Confessional Culture and American Culture

(The following is a guest post from Ray Haberski, well-known friend of RIAH and author of God and War .  This post also appeared yesterday at US Intellectual History)

In the middle decades of the twentieth century, American Catholics flocked to confession. On many Saturday evenings, Catholic priests listened to dozens (and often hundreds) of their parishioners seek what is now known as the sacrament of reconciliation. During this same era, at least one Catholic magazine offered a glimpse into that confessional culture. The St. Anthony Messenger, a magazine published by Franciscan priests of the St. John the Baptist province in Cincinnati, Ohio, ran a section called "The Tertiary Den," which was edited by the prolific Fr. Fulgence Meyer. The Messenger had a long history, originating in the late nineteenth century and reaching a circulation peek in the 1950s around 300,000 subscribers. Frankly, I find the combination of relatively high circulation (in comparison, the Christian Science Monitor had about half as many subscribers) and the confessions reveled in Meyer's section to hold great promise as a slice of cultural history.

However, I need help contextualizing what I have found.

I am writing a short book for the Academy of American Franciscan History on Franciscan media. My argument, I think, will focus on the way Franciscans used media to meet the laity where they lived. In other words, rather than using various media to pronounce what kind of Catholic American-Catholics should be--something Bishop Fulton Sheen did quite emphatically--Franciscans of conservative and liberal persuasions seemed to find their role as listeners to the confessions of Catholics living in America.

Let me give you one example:

In an issue of the St. Anthony Messenger from 1930, a your woman who went by the name “Dixie M.” wrote to ask if she should stay with her abusive husband or leave with her two young boys. She recounted a profound problem within her marriage. She explained that she had entered her marriage carrying the burden that she had “sinned” in her past and even though her husband had accepted her with this unnamed transgression, when he became angry with her he would demean his wife by using this “past” against her. In short, he would yell at her loud enough for his entire family (who were living with them) and, more tragically, her two young sons to hear about his wife's past. So, she confessed, “I know that there isn’t any such thing as a divorce for us but I wonder if it wouldn’t be good thing (I mean the best thing under the circumstances) to separate, so that my boys won’t hear such things about me. I am so ashamed of myself and would not want them to grow up thinking that their mother is not a good woman, but a woman to be ashamed of.”[1] “Dixie M.” continued for five more paragraphs, ruminating about the tension between she and her husband and the fate of her children—especially the fate her relationship with them.

Meyer’s counsel was fascinating for its balance between his office as a Catholic priest and as a man who lived in a liberal society that accorded people—including women—basic rights. He stated with some conviction: “One would not hesitate to say that her husband is too cruel, heartless, and inhuman a man to stay with. She should serve notice on him that if he ever outrage and insults her in the manner described she will take the children and leave him once for all time. No woman and mother is bound under any consideration to submit to such vile and offensive treatment.” Meyer continued for four more long paragraphs, counseling the women reading his column that he believed it “unwise for a girl before marriage or a wife after marriage to reveal her secret personal sins to her fiancé or husband.” Of course, he added that women should generally avoid “every lapse of against virtue.” “A good, unspoiled, and unsoiled record is a girl’s best earthly possession, whether she marries or not.” And while Meyer made clear that “Dixie M.” deserved pity, he also claimed that she “enlists the reader’s admiration” as well. “The fact that she suffers what she does from her unworthy and unfeeling Catholic husband so humbly and penitently bespeaks a strong faith and a high spirit of sacrifice.”

This is an example of a kind of public confessional; and it is certainly a particular kind of Catholic expression of public-private life. But where does it fit among other media of the time? Is it also related to but quite different from, I think, the self-help culture that began to emerge around the 1930s? It is fairly clear that many Catholic periodicals were written to be read by women--sections such as this as well as others written by women about everything from marriage and children to cooking and caring for elderly parents make that clear. Thus do these journals fit among the women's magazines of the era?

My basic question is this: is there a body of literature on confessional culture and the way media played a role in helping to foster that culture that I should tap into?

[1] Tertiary Den,” St. Anthony Messenger, 38 (November 1930), 273.


Patrick Hayes said…
Three things strike me about the case Ray mentions in the Messenger. First, "confessional culture" may need further elucidation. I think there is a popular notion that Catholics the early to mid-twentieth century were nothing if not observant of rules, especially the ingrained notion that the rule keepers/makers were priests and nuns and the rule observers/breakers were laity. Consider the character Patsy (Joan Carroll) in the Bells of St. Mary's. She tries to make sense of her parents' separation but under the care of the good priest, Fr. O'Malley (Bing Crosby), who has all the answers. Trust is implicit in such interactions, common among Catholics, but now made public on the big screen. A similar kind of affirmation arises in the privacy of one's home when readers of the Tertiary Den find a shock to one's religious sensibilities given the balm of good order and reason through the ministrations of the priest/confessor. Anthony Burke Smith is carving out considerable new ground on the role of film in facilitating Catholic identity and may be useful for further consultation (as well as Colleen McDannell's edited collection Catholics in the Movies where Smith has an essay on Fr. O'Malley's other appearance in Going My Way).

Secondly, the titilation of problems of the internal forum now exposed for public consumption is something relatively understudied, it seems to me, though Jim O'Toole's work on confessional practice may be of some assistance (see his piece in ed. O'Toole, Habits of Devotion). Though this is mainly confined to the sacramental aspect--the use of the confessional for the forgiveness of sins--the place of that ritual is surely given a reinforcing boost by things like the Tertiary Den. Both open up to become conduits for God's grace and healing through priestly counsel.

Finally, in this weekend's NY Times Book Review, Paul Elie bemoans the fact that there is precious little today in the way of an identifiable (Catholic) Christian literature. Where are the Flannery O'Connors of today, he wonders? But O'Connor could tap into a readership attuned to certain religious feelings and rules fed by things like the Tertiary Den. What do we have at present that is somehow comparable, that would give the creative set fodder for making important contributions to literature? Blogs?

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