Confession Follow-up

A reader sent me an email the other day. She wanted me to say more about my ideas about the Sacrament of Confession. It seems that in all of my concern about authentic self-knowledge, I left out the practical component. If you haven't read my previous posts on the Sacrament of Confession you can read them here, here, here, and, here.

I want to make something clear (because I probably wasn't). My insistence on the need for having a conversation with the priest in the confessional is in no way advocating for turning the Sacrament of Confession into a spiritual direction session. On the contrary, I want you in and out of "the box" as quickly as possible. Nor am I suggesting that you shouldn't just tell the priest your sins, number and kind, and let him give you the proper penance and sacramental absolution. Actually this is my ideal. Unfortunately, there's, I think, a problem with the way priests are taught to hear confessions these days.

The problem is that most priests think that they're able to discern the subjective culpability you have for a particular sin you've committed. But the reality is, this is impossible. Nobody, simply judging from external actions (or an account of external actions), can discern the subjective culpability anyone has for any particular act. We're even incapable of accurately discerning the precise state of our own individual souls. Only God can judge this accurately. Even so, we, as individual penitents, are a better judge of the subjective state of our soul than the priest to whom we confess. The error that the priest can act as some sort of divine, viz., making precise judgments about the culpability you have for your sins, is what leads to a priest telling a penitent that something he confessed isn't a sin. This is something the priest simply can't know. The only exception is if the action the person confesses is not objectively a sin. But the reality is, all sinful actions are confessable matter.

Now don't get me wrong, the priest has a hard job. He does have an obligation to help protect people against scrupulosity. This is really hard to detect. It's hard to detect because one man's scrupulosity is another man's sanctity. This is the reason why I advocated having a conversation with the priest. If you are able to communicate to him that you are not suffering from scrupulosity you should. In my mind, the only way to do this is by expressing healthy self-knowledge. This can look very simple. In fact, if you are able to make a good examination of conscience, this self-knowledge should be easily expressed. It could look something like this:

"Father, bless me for I have sinned … etc., in that time I've {insert list of sin here}. Of these, the ones that bother my conscience the most are {sins}."


"Father, bless me for I have sinned … etc., I don't discern any mortal sin on my conscience, but, I would like to confess these venial sins {insert list of sins here}."

Get the gist?

As a penitent approaching the Sacrament of Reconciliation it is your responsibility to spend a lot of time preparing. Just like we must prepare ourselves to fruitfully assit at Mass, or any other Sacrament, we must also prepare ourselves for receiving the Sacrament of Penance. If you spend the proper time in preparation, your confessions will be more fruitful. If you need spiritual direction, try not to use the Sacrament of Confession for that purpose. Instead, make an appointment for spiritual direction. One is a poor replacement for the other.