Confession reached its peak attendance in the early 1950s, but by the end of the Second Vatican Council, the popularity of the sacrament plummeted. While this decline is often noted by historians, theologians, priests, and laity alike—all eager to provide possible explanations—little attention has been paid to another dramatic shift. Coincident with the decreasing popularity of the sacrament of penance in the United States were changes to non-sacramental penitential practices, including Lenten fasting, Ember Days, and the year-round Friday meat abstinence. American Catholics—sometimes derisively called Fisheaters—had assiduously observed Friday abstinence, regardless of ethnicity or geographic location.
In 1966, the bishops in the United States released a statement implementing Pope Paul VI's apostolic constitution on penance. Eating meat on Friday transformed from being a mortal sin to not being regarded as sinful at all. This apparently overnight change to one of the most long-standing practices, one that could be used to identify Catholics in the U.S., confused many of the faithful and resulted in Fridays becoming just another day.
The decline of the sacrament is best seen within the context of the decline of a larger penitential culture among American Catholics, and both are best understood in reference to the changing notion of sin at this time period. Sin became a more abstract, general concept, contrasting sharply with the actual and personal "shopping list" of sins that the faithful had frequently enumerated in earlier decades. Accompanying this change in the perception of sin were criticisms of the practice of penance, and both sacramental and non-sacramental penance were found wanting as both legalistic and superficial. The attempts to revitalize penance through greater choice—whether in the confessional or on Fridays—actually furthered the decline in American penitential practice.
For some, penitential practices are the buried treasure of the church that await rediscovery. For others, they were experiences that had to be endured and that are best forgotten. Morrow, in a thoughtful, even-handed way, traces how the perception and emphasis changed during this critical and controversial time in the church's history.
"Morrow's thoughtful analysis is a must read book for all who are concerned about and with Catholicism."~Peter Torok, Hungary, Catholic Books Review
"Morrow's account is both thorough and accessible… Morrow's book will have wide-ranging appeal. Scholars of American Catholicism, students in courses on Catholicism, and nonacademic readers interested in the changing history of a Catholic sacrament will find much to appreciate in this book."~K. A. Dugan, Springfield College, CHOICE
"Morrow makes a valiant attempt at situating self-imposed sufferings as a means toward the expurgation of sin. Borrowing from Robert Orsi, who has written about pain disciplining the ego, Catholic practices as variegated as novenas, Lenten fast and abstinence, regular Friday abstinence, first Friday devotions, parish missions and the like are all meant to generate attentiveness to sacrifice and the sublimation of self in favor of God. In so doing, Morrow surveys a deep and creative wellspring of Catholic activity in response to sin. The book should be in graduate and seminary libraries and may do well in seminars on American Catholicism or liturgics."~Horizons: The Journal of the College Theology Society
" Sin in the Sixties is the first convincing, historical-critical analysis of the transformation of the concept of sin within the larger context of the decline in sacramental and non-sacramental penitential practices in American Catholicism during the cultural, social, and theological changes of the period. Unlike some earlier studies of the decline of the sacrament of penance in the post-Vatican II era, Morrow places that decline in conjunction with the multiple internal reforms in fasting, abstinence, and other non-sacramental penitential practices. Her analysis demonstrates not only the gains that were achieved by the modifications but also the unintended damages that were done to the overall Catholic penitential tradition. This well-written, carefully researched, and provocative study is a must-read for American Catholics and the general reading public, as well as for scholars of American religious traditions."~Patrick Carey, Emeritus Professor, Marquette University
"A stimulating reflection on a major cultural and spiritual change within the Church. It will prove a valuable resource for any theological reflection on the virtue and sacrament of penance today."~New Blackfriars
"The revolution in consciousness that Morrow addresses is enormously important for an understanding of recent American Catholic history."~Catholic Historical Review
"[A] most well-researched, interesting and helpful study."~Heythrop Journal
"The book’s story is a vivid testament to the ‘unintended consequences’ of Vatican II as articulated in the works of Mark Massa and John O’Malley. Consequently, any study of the Council that does not engage with Morrow’s invaluable contribution remains woefully incomplete."~Journal of Ecclesiastical History