Confession Confusion & Conscience

Forgive me, y’all, for I have sinned. It has been 26 years since my last confession. (Except for a “communal confession” I attended 20 years ago; but, from what I can tell, that doesn’t “count.” Neither does my public confession of simony that I recently wrote about for Catholic Majority.) So why haven’t I been to confession? Well, I’d like to try to explain that here. But first, some background information:

What is confession?

confessionAlthough the best, and most fleshed-out description of what the sacrament of confession is may be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (and in the Code of Canon Law on which the catechism is based), the most succinct answer is certainly to be found elsewhere. So for an answer to this question, let’s turn to the definition provided by Ann Ball on page 140 of her comprehensive (and very reader-friendly) Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices (2003):

In the Catholic context, confession occurs in the sacrament of penance, in which one reveals one’s sins to a priest who grants absolution when there is true repentance. Catholics are to confess once a year when in serious sin. Mortal sins are to be confessed in kind and number. One is to receive the sacrament of penance, if baptized in infancy, before receiving Holy Communion for the first time. The Church strongly urges that Catholics go to confession often in order to grow in sanctity. Venial sins, while not, strictly speaking, necessary to confess, should be confessed in order to receive the grace of the sacrament and the pardon of God.

Ball’s definition is both the best I’ve seen, and yet, it is a great example of what I believe to be part of the reason why more Catholics (myself included) don’t participate in the sacrament of confession as often as we should (or ever). For all the simplicity of this definition, it still leaves open a lot of questions that must be answered, and none of these questions have particularly clear-cut answers. To begin with, although easy to read (i.e., pronounce the words in our heads or out loud), this definition contains a lot of “jargon” that needs clarification. So let’s sort through them the best we can.

  • “The sacrament of penance”: One of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. (The others are baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.) The term “sacrament of penance” refers to the same thing as “sacrament of confession” and “sacrament of reconciliation.” Although each term emphasizes a different aspect of the sacrament, all three terms refer to the same sacrament and are interchangeable. In this article, I will refer to it as the “sacrament of confession.”
  • “Sins…serious sin…mortal sins…venial sins”: Sin is a loaded term, and the distinction between mortal and venial sins is, I suspect, not what most people think. This will be the focus of a good part of this article. Stay tuned (or skip down to below).
  • “Absolution”: This is a fancy word for forgiveness. But not the same kind of forgiveness we tend to think about when we think of one person forgiving another. When we say to someone who has treated us badly, “I forgive you,” what we mean is that we agree not to let the bad treatment continue to build a rift between us, driving us apart, creating guilt, and hurting both us and our relationship emotionally. When a priest grants absolution, he does so in the name of God and through the power of Christ. This kind of forgiveness not only removes the guilt from the ‘sinner’ (us), but also removes the punishment due for the ‘sin.’ (For more on sin, see below.)
  • “True repentance”: In the everyday scheme of things, we think someone is appropriately repentant (or sorry) for what they did when they say that they are sorry and discontinue acting in the same way. We take their word for it, and observe that the behavior has stopped. It’s not that much different in the context of the sacrament of confession, except the person to whom we are making this promise is meeting with us as a representative a God. That’s certainly a little daunting. The Church’s interpretation of what true repentance means comes from the Council of Trent, which described it this way: “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again.” That…is a tall order. Especially when we consider that God already knows our soul…regardless of what our lips say.

At this point, I hope that you have a better (if basic) understanding of what the sacrament of confession is about. It sounds like (and is) a wonderful thing. Imagine how relieved you feel when someone you’ve hurt has forgiven you, or even the sense of lightness you feel when you are able to speak freely of your “issues” with a trusted friend or a therapist. Now multiply that times God. Powerful, powerful stuff. God, even more than friends and therapists, is merciful and forgiving. He wants us to be close to Him, and being close to Him means not having any “issues” between the Two of Us. So what are the “issues” that God wants us to clear up? In other words, what is sin?

This is where (despite what others, including Catholics, may try to tell you) things get complicated. In its simplest expression, sin is an act committed by a human being that separates him/her from God. Easy enough, right? Wrong.

In the modern world (or most of it), there is a significant lack of reflection and pondering. Sometimes, before you can even form what it is that you are curious about into a complete question, you already have the “answer” literally in your hands thanks to smartphones and Google. Go ahead. Google “list of sins.” You will find (as of this writing) upwards of 62 million links telling you what is, and what is not, a sin. These lists, if you poke around, and as you might expect, don’t match up.

What confession is NOT.
What confession is NOT.

Some of the lists you find will come from “Catholic sources” who provide you with tidy lists, breaking sins down even further into their “mortal” or “venial” status. One example I found included 32 mortal sins ranging from “abortion” to “thieves.” (No, they didn’t say “theft,” my grammar purist friends, they said, “thieves.”)

Within this list, “male prostitution” was listed as a mortal sin, but “female prostitution” was not. Maybe that one’s venial. For funsies, I searched the words of Christ (in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles) for the first nine “mortal sins” provided in this list. Jesus mentioned two of them. The other seven in my sample never, ever cross his lips.

As you can see, the idea of coming up with an exhaustive list of “sins,” let alone further categorizing them as “mortal” or “venial,” either online, or in print, is either a fruitless endeavor, or the perfect endeavor for those who lack imagination. So let’s get down to brass tacks.

sinWhat is sin?

The Catechism is the best source to answer this question. In brief, and probably contrary to how most people think the Catholic Church would define sin, the Catechism puts it this way in section 1849:

Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity.

Isn’t that beautiful? Read it again. Brilliant!

So what about all this stuff called mortal and venial sins? Again, the Catechism waxes poetic:

Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.

Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.

These are beautiful descriptions, indeed. Almost too beautiful to be useful. So the Catechism goes on to help us ascertain what counts as mortal, what as venial.

For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” [and]

One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent.

(For an interesting, albeit complicated, discussion of moral law, click here. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to stick with the simple definition of sin provided by the Catechism and quoted above.)

The title of this article, permit me to remind you, is “Confession Confusion & Conscience.” It should be clear, by this point, what I mean when I say “Confession Confusion” in that it is a sacrament that is both complicated and easy to misunderstand. As we’ve seen, the very definition of what makes something a sin is difficult to state simply, and frequently misunderstood. So what about “Conscience”? Let’s look back at the definition of sin quoted above: “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience.”

What is this business about “conscience”?

Jiminy_CricketIn our day-to-day lives, we follow rules, laws, and social expectations — or try to. Without this tacit agreement between all of us, the result would be chaos. Imagine something as simple as going to the grocery store. Without the rules, laws, and social expectations that we all abide by, the experience might be quite different. We might get in the car, run red lights or drive on the “wrong” side of the road for convenience, park in a spot reserved for the disabled, then push people out of our way as we grab whatever we’d like, leaving without paying for it. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? It sounds awful because in this scenario we can also picture ourselves being the other drivers, the disabled person having to park far away, the person being shoved, or the store owner who has been stolen from. Not for nothing, but the scenario also sounds awful because we have what is called a “conscience.” Let’s turn again to the Catechism for a definition:

Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law.

With this definition of conscience, we now have just about everything we need in our tool kit to figure out what it means to take part in the sacrament of confession. (This, like most things, is an oversimplification. You’ll notice that there is a word in the definition of sin just in front of “conscience”: “right,” “right conscience.” This adds a dimension to the discussion that isn’t as simple as I’ve made it seem…but out of fraternal charity, let’s assume that your conscience is “right.”)

Why I haven’t been to confession since 1987

The author at the age of the last time he went to confession.
The author at the age of his most recent confession.

As I promised in the first paragraph of this article, I turn now to my personal experience of sin, and why I haven’t been to confession since I was a child. I can sum it up in two words, one of which I hope you have a better understanding of as a result of this article:

  1. Conscience: I strive to be, and frequently am, a good person. This is not to say that I have not committed sins according to our (i.e., the Church’s) definition. I have. In addition, I am truly repentant. I acknowledge my failings, have sought to make amends, and try not to repeat my sins. I even acknowledge that, on many occasions, my sins have caused a rift in my relationship with God. However, I also have a conscience that I sincerely believe to be “right” that might (or even likely) differs from what others perceive to be right. Therefore, you might look at my life, observe my behavior, and determine that I have sinned, or even continuously sin. You cannot, however, observe the contents of my conscience or of my heart. This brings me to the second word, which is
  2. Fear: I am afraid. What I mean is, I am afraid of the potential consequences of my experience in the confessional booth itself. By consequences, I don’t mean the potential penance and reparation that a priest would assign to me. I can handle that, and happily. What I mean is that I am afraid of opening myself up to a priest (or anyone, including you readers, so have mercy!) whose conception of sin and conscience is one apart from my own. Ordinarily, I’m always game for some healthy debate, but the confessional booth does not put the confessor and the confessed on equal footing. And in this power differential, I am afraid that my experience might not be the loving, forgiving, merciful kind that I hope it is for everyone else. I am afraid it will be damaging to my faith, hurt my relationship with the Church, cause me to question God, or leave me so broken and disillusioned that I turn away from the spiritual path entirely. I’ve heard stories of similar devastating consequences, and even those stories stir in me feelings of empathy and hurt. I don’t want to be made to feel unworthy of God’s love for any reason, especially those that I cannot change, and certainly not at the hands of someone representing God.

So there it is. I’ve officially confessed more to my keyboard (and you readers) than I ever have to a priest. I appreciate Catholic Majority’s giving me a forum to do this. (If you haven’t already, check out their mission, vision, and values statements here. Sound familiar?) And I appreciate your taking the time to read this, reflect on it, and hopefully contribute your own unique voices in the comments below. But before I go…

What now?

The sacrament of confession is a beautiful one. (It is also one of only three that you can participate in repeatedly throughout your life.) It is, I imagine, healing, humbling, and helpful. “Be not afraid,” is how the angels frequently start their conversations with humans in the Bible. It was also the words which Blessed (soon to be Saint) Pope John Paul II began and ended his papacy. In fact, the phrase “be not afraid” (or its equivalent) appears over 100 times in the Scripture.

I recently read something that struck me as a wonderfully honest and compassionate take on the topic of confession and conscience. In chapter two of John Allen’s 2004 book, All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks (which I review for Catholic Majority here), Allen recounts a story told in 2003 by Archbishop Angelo Amato, who at the time was a deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger (before he became Pope Benedict XVI). The context was that Pope John Paul II had just released an encyclical that, in part, reminded Catholics of the need to be free of the stain of sin (i.e., have gone to confession) prior to receiving the Eucharist. In the story, a man expressed to Amato his desire to receive the Eucharist, but admitted that he was not quite yet ready to make a confession about a sin he had committed. Archbishop Amato is quoted as saying, “I repeat, you should go to confession. But now let me talk to you person-to-person. As a priest, I can’t substitute my conscience for yours. I can’t tell you to go or not to go. You have to make that choice in conscience, always bearing in mind that it must be a well-formed conscience” (page 106).

I recognize the need to go to confession. I recognize the benefit of going to confession. And I believe in the power of confession. Yet, I haven’t gone. I want to go. I need to go. I haven’t…yet.

I will.

Pompeo_Batoni_003Writing this article has helped me clarify my thoughts on the sacrament of confession. I’ve learned a lot in my research, and I hope you’ve benefitted from reading it. Despite my fears, I want to commit to God, to myself, and to all of you, that I will give it a try.

I know that God loves me, and that my relationship with Him is stronger than one (potentially bad) experience with a priest. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son tells me that we are all called to welcome back those who return to the fold, regardless of where they have been. So I commit to going to confession. And I hope you will, too.

And afterwards, I’ll write about it here, knowing that the readers of Catholic Majority are a supportive and loving community, also always willing to welcome back any prodigal son or daughter.

So let’s go. See you at the feast.

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2 Replies to “Confession Confusion & Conscience”

  1. My father was, not long after the birth of my younger brother, refused absolution for the “sin” of using birth control.

    He left the Church, grossly embittered. His negative personality traits blossomed, he became a raging alcoholic (later a raging dry drunk) and a horribly difficult person (so difficult that my mom STILL has not cried over his death), and died friendless.

    I was told that he received Holy Communion before his death, so I was able to have him buried from a Roman Catholic Church, as was meet and right.

    But he was gone from a Church he loved dearly and was devoted to for nearly half a century, and his life and the lives of those around him suffered greatly because of his excommunication.

    I have since become Episcopalian. We hold confession (the Sacrament of Reconciliation of a Penitent) as important; yet, as Queen Elizabeth I put it, “All may, none must, some should.” Primarily, the priest or other confessor provides reassurance that the penitent has already been forgiven; priests also absolves the penitent of his/her sins–reassurance with the authority of the Church behind it.

    (It is possible for a priest to deny Communion to someone by speaking with them privately and telling them of his/her intentions; the priest is required to notify the bishop within two weeks of his reasons for doing so.)

    I hope Tim finds one of the many Roman Catholic priests who views things in a similar way.

    • We are so sorry to hear about what happened to your father. Thank you for sharing that story. We can only hope and pray that through our site and the others like it, as a community, we can encourage people to stop permitting other Catholics to ruin their Catholicism. Thanks again.