Previously, I shared an insight about some of the underlying reasons why people either never go to confession or become scrupulous. It's becoming my belief that both of these dispositions are born out of a poor understanding of how to judge whether a sin is confessable matter or not. Before I offer some practical solutions I want to explore a better of way of understanding the degree of a particular sin. So, I said that every sin has an objective character but also a subjective application. What do I mean by this? I mean we have to understand what a sin actually is in its broadest sense. Fundamentally a sin deprives the whole of the created order of some good. Another way to put this could be that when we sin we add evil to the world. But properly speaking, by sinning we remove goodness from the world. This isn't the first thing we usually consider. These days we either consider the relational or legal aspects of sin first. We often think about who we offend or what law or rule we broke. These two things are part of sin but they are not the first consideration. We must first realize that sin, no matter its degree, is an act of violence against the good of God's creation and God himself.
Why is this important? If we ground our understanding of sin in either relationality or legality then we ground sin in something arbitrary – shifting sand. If it is grounded in relationality then something could cease to be considered a sin if the one offended doesn't experience the offense or ceases to be offended by it for some reason. So in this scenario, if Molly is married to John and he commits adultery then it is only a sin if Molly considers adultery a sin. If Molly and John have a so-called "open marriage" then neither would experience adultery as an offense. See the problem? Also, if we ground sin in legalism or rule following it is equally arbitrary. If a law changes then the law doesn't recognize what was previously considered wrong as an offense any longer. Take for instance the sin of abortion. The American legal system doesn't view abortion as an evil – a sin. So, it is either neutral or a good according to the American legal system. But, prior to the judicial ruling of Roe v. Wade it was considered an evil act according to the law. So, it should be pretty clear that neither relational experience nor law are sufficient grounds for determining the objective aspect of sin. But, if we ground our understanding of good and evil in ontology, in the nature of creation, then we can speak intelligibly about the objective qualities of sin.
So, when we consider an action we must determine if the action is objectively good or evil. An action is objectively good if the action is consistent with nature. An action is objectively evil if the action is contrary to nature. So, giving a plant water is good. Giving a plant ammonia, however, is not so good. This objective characteristic is not the same as the assignation of praise or blame for the action. So, when we judge an action we want first to know if it is objectively good or evil. We must know this before we determine the praise or blame we should assign to the person who did the act. The reason for this is because of the relationship between the objective characteristic of an action and the process of assigning praise or blame. This is because an act that is objectively good could, in the assignation of praise or blame, be judged either a praiseworthy act (which is obvious) or a blameworthy act (not so obvious). An objectively evil act never becomes praiseworthy and is always blameworthy (on some level). So, the objective characteristic is binary. An act is either objectively good or evil. The subjective characteristic (praise or blame assignation, also known as culpability) is a gradient or sliding scale.
Okay, if you have been able to wrap your mind around this then you are ready for the next part. If not, reread this and comment on my Facebook wall and I can try to clarify some of the details. But, I want to stop here in this post so that these basics can sink in. Next, I'll post about how to determine the praise or blame that should be assigned to an act. This is the heart of what I want to get at. But, I needed to start here before we moved to that conversation. Once all these parts are together I'll offer the promised practical solutions for how we should approach the Sacrament of Penance, a.k.a., Confession, a.k.a. Reconciliation.