What does that mean? A common understanding of "the rules," that is to say, canon law, is that the requirement is that one only needs to confess mortal sins. Specifically, canon 988 states that
"a member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which the person has knowledge after diligent examination of conscience. It is recommended to the Christian faithful that they also confess venial sins."Unfortunately, the apparent distinction that is drawn here can lead to some confusion as to what constitutes a full and complete confession, and it prompted one non-Catholic to ask --
It’s my understanding that it’s only necessary to go to confession in the event of a mortal (serious) sin, but that a venial (less serious) sin can be confessed directly to God. Isn’t this a little inconsistent? It seems that if sacramental confession is important, then it ought to apply in all cases. Or conversely, if God will forgive a sin confessed directly to Him, then why isn’t sacramental confession merely optional? I have never understood this differentiation, and don’t see the logic behind it.
First, it is helpful to keep in mind the different approaches to the theology of sin and confession as discussed in the academic and teaching setting, and then as they apply in practice. The Magisterium and theologians do make a distinction between “mortal” sin and “venial” sin (see below), but that really is not helpful in everyday life.
Why? Because our ability to judge accurately is necessarily impaired by being in that very state of sin, often with the consequence of our wanting to minimize our culpability. For these reasons, the Baltimore Catechism wisely counseled that we cannot always distinguish between mortal and venial sin in our own lives. Moreover, we are not the judges of our own sin. Beyond the inherent conflict of interest were we to judge our own case, Jesus Christ is the judge, not us, and if He says that a given sin is a “mortal” sin, it does not matter if we insist that it is only a venial sin. Making the mortal/venial sin distinction in our everyday life could have disastrous consequences if we judge wrong.
However, let's leave aside that distinction between mortal/venial sin for the moment. So that one is sure to make a full and complete confession — a “good confession” — the better practice is to sacramentally confess all of the sins that you are aware of and can remember.
Now, in practice, this does not mean you will spend hours in the confessional. Usually we can remember the big sins, so those obviously should be specifically confessed. But there are countless tiny little sins that we commit all the time and often we cannot recall each and every instance of such sins. Nevertheless, those too should be confessed.
How can you confess them if you can’t remember what they are? Very simply by openly admitting that you are sure that there were other sins you committed, but can’t remember them, and for those too you are sorry. To truly make a good confession, after stating all the sins that you recall, you should end with such a catch-all confession. And to make a good confession, you must be truly contrite, you must be truly and authentically sorry for having committed those sins.
Thus, in the practice of making a good confession, with this “catch-all” admission that there were many other sins you committed, even if you can’t remember them so as to specifically mention them, you necessarily do confess to venial sins, as well as the mortal sins which you did specifically mention.
Now, back to the mortal-venial distinction — even though in practice, because we are not our own judges, it is something we should be careful about — it is “necessary” to make a sacramental confession and absolution of a “mortal” sin, and not “necessary” to confess a “venial” sin, because of the nature of the two types of sin.
A mortal sin is indeed a “serious” sin, but it is a serious sin, not in the human or worldly understanding of “serious,” but in the effect of such a sin. It is a serious sin because it is a mortal sin, that is, it is a sin which is “mortal,” from the Latin morte, meaning “death.” A mortal sin is a sin which leads to eternal death, i.e. damnation. Sometimes that can be a sin which is serious or grave in the worldly understanding, like murder or theft, sometimes it can be serious in the Biblical sense, like a purposeful violation of one of the Commandments.
But it is not necessarily so that a mortal sin is serious in our typical understanding. Sometimes a mortal sin can be something fairly innocuous. Remember, the greatest and most mortal sin in all of human history consisted of eating a piece of fruit. By Adam and Eve eating that fruit, all of humanity was made subject to death. Such a tiny, seemingly insignificant act was a mortal sin because, by that act, humanity severed the bond between mankind and God, who is Life Himself.
That Original Sin, like all mortal sin, was a rejection of God, a statement that we did not want God and we did not need God. Formal confession and formal forgiveness of such sin is necessary to restore that bond and to reconcile the human person to God. Just as in human relations when you injure someone it is necessary to formally apologize to effect a reconciliation, so to is it appropriate to do so with God.
Denying that you have done anything wrong when you have, refusing to formally say that you are sorry to the One whom you should love, refusing to seek God’s forgiveness for going against Him and thereafter refusing to accept His forgiveness is the only unforgivable sin — it is the sin mentioned in the Gospels as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit — and it is, by its very nature, unforgivable because in order for the gift of forgiveness to be effective, it must be accepted. If one refuses to seek forgiveness or accept it, one cannot be forgiven. Not because God refuses to forgive, but because we refuse.
Very simply, it is “necessary” to confess and receive absolution for such a sin because it would be mortal, it would cause death, if it were so not confessed and forgiven. And it is not “necessary” to confess and receive absolution for a venial sin because such a sin is non-mortal, that is, although it strains the relationship between us and God, it does not break that relationship, it does not cause eternal death. That is, what makes confession of mortal sin “necessary” is that, without it, you suffer damnation. Such confession is necessary for eternal life, i.e. heaven.
Thus, venial sin, because it does not cause eternal death, is not necessary to attain eternal life to be so formally confessed. However, it is necessary to be contrite and repentant about such sin. Venial sin can easily become mortal if you are not sorry that you committed it.
Moreover, that does not mean that you can walk into heaven with all that stain of venial sin on you. You cannot. Only those in a state of perfect grace — heaven being a place of perfect grace — can enter heaven. Hence the need for purification, i.e. having those imperfections purged from your being. But we'll leave purgatory for another time.
The Catholic Church does indeed recognize that a sin is a sin is a sin, and that “all it takes is one tiny sin to separate us from the holiness of God.” However, the Church also recognizes that “there are certainly degrees of sin.” In all of this, we are in agreement.
The mortal/venial distinction is an attempt by the theologians and Magisterium of the Church to further explore those “degrees” of sin. Indeed, to say that there are “degrees” of sin is to say that not all sin is mortal, so long as there is contrition for that non-mortal sin as well. (A non-mortal sin can effectively become a mortal sin merely by being obstinent and refusing to be sorry about it, thereby being an additional sin of rejecting the whole idea of God’s forgiveness.)
This might seem overly legalistic, but once one starts trying to expand upon the idea of degrees of sin, then such complexities are inevitable. In any event, with respect to being overly legalistic, again, it is helpful to maintain a distinction between (a) the theologians, whose role is to further explore and understand and define all of the finer points of theology, doctrine and dogma (and, hence, are more apt to give the appearance of legalisms), and (b) the individual in his everyday life.
The everyday person generally is not going to be engaging in such in-depth analysis in his or her examination of conscience, that is, determination of what sins were committed. There are some who do put form over substance, but most people in their everyday life do not.
For most, it is —
"A sin is a sin, and these are the sins I’ve committed, these are the things I’ve done that I shouldn’t have done, and these are the things I did not do that I should have, these are all the ways that I have fallen short. Some are more serious than others: these are the more 'serious' and these are the not-as-serious, but sinner that I am, it would be impossible to list each and every tiny little transgression that I am guilty of; nevertheless, I am sorry for all of these."There really is not all that much “legalism” for the everyday person. And for the person going to Confession, the “rules” are pretty straightforward — to be a good confession, you must totally come clean and not foolishly try to hide your imperfections from the Lord. The requirement as to confessing "in kind and number" is construed to mean a full and complete confession to the best of a person's recollection. The Lord already knows what you have done and what you have not done, so it is not necessary to go into minute detail, but as a matter of truth and honesty, for your own sake, you need to outwardly own up to it all in some way.
Accordingly, you cannot simply say, "I'm sorry" and leave it at that, rather, you must then answer the inevitable next question, "Sorry for what?" If you do not specify what it is that you are sorry for, in some fashion, then you cannot really be sure that you are sorry for anything. Thus, to be a good confession, you must be completely open and honest without withholding anything, giving as much information as is necessary to reasonably yet fully describe the sin, you must be contrite and repentant for ALL of your sins, you must confess ALL those sins, and you must do the penance assigned to you (some small gesture to make amends for the sins you have committed, some small way to show your thanks and gratitude to God, typically prayer). As is apparent, these are not really “rules” but are merely what is required in order to fully reconcile with someone you love.
But if you fail to do this, if you try to minimize your responsibility, if you knowingly try to hide the truth, if you purposely try to conceal some wrong that you done, if you say "I have done X," but you knowingly fail to say that you have also done Y - if you essentially lie to the Lord - then by engaging in such dishonesty, even if you are doing so out of embarrassment rather than out of some deceitful motive, you are committing another sin. That is not a good confession, it is a bad confession, and since you are not repentant of all your sins, since you do not fully seek to be reconciled with God, you are not and cannot be forgiven. To be a good and honest confession, you must come out from hiding in the bushes and stand naked before the Lord, bearing all, you must show him your wounds if you want to be healed.
These considerations are not all that legalistic. For the everyday faithful Catholic, notwithstanding the language of canon 988, there really are not “two different rules regarding confession,” there is only one rule: Be sorry for all your sins and confess all your sins.
The mortal/venial distinction favored by theologians comes into play only in the manner of confessing “all your sins.” The sins that you are aware of and are more serious (and thus have greater potential to be mortal) you should specifically mention, with sufficient detail to give the priest some idea of what happened and how often or how many times you might have done it (e.g. “I stole $100 from my employer’s cash register”). Those that are not-so-serious are still confessed, but in a more general way if you can recall them (e.g. “I often get angry at other drivers in traffic”). And all of your other sins in a “catch-all” way if you cannot recall them but you are sure that you are guilty of them (e.g. “for those sins I have mentioned and for all the other sins in my life that do not readily come to mind, I am sorry”).
In this way, all sin is confessed – “venial” sin is still confessed, but generally, rather than specifically. Given that there are so many more venial sins we commit on a daily basis, so many ways that we fall short of the perfection to which we are called, even if we could remember them all, or spent all our time throughout the day writing them down, to confess each of them individually and specifically would require you to spend hours confessing. Hence the dispensation to confess them in a more general fashion.
If you are having trouble remembering anything specific, yet it has been a while since you have gone to confession, such that it is highly likely that you have done something sinful, you might even confess that you are sorry that you have been so neglectful of your faith as to not be able to make a better examination of conscience so as to remember those things. And if you find that you are confessing the same things over and over each time, you might also confess the failure to seek the grace to avoid these these.
To understand that a good confession really does entail confessing all sins, including those that might be "merely" venial, it might be helpful to see some of the prayers that are involved in Confession. As part of the process, after verbalizing the various sins committed, the person confessing will also say something to the effect of:
“My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.”or something like,
“O, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you. I detest all my sins because of your just punishment, but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.”From these “acts of contrition,” we can see that, in addition to the specific confession of non-recalled and minor sins, there is an overall confession of guilt for all of one’s sins.
Furthermore, if we look at one of the prayers said publicly at Mass, we again see a general confession of guilt:
“I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. . .”This public confession necessarily includes venial sins. And inasmuch as it is said in the Mass, which includes the Sacrament of the Eucharist (Holy Communion), while this is not technically sacramental confession, the reception of Holy Communion does effect a forgiveness of those venial sins. (One guilty of mortal sin should not receive Communion, which would itself be a sin, but should first receive the Sacrament of Confession/Penance.)
Again, there is really only one “rule” regarding confession of sin, only different manners of confessing different degrees of it. To be a good confession, it must be full and complete, opening your soul and confessing all with sincere contrition, with sorrow and a firm resolve to be true to the person that God made us to be, to love Him and others in truth, to do good and avoid further sin.