04 June 2009

But God loves me anyway, right? (Now with footnotes!)

Recently the "Vatican" (whoever that is) lamented the decline in the use of confession among Catholics.

It should be noted that this decline is directly tied to the lack of preaching against sin from Catholic pulpits. I don't mean screaming tirades bellowed from the ambo, but simple, straightforward declarations that sin is real and deadly to one's growth in holiness (1).

Some theologians and clergy don't see a problem with Catholics letting the Confession Muscle atrophy. They exclaim, "But God loves us where we're at! God accepts us as we are!" Yes, this is true. But confession is not about God loving you more or less. God will love you straight to hell if that's what you want. That's what free-will is all about (2).

Confession is not about how much God loves you but about how much you love God. Confession is our chance to apologize for those sins that have damaged our relationship with God, for those crimes against His love that prevent us from being fully in love with God. God does not need our apologies, our repentance, or our penance. We do.

Does God love you despite your sin? Yes, always. Can you love God despite your sin? No. Your sin is evidence enough of this simple truth. And because God loves and respects you, He will honor your decision to spend eternity without Him. That, brothers and sisters, is what we call Hell.

Update: Father, when should I go to confession? The minimum is once a year. Ideally, you would go to confession for any mortal sin. What's a mortal sin? A mortal sin is any disobedience that "destroys charity in the heart"(3). In the ancient Church, the Big Three were: adultery/fornication, murder, and apostasy. Good start. You want to be aware of two extreme tendencies: making every sin into a mortal sin "just in case" and making mortal sin into "no big deal" b/c you don't want to stop committing the sin. Every sin disrupts your relationship with God. Some sins kill that relationship from your end. The question to ask is: did that sin kill my ability/desire to love God? There is a subjective element here that only you can answer. There is an objective element that does not depend on your perception of the sin. You cannot murder someone and then claim that you don't feel that your relationship with God has been damaged. It has. . .whether you "feel" it or not. Use the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes to examine your conscience. If you have serious doubt, ask your pastor. Circumstances and intent do make a difference in most cases. If you have access to a priest, regular/frequent confession is not a problem. Just be careful that you are not becoming scrupulous. Ultimately, scrupulosity is the denial of the reality of God's mercy and can quickly become the sin of pride--"Not even God can forgive MY terrible sins." Wanna bet?

Confessing venial sins is perfectly fine (4). But be aware that participating in Mass with a confessing-repentant heart takes care of venial sin. Also, be sure that you are confessing actual sins. "I forgot my morning prayers" is not sin. Sexually explicit dreams are not sinful. For an act to be sinful it must be a deliberate act against God's law and love; meaning, you have to know you are doing it. You cannot sin in ignorance or by accident (5).

Notes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church

(1) CCC 1849: "Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as 'an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.'"

(2) CCC 1861: "Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace [...]"

(3) CCC 1855.1: "Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him."

(4) CCC 1855.2: "Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it."

(5) CCC 1857: "For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: 'Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.'" See CCC 1858-18690 for defintions of grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent. So, if I commit Act X it must be gravely serious (not trivial); and I must know that Act X is sinful; and I must knowingly consent to committing Act X (personally choosing to act). If any of these three conditions is missing, I have not committed a mortal sin. You cannot sin mortally in ignorance, trivially, accidently, or against your will.

16 comments:

  1. I like the God will love you all the way to Hell image.....now there's a thought!

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  2. As a convert, I confess to still being a bit confused about confession. When I was in RCIA, the teaching on the subject was (I thought) kind of dodgy. Our priest actually came to teach that particular class. I keep reading that one should try to confess like once or twice a month, but he told us that once a year is fine.

    Once a year? I can't keep up with what my sins of the past day, much less from the past year. I decided to go once every two or three weeks (don't want to be "scrupulous"--something we were warned against in RCIA), but I still don't really know what I'm doing. Considering the time limitations, I just try to remember some things that made me feel really guilty, throw in a few other sins to keep them company and hope the rest that I can't remember get forgiven in the wash.

    Coming from a Southern Baptist background, of course I grew up hearing ALL ABOUT SIN. And Hellfire and Damnation. (Hey, give it to the Baptists--they can preach!) But their views on sin are pretty wide. So the whole venial/mortal sin dichotomy still confuses the heck out of me.

    Also when you're used to saying you're sorry to God directly, it's difficult to adjust to going through a priest. Maybe in American culture at least, that Protestant idea has made inroads into Catholic popular thinking?

    If the Church wants its members to confess more, why don't they allot more time for it? To be fair, our Cathedral has 15 minutes for confession every day before Mass and then an hour on Saturday (or by appointment), but that's not a whole lot of time is it? They said St. John Vianney used to spend hours and hours hearing confession.

    (Neat fact: our first bishop, Mathias Loras, tried to tutor him in Latin when they were both young and boarding at the same place for school. The good saint was so bad at it that Bishop Loras ended up decking him out of frustration. (The Bishop, who was NOT a saint, had a bit of a temper.) The saint took it humbly, of course. They remained friends afterwards. )

    Sorry if this is long. You hit a nerve with this post. I want to be a good Catholic and confess correctly, but I don't think I'm doing it very well and my teachers just weren't that clear about the whole thing.

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  3. Maria, wonderful comments. I hope the Fr Philip responds.

    Fr Philip, excellent post.

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  4. Thank you for this post, Father...really. I have struggled with scrupulosity a lot, and trying to wean myself off of that is difficult. (I start feeling like a sinner because I'm not going to Confession as often as I used to!) This post has definitely contributed to my spiritual growth. Thanks again.

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  5. Scott W.3:53 PM

    I've read reams of material on confession and the mortal/venial distinction and your one paragragh update explained it better than all of that. Is that a special Dominican charism, or just you? :)

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  6. Scott,

    Are you drawing a distinction btw a Dominican charism and me? :-)

    Mr. Garrity,

    I look forward to finding out why you think my face is goofy. I think this will be a long and highly informative conversation.

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  7. Thanks for the clarification, Father!

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  8. Awesome post, Father! I posted a link to it on my blog. You explained Confession a lot better than I could!

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  9. Veronica8:22 PM

    Yes, thank you very much, Father.

    Your distinction between mortal and venial sin is extremely interesting, although I am not sure whether I entirely understand your point. I guess it comes down to how you can tell whether a sin killed your "ability/desire to love God."

    Given your definition, wouldn't the very fact that a person came to repent and and desire to reconcile imply that the ability to love God had *not* been destroyed? That doesn't seem quite right, and doesn't seem to be what you're trying to say, so I must be missing something. Either way, it's something to contemplate, so thanks!

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  10. lois in Indy11:20 PM

    Okay, I'm going to risk this. What about the old-fashioned pre VII mortal sin rule of 3. It's been a long time for me so I may not get this quite right but... 1. serious matter (sin), 2. you must know it's a serious matter (sin) and 3. you choose to do it anyway. I try to go to confession at least every 3-4 weeks. lois

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  11. Conffession has gotten so difficult to attend for several reasons:1. cultural lack of interest. 2. The Church in our diacese seems to do everything it can to DISCOURAGE its continued life: closing schools, drying up former parishes and combining them so that one pastor must serve three or even four groups. We share a pastor with another town. 30 years ago, there were four priests here, and two grammar schools, from preschool to eighth grade. HOW can we keep people in the church if no one goes to school, goes to mass, or feels that the church supports a large amount of time to confession? One hour a week for two churches combined, and you MIGHT see five very old people there. Our two churches had a healing service last weekend for what used to be last rites. I went, as did many other people. I believe at 60, I was one of the youngest. Our people are no longer ENCOURAGED or TAUGHT to be accountable, or given the SUPPORT to be accountable. THAT service was wonderful. I positively FLOATED out of it. It was so much more encouraging than waiting in line for 5 eighty year old women to confess what possible sins that a geriatric person could possibly have!! We have to start putting the Church badk in with the people, and the people back inside the church, or there will be no CHURCH.

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  12. "Ideally, you would go to confession for any mortal sin. What's a mortal sin? A mortal sin is any disobedience that "kills charity in the heart." In the ancient Church, the Big Three were: adultery/fornication, murder, and apostasy. Good start"
    "
    Confessing venial sins is perfectly fine. But be aware that participating in Mass with a confessing-repentant heart takes care of venial sin"

    I have to confess(pun recognized, but not avoided) this is the first I have read or heard of the above points. Respectfully and frankly I don't know what to take away from them, even after rereading them several times in the context of the entire blog entry.

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  13. Dear Maria Raphael, interesting post and if you do not mind I would like to reply.

    1- *Confess once a year ore often?*

    First of all it is ‘required’ that you confess your sins *at least* once a year usually before Eastern (since the Church asks you receive communion at least once a year at year preferably at Eastern Sunday). These are the ‘precepts of the Church’ as they are known and are general rules to ensure a certain frequency to the sacraments.
    Usually it is recommended to confess as often as possible (if you have sins). You are only required to confess the mortal sins (all of them, specifying the number if possible) but even better if you confess the venial ones as well.
    Confessing once or twice a month is reasonable I think.

    2- *I forgot my sins*

    It happens… usually grave sins are not so easy to forget though. If after confession you remember a sin you forgot to confess, just confess it next time.
    I find useful to sit down, examine myself and write my sins down. Take your time. Prepare yourself for confession. Think about the 10 commandments and think if you broke any of them in any way. Also think what your behavior was towards your neighbor.

    3- *So the whole venial/mortal sin dichotomy still confuses the heck out of me.*

    A Mortal Sin is a ‘grave infraction’ that beaks the one of the 10 commandments and the two commandments of love (love God above anything else and you neighbor as yourself) Examples: adultery, fornication, stealing, being hurtful to others, etc…
    Venial sins are minor infractions of the above. For example if someone is really nagging you and you lose your patience… it’s a venial sin (unless you do something really bad when you lose your patience)


    4- *If the Church wants its members to confess more, why don't they allot more time for it?*

    It’s the other way around. Many parishes have ‘cut down’ the time dispensed for confession because the priest usually sat there alone with no one showing up.


    5- *Also when you're used to saying you're sorry to God directly, it's difficult to adjust to going through a priest. Maybe in American culture at least, that Protestant idea has made inroads into Catholic popular thinking?*

    I think it’s more the ‘laziness’ idea than made it’s way in many Catholics.

    Confessing your sins is never easy. Till you do it alone to God, it’s ok, but when you tell a priest… well then… you are REALLY confronted with the pain and shame of your sins. By telling them you realize more how bad they are (many things you tell a priest you would not even tell your best of friends perhaps!). Most people nowadays are too “lazy” (I am not sure ‘lazy’ is the proper term but let’s go with it) to confront their sins. It’s easier to say “Oh I am sorry and God will forgive me”. That is not really confronting your sins, most of the times.
    Confession can be a painful process, but an healthy one, because this confrontation will also aid you not commit the same sins again in the future.


    6- *I want to be a good Catholic and confess correctly, but I don't think I'm doing it very well and my teachers just weren't that clear about the whole thing.*

    Do not worry too much 
    To make a GOOD confession do this: sit down, examine your conscience in the light of the 10 commandments and think if you have done God or your neighbor wrong. Write down your sins if necessary. Of course it is implied you are sorry for what you have done and that you are resolute to better yourself . Confession starts in your own heart.
    Then confess all your sins (at least the mortal ones, if you are not sure… just confess it anyway it does not hurt) as sincerely as possible and do the penance asked by the priest.
    You do not have to do it every week, once a month might be enough… or even often if you feel you need to get something off your chest.
    ---

    I hope things are more clear to you now, God Bless you!

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  14. Who needs Psychiatrists, Clinical Psychologists, life coaches, or any of the other sorts of anguish merchants when you can deal with God's main man, get quality help and forgiveness with a blessing? I love the Sacrament of Penance and God Bless all His Beloved Sons!!!

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  15. Fr. P,

    Sometimes, even though I'm a daily communicant, I feel the weight of venial sins on my heart growing as accumulate offenses against Our Lord.

    Even though Holy Communion does forgive venial sins, I wonder what I lack to take advantage of this grace then. Perhaps a more concerted examination of conscience and contrition would be of help.

    But, if not, how to approach Confession with no mortal sins? Whenever I've tried to, it seemed as though my heart was still wounded afterwards.

    Can it be that I can only have a contrite heart when I'm already dead?

    TIA

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