U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Confessional Culture and American Culture

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] “The Tertiary Den,” St. Anthony Messenger, 38 (November 1930), 273.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Ray,

    This is an excellent slice you selected. It raises all sorts of interesting topics and questions.

    On your question about other media, I wonder how this type of letter/issue fits into the content of parish bulletins and diocesan newspapers. I don’t know a lot about the history of either, but those kinds of questions sometimes. come up today in the syndicated columns run by diocesan newspapers.

    I also wonder how similar this letter is to the kind of situations encountered and published by late nineteenth-century temperance advocates. Of course that period falls under the general emergence of women in the public sphere (in the context of WASP American Victorian norms).

    I am amazed, by the way, at those subscriber numbers for St. Anthony Messenger. And then there’s the pass around value, which would be particularly interesting in relation to subscriptions by parishes.

    – TL

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