--1--First, there was some confusion about what constitutes a mortal sin (see 1 John 5:17). In order for sin to be mortal, three conditions must be met: 1) it must be a grave matter 2) committed under the knowledge that it is a sin 3) with the sinner's free consent (CCC 1857; the latter two again in CCC 1859). It seems to me that any of these three conditions can trip somebody up when deciding "is this sin mortal or not"), though most of the trouble is in distinguishing between the sin as a mortal sin as opposed to it's being a "grave matter." In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read that
"Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: "Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother." The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger." (CCC 1858).Thus, for example, adultery as such is always a grave matter, but not always a mortal sin.
--2--make an act of contrition, for example. And having been sincerely sorry for our sins and asked God for His forgiveness, we are granted it.
--3--With that in mind, why would we then need to go to confession at all? As I have mentioned before in addressing the Sacrament of Reconciliation, being guilty of sin means that we have wronged God (and oftentimes men, too), and that we need to heal from this wronging. There are four more steps needed for this healing to occur, besides being forgiven. These are that we need to confess what we have done, the wrong needs to be atoned for, we need to be reconciled with all parties whom we have wronged, and we need to be justified. I have addressed each of these four points before in discussing reconciliation (and Professor J Budzisewski does so more thoroughly in his books The Revenge of Conscience and What We Can't Not Know); all four are to some extent dealt with in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. However, I would like to take another look at two of the four, the two with which this sacrament most directly deals.
--4--The Sacrament of Penance is sometimes also called "confession." We often will say "I went to confession" rather than "I received the sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation." This is because much of the sacrament consists on the penitent confessing his sins to the priest. Why do I bring this up? Two reasons. First, because the first step in overcoming a sin is often admitting that we committed it and that it was a sin. In confession, we are essentially doing both, and doing so out loud. Second, because confessing our wrongdoing gives us a sense of closure on the matter. We may fell a mixture of other emotions when we go through this--embarrassment, shame, anger, frustration, sadness--but we also get a sense of relief. It's over and done with, and now we can really move on. "It is finished." It should also be noted here that in giving our confession, we are on the one hand asking God for his forgiveness (again), and on the other testifying to His glory (that He will forgive; that we are imperfect, and He Is perfect). And on the third hand, we are asking the priest, as representative of the Church community, for forgiveness from that community.
--5--This brings me to another aspect of the sacrament of Penance, which is reconciliation. In brief, reconciliation means actually repairing the harm done to our relationship due to the sin (which involves more than just forgiving the sin). Through this sacrament, we are reconciled again to God and also to His Church. The former is obviously important, but what about the latter? All sins damage our relationship with God in some way; some also damage our relationship with other men, or with the community as a whole; indeed, if the Church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31), then any damage done to our relationship with the one is also damage to our relationship with the other. Or looked at in another way, the Church is the Bride of Christ, and so if we will be reconciled with Him then we must also be reconciled with her. I mentioned that the priest acts as representative of the community, that is of the Church; he also acts in persona Christi (see CCC paragraphs 875, 1348, and 1548) so that our reconciliation with both is completed in this sacrament. It also means that we are again as members in good standing with the community, and can again participate directly (and "worthily") in the Sacrament of Communion (see 1 Corinthians 11:27).
--6--At some point, the question of repentance came up. What does it mean to repent of a sin? Does it mean that we will never, ever commit it again? Not necessarily; it does, however, mean that we intend to not commit it again. As we say in the act of contrition, "I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more and avoid the near occasion of sin." Even the firmest of resolutions may later waver, though we should pray that we are able to keep those resolutions. Often avoiding the near occasion of sin (though this may require quite a bit of effort) is enough to keep us out of that particular sin. On the other hand, if we enter the confessional and confess a sin which we have committed while intending to commit the same sin again, then we have no truly repented; and though our confession as a list of things we've done is true, it is a lie as a sacramental confession. Absolution will not be ours, and we will not be truly reconciled. But just because we do commit the same sin again does not mean that we had intended to do so all along; and the same sin may e forgiven many times over if we repent of it (see Matthew 18:21-22)
--7--Some effects of the sacrament are outlines and summarized by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 1496):
The spiritual effects of the sacrament of Penance are:
- reconciliation with God by which the penitent recovers grace;
- reconciliation with the Church;
- remission of the eternal punishment incurred by mortal sins;
- remission, at least in part, of temporal punishments resulting from sin;
- peace and serenity of conscience, and spiritual consolation;
- an increase of spiritual strength for the Christian battle.
All of these are important effects, but perhaps the last one is particularly important for one of the question raised: why should I go to confession for a sin which I am sorry about, but which I fear I might commit again (e.g. through habit or addiction)? If you are sorry for a sin but fear that you might commit it again, then it seems to me that you ought to do anything you can to fortify yourself against it. One of the spiritual effects of this sacrament is the grace to help you do this, that is, the grace to help you avoid this sin when you can and resist it when you must. You must of course still cooperate with this grace; but in receiving this sacrament, you receive this grace so that it is there for you to cooperate with at all.
Seven Quick Takes Friday is hosted by Mrs Jennifer Fulwiler at her Conversion Diary blog.