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.
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