“Will these hands ne’er be clean ?” Macbeth and his wife never showered and rarely took a bath. It was important, however, to look clean, whence the washing of one’s face and hands (whether or not they were covered in blood). B.O. was omnipresent in the courts of royalty, the mansions of the well-heeled and the hovels of the rest of society. Perfume, if you could afford it, was indispensable; soap was not.
Bodily cleanliness is not just a social imperative today but a sine-qua-non condition for good health. How anyone survived surgery before modern medecine is a mystery to me, and God only knows what miniscule monsters accompanied the food people ate. In recent history, hygiene has become a major factor in doubling life-expectancy.
The concept of what is clean and what is not has evolved considerably since biblical times, when certain animals were considered per se “unclean”. Excrement has always been rightly deemed as both filthy and dangerous, as have rotting corpses. But menstrual blood made healthy women “unclean”, as did, not surprisingly, diseases like leprosy. Today we have understood the real meaning and importance of cleanliness. But the word “clean” has evolved to mean conditions that have nothing to do with microbes and bacteria. In a police station, “Is he clean ?” means “Has he been frisked ?”, “Is he carrying a gun ?”. There, but also in society at large, being “clean” often means “not under the influence of drugs”. “Coming clean” means “admitting guilt”. Which brings us to the confessional, where “impure” acts and even thoughts used to be the staple of most of the many confessions I heard (that statement, by the way, is not “breaking the seal” – which means identifying a given penitent with a particular “sin”).
The last sixty years (since the time I was ordained to the priesthood) have seen a remarkable, too often ignored, evolution in Catholic consciences. I imagine that only a minority of the Faithful Few who still go to Confession actually confess having had “impure thoughts”. The confessor, conscious of his confreres’ incarceration for practising or covering up crimes of pedophilia, considers the pious penitent’s “sin” as, at most, a peccadillo.
Surely the dwindling numbers of practising Catholics (in Europe down from 37% in 1980 to 20% in 2012, and in the Americas from 52% to 29%) must wonder about this sea-change in Catholic morality. How can they continue to believe that the guy behind the curtained screen – or sitting across the table in a “Confession room” – is empowered by God to “forgive”, in His name, real crimes , to say nothing of imagined violations of an imagined divine law ? Priests should come clean and admit that at best – having no divine delegation or even real professional credentials – they can offer penitents only a pair of patient ears, a dose of positive thinking and encouragement, but not genuine counsel, let alone forgiveness. Better still they should discourage people from confessing their “sins” and requesting absolution. Then they should hang up their stole forever and give themselves a life.