TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 4: Repentance, the Sacrament of Penance, and the Struggle against Sin

Question C:  How Should One Use the Sacrament of Penance?

While baptism is the fundamental sacrament of conversion, the baptized have fulfilled their responsibilities in respect to their own baptismal conversion. Further responsibilities do flow from the baptismal commitment, but these embrace the whole life of faith (see CMP, 30.I), and so include all one’s moral responsibilities. Every Catholic also has responsibilities with respect to the baptismal conversion of others, but these are responsibilities (already treated in 2.E) to accept and fulfill personal vocation as one’s share in the Church’s apostolate, in which the gospel’s message of repentance is central. Hence, the sacramental focus of Christian responsibilities specifically related to repentance and reconciliation is not baptism but the sacrament of penance.

This sacrament is entirely subordinated to the Eucharist, the supreme sacrament of reconciliation. The Eucharist makes Jesus’ perfect sacrifice always present in the Church, in order that his members may share in it and so be united with him, both in his redemptive act and in the resurrection life with which God answers it (see CMP, 22.G, 33.B). As the Council of Trent teaches, the Eucharist protects those who worthily participate in it from mortal sin and frees them from the guilt of venial sin (see DS 1638/875; CMP, 33.D). In sinning mortally after baptism, however, people not only offend God but betray their baptismal commitment to Jesus and wound his body, the Church. They remain members, but are moribund; that is why mortal sinners are deprived of Holy Communion.31 But the absolution of the sacrament of penance transforms those dead in sin into revivified members of the Church, so that once more they can share fully in the Eucharist. In this way the sacrament of penance plays an essential part in the reconciliation which the Eucharist perfectly realizes.32

It is true that someone with perfect contrition can be forgiven before approaching the sacrament of penance. But this is so only insofar as perfect contrition necessarily includes a desire to receive the sacrament, at least the desire implicit in any genuinely contrite heart to do whatever God wants in order to be reconciled with him (see DS 1543/807, 1677/898).

Therefore, the first responsibility with regard to the sacrament of penance is not to neglect it. In receiving the sacrament, there are further responsibilities: to do everything necessary to make its reception valid and fruitful, so that it will be a true renewal and deepening of the fundamental Christian conversion to God.33

1. The Sacrament of Penance Should Be Received When Appropriate

While only under certain conditions is there a strict obligation to receive the sacrament of penance, so that not doing so would be in itself a grave matter, a good reason for receiving it often exists, such that, in the absence of any contrary reason, the sacrament should be received.

Like all the sacraments, this one always is a true act of worship. Those who receive it not only confess their sins but are united with Jesus in confessing God’s majesty and praising him for his mercy. Thus, whenever receiving the sacrament is appropriate, it should be received out of reverence and gratitude toward God, for the sake of its fruits for oneself, and as an act of witness and good example to others.

a) Mortal sins should be confessed before receiving Communion. In both penance and the Eucharist, Jesus makes himself present to his members in the Church through her human acts. He does this in order to rejoin them to himself (by the sacrament of penance) and to nurture their communion with him (by the sacrament of the Eucharist). But just as an amputated finger could not be nurtured without its first being rejoined to one’s hand, so Jesus cannot nurture his members with his body and blood without first rejoining them to himself.

Worthy reception of Holy Communion therefore requires a clear conscience. The Church teaches that, before receiving, someone aware of having committed a mortal sin should purify his or her conscience by making a sacramental confession (see DS 1661/893).34

b) Mortal sins must be confessed at least once a year. The Church’s law requires that Catholics confess at least once each year if they have committed mortal sins.35 Since they also have the duty to receive Holy Communion at least once during the Easter season, this annual confession typically is part of the “Easter duty” for those who sometimes commit mortal sins and only minimally practice the faith. Those in danger of death also should receive Holy Communion as Viaticum, and they have a grave obligation to confess any mortal sin, if they can, before doing so.

Plainly, though, it is foolish to put off confessing mortal sins for as long as a year or until one is in danger of death. Reverence for God, concern for the Church wounded by one’s sins, and reasonable self-interest should lead one to take the first opportunity to confess any mortal sin. A person who does not is likely to be tempted to commit additional sins and even to become obdurate.

c) The sacrament of penance is effective against venial sin. Called to holiness, which requires perfect, single-hearted love (see LG 40), all Christians likewise are called to complete sinlessness and have a strict obligation to struggle against venial sin, especially deliberate venial sin—the sort committed with sufficient reflection and full consent, which falls short of being mortal only because the matter is not grave. Regular, frequent reception of the sacrament of penance, with the right dispositions, is an especially effective means of carrying on this struggle (see CMP, 32.D).

Although venial sins can be forgiven in other ways, receiving the sacrament is a far richer Christian act than any other that is suited to the obligatory task of continuing conversion (see CMP, 32.D). Pius XII teaches that by frequent confession “genuine self-knowledge is increased, Christian humility grows, bad habits are corrected, spiritual neglect and tepidity are resisted, the conscience is purified, the will strengthened, a salutary self-control is attained, and grace is increased in virtue of the Sacrament itself.”36 These benefits, antithetical to any deliberate sin, are effects proper to the sacrament, aspects of the very conversion for the sake of which God has provided it.37

d) The sacrament of penance should be received rather often. In view of the foregoing considerations, and in the absence of any good reason to the contrary, people should receive the sacrament of penance as often as they find it helpful in their struggle against venial sin. For some that might be once a month, for others more often, perhaps every week. As a practical matter, omitting frequent confession usually means acquiescing in habits of deliberate venial sin and neglecting the responsibility to struggle against such sins. Although that neglect is not a grave matter, it is serious, because venial sins, especially deliberate ones, are important in themselves and often lead to mortal sins (see CMP, 18.C).

e) It is good to participate in communal celebrations of penance. The rite of penance as revised after Vatican II includes a normal form of communal celebration of the sacrament of penance culminating in individual confession and absolution of sins. A liturgy of the word and appropriate prayers and hymns in which everyone joins are part of it. It thus provides a richer liturgical setting for the sacrament and manifests its ecclesial nature more clearly. The revised rite also includes penitential services which are similar but do not incorporate confession and absolution. While those who participate in such penitential services do not receive the sacrament of penance, the nonsacramental service can prepare for the sacrament and also can help sinners dispose themselves to receive the grace of contrition when no priest is available to give sacramental absolution.

Both sacramental and nonsacramental communal celebrations build up the Church as a penitential community and take advantage of the power to convert which God’s word possesses whenever people gather to listen to it. Not only is it good to participate in both types of communal celebration, sometimes that should be done, for example, if one ought to receive the sacrament and can only do that by participating in a communal celebration, or if, being unable to receive the sacrament of penance, one finds a nonsacramental penitential celebration conducive to sincere repentance.

2. Penance Requires Self-examination and Contrition for One’s Sins

No one should approach the sacrament of penance out of mere routine or solely for extrinsic reasons like impressing or pleasing someone else. The only good reasons are to obtain forgiveness for mortal sins and to carry on an effective struggle against venial sin. To achieve these purposes, people must call their sins to mind, firmly reject them, and turn toward God.38

a) One should try sincerely to be aware of one’s sins. People should live according to the moral truth written by God in the human heart and perfectly made known by the gospel. The Church’s moral teaching makes moral truth more easily and precisely available. Living by these standards means using them not only to shape deliberations, choices, and actions, but to evaluate what one has done, so that any necessary adjustments can be made. Such retrospective evaluation is called examination of conscience.

It is best done daily, then recalled when preparing to receive the sacrament of penance (see PO 18). Before examining conscience, a person should pray for the light of the Holy Spirit, who alone can overcome rationalization and self-deception, uncover sin’s roots, and make clear the true state of the heart.39

One should consider how well one’s responsibilities are being fulfilled in regard to God, to moral truth, to other people, and to oneself. The examination should not be limited to private and family life, but should extend to work and community life, taking into account all the responsibilities pertaining to every aspect of personal vocation and the various projects intended to fulfill it. Not only what one has done, but what one has failed to do, should be considered, not least with respect to social responsibilities, whose neglect leads to personal, actual guilt for the injustices existing in the various communities to which one belongs.40 A reasonable effort should be made to recall and clearly discern any mortal sin which has been committed, anything which needs to be dealt with promptly (for example, an apology to be made, a neglect of duty to be remedied, an occasion of sin to be avoided), and failings in lesser matters where one is making a particular effort to do better.

b) Neglect of examination can be a grave matter. People may be tempted to avoid examination, for consciousness of sin causes painful feelings of guilt. But guilt feelings corresponding to reality are not bad. They signal one’s true spiritual condition, as bodily aches and pains normally signal one’s bodily condition. They can and should lead to seeking the needed and effective remedy: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1.8–9).

Neglecting to examine conscience when one thinks it essential for a good confession is itself a grave matter. In such a case, as much effort must be put into the examination of conscience as into any other important matter in life.

c) The moral criticisms others offer should be considered carefully. In the face of both charitable admonitions and angry words of condemnation, but especially the latter, a person is inclined to react defensively by seeking some self-justification or excuse; often one is tempted to counterattack by pointing out some fault in the critic. Instead, all such criticisms should be noted and reviewed calmly during the next examination of conscience.

One should first ask: Is the norm stated or assumed by the critic a true requirement of morality? Perhaps with the best of intentions, people sometimes try to impose false standards on others, and so it is a mistake to accept moral criticism uncritically. For example, if charged with being uncharitable, one must ask whether the standard of charity employed is drawn from the gospel or from a sentimental spirituality which disregards unpleasant and unpopular truths of faith. If the critic did apply a true moral norm, one should ask whether the application was sound or whether there may have been a mistake in applying the norm, perhaps due to a misunderstanding of one’s behavior.

If a true norm has been correctly applied, however, the critic has done the valuable service of assisting one’s self-examination, and deserves gratitude for it. Even if the critic has misunderstood behavior which did not involve the moral fault alleged, reflection on the criticism sometimes can help one to adapt one’s manner of speaking and acting so that it will more accurately reflect and bear witness to one’s faith and good will.

d) One’s sins should be rejected firmly with a truly contrite heart. The sacrament of penance does not remove sins as, say, brushing teeth removes particles from them—in a merely mechanical manner. Nor is it a device for spiritual accounting, which simply cancels sins so they will not be charged to one’s account. Rather, the sacrament is an interpersonal exchange between prodigal children and their heavenly Father, in a meeting mediated by the confessor acting in the person of Jesus. To this meeting, the sinner must bring not only honest awareness of his or her sins but a contrite heart.

Contrition is more than regret or sadness about sin. People often regret what they remain willing to do, but one repents only what one wishes one had not done and wills never to do again; people often are sad about what they could not help and others’ sins, but one repents only sins for which one is responsible. Contrition is more than uttering the words of an act of contrition; a person can be contrite without using a formula, and if a formula is used, one must mean what it says. Normally, people with contrite hearts not only give outward expression to repentance, but feel shame and sorrow for their sins, and experience anxiety about their relationship with God.

Still, contrition must not be psychologized and understood in emotional terms. Essentially it is a change of heart: the heart that freely embraced sin now freely rejects it. Instead of feelings, it is a real will to be freed of all one’s mortal sins and be reconciled with God—or, in the case of the venial sinner, to make progress in the struggle against sin and live more perfectly in communion with God.

e) Contrition includes the will to confess and to stop sinning. Contrition includes within itself not only the utter rejection of past sin, but a firm purpose of amendment and readiness to do whatever God wants in order to receive his forgiveness. Referring to cases in which a baptized person has committed a mortal sin, the Council of Trent teaches that contrition “is a deep sorrow and detestation for sin committed, with a resolution of sinning no more.” It adds that contrition “is certainly a preparation for the remission of sins, if it be accompanied by trust in the divine mercy and a desire of fulfilling the other conditions necessary to receive the sacrament properly” (DS 1676/897, translation amended, emphasis added). Real contrition for mortal sin involves some kind of desire, at least implicit, for the sacrament of penance (see DS 1677/898). Thus, it requires a will to fulfill all conditions for receiving that sacrament worthily, among them confession of all mortal sins (see DS 1707/917), a real purpose of amendment, and readiness to make reparation for injuries and do penance. Lacking this will, contrition is insincere, and both feelings of sorrow and resolutions to change for the better are ineffectual.

f) To arouse contrition, one should excite one’s faith and hope. True contrition presupposes faith, which teaches sinners the truth of God’s faithfulness despite their unfaithfulness. Only faith makes plain the full significance of sin as an offense that, if venial, impedes growth in charity and, if mortal, precludes communion with the divine persons and makes the sinner worthy of hell. Contrition also presupposes hope. For hope motivates one to live the Christian life and repent of failures to do so. Even more to the point: as confidence in God’s grace and mercy, hope is needed to seek forgiveness and undertake what must be done to obtain it.

Even mortal sinners usually can believe and hope as true contrition requires, since even mortal sin usually does not destroy the human relationship which faith and hope previously established with Jesus and his Church. Thus, the grace of the Holy Spirit, who lives in Jesus’ Church, empowers sinners to continue to believe and hope, and so to repent. This faith and hope leads sinners not only to reject their sins, as they might if these were extrinsic to them, but to reject themselves as sinners and to be ready to do what is necessary to obtain forgiveness.41 At least implicitly, a human love of God and true contrition are already present in such a will, even if it is not yet free of sin.

g) Of itself, the sinner’s act of contrition remains imperfect. Trent teaches that there can be genuine contrition short of perfect contrition. This genuine contrition is based on a true awareness of sin’s evil and on salutary fear of punishment, and includes the intention to amend. It is a divine gift, a true work of the Holy Spirit, which leads sinners toward reconciliation by disposing them to seek forgiveness in the sacrament of penance. Of itself, however, the contrition in question is not perfected by charity, and so it is called “imperfect contrition” or “attrition” (see DS 1678/898, 1705/915).42 Trent also teaches that contrition sometimes is perfected before the sacrament of penance is received, although not without some kind of desire to receive it (see DS 1677/898).

People certainly should strive to make contrition perfect. This involves considering that, as God’s friendship is a great good, and the closer that friendship is the better, so alienation from God is a great evil, and even a slight loss of closeness to God is a very important loss. Contrition also can be intensified and purified by considering why God is lovable above everything and everyone else: his goodness, his faithfulness and mercy, and Jesus’ love, which led him to die so as to save not only humankind in general but oneself in particular. But even if such considerations bring one to a more than merely self-concerned rejection of one’s sins, they cannot guarantee that the contrition is motivated by charity, which is a more-than-human love of God, poured forth in hearts by the Holy Spirit (see Rom 5.5).

h) One must ask God for perfect contrition as a gift of his mercy. St. Thomas teaches that for those who have sinned mortally perfect contrition and the conferral of charity are mutually dependent: a mortal sinner cannot love God as a child of God should without becoming perfectly contrite, and cannot become perfectly contrite without again loving God as his child. The two things can come together either before the sacrament is received or when it is received, provided the sacrament is approached with the right intentions.43 In either case, the mortal sinner can make an act of perfect contrition only by making as genuine an act of contrition as possible, while asking God in his mercy to perfect this contrition by renewing the gift of charity. Charity surely will be restored in the sacrament of penance to anyone who is sincerely contrite and acts on that contrition by properly receiving the sacrament, for God promises forgiveness through it: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” (Jn 20.22–23; cf. Mt 18.18; DS 1670/894).

i) Venial sins cannot be forgiven without contrition for them. Contrition for venial sin can be genuine without being all-inclusive. Just as people can be willing to commit certain venial sins but not others, so they can be sorry for and prepared to give up some venial sins but not all.

However, no one can be forgiven anything without contrition for it. Progress in the struggle against venial sin therefore presupposes real contrition, which must include a sincere will to love God more perfectly and the real determination to stop committing the sin. People who repeatedly confess the same venial sins, making no progress in overcoming them, need to consider both the sincerity of their contrition and the possibility that the problem is not really a moral one. If the sins are fully deliberate, the sincerity of their contrition is questionable; but if the contrition is real and the unwanted acts are not deliberate, they may be caused by psychological factors.

3. Genuine Contrition Includes a Firm Purpose of Amendment

Trent includes in the very definition of contrition the resolution not to sin again. A truly contrite person who considers the possibility of committing the same sin or any mortal sin in the future rejects the idea and is prepared to do what is necessary entirely to avoid mortal sin.

a) Sin has not really been rejected if one does not mean to avoid it. The purpose of amendment essential to contrition is completely different from a good resolution without real contrition. Rather than being a reluctant renunciation of sin, still regarded as desirable, purpose of amendment is part of a rejection of sin considered as entirely repugnant. To put the matter positively, the purpose of amendment rooted in real contrition is an aspect of becoming reconciled with God, because anyone who longs for the restoration of divine friendship—or, in the case of contrition for venial sin, for its growth—also wills to cling to that good and to remain with God, as the prodigal willed to remain with his father, always cherishing his love and never again rejecting it or even being less than wholehearted in accepting and responding to it.

Since genuine contrition includes such a purpose of amendment, someone who is not prepared to pay the necessary price to put sin aside, to make reparation for injuries caused to others, and to do what can be done to avoid sin in the future, is not really contrite. A person may feel guilty, regret having sinned, recite contrite words, and even make good resolutions; yet, lacking the will to do everything possible to overcome sin in practice, he or she does not reject it in the way necessary for real contrition.

b) One must intend not to commit any grave sin whatsoever. Sometimes people enmeshed in a form of life involving grave sin detest the sin and wish to be reconciled to God, but recoil from paying the price. Believing or hoping that one day they will be able to give up the sin without so high a cost, they plan to amend their lives then: “Give me chastity, Lord, but not just yet”; “We look forward to better times, when it no longer will be necessary to lie and cheat in order to make a profit.” This certainly is not as wicked as a will to persist in sin forever, yet even if the intention to amend in the future is real, it is not the purpose of amendment required for present contrition. Indeed, it is at least an early stage of the persistence in sin that can lead to hell (see CMP, 18.E).

Similarly, those who intend only to reduce the gravity or number of their mortal sins are not truly contrite. Even if it involves a sincere intention eventually to stop sinning entirely, such gradualism also involves a present will to commit a certain quota of sins.44 And since a person who does not reject some kind of sin entirely is unlikely to resist temptations to commit it, a gradualist strategy does not work.

Spiritual counselors sometimes tell sinners to be patient with themselves and to exercise compassion toward themselves. Such advice would be sound and helpful if it meant only that sinners should be confident that they receive God’s forgiveness when they are truly contrite and should not nurture hostile feelings toward themselves or judge their guilt greater than it is. However, the advice is ambiguous, and can be taken as a recommendation of gradualism; understood in that sense it should be rejected as pernicious. For sinners should not be patient with their sins, nor should they regard them as a pitiable misfortune; they should not calmly bear their guilt or consider it an affliction to be alleviated by gentle treatment. Instead, they should admit their guilt, firmly hope in the forgiveness and help of God, make the commitment to change which true contrition requires, and undertake to do whatever is necessary, no matter how difficult, to live holy lives.

c) Knowing one will sin again blocks purpose of amendment. A history of relapses and anxiety about the future are compatible with genuine contrition. Past experience can make one anxious and lead by way of self-observation to the belief that one probably will “fall into” sin again. However, nobody falls by accident into grave sin or even into deliberate venial sin: such sins are committed only by making free choices. A free choice is a choice that can be made or not; one makes it only inasmuch as one freely determines oneself to it. Since it is impossible to sin deliberately without free choice, someone who truly rejects any sin at present cannot possibly know he or she will deliberately commit that sin in the future.

Of course, a person can be aware that if everything in the future were to remain just as in the past, another relapse would occur. But purpose of amendment means readiness to do what is necessary, with the help of God’s grace, so that the future will not be just like the past. Moreover, it presupposes hope by which one counts on God’s grace rather than despairing of it. Thus, although a feeling of anxiety is compatible with a true purpose of amendment, someone who really is contrite wills to avoid every mortal sin (and any venial sin for which he or she is contrite), begs the Holy Spirit for the strength required to persevere despite temptation, and counts on him to provide that strength, although perhaps with deep feelings of self-doubt and anxiety about the future.

d) One should persevere in repentance one day at a time. While a purpose of amendment must refer to the indefinite future, in practice repentant sinners can mitigate their anxiety by focusing on their immediate responsibility: to seek the kingdom and resist temptation today. This strategy applies Jesus’ advice regarding worry about the necessities of life:

Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
 So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. (Mt 6.32–34)
By stirring up hope in God, putting one’s affirmative responsibility first, and living each day as it comes, a person avoids the psychological burden of imaginatively coping all at once with the evil to be overcome during the rest of his or her life.

4. Within Limits, Penitents Are Free to Choose Their Confessor

Penitents have considerable freedom in the choice of their confessor, but certain limits must be observed in order to receive valid absolution. And while valid absolution is the main thing a penitent needs from the priest, prudent penitents carefully choose a regular confessor so as to gain the maximum benefit from receiving the sacrament.

a) One is free to choose any legitimately approved confessor. Not all Catholic priests are authorized to hear confessions, and not all those authorized may do so everywhere in the world. Apart from exceptional situations, to be considered next, someone who wishes to receive the sacrament of penance should approach only a priest in good standing who belongs to one of the rites fully in communion with the pope.45 If such a priest is hearing confessions in a Catholic church or chapel, it can safely be assumed that he is authorized to do so. If not, one should ask him whether he is authorized to hear one’s confession.

b) In exceptional cases, the choice of confessors is wider. If it is morally or physically impossible to approach a Catholic priest, the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist, and anointing of the sick may be received, when it is necessary or would be to one’s spiritual advantage, from non-Catholic ministers in whose churches these sacraments are valid.46 (This condition generally is met in the case of the Eastern Orthodox churches, whose priests have valid orders.)

Moreover, anyone in danger of death may choose to receive the sacrament of penance from any Catholic priest, even if an approved confessor is available. In such cases, even priests not in good standing are authorized to absolve penitents so that they will be prepared for death.47

c) One should carefully choose one’s confessor. Saints have recommended regular confession to the same confessor, so that he will come to know one’s heart and be able to provide wise, ongoing direction. This practice surely is good, provided it is possible to find a suitable confessor.

Some people seek a permissive confessor, so that confession will be as painless as possible; they want affirmation and support rather than correction and direction for growth in holiness. But it is self-defeating to choose a confessor on this basis, since no confessor can nullify the moral truth that sin violates. A confessor who does not adhere faithfully to the teaching of the magisterium and the laws of the Church cannot transform an evasive conscience into good faith. And one who does not urge and encourage penitents to live up to the gospel’s severe demands provides little real help in the struggle against sin.

A Catholic should choose a confessor as a serious athlete would choose a coach: someone who has knowledge, experience, special skill in dealing with his or her personal aspirations, insight into his or her weaknesses, ability to communicate guidance clearly and effectively, the prudence to guide him or her step by step to steady improvement in performance, and the traits of personality and character which are necessary for the task at hand, though not always for a pleasant and easy relationship.

d) One may walk out on an unsatisfactory confessor. Someone who begins to receive the sacrament but finds reason to be dissatisfied with the confessor has no obligation to continue, but may excuse himself or herself and leave. One may, but need not, explain why one is doing so. Even in such a case, the priest is bound by the seal of confession.

5. Confession of Sins Is Essential to the Sacrament of Penance

While those about to be baptized must reject everything sinful in their former way of life and commit themselves to live in accord with the gospel, they need not confess their specific sins and how often they committed them. Why, then, may not those who sin after baptism also simply admit openly that they are sinful, be contrite, and seek God’s forgiveness directly, by asking it in their hearts, where nothing is hidden from him?

God does not will to save fallen humankind without its cooperation, but by using human actions as means of redemption—first Jesus’ human actions, then those of the Church and her members (see CMP, 20.G, 30.C, 32.A). God’s forgiveness comes to the sinner in the sacrament of penance insofar as the priest acts not in his own person—he too is only human and in need of forgiveness—but in the person of Jesus.48 Because Jesus, who is God, really acts in and through the priest’s action, there is no more direct way of seeking God’s forgiveness than by using the sacrament of penance. The sacrament also has the advantage of providing a human encounter in which penitents know their sins are heard and absolved. Furthermore, the sins of those already baptized concern the Church in a way that prebaptismal sins do not (see DS 1671–72/895). Consequently, the Church must be involved actively in her members’ reconciliation with God, and the priest functions as the Church’s representative in this sacrament.

a) Confession is essential to the sacrament for two reasons. The sacrament of penance can be considered as both a court where sinners receive pardon and a clinic where they are spiritually healed. From both points of view, confession is essential. Willing that the Church hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven, Jesus authorized the apostles, and through them priests, acting in his person, to forgive or retain sins (see Mt 18.18, Jn 20.22–23). This requires submitting sins to the power of the keys for judgment, and so, as the Council of Trent definitively teaches, divine law requires that every mortal sin committed after baptism be confessed (see DS 1679/899, 1707/917).49 Jesus also willed that the Church carry on his ministry of healing the spiritual disease of sin (see DS 813/437). This requires knowledge of the sinner’s heart, so that fitting remedies may be prescribed.50

b) All mortal sins committed after baptism are to be confessed. After examining one’s conscience, one is obliged to confess the mortal sins known to have been committed after baptism and since one’s last good confession, stating each specific kind of sin and how often it has been committed (see CMP, 15.2). Having acknowledged a mortal sin and received absolution for it in a good confession, one need never confess it again. But if in good faith one receives absolution for a mortal sin without confessing it—for example, having forgotten to mention some mortal sin in confession—that sin must be confessed at the next opportunity.51

There is no strict obligation to confess something as a mortal sin if it is genuinely doubtful either whether it was in fact committed or whether one both judged the matter grave and made a free choice to commit it despite that judgment. Similarly, if having done one’s best to make a good confession but subsequently growing doubtful about whether something was omitted which should have been confessed, one may presume that the confession was adequate, and the matter in question need not be confessed.

Since the point of confessing sins is to accuse oneself of them so that they may be absolved, confession should concern one’s own sins, not others’; the essential features of the sins, not details irrelevant to the wrongness of what was done; and sins, not good works, temptations, or justifiable failures to do the physically or morally impossible in fulfilling responsibilities.

c) It is necessary only to do the best one can to confess mortal sins. Someone ready and willing to confess everything which can and ought to be confessed sometimes can receive the sacrament and enjoy its benefit without fully satisfying the requirement of confession.

In the first place, in trying to state the kinds of sins committed and their frequency, one need only express what is on one’s conscience as accurately as one can and reply truthfully to whatever questions the confessor asks to clarify matters.

In the second place, no one is required to do the impossible. So, expressing one’s sinfulness as best one can, at least by some sign or gesture, one may seek sacramental absolution even if there is no time to confess, or one cannot speak, or lacks privacy to communicate with the priest, or encounters a confessor with whom one has no common language.52 Also, because a moral obligation not to do something makes doing it impossible, the requirement of confession is not violated by those who do not confess some sin because they honestly judge it would be wrong, for example, because there is good reason to think it would cause serious harm to them, to the confessor, or to some third party.

d) Legalistic evasions of the duty to confess must be avoided. Someone might be tempted to rationalize unwillingness to confess, treating it as if it were an impossibility, but that would be self-defeating. Honesty is essential in making judgments about the obligation to confess and in confessing. No one can deceive the Holy Spirit. Bad faith about any of the sacrament’s essential requirements not only renders receiving it pointless and ineffective, but is the grave matter of a sin of sacrilege (see 1.K.6.b–c). Although often somewhat repugnant, and sometimes extremely so, confessing shameful sins and receiving the confessor’s instructions and admonitions are not really harmful. Thus, repugnance is not an adequate reason for judging it morally impossible to make a complete confession.

Moreover, if an opportunity later arises to confess a mortal sin which could not be confessed previously, one ought then to confess it.

e) Confession would be prudent even if it were not essential. Even if the confession of sins were not essential to the sacrament of penance, it still would be an appropriate practice. Partly because it is hard, an honest admission of wrongdoing helps make amends for the wrong done in any human interpersonal relationship. So, in the sacrament of penance, confession of sin by someone truly contrite is itself an important penitential act. Also, preparing to confess is conducive to contrition, including a sincere purpose of amendment. People often are reluctant to make a perfectly clean break with their sins, and if integral confession were not required, many would limit, and so corrupt, their contrition, settling for a feeling of repentance without its reality. Moreover, in confessing sins to someone else, a person precisely identifies them, and this facilitates leaving them behind and affirming the new person, freed from these sins, whom one intends to be.

f) Under certain conditions, general absolution may be received. Lack of time sometimes makes it necessary for a priest to administer general absolution to a large group of penitents without hearing their confessions. Sometimes, too, general absolution is administered when the strict conditions for licitly doing so are not met.53 Since meeting the conditions is not the penitent’s responsibility, even when general absolution is abused, it may be received without individual confession if one otherwise would be deprived of the sacrament for too long—for example, longer than one’s usual interval between confessions—or would be deprived even once of Holy Communion.

But a person cannot validly receive general absolution unless truly contrite, and, as always, contrition includes purpose of amendment and willingness to confess all mortal sins. Those whose mortal sins are absolved without being confessed should therefore take the first opportunity to receive the sacrament in the normal way, and should then confess all previously unconfessed sins. General absolution should not be received repeatedly unless there is no opportunity to fulfill the obligation of making an individual confession.54 Deliberate evasion of the responsibility to confess mortal sins would make it pointless to go through the motions of receiving the sacrament.55

g) The sacrament always requires some kind of confession of sin. General absolution is not administered without asking penitents to give some sign that they desire it, for example, by kneeling, bowing their heads, or striking their breasts. By this sign they acknowledge in a generic way that they have sinned. Such a generic confession is sufficient for those whose consciences are not burdened with any mortal sin, and they need not confess their venial sins when they next receive the sacrament with individual confession.

A generic confession of sin also can suffice for the validity of the sacrament when someone conscious only of venial sins receives it with individual confession.56 Since contrition, including the essential purpose of amendment, is absolutely indispensable for the sacrament, however, those whose consciences are clear of mortal sin must intend by confession, whether in merely generic or very specific terms, to acknowledge some real sin that they sincerely reject. That could be a mortal sin already confessed in an earlier, good confession, or a venial sin they have committed and intend to avoid in the future.

h) Penitents usually should confess rather specifically. Although someone with no mortal sin on his or her conscience can receive the sacrament with only a generic confession of venial sin, a person usually should confess specifically at least some venial sins for which he or she is contrite. The struggle against these sins will be more effective if one lays them out before one’s confessor and receives advice about them.

Moreover, although not strictly obliged to confess doubtful sins, the penitent must firmly reject all mortal sins which might have been committed, and it is usually best to confess doubtful sins as doubtful, for the sake of peace of conscience and to receive any necessary instruction and clarification (although these also can be sought outside confession).

i) It can be necessary to confess sins already confessed. Growth in moral knowledge and sensitivity of conscience should not lead someone who tries to make a good confession and believes at the time that he or she has done so to doubt its validity later. But if one knows one has made a bad confession or a series of them—the outward behavior of receiving the sacrament having been vitiated by dishonesty and/or lack of true contrition—the obligation to confess all mortal sins committed since the last good confession remains to be fulfilled, along with confessing abuse of the sacrament.

j) It can be useful to confess sins already confessed. The case is very different with someone who on occasion—for instance, during a retreat, at a major turning point in life, or as death approaches—freely chooses to confess all (or the more serious) sins committed since childhood or since the last such inclusive confession. No one ever is obliged to confess again sins already confessed in a good confession, but this voluntary practice of a more or less inclusive retrospective confession can be spiritually profitable (see DS 880/470). It can help in deepening contrition, shaping one’s plan for a penitential life over a longer period of time than one otherwise considers, and making up for possible deficiencies in earlier confessions—deficiencies which do not invalidate them, but which perhaps cause anxiety in a devout person.57 In making such a confession, it is not necessary to confess everything previously confessed. But, of course, one must confess any mortal sin committed since one’s last good confession.58

k) The seal of confession binds not only priests but everyone. The seal of confession guarantees Catholics the absolute secrecy of their sacramental confessions. Penitents are free to share their own secrets with others (though prudent penitents seldom do), but otherwise the seal of confession binds everyone.

People should do their best to avoid overhearing or in any way violating the privacy of another’s confession, but if, aside from the penitent’s own voluntary revelation, one somehow comes to know something about another’s confession, there is a grave obligation not to say or do anything that might betray the secret, including even details such as the penance given.59 One should proceed just as if nothing were known, and especially should never use what is known in any way that might embarrass or harm the penitent.

The faithful should insist that the arrangement of confessionals and the manner in which confessors speak safeguard each penitent’s privacy. If a priest is observed saying or doing anything that might tend to violate the sacramental seal or even appear to violate it, he should be cautioned against doing so.

While revealing one’s own confessional secrets to others does not violate the seal of confession, it can be gravely unjust to the confessor. For if what is said tends to harm him, the seal prevents him from offering the explanation or defense which would be appropriate in other circumstances. Therefore, penitents who talk about their experiences in the confessional should take special care to avoid the sin of detraction against the confessor.

6. Satisfaction for Sins Is Essential to the Sacrament of Penance

There is no eternal punishment for sins which have been forgiven (see CMP, 18.I), but, as the Council of Trent teaches, even then the sinner still deserves some temporal punishment. Thus, it is right that repentant sinners accept a penance: make some satisfaction for their sins. It also belongs to God’s mercy to require such satisfaction, since in this way a sinner learns the seriousness of sin, is deterred from future and even more serious sin, is healed of the self-mutilation of sin by acts of virtue, and overcomes the bad habits acquired in living sinfully (see DS 1689–90/904, 1712/922).

a) The Church has norms for determining a suitable penance. Imposing penance pertains to the judicial aspect of the sacrament; it is an exercise of the confessor’s duty to bind as well as loose (see DS 1715/925). Hence, a certain legal precision is appropriate in both the imposition and the carrying out of the penance. Sin upsets order in one’s life and is a spiritual sickness; the penance should help to restore order and complete spiritual recuperation. It may take the form of self-denial, service to neighbor through works of mercy, or prayer; of course, in the latter case, prayer should be a genuine religious act, not mere recitation of formulas.

The penance not only should remedy weakness and help one live in a manner consistent with one’s now contrite heart but should serve as atonement for sins. Thus, it should bear some relationship to the seriousness and specific kinds of those sins. But penances should not crush repentant sinners and be more burdensome than they can reasonably bear. Confessors should therefore impose “penances in keeping with the quality and number of the sins but with attention to the condition of the penitent.”60

b) One should accept and fulfill the penance imposed. One’s duty to accept and carry out exactly and fully whatever penance the confessor reasonably imposes is very like the duty to obey a just order of a court. While it need not be fulfilled at once (unless the confessor so specifies), neither should it be put off indefinitely. A substantial failure to carry out the penance imposed after confessing a mortal sin is itself a grave matter, unless the confessor made it clear that he did not intend the penance to bind under pain of mortal sin.

c) Very often, the penance should be discussed with the confessor. Occasionally a confessor proposes a penance one would find impossible or, at least, too difficult to carry out. Then one should explain the problem, preferably at once or before leaving the confessional, but if necessary by returning to the same confessor or going to another.

Although confessors, anxious not to be severe, more often propose routine and rather light penances, a person usually will benefit by being obliged to fulfill a more appropriate and substantial penance. If one commits oneself to it when contrition is lively, one will have the motivation to carry it out. Thus, one may plan a suitable and rather substantial penance, which one is confident one can and will fulfill, and suggest it to the confessor as a substitute for or supplement to the penance he proposes. (Penitents who have confessed a mortal sin and who suggest a more substantial penance may request that it be imposed only under pain of venial sin.) In planning a penance, one should consider what might be done on a regular basis over a period of time—for example, until the next confession—because this is more likely to heal weakness and lead to virtuous habits.

7. Those Who Are Not at Present Repentant Should Not Despair

Some people know they are living in grave sin, experience its guilt, wish they could be freed of sin, more or less clearly recognize their peril, but are unwilling to amend their lives. Since they are not contrite, they are not disposed to receive the sacrament of penance validly, and so they are tempted to despair. John Paul II offers them the Church’s encouragement:

 For all those who are not at the present moment in the objective conditions required by the Sacrament of Penance, the Church’s manifestations of maternal kindness, the support of acts of piety apart from sacramental ones, a sincere effort to maintain contact with the Lord, attendance at Mass, and the frequent repetition of acts of faith, hope, charity and sorrow made as perfectly as possible, can prepare the way for full reconciliation at the hour that Providence alone knows.61
Thus, even the unrepentant should not abandon faith or give up hope.

31. John Paul II, Address to Bishops of Abruzzi and Molise, 4, AAS 74 (1982) 220–21, OR, 18 Jan. 1982, 7, quotes 1 Cor 11.27–29, and comments: “The theory according to which the Eucharist forgives mortal sin without the sinner having recourse to the sacrament of penance, is not reconcilable with the teaching of the Church. It is true that the sacrifice of the Mass, from which all grace comes to the Church, obtains for the sinner the gift of conversion, without which forgiveness is not possible, but that does not at all mean that those who have committed a mortal sin can approach Eucharistic Communion without having first become reconciled with God by means of the priestly ministry.”

32. Although some deny it, many theologians support the view that the sacrament of penance remits guilt precisely insofar as it brings the sinner into touch with the Church’s means of grace, and so provides him or her with God’s grace. See Clarence McAuliffe, S.J., “Penance and Reconciliation with the Church,” Theological Studies 26 (1965): 1–39.

33. A helpful guide to the use of the sacrament of penance: Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M.Cap., Be Reconciled to God: A Family Guide to Confession (Gaithersburg, Md.: The Word Among Us Press, 1988).

34. CIC, c. 916, allows for exceptional cases; see 3.B.3.a for the conditions under which someone who lacks the opportunity to confess a mortal sin may nevertheless receive Communion.

35. See CIC, c. 989.

36. Pius XII, Mystici corporis Christi, AAS 35 (1943) 235, PE, 225.88; cf. CIC, c. 988, §2.

37. See John Paul II, Address to Penitentiaries of the Major Basilicas, AAS 73 (1981) 204, OR, 23 Feb. 1981, 20; B. Kelly, C.Ss.P., “The Confession of Devotion,” Irish Theological Quarterly 33 (1966): 84–90.

38. CIC, c. 987, prescribes: “In order to receive the salvific remedy of the sacrament of penance, the Christian faithful ought to be so disposed that, having repudiated the sins committed and having a purpose of amendment, they are converted to God.”

39. See John Paul II, Dominum et vivificantem, 44–45, AAS 78 (1986) 861–63, OR, 9 June 1986, 9.

40. As a model, see “Appendix III: Form of Examination of Conscience,” at the end of “Rite of Penance,” The Rites, 441–45. A sound and helpful (though somewhat incomplete) guide: Richard J. Rego, A Contemporary Adult Guide to Conscience for the Sacrament of Confession (St. Paul, Minn.: Leaflet Missal, 1990).

41. John Paul II, General Audience (14 Mar. 1984), 2, Inseg. 7.1 (1984) 682, OR, 20 Mar. 1984, 1, teaches the intimate unity of sin with sinner: “Our evil choices do not pass alongside us; they do not exist before us; they do not pass through us as though they were events which do not involve us. Our evil choices, inasmuch as they are evil, arise within us, solely from us.”

42. Catholic theologians have long debated whether imperfect contrition (attrition) which does not include as a motive love of God for his own sake is sufficient within the sacrament of penance. This controversy was explicitly left open by a decree of the Holy See (see DS 2070/1146). For a helpful account of the history of the concepts and controversies over contrition and attrition: New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “contrition.”

43. Modern authors distinguish perfect from imperfect contrition (or attrition) primarily by the penitent’s subjectively discernible motives. St. Thomas, however, focuses on the objective factor, namely, whether or not charity perfects the act: S.c.g., 4.72; S.t., sup., q. 1, a. 1; q. 6, a. 1; q. 18, a. 1. And according to Thomas, sanctifying grace, which he holds is inseparably linked with charity, is not subjectively discernible in itself, but only imperfectly through its signs: S.t., 1–2, q. 112, a. 5. On this view, followed here, sinners cannot know that their contrition is perfect.

44. See John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 34, AAS 74 (1982) 123–24, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 7. Summarizing the same teaching, John Paul II, Address to Priests Participating in a Study Seminar on “Responsible Parenthood”, 4, Inseg. 6.2 (1983) 564, OR, 10 Oct. 1983, 7, forcefully recalls Catholic teaching concerning grace: “To maintain that situations exist in which it is not, de facto, possible for the spouses to be faithful to all the requirements of the truth of conjugal love is equivalent to forgetting this event of grace which characterizes the New Covenant: the grace of the Holy Spirit makes possible that which is not possible to man, left solely to his own powers. It is therefore necessary to support the spouses in their spiritual lives, to invite them to resort frequently to the Sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist for a continual return, a permanent conversion to the truth of conjugal love.”

45. See CIC, c. 991; cc. 965–86 lay down the conditions under which priests are authorized to hear confessions.

46. See CIC, c. 844, §2.

47. CIC, c. 976, authorizes priests who otherwise lack the faculty to hear someone’s confession to do so, both validly and licitly, provided that person is in danger of death, “even if an approved priest is present.” This provision surely was not intended for the benefit of the priest authorized by it to absolve, but for the benefit of a person in danger of death: to encourage him or her to seek absolution from some priest by setting aside a legal condition which otherwise would limit choice.

48. See Pius XI, Ad catholici sacerdotii, AAS 28 (1936) 13–15, PE, 216.20–21.

49. See CMP, 32, n. 6; Paul E. McKeever, The Necessity of Confession for the Sacrament of Penance (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1953). Against those who deny the definitiveness of Trent’s teaching that integral confession is a matter of divine law, see Carl J. Peter, “Auricular Confession and the Council of Trent,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 22 (1967): 185–96, but note that Peter gratuitously substitutes the notion that divine law about integrity merely establishes a “value” for the plain meaning of Trent that it sets a norm—which, however, being affirmative admits exceptions when someone cannot fulfill it.

50. CIC, c. 959: “In the sacrament of penance the faithful, confessing their sins to a legitimate minister, being sorry for them, and at the same time proposing to reform, obtain from God forgiveness of sins committed after baptism through the absolution imparted by the same minister; and they likewise are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by sinning.” See John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 31, AAS 77 (1985) 258–59, OR, 17 Dec. 1984, 12.

51. See the definitive teaching of the Council of Trent: DS 1679–82/899–900, 1706–8/916–18; on the obligation to confess a forgotten sin: DS 2031/1111. CIC, c. 988, §1: “A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and in number all serious sins committed after baptism and not yet directly remitted through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which one is conscious after diligent examination of conscience.”

52. CIC, c. 990, provides for confession through an interpreter, but does not require it, since penitents are not bound to make their sins known to others than the priest who absolves them. Similarly, if one lacks privacy, one is free to confess, but not bound to do so (see DS 1683/901).

53. See CIC, c. 961, for the conditions. In regard to the abuse of the rite, see Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Sacramentum paenitentiae, 13, AAS 64 (1972) 514, International Commission on English in the Liturgy, Documents on the Liturgy, 1963–1979: Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1982), 951; “Reply to a Question about General Absolution,” Flannery, 2:62–63; cf. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 33, AAS 77 (1985) 269–71, OR, 17 Dec. 1984, 13; also, by curtailing use of the rite, various bishops have implied that it had been abused. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “The Celebration of the Sacrament with General Absolution,” OR, 12 Aug. 1985, 11, cogently argues that when some use general absolution as if it were a normal form they try to replace God’s gift rather than ministering it, and arrogantly presume to act in Christ’s name beyond their authorization to do so.

54. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 33, AAS 77 (1985) 271, OR, 17 Dec. 1984, 13: “For the faithful, the use of the third form of celebration [the rite for reconciliation of several penitents with general confession and absolution] involves the obligation of following all the norms regulating its exercise, including that of not having recourse again to general absolution before a normal integral and individual confession of sins, which must be made as soon as possible.” See DS 3835/—; CIC, cc. 962–63.

55. The intention of the individual to confess mortal sins not confessed when general absolution is received is necessary for its validity: CIC, c. 962, §1.

56. See Gerald Kelly, S.J., “The Generic Confession of Devotion,” Theological Studies 6 (1945): 358–79.

57. Those who suffer from scrupulosity generally are given special guidelines for their examination of conscience and confession. Usually they are advised not to confess anything doubtful and not to make an inclusive confession. Those who receive such direction from a confessor faithful to the Church’s moral teaching and expert in dealing with scrupulosity should follow his advice with confidence.

58. See Benedict XIV, Apostolica constitutio, 16–17, Benedicti XIV Bullarium, 3.1 (Prati: 1846), 125–26, PE, 7.16–17.

59. See CIC, c. 983. A still helpful study, though written before Vatican II and the 1983 code: John R. Roos, The Seal of Confession (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1960).

60. CIC, c. 981; cf. DS 1692/905; The Rites, 345–46, 351.

61. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 34, AAS 77 (1985) 272–73, OR, 17 Dec. 1984, 14.