they're going to do -- whether God is watching or not.

What does faith have to do with it? Not much. That's the bad news. The good news is that there is evidence that adultery is nowhere near as common as most religious people think it is.

Take, for example, the numbers that many consider "gospel" on this issue -- the claims by sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in the mid-20th Century that half of American men and a quarter of women have cheated on their spouses. While some writers keep using these statistics, Druckerman said they are "extremely problematic."

Recent studies offer a vivid contrast. In the early 1990s, she noted, 21 percent of American men and 10 percent of women said they had cheated while married. In 2004, 21 percent of men and 12 percent of women said they had strayed at least once.

Meanwhile, 3.8 percent of married French men and 2 percent of married French women say they've had an affair during the past year -- in one of the world's most secular nations. And in highly religious America? The parallel figures are 3.9 percent of the married men and 3.1 percent of the women.

While Americans remain obsessed with adultery, this now seems to be rooted in this culture's commitment to an "ubermonogamy" built on the all-powerful doctrines of modern romance, argued Druckerman. Lacking shared religious convictions -- while living in the era of no-fault divorce -- millions of Americans have decided that having a happy, fulfilling, faithful marriage is an entitlement, a kind of sacrament in and of itself.

If a marriage crashes, both religious and non-religious Americans usually place their faith in another substitute for the old structures of faith and family. They turn to professional counselors linked to what Druckerman calls the "marriage industrial complex," where, for a price, repentance and restoration can take place in public or in private. Ask Bill Clinton about that.

All of this represents the reality of America's "sexual culture," which, while it may have Puritanism in its DNA, has also been shaped by the modern sexual revolution.

"Even when I talked to religious people about adultery, they weren't really worried about God, about God striking them down for their sins," concluded Druckerman. "Americans just don't think that way now. Even the religious people were more worried about what their families, or perhaps the people in their religious communities, would think of them. ...

"When it comes to matters of infidelity, Christian Americans act more like Americans than they do like Christians."

Old sins in confession

St. Peter Damian was a man with a mission.

The church reformer was appalled by the sexual immorality of his fellow clergy and their superiors, who often refused to warn the faithful and allowed the guilty to go unpunished. He condemned all sexual immorality, but especially the priests who abused boys after hearing their confessions.

Damian poured his concerns into a volume called the Book of Gomorrah, which ended with an appeal to Pope Leo IX for reform.

The year was 1051. The pope praised Damian, but declined to take decisive action. A later pope tried to suppress the book.

"Anyone who thinks the problems the church has today are new just doesn't know history," said psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk who has served as an expert witness in more than 200 cases of clergy sexual abuse. "There has always been a temptation to try to protect the image of the church, which usually means covering up scandals involving priests and bishops."

Another wave of nasty headlines hit this week, when the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to a $60-million settlement with 45 victims. Plaintiffs continue to demand that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony release the records of the priests, including those left in ministry after parishioners complained about inappropriate behavior with minors.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram won a 19-month legal battle to obtain court records that included personnel files of seven priests in the Fort Worth diocese. In at least one case, church investigators decided a priest had sexually exploited an 18-year-old boy who came to him for confession.

Outsiders may struggle to understand how easy it is for corrupt priests to turn the privacy of the Sacrament of Penance into an opportunity to solicit sexual relationships with vulnerable women, men and children, said Sipe, co-author, with Father Thomas Doyle and former priest Patrick Wall, of the book "Sex, Priests and Secret Codes." Counselors of all kinds face similar, but not the same, temptations.

"The priest makes contact in the confessional. He hears the most intimate, personal problems of his people, problems that are often of a sexual nature," said Sipe. "It's easy for him to perceive that he is dealing with a troubled boy, a troubled girl or troubled men and women. Believe me, you hear literally everything in confession.

"So a bad priest can listen and listen and then, when the timing is right, he says, 'Why don't you come see me and we can talk this over face to face. I want to help.' "

Everything that happens in the Sacrament of Penance is secret. The priest is never, under any conditions, supposed to divulge what someone says in confession.

Penitents are not covered by the same holy obligation, but, according to Sipe, Doyle and Wall, they can get caught in a "canonical Catch-22" because the priest's status makes the relationship so unbalanced. Many victims are intimidated by the priest's power to pronounce and withhold absolution of sins. They also know that if they accuse a priest, they could be accused of false denunciation and excommunicated.

This was especially true "in the old days, the '50s and '60s, when Catholics were so conditioned to go to confession," said Doyle. "People lined up week after week and this created a zone of secrecy that the priest controlled. It gave bad priests a lot of room in which to operate."

However, the number of American Catholics going to confession has plummeted in recent decades. The good news is that this has eliminated some opportunities for a few bad priests to find victims. The bad news is that this decline -- whatever the cause -- has weakened the spiritual, sacramental bonds between all the good priests and the people they serve.

It's rare today, said Doyle, for Catholics to maintain an ongoing relationship with someone they consider to be their "spiritual father" in the faith.

"If anything positive has come out of these recent changes, it is that bad priests know that they simply cannot get away with some of the things they used to be able to get away with," he said. "Catholics are just being more careful and they are much more likely to speak out if they sense that something is going wrong. Some of that old trust has been lost."

Hypocrites are us

Talk about bad timing.

On the day after former Congressman Mark Foley entered an alcohol rehab program, his beleaguered staff received a package. With reporters watching, they unpacked a framed copy of one of his most famous pieces of legislation -- a bill requiring a crackdown on sexual predators, including those who exploit minors online.

And all the people said: "Hypocrite!"

"It's hard to talk about the Foley story without talking about hypocrisy," said journalist Jeremy Lott, referring to the congressman's spectacular fall after discovery of his explicit digital messages to teen-aged male Capitol pages. "I mean, Mark Foley's a hypocrite, the Republicans are hypocrites, the Democrats are hypocrites and lots of journalists are hypocrites, too. Right now, I can't think of anyone in the Foley affair who isn't being accused of being a hypocrite by somebody and lots of the anti-hypocrites are being hypocritical, too."

It helps to define your terms, which is what my former colleague at does in his edgy book "In Defense of Hypocrisy." Lott starts with the American Heritage Dictionary, which, in its most recent edition, defines "hypocrisy" as the "professing of beliefs or virtues that one does not possess."

Meanwhile, the word "hypocrite" has a slightly different meaning when used in news reports about the sins of politicians, preachers and other community leaders. When journalists talk about "hypocrites" we are usually referring to people who publicly condemn an act that they practice in secret. The classic example is the minister who preaches family values while committing adultery with the church organist.

Then there is the common anti-hypocrite, which Lott defines as a person who, at every opportunity, loudly condemns the actions and beliefs of those whom he considers hypocrites. But here is the key. The true anti-hypocrite vents his rage on an entire class of people -- usually moralists, clergy or religious believers -- and then proudly uses his disgust as a way to rationalize his own behavior.

The Foley drama offers a spectacular cast of hypocrites.

* Foley gets the "hypocrite" verdict because of his highly public work on behalf of exploited children. The Republican congressman also stayed in the closet, thus helping conservatives and the dreaded Religious Right in their battles against gay rights.

* GOP leaders are being accused of hypocrisy by those who claim that they ignored Foley's indiscretions in order to retain the services of a charismatic legislator in hip South Florida, where it would be hard to elect an ordinary Republican.

* Republicans are calling Democrats hypocrites because they screamed about Foley's actions but have not, in the past, reacted as strongly to the questionable affairs of powerful Democrats. The classic case focused on the late Rep. Gerry Studds of Massachusetts, who remained in office after the revelation that he had a homosexual relationship with a teen-aged congressional page.

* Republicans are calling some journalists hypocrites because they received tips about Foley's actions, but sat on the story for months until they were able to pile fuel on this pre-election bonfire. Then there are the gay-rights activists who may or may not have used the media to yank Foley out of the closet in order to help Democrats take control of Congress.

Many of these people are practicing what Lott calls the "saint or shut up" strategy when it comes to talking about public morality. They argue that only squeaky-clean people -- like Jimmy Carter, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and the pope -- have the right to make pronouncements about hot issues. Everyone else is supposed to keep quiet or they will be accused of hypocrisy.

The problem is that sin, and thus hypocrisy, is part of the human condition. Anyone who believes anything struggles to live up to those beliefs in the harsh light of day.

There are even times, argues Lott, when a little hypocrisy may do some good. Take, for example, the faithful who fail to notice that a bride is pregnant as she walks down the church aisle. Everyone knows, but pretends not to know, because the bride and groom are doing the right thing.

"It's a good thing when sinners continue to oppose sin, even if they are still struggling with sin in their own lives," he said. "Sometimes, hypocrisy is what allows sinful people to be decent while they try to do what's right."

Cliffs notes for confession

It's time for the Catholic bishops to go to confession.

It's time for all of the Catholic priests to go to confession.

Actually, with Easter a few weeks away, this is a time when all Catholics are supposed to go to confession.

But most of America's 65 million Catholics no longer know or no longer care that their church requires them to go to confession at least once a year in order to receive Holy Communion. Confession is especially important during this season of Lent.

If bishops and priests want Catholics to go to confession, they must demonstrate that the Sacrament of Penance still matters, said Msgr. James Moroney, who leads the U.S. bishops' liturgy office. The shepherds could, for example, start leading public rites that end with opportunities for private confession -- including their own.

"Our bishops and our priests have to preach the practice of penance," he said. "But they are also have to participate in the practice of penance. Then they have to make the practice of penance available to their people in a variety of ways. ...

"We know that our people need this. Everybody in our culture is bleeding from the eyes. Everybody has pain they need to get rid of and wounds that need to be healed. Well, we know how to do that. We have the tools and we need to use them."

Thus, the U.S. liturgy office has published a new brochure to teach Catholics how to do something that once was as familiar as breathing -- confess their sins to a priest. The back page is perforated, so penitents can tear off an eight-step "How to Go to Confession" list and carry it with them.

Catholics used to line up for confession on Saturdays. But by the mid-1970s, surveys found that monthly confession among American Catholics had fallen from 38 to 17 percent in a decade, while those who never or rarely went rose from 18 to 38 percent. In the mid-1980s, 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.

It's hard to know how many confessions priests hear these days, said Moroney. Confession is a private matter. No one likes to discuss statistics.

But bishops and priests know that more Catholics need to go to confession. They know "The Catechism of the Catholic Church" still teaches "having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year."

This may come as news to millions of Catholics.

"This Easter will mark my 10th year as a Catholic," noted one convert, in an online discussion. "I have very rarely missed Sunday mass or a holy day of obligation. Sometimes I've even gone to daily mass. Point is, I've heard well over 500 sermons. Not once -- not once -- do I recall having heard confession mentioned. ... For most American Catholics today, confession is almost as rare and exotic a devotional practice as donning a hair shirt."

Sadly, these words ring true, said Moroney. Many priests feel overwhelmed and have fallen silent. Many doubt their parishioners will accept the need for confession. But clergy must grasp that there is no shortage of sin and guilt in the pews. The problem is that Catholics are "surrounded 24/7 by a culture that teaches them to either deny their pain or to wallow in it as victims," he said.

Someone must take the time -- Sunday after Sunday -- to remind Catholics of the teachings of their church. Silence will not work.

"In some of our parishes there are enormous numbers of people who are going to confession. ... Then there are many parishes where we're talking about four or five people on a typical Saturday afternoon," said Moroney.

"So what's the difference? It's like that movie says, 'If you build it, they will come.' If priests constantly preach this and if they offer a variety of times and ways for people to celebrate the sacrament, then you're going to see people come to confession. But you have to give people a chance. You have to help them get over their fears."