Maria C. MORROW. Sin in the Sixties. Catholics and Confession, 1955-1975. Washington , D.C. The Catholic University of America Press, 2016. pp. 264.  ISBN: 978-0-8132-2898-3. Reviewed by Péter TÖRÖK, Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary, Hungary 2120.


Morrow’s thoughtful analysis is a must read book for all who are concerned about and with Catholicism. The sacrament of penance, once a cornerstone of Catholic practice and identity, has now been disappearing not only in the United States but, for all practical purposes, in several parts of the globe.

Focusing on the States, the author examines the reasons of the diminishment of confession in six logically built-up chapters. The first introduces the concepts and the historical context prior to 1955. The next two chapters analyze the changes in both the theologians and laity’s conceptions of sin. The fourth chapter connects the story of sacramental penance with that of non-sacramental practices. Maria Morrow convincingly suggests that it is beneficial to view them together because they are closely related. While chapter 5 examines the changes introduced by Vatican II and, consequently, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States, chapter 6 comes to the sad conclusion that, with the best intention of renewing the sacrament of penance, all lead to its decline.

Among the reasons of this decline, the author enlists the upwardly mobile Catholics who left the urban parishes providing a community and – sociologically speaking – the plausibility structure of penitential practices. Meanwhile not only the reforms of Vatican II but also the psychological concepts questioning human free will contributed to the ambiguities of what is sin and what is not. In addition to all of these factors, the late sixties was a time characterized by ‘the contagion of freedom’. It meant that the timing of the changes to penitential practices introduced by the local episcopal conferences was the worst. Other reasons leading to the decline of confession included the problematic overuse of the sacrament (p. 214), the vernacular mass in which the faithful received a kind of absolution after reciting the Confiteator (p. 232), and the impractical new longer rites recommended in lieu the auricular confession in the ‘box’ (p. 233).

In light of the resulting decline of penance, reading the insightful analysis of the causes, one cannot help thinking of the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater.

Mary Morrow’s excellent introductions to and summaries of the chapters are very helpful to digest the otherwise not always easily understandable concepts and causes. This is especially true when she presents the theological context. The author is also very careful to provide an evenhanded analysis. Nevertheless, readers might have the feeling at the end that she is sorry for the loss Catholics have experienced since the sixties. She concludes that “[P]enance, both nonsacramental and sacramental, was not always practiced as thoughtfully or as well as it might have been, but at least penance was practiced by the great majority of American Catholics” (p. 244, italics in the original).

Although the book is about the Americans’ penitential customs, it can be useful for other nationalities as well. Reading this book, for instance, from a Central-Eastern European view, one is obliged to realize that the vanishing of confessions could have also taken place in countries in the realm of the former Soviet Union even without religious oppression. And the book might have a ‘side effect’: Catholics may better understand the Protestants’ not always benevolent view of confession.