I was having a conversation with one of the Brothers last night. We discussed the ways we evaluate a human action to determine how to attribute praise or blame for a given action. You may wonder why. Well, it's really important on many levels and for various reasons. But, for those of us studying in preparation for priestly ordination it is of the utmost importance. Like a doctor in the examination room, so too the priest in the confessional. The priest needs to be able to diagnose the spiritual ailments of the penitent. Only then is he able to provide the best treatment for you. Just like a disease of the body, sin is a disease of the soul. Just like a disease there are certain objective characteristics that afflict a patient but there are also subjective characteristics of a given disease. Often a disease manifests itself in unique ways particular to the biology of the individual patient. So too sin. Sin has an objective character but it also has a subjective manifestation in the individual penitent. The bad doctor is unable to recognize the balance between the objective and the subjective. So too the bad confessor.
While we were having this conversation. I was struck by how perilous the poorly educated confessor is to the everyday practice of the faith. The primary example that came to mind was the method many of us have been taught to help determine whether we ought to go to confession or not. We are often taught that we must confess all our mortal sins but not necessarily our venial sins. Setting aside the absurdity of not confessing our venial sins, the idea that we are to confess all our mortal sins is crazy. Why? It is impossible for us to determine which sins are mortal or which are venial with absolute certainty.
I'm sure this is a surprising, if not a scandalous statement to many of you. But, it's simply the reverse corollary of the fact that we can never be certain if we are in a "state of grace." But why can't we know for sure if we've committed a mortal sin? Think about the criteria for a mortal sin. You need to have sufficient knowledge that the action is evil, you need to make a complete act of the will, and the action must be sufficiently grave. But here's the problem. We can't know any of these things with certitude. Only God has a certain knowledge of these things. So, what is the practical effect? Because of this ambivalence toward our current state of grace we end up in one of two camps. Either we don't recognize the evil of our sinfulness or we think that every bad thing we do is a mortal sin. We lack the ability to judge the gravity of our sins. The result is that we become apathetic or we become scrupulous.
Hopefully, everyone reading this is a little shaken. This is what many of us have been taught since childhood. Few of us have any other tools to examine our consciences. Because I've gone pretty long I'll try to offer some solutions in future posts. Hopefully this will help free us to enter into the life of holiness with greater joy, hope, and peace.