Some years ago the Swiss Protestant psychiatrist Paul Tournier wrote a little book in which he warned his Catholic friends that if their church(as a result of Vatican II inspired reforms) ever foolishly gave up the practice of individual confessions then a lot of psychiatrists would get rich from the growing number of people in dire need of unburdening their souls.
Apparently now there is a cheaper way of doing so. First there is the growing popularity of "PostSecrets", an artistic project which began with anonymous home-made post cards on which one writes down their guiltiest secret and sends it to help relieve their conscience at least in some way. And now we have the appearance of similar "blogs" on the internet. I suspect this phenomenon, which should not be confused with the "True Confessions" type of pulp magazines (which are designed to make money of off peoples' prurient interests -- although there is now a "PostSecrets" book too) confirms a lot of what Tournier had predicted.
Should anyone really be surprised? Being told from a pulpit that God forgives all sins, or kneeling down and admitting that we are all sinners in general is fine, but people have a need for someone to individually assure them that God forgives this or that, especially their own particular failing or sin. And the worse it is the more pressing the need. As Tournier pointed out, Protestant pastors may not sit in a confessional box to do this, but they end up doing a lot of it in their offices anyway.
As for the "sacrament" of Penance or "Reconciliation" (as it is now officially called) it has had a mixed past. For the first five or so centuries of Cristianity it was a public ceremony where penitents were required to confess their sins before the bishop and were duly assigned public penances in return. At the end of Lent, provided they had faithfully performed their assigned penance -- like forty days wearing sack-cloth and eating bread and water only or else had been given an "indulgence" to do something less rigorous, they were then "absolved", that is, readmitted to communion in the Chruch, by the bishop as a group.
Later on, when this sort of strong medicine proved too much for the average Christian, bishops began to allow priests to hear individual confessions and assign predetermined penances (listed in books called "penitentials") in private, but still often reserved the absolution to themselves. Eventually, priests were entrusted with the whole process, except in the case of certain "reserved" sins.
In recent years, there has been a tendency to return to the ancient idea of public "Penance Services" -- only skipping the public confession of sins by individuals and rigorous penances which so scared off penitents in the past after Christians had ceased to be the kind of people who did not fear being thrown to the lions. No doubt these services are also a lot easier on the clergy, since preaching a rousing sermon on God's forgiveness is a whole lot easier (and ego-enhancing) than spending hours upon hours sitting in a small room listening to the same old list of all-too human failings.
But then the question raised by Tournier and the "Post Secrets" phenomenon returns to haunt us. Can such short-cuts really do the job that needs to be done? Confession, or Penance, or Reconciliation (or whatever you want to call it) is just as much a psychological necessity as a religious one, or as they called it in the early church "a second Baptism, only this time not in water but in tears". It is the sacrament of on-going or continuing conversion, God's answer to our unfortunate need of being reborn -- too often again, and yet again.
R W Kropf 12/13/05 Confess.doc 05-12-13.html