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Catholics, Repentance, and Forgiveness in America

Patrick W. Carey

Publication Date - 03 October 2018

ISBN: 9780190889135

392 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

In Stock

A history of penance as a virtue and a sacrament in the United States.


Confession is a history of penance as a virtue and a sacrament in the United States from about 1634, when Catholicism arrived in Maryland, to 2015, fifty years after the major theological and disciplinary changes initiated by the Second Vatican Council. Patrick W. Carey argues that the Catholic theology and practice of penance, so much opposed by the inheritors of the Protestant Reformation, kept alive the biblical penitential language in the United States at least until the mid-1960s when Catholic penitential discipline changed.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American Catholics created institutions that emphasized, in opposition to Protestant culture, confession to a priest as the normal and almost exclusive means of obtaining forgiveness. Preaching, teaching, catechesis, and parish revival-type missions stressed sacramental confession and the practice became a widespread routine in American Catholic life. After the Second Vatican Council, the practice of sacramental confession declined suddenly. The post-Vatican II history of penance, influenced by the Council's reforms and by changing American moral and cultural values, reveals a major shift in penitential theology; moving from an emphasis on confession to emphasis on reconciliation.
Catholics make up about a quarter of the American population, and thus changes in the practice of penance had an impact on the wider society. In the fifty years since the Council, penitential language has been overshadowed increasingly by the language of conflict and controversy. In today's social and political climate, Confession may help Americans understand how far their society has departed from the penitential language of the earlier American tradition, and consider the advantages and disadvantages of such a departure.


  • First study of Catholic theology and practice of Confession in the United States
  • Traces the history of penance in America
  • Analyzes the effects of social changes including the rise of psychoanalysis and birth control on the practice of Confession

About the Author(s)

Patrick W. Carey is Emeritus Professor of Theology at Marquette University. He was the William J. Kelly Chair in Catholic Theology, the former Chair of Marquette's Department of Theology, a past president of the American Catholic Historical Association, author of over thirty articles on American Catholic life and thought, and the author or editor of twenty books, including his 2010 intellectual biography, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ: A Model Theologian.


"This book challenges scholars to keep investigating how prayer practices—intimate, public, malleable—are built into the broader historical context wherein our interlocutors pray." -- Katherine Dugan, Springfield College, Journal of Religion

"[Patrick W. Carey] has written an admirable history of penance in the American Catholic tradition. This summary does not do justice to the rich and nuanced treatment of each period. His views are very balanced and he sees the validity of opposing positions so that the readers can get clarity on the many issues involved. I highly recommend it." -- Michael L. Cook, Theological Studies

"Patrick Carey came up with a truly charming idea for a book—and then he wrote that book with the peculiar combination of skill, humility, familiarity, and critical distance that has come to characterize his extensive research on the history of the American Catholic Church." -- Maura Jane Farrelly, Brandeis University, Church History

"Those who recognize the continued importance of naming sin in confession will value Carey's contribution in providing this history." -- Maria C. Morrow, Journal of Moral Theology

"One learns an enormous amount from this book, which will be essential reading for scholars of American Catholicism...Carey provides an especially fascinating account of the sometimes contentious dialogue between advocates of confession and experts in the psychological sciences." -- Leslie Woodcock Tentler, The Catholic University of America, American Catholic Studies

"Recommended." -- CHOICE

"Dr. Carey in a wise and learned study reveals the historical dynamism inherent in the American Catholic community as it has intersected its penitential and sacramental practices with Protestant-Catholic relationships, the public debates over religion, society and privacy, new knowledge engendered by history and psychology, and the social and ecclesial changes of the 1960s. This is a landmark work by one of Catholicism's most astute observers."--Joseph P. Chinnici, President Emeritus and Professor of History, Franciscan School of Theology

"With vast learning and meticulous research, Patrick Carey traces the momentous changes in the idea of sin, the sacrament of penance, and the practice of confession and absolution over four centuries. It's a story of priests and theologians, prelates and psychologists, and the earnest men and women who once lined the walls of churches waiting to confess their sin. It's also a story of loss and recovery, a masterly work by a distinguished historian."--E. Brooks Holifield, author of Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War

"Originally conceived and highly readable, Confession ranges ecumenically and with encyclopedic rigor over four centuries of the theology and practice of penance in America. Patrick Carey has written a book that historians of Catholicism in America, ethicists and moral theologians, liturgists, and scholars of American religious history will have to read. There is nothing else like it."--William L. Portier, Mary Ann Spearin Chair of Catholic Theology, University of Dayton

Table of Contents

    List of Abbreviations

    PART I: Colonial Era

    Chapter One: Trent and Penance in the Colonial Period

    PART II: Nineteenth Century

    Chapter Two: The Confessional Seal: Legal and Apologetic Dimensions of the Sacrament of Penance

    Chapter Three: Sin, Repentance, and Confession in Nineteenth-Century American Protestant Polemics

    Chapter Four: American Catholic Theology of Penance in Nineteenth-Century America

    Chapter Five: American Catholic Practice of Confession in Nineteenth-Century America

    PART III: Twentieth Century

    Chapter Six: History, Pius X, and the Practice of Confession, 1900-1920

    Chapter Seven: Confession, Continuity, and Reforms, 1920-1960

    Chapter Eight: Confession, The New Psychology, and Birth Control, 1920-1960

    Chapter Nine: From Confession to Reconciliation, Vatican II to 2015


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