Catholic 101: Confession

Or, what it is and how to do it.

One of my non-Catholic friends asked me, as we ate Chinese two weeks ago, all about confession. “What do you say in there? And how do you know what’s a sin and what isn’t? And what sins send you to Hell?” So we spent the rest of the meal unpacking these questions. (This is what my friends and I talk about.)


The first thing is what is sin. Sin, according to the CCC, 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. (CCC 1849)

There are two types of sin: Mortal and venial. Mortal sin destroys all grace in your soul, as well as your relationship with God. If you die with mortal sin on your soul, the Church says you go to Hell. Venial sin, while still sin, wounds your relationship with God; it doesn’t completely destroy it.

The only way to remove mortal sin from our souls is to go to confession. Venial sins can be forgiven a few ways, but it’s always good to go to confession regularly, even if it’s just venial sins. (I mean, you really don’t want to be committing mortal sins on a regular basis, guys.)

Since mortal sin merits such a serious punishment, there are three criteria that must be met for something to be considered mortal sin. They are:

  1. Full knowledge
  2. Grave matter
  3. Deliberate consent

So, you have to know that it’s wrong. For example, you cannot kill the guy who hit your car. We all know murder is wrong.

Grave matter, i.e., not a white lie. Telling someone her dress is lovely, when it’s really hideous, isn’t a mortal sin. Neither is “the dog ate my homework.” Lying to a grand jury? Yes. Or, in our murder case, taking someone’s life? Yes.

Deliberate consent–you fully choose to do the action. “I know that murder is wrong, and I know it’s a big deal, but I am going to do it anyway.” “I am married, and I know adultery is wrong, but I am going to sleep with Mrs. Jones’ husband.”

If all three things are present, then it’s a mortal sin. You cannot accidentally commit a mortal sin. If you’re raped, you are not committing a mortal sin, since, obviously, you are not deliberately consenting to it!

So here are some mortal sins: Missing Mass on Sunday for a not-important reason (“I wanted to do the NYT crossword,” for example….or “I’m going to go shopping instead of going to church”); adultery; murder; rape, and abortion (which is, you know, murder). Things that you generally go to jail for are mortal sins (theft, etc.) . You cannot receive communion with unconfessed mortal sin on your soul, so if you’ve committed one, get to confession post-haste.

Venial sins are things like disobeying your parents, calling someone a name, gossip, taking the Lord’s name in vain, etc. Anything that violates the 10 commandments is sin. But as we’ve already said, there are degrees of sin. Not every sin merits the same punishment.

When we go to confession, we are confessing our sins to Christ, who is there in the person of the priest. The format can be found here. Also–do an examination of conscience before you go in. Be concise. Confession isn’t therapy, so don’t take an hour, guys! Try to be as succinct as possible.

If you forget a sin after confession, that’s OK. There have been multiple times I’ve left the confessional and gone, “Oh, crap, I forgot to mention X.” However, if you deliberately omit something, that’s not OK. All mortal sins must be confessed in kind (what you did) and number (how many times you did it)–i.e., “I murdered five people”, or “I committed adultery with my co-worker’s husband five times.”

(And, no, the priest cannot divulge what he hears in the confessional. That’s totally against church law and carries severe punishment for the priest. What you say in confession is entirely confidential.)

The priest will give you a penance that you have to do. Hopefully it’s a penance that’s clear and simple to do–like “say five Hail Marys”–as opposed to something like “be nice to someone today.” (I hate those sorts of penances.) You shouldn’t get a Herculean Penance from a priest, like cleaning the Augean stables. You will say an act of contrition and the priest will absolve you from your sins. Remember to thank the priest! (manners, peeps. Manners!) After confession, it’s a good time to perform your penance. Do it right away so you don’t forget about it.

The Church recommends that we go to confession frequently, but requires that we go to confession and receive communion at least once a year, preferably during the Easter Season (which we’re in right now)–this is often called the “Easter Duty.” Basically, it’s one of the bare minimum requirements of Catholicism.

The more you go to confession, the easier it gets, and the more sensitive you are to sin, meaning you’re more aware of what constituents it and when you’re doing it. The pope, in general, goes once a week. If the pope is going once a week, then I don’t think once a month is too much to ask for us normal Catholics. I try to go once a month. Sometimes the month gets away from me.

So that, in a nutshell, is Confession!


One thought on “Catholic 101: Confession

  1. Pingback: Catholicism in the Culture: Sin, Crime, and the Duggars | Living Adventurously

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