Teaching Confession: We're Doing it Wrong
Updated: Oct 12, 2021
The problem isn’t with the sacrament itself; the problem is in how we teach it in the Catholic Church, and it is a very serious problem.
In this post, I’ll cover three areas:
Why do Catholics even go to confession?
The problem with how we teach Confession
What we need to change
Why Do Catholics Even Go to Confession?
The sacrament of baptism forgives all sins, both mortal and venial, and restores the life of God within us that was lost at the Fall (we call this, sanctifying grace; click here to read more about the different types of grace and how they affect us)
But after you’re baptized, you’re still able to sin—baptism doesn’t take away your free will.
Not every sin is a mortal sin, but since we’re still capable of mortal sin, we’re still required to receive the sacrament of confession at least once a year at Easter, if we’ve committed a mortal sin.
Mortal sin kills the life of God within us that we first received at baptism. We call that type of grace, “sanctifying grace.”
It’s through our own free will and actions that we destroy that grace within us, just as Adam and Eve did—the original sin that caused the Fall (Genesis 3). To receive that grace again, we have to confess our mortal sins, and receive absolution in the sacrament of confession (or reconciliation).
We receive sanctifying grace from every sacrament, but if we’ve committed a mortal sin then we’re committing a sacrilege by receiving a sacrament if we haven’t first confessed our mortal sins in the confessional and received God’s forgiveness from that sacrament.
Venial sins are a different type of sin; they don’t destroy the life of God within us, but they do have an effect on us. When we don’t repent of even our venial sins, our approach to God changes. It becomes easier and easier for us to sin, and because we don’t repent, we end up gradually changing our orientation away from God.
In order for you to receive God’s forgiveness for our sins, you have to:
Admit that you’ve sinned
Be sorry for committing the sin
Ask for forgiveness
If you’ve committed a mortal sin, then you have to confess that to a priest in the confessional, and receive God’s forgiveness. Confession is not required to forgive venial sins, but it is required to receive forgiveness for mortal sins. Venial sins are forgiven during the Mass. We say the “mea culpa” and then the priest gives us absolution for those sins as part of the liturgy of the Word in the beginning of the Mass.
Mortal sins destroy the life of God within us, and we’re guilty of those sins because we:
Knew it was wrong
Knew it was grave matter
Still freely chose to commit that sin
It’s because we voluntarily chose to commit a mortal sin that we bear the guilt for it, and that is what destroys the life of God within us, so that has to be restored before we receive any other sacrament.
This is what baptism does, but we can only receive that sacrament once. For mortal sins that we commit after baptism, they can only ordinarily be forgiven through the sacrament of confession.
That’s why that sacrament of confession is still required by the Catholic Church.
Confession is an extension of God’s great mercy
Once the confession is over and you’ve received forgiveness, the priest can’t tell anyone else that he even knows you came to him for confession.
He can’t tell:
THAT PRIEST can’t even let you know that he knows you came to him for confession
If you see the old movie by Alfred Hitchcock, “I Confess,” it’s a great story about a priest who hears the confession of a murderer, and is then put on trial because the police think that the priest himself is the murderer. All that priest has to do is tell the police who the real murderer is—which the priest knows because he heard that confession and knew the murderer before hearing his confession (watch the movie if you want to know if the priest tells or not).
If this is what we’re teaching (which we are), and all of this is true (which it is), then why do I say that there’s a problem with the sacrament of confession?
The Problem with How We Teach Confession
What is the problem? We’re unintentionally teaching people that everything is a mortal sin—but that’s not true.
Here’s where the problem starts
If you ask anyone who teaches the Faith, whether they’re teaching adults or children, they will tell you that there are two important tools or guides that are used to teach this sacrament:
The Ten Commandments
Examination of Conscience
The first, the Ten Commandments, are given to us by God. The second, an examination of conscience, is a guide based on the commandments.
So far, so good, right?
No, this is the problem.
I first saw this problem when I was the director of religious education in a parish. One of the teachers asked me to sit in on her CCD class.
She started going through the examination of conscience with the kids, so she walked them through a review of the 10 commandments, then started using the guide. The guides list each of the commandments, and give examples of actions that would violate each of the commandments.
One of the boys raised his hand. He wasn’t a trouble-maker or being overly obnoxious (maybe just a bit, though), but what he said was—unintentionally—very insightful. He pointed out that one of the points on the guide mentioned boredom and not paying attention.
His question? He gets bored at school, so does that mean that going to school is a sin that he has to confess?
He was definitely paying attention!
What he was also (unintentionally) demonstrating was the problem:
We’re—unintentionally—teaching people that every sin is a mortal sin.
How Are We Teaching This?
We use the 10 Commandments as the guide for knowing what is a mortal sin, so when we teach people how to use that as the guide, we go through different examples.
So far, so good
But what happens when someone is surprised to find out that something they’ve done, or that others have done, is a sin, and that sin was not on the list of examples?
We’re shocked and horrified. How could they NOT know that this is a sin? How could they NOT know that it was wrong?
But it wasn't on the list...
The next thing the teacher does is ask for a different examination of conscience that includes the specific sins the students asked about. This way they’ll KNOW that these are sins.
So the teacher or person in charge looks for another pamphlet that’s longer, and has more details in the explanation for each of the commandments, and more examples of sins against the commandments.
Until the next time that there’s a student who doesn’t realize that a specific sin is actually sinful (because it wasn't on the new list, either). That’s when this process gets repeated again.
But what are we actually teaching when we do this? We’ve taught:
The difference between mortal and venial sins is that a mortal sin requires grave matter
We know that what grave matter is because it violates at least one of the Ten Commandments
Use the handouts we give for an examination of conscience to know what specific actions violate which commandment
What are some those questions for self-examination?
Do I always honor my mother and father?
Have I taken the Lord's name in vain?
Do I ever use bad language?
Do I spend too much time online?
Do I fail to spend enough time studying for an exam?
Do I share the things that God has given me with others?
Do I sometimes
All of these are good questions to ask ourselves, but what have we really taught them?
If we’re teaching someone who is very young or is not yet well-formed in the faith, they’re learning something that we didn’t intend to teach them.
An examination of conscience is based on the 10 Commandments
The 10 Commandments are the guide to what a mortal sin is
Mortal sins have to be confessed and forgiven by a priest
We’ve been teaching them that everything is a mortal sin.
That wasn’t our intention, but it’s what we’ve been doing. What’s the result of this?
We know that going on Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest isn’t a mortal sin, so when we read that “spending too much time online” is part of the examination of conscience, then going on those sites and spending even a little more time than we should violates one of the ten commandments, then it sets up a problem.
If it’s not a sin to go on one of those sites, then why is spending extra time a sin? Why would it be a mortal sin in particular? Where is the “grave matter” in that? Is it in being on the site? Is it a specific amount of time? What if I’m using the site for a good purpose?
Those are all good questions, but if I believe that simply spending the vaguely defined “too much” time is now turning a good thing into a mortal sin, then what am I supposed to do with that? There’s the confusion
If I really start to think through it, and I try to figure out where the sin was, I may set up a rule for myself where I set a specific time that’s ok. Any time after that is where it becomes a sin.
Then I spend 5 minutes and 2 seconds over my time limit on Twitter, so I have to run to the church and confess it.
But what if I can’t remember the confession times? I’ll check around at other parishes near me…by going online.
That’s time that’s been added to my pre-determined “good” time. So is that also too much time? (Legalism)
Then I decide that… I’m making myself crazy. How could spending a little extra time be ok sometimes, but not others? And what is “too much” time anyway?
Everything I do, I can find on that list of sins I was given. Since I can’t avoid it, then I’m constantly in a state of mortal sin. If I have to confess it, then I have to walk through every single second of every single day, every single time I go to confession.
Part of me knows that can’t be right, but it’s what I was taught—or at least I understood it that way. And because a part of me realizes that this is completely absurd, at some point I’m going to dismiss the entire examination of conscience. These lists are just a waste of my time (Indifference).
At this point, I’m either going to dismiss the sacrament or avoid it completely. But what have I done with that? I’ve been taught that some of the things I've been doing are mortal sins, but now I’m either deciding for myself that something I was taught is a mortal sin, is now not a mortal sin, or I’m deciding that there really is no such thing as sin, or I continue to believe that it’s a sin, but that there’s no way to avoid mortal sin.
Now I’m just going through the motions until I either die, stop going to church, or decide for myself what is a sin (Despair).
And then we wonder why so few people continue to practice their faith?
What are we supposed to do about this?
4 Things We Need to Change:
Get rid of the long lists
Continue to teach the commandments
Teach the parts of a moral act
Teach the virtues
There’s more to holiness than simply avoiding sin. Avoiding venial sins is impossible for us because we live after the Fall, and we need God’s grace to “become perfect” as Jesus commands us to do.
Teaching the commandments without the virtues leads to legalism, and we can end up seeing God only as the just judge, but where is His mercy in that?
It’s there, of course, because the reason for the 10 commandments is to set boundaries so we know what not to do (only one of them tells us something that we should do), and that helps us to avoid sin.
This is why the virtues are so important
A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good (CCC 1803)
The virtues teach us to be perfect, but that growth in perfection is always a process while we’re still here on earth.
When we teach the virtues, we also teach the ways that we deviate from each of them, and those are the vices.
We don’t learn just by knowing what things are, we also learn by knowing what things are not. When we teach the virtues, we should also teach the vices that detract from the virtues at the same time.
For example, hope is a virtue.
Despair and presumption are both denials of hope.
Despair says that we can never attain our goal, presumption says that we have already attained that goal when we haven’t.
Learning about hope, despair, and presumption at the same time helps us to see what hope really is more clearly, so we can better understand the words in Hebrews 10:23 and Titus 3:6-7 (RSVCE).
The definition of hope from the Catechism (CCC 1817) cites both of these verses:
Hope is the theological virtue
by which we desire the kingdom of heaven
and eternal life as our happiness,
placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength,
but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.
"Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering,
for he who promised is faithful."
"The Holy Spirit ... he poured out upon us richly
through Jesus Christ our Savior,
so that we might be justified by his grace and
become heirs in hope of eternal life."
This is how the path to holiness was traditionally taught:
The virtues, vices, and ten commandments that provide the guide for our behavior
The sacraments to heal our wounds from sin and restore us to a state of grace
The types of grace we need to become holy as the Father is holy
So when we teach grace, the sacraments, and virtues together as a cohesive whole, then we’re showing what not to do as well as what to do, in order to become perfect as Jesus told us to be.
References to the virtues in the Catechism can all be found here (http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a7.htm)
Blog Series: Teaching Grace, the Sacraments, and the Church
How to Teach the Sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation (this post )
How to Teach the Sacrament of Marriage
How to Teach the Sacrament of Holy Orders
How to Teach the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick
How to Teach About the Catholic Church
How to Teach About Sacramentals