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Shouldn’t we go to confession more frequently than just the minimum required?

September 6, 2010 by  
Filed under Conscience Exam, Fr. Bartunek, Penance/Confession, Sacraments

Q: Dear Father John, In the Catechism (CCC 2042) the second precept states: “You shall confess your sins at least once a year.” The qualification of having knowledge of a mortal sin is gone. (Or is it still mentioned somewhere else?)  It makes sense to me that the precept is correct as stated because, as I believe St. Teresa of Avila teaches, a soul can be lost due to the multiplication of venial sins. If this is true, then the Church, as any good Mother would do, establishes guidelines to help protect us from ourselves. I see confession as a spiritual ‘teeth cleaning’. Daily examination of conscience is brushing & flossing… and helps to prevent decay, but we still need to visit the dentist a couple times a year to make sure nothing builds up in places we can’t see…

A:  Thank you for requesting a clarification on this point.  Let’s resolve the technical issue first, then I would like to respond to your insightful comments.

Clarifying the Precept

The footnote to Catechism paragraph 2042 (the one you mention) references the Code of Canon Law, #989, which states:

All the faithful who have reached the age of discretion are bound faithfully to confess their grave sins at least once a year.

The term “grave” sin is used in this case almost synonymously with “mortal sin,” as is evident when the Catechism quotes that same number from Canon Law in paragraph 1457.  So, the strict obligation is indeed limited to annual confession when one is aware of having committed a mortal sin. For a more detailed discussion of this, I recommend the article found here.

Nevertheless, your observations about the utility of more frequent confession are right on target.  All spiritual writers agree that frequent confession fosters spiritual strength and maturity, even when we don’t have any mortal sins to confess.  Your dentistry analogy is helpful here.  St Teresa wasn’t alone in observing that frequent venial sins weaken the soul and prepare it for graver and graver falls, paving the way to habitual mortal sin, just as frequent neglect of one’s teeth leads gradually to serious dental problems.  When practiced with humility and a lively spirit of faith, regular confession – not just annually, but monthly or twice a month – can help us identify and repent from our common, venial sins, so that they don’t fester and grow.  Together with the grace of the sacrament, this fortifies us against more dangerous temptations and strengthens our friendship with Christ so that even our venial sins become less frequent.

That’s why anyone who is sincere about spiritual growth will make the commitment to regular, frequent confession.

Double-Layered Protection

As you say, we do need to be protected from ourselves.  But we also need to recognize that our culture is no longer friendly to Christian values.  Behavior considered normal by today’s popular culture is actually corrosive and sinful.  It’s as if we were living in an acid bath, and our protective covering is constantly being eroded by the acid of unhealthy social norms.  It needs to be regularly refurbished.

Perhaps the most glaring example of the subtle, corrosive force of a secularizing culture is seen on college campuses.  Good Catholic students show up on campus full of determination to take advantage of their educational opportunity.  They have no intention of abandoning their faith or forming habits of sin.  But when they are thrown into a campus culture with co-ed dorms, fraternity parties four nights a week, popular and charming professors who glamorize individualism and relativism… Is it any surprise that so many students are no longer going to Mass, praying, or striving for moral integrity by the end of freshman year?

The challenge doesn’t end when college ends.  When it’s normal for businesses and law firms to wine and dine potential clients by taking them to strip clubs, how long can normal Catholic guys keep up their moral standards?  When it’s normal for 44-year-old women to buy their way to looking like they’re still 24, how long can they stay content cultivating their inner beauty as their outer beauty fades?  Not very long, unless they recognize their ongoing need for God’s grace and nourish an awareness that they have a mission to spread Christ’s Kingdom in this fallen world.  And few spiritual practices foster that recognition and that awareness as effectively as confession.

Yours sincerely in Christ , Fr John Bartunek, LC, ThD

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published two other titles: "Meditations for Mothers" and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently resides in his Order’s General Directorate in Rome, where he is continuing his writing apostolate. His blog contains questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. His online retreats are available at www.RCSpirituality.org.

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  • LukeG

    I am slightly confused. Is there any possibility that we commit one mortal sin a year? Is it even within the realm of possibility that someone not commit a mortal sin everyday? My understanding is that the need for reconciliation once a year is derived from the need to recieve the Eucharist once a year, which is prohibited unless we are without mortal sin.
    The answer to this post makes it seem like we go to confession to prevent sin more than to repent of previous sin. As though it is some minimum recomendation by a doctor.
    I would liken reconciliation with God more to surgery to remove cancer. While it keeps sin from spreading to other areas of our life, it more importantly cures the death we have within us that keeps us from entering the Kingdom of God. The answer seems to make light of the necessity of reconciliation. While great for reminding us of God’s truth and grace, it is vital to living in Christ Jesus by partaking in Holy Communion.
    Brush your teeth, or you loose a few, go to reconciliation as often as possible, or you lose your very soul.

    • danburke

      Dear friend, because we don't know each other it is tough to know where you are coming from. I guess we can start with your first question. Was that a serious question or a rhetorical question? With respect to the primary purpose of confession, we agree. You might want to check our previous posts on the topic to get a more full understanding of the approach we are advocating – all of which is in keeping with the Catechism…

  • larrybets

    How true it is, what you stated about the moral decay of society today. You almost have to drop out of this world, unfortunately. The stuff that is on TV, radio, pint media, internet, what people discuss at work, on and on. I remember reading Pope Leo XIII Encyclicals on the Holy Rosary, an he was telling the bishops that in this day in age we need to re-double our prayers of the Holy Rosary, RE-DOUBLE…what would he say today. So, the point is, we need the triple ply armor of Christ and be drenched in his precious blood in our times.

    • Dolores Castro

      Thank you for sharing with us your thoughts and knowledge, if our society new the power of prayer especially the holy Rosary our world would be so different, I am bringing Mother Mary statue to families and moving the statue bi-weekly and pray Rosary with the families hope this small gesture will increase the devotion of the Rosary.

      May the Holy Spirit continue to inspire you.

      Sister in Christ

  • larrybets

    Pope Leo XIII Encyclicals on the Holy Rosary told the bishops to re-double their efforts in praying the Holy Rosary…RE-DOUBLE…

    In the moral decay that we are in today with print media, TV, internet, radio, rationalism, then we need to bath in the precious blood of Jesus Christ and make sure we have the armor of Christ on in every moment. It's a shame that we are in the times we are in. At the same time the more we need the fortitude to perceiver.

  • Dolores Castro

    Dear Father John,thank you for this article on confession that is beautiful explanation I wish in our Churches they emphasize more the frequency of this sacrament and encourage the devotion the the Holy Saints of Purgatory, I appreciate all your teachings thanks God for this site that teach us much more that we can learn at Church, I would like to ask you if you can put up in this site a MEDITATION on the Apostles Creed that is the mysteries of our faith, I have a few friends that are considering enter to RCIA courses and ask me if I can give them some initiation instructions in our faith and I thought a good start would be an explanation of the Apostles Creed, can you please give me some advice on this? May God Bless you and help you to keep up the good work of evangelization that your are doing.

    Sister in Christ

  • KJC

    Thank you for this question & for the helpful insights that you shared in your answer, Fr. John. As one who struggles with taking advantage of the frequent use of the sacrament of confession, I especially appreciate the dental analogy (I work in the dental field). In fact, the wonderful confessor that I was priveleged to have during my most recent confession used the same analogy, one that I had never heard before. I thought maybe he had some special insight into the one example that would be the most meaningful for me! While I am still struggling with developing a more mature attitude toward this sacrament & the graces that are offered if we make frequent use of it, I don't think I'll ever be able to go as long between confessions as I have in the past. The idea of not having frequent checkups & cleanings, whether dental or spiritual, is appalling. Please pray for me & for all of us who are struggling to gain a more mature understanding of the wonderful grace, mercy, & protection available to everyone through the frquent use of this healing sacrament.

  • Marymoll7

    Fr. John, I always look forward to your next Post. This one is particulary apt in this day and age. For the sake of our Friends on this Website, I have found cutting out all unnecessary distractions and incessant noises during the day – like reading newspapers and TV which are full of the corrosive culture you mention, my prayer life is improving because I have less unneccesary memories popping up into my mind when prarying from those quarerters. I have also discovered, as you state, that frequent Confession of venial sins, lessens the frequency I fall into the same like I used to do before. This is a wonderful Grace-filled Sacrament. As I read somewhere, our Venerable Pope John Paul II used to go for Confession every week. If such a holy man found weekly Confession so nourishing and necessary, I believe a person serious in growing in Faith and Spirituality would harvest Graces from this Sacrament more frequently. God bless you Fr. John for this Website. He are learning and benefitting immensely from your advice.

  • Becky313

    Acid bath………..what an apt description of the spiritual condition of our society today. I am grateful for this new perspective, and especially for the understanding that regular confession strengthens us so that we can more easily avoid or overcome temptations. I've heard/read many times of the need for frequent confession if one is serious about making spiritual progress, but have not heard that the sacrament strengthens us……which, when I think about it, makes complete sense.

    I include a link to the post that prompted this question:

    http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog/2010/08/16/what-if-i-have-nothing-to-confess-should-i-still-go-to-confession

    I find the different examples and analogies very helpful…………they allow me to widen the field of my vision or perspective on an issue, which in turn allows God to shine new light there.

    Thank you, & God Bless you Fr. John!