Tag Archives: Confession

On Absolution without Confession

At the heart of Christianity is freedom; for it was for “freedom’s sake that Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1).    So it is rather strange that the two things we fear most are the very same things He freed us from—death and sin.  We do not like to think or talk about either except when it comes to denying their reality.  It is this self-deceptive practice that compels me to offer the previously promised second example of our painful plucking and splitting of theological hairs.

The average Catholic probably can’t name all twelve Apostles, but they can tell you the conditions for mortal sin.  That is because they are sure to have heard a homily or three about it in one of the Masses that they didn’t miss.  They have learned that for a sin to be mortal it must be grave matter and it must have been done with full knowledge and consent.  In a previous age the emphasis was always on the “grave matter” part.  With a cultural turn to the subjective, the emphasis is now on the personal aspects—knowledge and consent—and almost always with the goal of absolution without confession.  If you can absolve from the pulpit then the lines in Confession will shrink while the lines for Communion will grow.

The Pastoral Approach?

What makes this rather sticky is that technically Father is right.  For someone to be guilty of mortal sin, they must have done something that is particularly grave.  They must have known it was grave matter and they must have done it with full freedom.  That is solid moral theology, but, as will be obvious shortly, is bad pastoral practice.

The Prophet Jeremiah tells the people that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9).  His point is that the knowledge and intention of our actions are almost always hidden, even from ourselves.  Thanks to our fallen condition our capacity for self-deceit is quasi-omnipotent.  When faced with admitting our faults or justifying them, we will almost always choose the latter.  It is as if we are naturally trained in the art of moral hair splitting so that when Father or our favorite armchair theologian splits hairs on this issue it finds our sweet spot.

Once can see how this might lead to a rejection of the existence of mortal sin.  It may exist in theory, but is practically non-existent except for a few of the most hardened of sinners.  If we can’t know two of the three conditions with any surety, then there is no reason to worry about it.

This is a sure sign of the collective insanity caused by Original Sin.  The reasonable man, when faced with a large mass protruding from his abdomen would not go to the doctor because he does not feel bad.  He would go because he has an objective, measurable sign that he may have cancer.  So too with mortal sin.  When all objective signs point to mortal sin, the reasonable man would go to Confession.  Like the man with the tumor, he assumes the worst and goes to the Divine Physician’s clinic in the confessional.  It may be nothing serious, but when it comes to the health of our soul we should assume the worst.  The Good Doctor will sort out whether you actually have a spiritual cancer growing in your soul, but either way you have had an encounter with the living Christ in the Confessional.  Christ has already paid dearly for the premium and empowered His ministers to forgive sins, why not take advantage of it?

Why the Doctors of the Church Did Not Split Hairs

There are valid reasons why there was a movement away from emphasizing the “grave matter,” especially in the post-Jansenist Church.  But we ought to seriously consider why the moral Doctors of the Church always used “mortal sin” and “grave matter” interchangeably.  I am sure someone has counted how many times he did this, but St. Thomas when examining virtues and vices in the Summa almost always asks “Is X a mortal sin?”  He was well aware of the conditions of mortal sin but his goal, even in his Summary of Theology, was to be pastoral.  When in doubt Confession was the remedy.

For the world’s loss of a sense of sin to have crept into the Church is absolutely absurd.  The Church exists to forgive sins.  To explain away their existence is to make herself obsolete—“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’  And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’”(Jn 20:21-23).

Scrupulosity is an emotional hyper-sensitivity to sin.  It is a common aspect at the beginning of the Christian journey and tends to subside as the person progresses in the stages of holiness.  It is when it persists that it becomes a real problem.  It is these relatively few tortured souls that many have found their justification for de-emphasizing the “grave matter” aspect of mortal sin.   First of all, a person plagued by a case of the scruples already has a conscience that will not rest.  It is constantly being challenged by the emotional feeling of sin.  Taking away an objective measure and leaving it completely as a subjective measure leaves them in a worse state of confusion.  Their mind may tell them one thing, but the feeling can overwhelm them causing a great deal of inner turmoil that will not cease until they can set their conscience at ease in Confession.

Assuming that you are not seeing a regular confessor and combating a prolonged case of scrupulosity, I would like to make brief mention of something that is related to this.  Be very leary of a priest when he tells you in the Confessional that something is not a sin .  If you do not know your own heart, then (except in the rare cases of an enlightenment by God) neither does he.  His only judgment is whether you are contrite and have a firm purpose of amendment.  He is not a tribunal of one to judge whether something is sinful or not, that is God’s role.  If you confess something that is not sinful, then God will figure it out.  Better to find out later it was not a sin then to have it before you on Judgment Day.  While we cannot be sure of the judgment rendered on that awful day, we can be sure that there will be no hair splitting.

Lead Us Not into Temptation?

In his personal memoirs, the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung described how he finally broke from Christianity because of Jesus’ apparently inconsistent portrait of God as simultaneously “love and goodness” and “tempter and destroyer.”  It is reasonable to think that Jung might not be alone in his conclusion, especially considering that each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we ask that God “lead us not into temptation.”  The implication is that He has the power to either tempt us or lead us away from it.  Whether we recognize it or not, there is a certain mistrust of God that cannot be totally put away until we deal with what seems like a messy contradiction.  Putting temptation within the proper framework will not only help us to address the intellectual difficulty surrounding the issue of temptation, but, more importantly, help us to see why they are a constituent element in our quest for holiness.

What God Desires

In constructing the frame, we must first start with a proper understanding of what God wants for each one of us.  God is not content with merely bestowing the divine life upon us.  He does not merely want to give us grace so we can go to heaven and be with Him.  No, if you can imagine it, He wants so much more.  He is not looking for test subjects for some cosmic social experiment, but sons and daughters who can stand on their own two feet and run towards Him.  He wants His glory to shine from every pore of our being but He also wants to bestow upon us the dignity of having worked for it.  Eternal life is a free gift, but He won’t cheapen it by asking for nothing in return.

Rather than getting bogged down in an explication of the mystery of man’s free will and God’s grace, we will accept as a given that they are cooperative powers.  When God plants the seed of eternal life (i.e. sanctifying grace) in our souls, He also implants the supernatural virtue of charity.  Now each of our natural virtues as well as the two theological virtues of faith and hope has charity as its center of gravity.  As the virtues increase, our capacity to harness the Supreme Goodness that is God’s life increase with it.  It is, to borrow a principle from St. Thomas, grace perfecting nature.

Grace and Nature

It seems that a digression is in order regarding this important Thomistic principle because it is relevant to a proper understanding of all that I just said.  Often it is paraphrased as “grace builds upon nature.”  This is more than just “saying the same thing.”  If you tell me “grace builds upon nature” I think, “I just need to try harder to be good” and God will give me grace.  It is as if I can achieve a certain amount of natural goodness and then God will give me grace.  In other words it is my hard work that comes first then grace.  Grace becomes essentially a superfluous add-on.  This is just a subtle form of the old heresy called (semi-)Pelagianism which denied original sin and taught that holiness was ours for the taking.

What I have proposed is not “becoming the best version of yourself”, that is a good natural life, but instead a path to an abundant supernatural life.  It is grace that comes first.  No amount of work on our part can change that.  Without the initial installment (ordinarily through Baptism) or a re-installment (through Sacramental Confession), we can never get there no matter how good we are.  Heaven is not the natural result of a good life, it is the supernatural consequence of a holy life.  All holy people are good people, but not all good people are holy.  It is grace at the beginning and then grace all the way through.  Grace perfects nature, not builds upon it.

What we are talking about then is our cooperation with grace through a growth in the virtues and how this is achieved.  The classic definition of a virtue as the firm and habitual dispositions toward the good needs to be examined.  We instinctively get the habitual part, understanding that it requires more than solitary acts that look like virtue to actually be virtuous.  We mistakenly think then to grow in virtue we just need to keep repeating the act.  For an increase in virtue however the first part, that is the firmness, is what needs to be emphasized.  It is only an act done with greater vehemence that wins the increase in virtue.

Temptation from its Proper Perspective

Only when we grasp God’s desire for our personal perfection and what that perfection consists in, we can look at temptation in a proper light.  Temptation is not so much a push to do something bad, but an opportunity to love and do what is good all the more.  It is an indispensable means for a growth in virtue.  Lacking any resistance, we are content with feeble acts of virtue because they “get the job done.”  Virtue is often compared to a muscle with a “use it or lose it” mentality.  But God is calling us to be spiritual bodybuilders, becoming huge in our holiness.  Muscle grows with an increase in resistance and so it is with virtue.  It might not be the only way to increase the intensity of our virtuous acts, but it is the most effective.  “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” is not just a mission statement from Jesus, Life Coach, but a command from the one Who always equips us to fulfill it.

Addressing Jung’s objection that I opened with will also help us to see how best to make use of temptations.  It is not God who tempts but instead He is the one Who allows temptations to occur for our own good.  If there is no opportunity for growth then He will not allow it.  This truth is so important to hold onto, especially in the midst of strong temptations.  What you shouldn’t hold onto is the hackneyed Christian maxim that “God does not give you more than you can handle.”  This is not only not true, but also counterproductive.  God absolutely gives us more than we can handle, but He never abandons us, spotting us in our spiritual workouts.  But like a good spotter, He only gives us enough help for us to keep the bar moving and does not pull it off of us.  Even in being overcome, we still have the opportunity to grow.  No saint was devoid of humility, a virtue that only grows with more intense acceptance of humiliations.

Before closing I should mention one thing that may not be clear from what I have said.  It seems that if God has allowed a temptation to occur for my good, then I must simply face it head on.  Fleeing from them means that I will have missed the opportunity for growth.  Fleeing in the face of temptation, especially those of the flesh, is one of the ways in which we grow in virtue.  The rapidity and vehemence in which we avoid what would be evil is exactly what causes our growth.

We can see why it is that God then never frees us from temptation wholly.  As Sirach says, “when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trial” (Sir 2:1).  “To be human,” Aquinas says, “is to be tempted, but to consent is to be devlish.”  We do not pray to be freed from temptation in the Lord’s Prayer, but instead that we may not be led into temptation, that is, to consent to it.    Unfortunately, Jung was wrong.  Temptations come from a loving Father, Who wants nothing more than our perfection.

The Keep Fit Sacrament

What do you call the Sacrament by which we confess our sins to a priest and through the power given by Christ to the Church, he offers us absolution?  Very often, you can learn a lot about someone by the answer they give.  Someone who wants to emphasize the positive aspects of the Sacrament will call it “The Sacrament of Reconciliation.”  Those who go regularly tend to call it “The Sacrament of Confession.”  And then those who have more legalistic tendencies call it “The Sacrament of Penance.”  Yet the Church refers to the Sacrament using all three terms and she does so in order to highlight something very important about the effects of sin and the power of the Sacrament.

While sin is first and foremost a transgression against the law of God, its effects always lay in three dimensions.  First it alienates us from God and thus we need the Sacrament of Penance to correct this.  Second it separates us from our neighbor and therefore there is a need for Reconciliation to reunite with the community.  Finally, by sin we ultimately harm ourselves and therefore the need for Confession to accuse ourselves before our conscience.

Interestingly enough, it seems that in today’s climate the emphasis is on calling it Reconciliation even though we often fail to see how our sin hurts the Church.  We’ve all heard that there is no such thing as a private sin, but we do not really understand how this is so.  It might be easy to see how a mortal sin cuts you off from the Church, but what about just a tiny venial sin (if such a thing exists)?   Why is reconciliation necessary?

Looking at what we actually forfeit when we commit a venial sin makes it clearer.  Each time we fall, we deprive ourselves of sanctifying grace.  But this is not just about our own personal holiness.  As members of the Church, we have an obligation towards the other members of the Church to be as holy as possible.  Each grace that we forfeit is a grace that God intended for everyone to benefit from.  By not being as holy as we should be, we deprive others of the grace that we were to be channels of.  In fact not only do we have an obligation, but the other members of the Church have a right to demand we be as holy as we should be.  This is why petty jealousy has no room in the Church—the holier each other member is, the holier I will be.

This is what makes the image of the Church as the Body of Christ so instructive.  When an organ is not as healthy as it should be, then it hurts the whole body.  It even hurts the functioning of some of the other parts as well.  An organ that is healthy adds to the health of the other members.

To remain healthy, organs need continual nourishment.  This comes to the members of the Mystical Body through the Eucharist.  But nourishment is not enough to maintain optimal health.  Our organs also are prone to decay and need tonics in order to remain healthy.  So too the members of the Mystical Body need to regularly receive the tonic of frequent confession in order to remain healthy.  How can we receive this tonic fruitfully?

With this background in mind, Pope Pius XII in his encyclical on the Church, Mystici Corporis Christi, recommended to the faithful the practice of frequent confession.  Speaking specifically against those who said there is no benefit to the frequent Sacramental confession of venial sins he said “[T]o hasten daily progress along the road to virtue we wish the pious practice of frequent confession to be earnestly advocated. Not without inspiration of the Holy Spirit was this practice introduced into the Church…By it genuine self-knowledge is increased — Christian humility grows — bad habits are corrected — spiritual neglect and tepidity are countered — the conscience is purified — the will is strengthened — a salutary self-control is attained — and grace is increased in virtue of the sacrament itself” (Mystici Corporis Christi, 88).

To be clear, if you are conscious of having committed mortal sin (or even if you are questioning whether it is or not) then you should go to Confession immediately.  But what the Pope is advocating is frequent confession as a means to fight venial sins and climb the heights of sanctity quickly.

This obviously requires a paradigm shift.  Many of us (perhaps because of a bad experience or our own hang-ups) look upon Confession as a wholly bad thing, rather than a holy good thing.  We should see the Sacrament of Confession as a positive thing rather than as something to be dreaded.  All Sacraments are encounters with the Risen Christ and therefore we should not fear to encounter Him there.  There is necessarily some shame because sin is always shameful, but that shame is healthy.  It can also be offered to the Sacred Heart for the shame and humiliation of being scourged and crowned with thorns.  We also should experience some nervousness.  Who wouldn’t be nervous coming into the presence of the One Who is Goodness to accuse ourselves of failing in our own pursuit of goodness?  But both these quickly are washed away in the Blood that is poured over us during the words of absolution.


It is also worthwhile to highlight some of the benefits that Pius XII mentions.  So often we fall into the trap of thinking that the Sacrament is merely about accusing ourselves before God.  But that is truly a small part of it where frequent confession is concerned.  In fact for the Sacrament to be valid we need only confess a single venial sin for which we are sorry.  Instead the focus ought to be to stir up contrition.  Contrition is the sorrow of soul for sin committed and a firm purpose not to commit it again and grow in the virtue of penance.  By the sacrament our wills are strengthened and our purposes of amendment firmer.  This all comes from the grace of the Sacrament.

This is also why we should not grow discouraged when we continually have the same sins to confess.  Each time we confess it, it makes our contrition more perfect.  This is what makes Confession such a beautiful gift.  It is impossible for us not to commit sin in this life (Council of Trent) but it is possible for us to have perfect sorrow for those sins we do commit.  If it is true that “there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than the righteous man who is in no need of repentance” then we know that the God of Mercy takes great pleasure in bestowing the gift of contrition upon us.

It was mentioned that you need only confess a single venial sin (again assuming no mortal sin) in order for the Sacrament to be valid (meaning all our venial sins are absolved, confessed or not).  This leads to another important thing to consider in drawing the optimal fruit from the Sacrament as to what we should confess.  We should not come to the Sacrament with a laundry list of sins, but instead those faults that we are actively trying to conquer.  This is warfare 101.  Our enemies, the world, the devil and the flesh, will never be conquered if we fire scatter shot over their lines.  Instead, like every good soldier in battle, we should take a divide and conquer approach.  Once we have conquered the dominant vice and replaced it with its opposing virtue, we can then move on to the next one.  Included in the things we should confess as well are things that we are particularly sorry for and those things that we had previously conquered and have moved back into our lives.  Even the sins of our past life that have already been confessed but still hold some appeal to us can be material for confession.  Again, if one of the fruits is to stir up contrition then we can more fully express our sorrow for those sins.

This brings up one final point and that is the necessity for a methodical approach to our daily examination.  We should focus on one thing in particular and see how we did for the day.  Then we can look at the rest of our day.  Writing what we discover down in a small notebook will enable us to see our patterns more clearly and also give us the material to make a good confession next time we go.  Unless you have not been in a while or are making a general confession, we should avoid using Examination of Conscience material found in prayer books.  All too often this leads us to examine someone else’s conscience and not our own.  As Pius XII mentioned with the fruit of increased self-knowledge that comes from regular confession we will also be able to examine ourselves better.

In closing, let us all take advantage of this Keep Fit Sacrament and invoke the aid of St. Gemma Galgani for a good confession this weekend:

My crucified God, behold me at Your feet. Do not reject me, a poor sinner, as I appear before You. I have offended You much in the past, my Jesus, but in the future I resolve to sin no more. My God, I put all my sins before You.  I have considered them and realize they do not deserve Your pardon. But I beg of you to cast one glance upon Your sufferings and see how great is the worth of that Precious Blood that flows from your veins. My God, at this hour close Your eyes to my want of merit and open them to Your infinite merits. Since You, dear Jesus, have been pleased to die for my sins, grant me forgiveness for them all, that I may no longer feel their heavy burden, which presses me to the earth. My Jesus, help me, for I desire to become good, no matter what it may cost. Take away, destroy, root out completely all that You find in me that may be contrary to Your holy Will. At the same time I beg You, O Jesus, to enlighten me, that I may be able to walk in Your holy light.