The Sacrament of Penance - All of Your Questions Answered
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1867
Q. What is confession?
A. An express, contrite, but secret self-accusation, before a duly authorized priest, of, at least, all the grievous sins committed after baptism, as far as we can recall them to memory, in order to obtain their remission by the priest's absolution. The words of St. John are to be understood as referring to this sacrament when he writes: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity." 1 John, i. 9.
We say that confession is an express self-accusation, in order to show that the penitent is bound to confess his sins, as he believes them to be, in the Divine sight, without palliation, exaggeration, diminution, disguise or concealment. We have further stated confession to be a secret accusation, in order to distinguish it from the public penitential accusation, at times practised in the primitive Church, but which, on account of scandal, was in course of time abolished. The accusation for sacramental confession is to be made in secret. We have said that every known and remembered grievous sin, at least, is to be confessed; for whoever willingly and knowingly conceals but one grievous sin has made his accusation in vain, and instead of obtaining the benefits to be derived from this saving sacrament, incurred the enormous guilt of sacrilege. As regards venial sins, they may be confessed, and this accusation is accompanied with great spiritual advantages; yet we are not bound by any precept to confess them, and they may be washed away without confession by acts of contrition and penance, and by the merits of Christ's Passion. Should a person, however, not be sufficiently instructed to enable him accurately to distinguish a mortal from a venial transgression, he is bound to lay his doubts before his confessor, in order that he may not incur the guilt of grievous sin by culpable ignorance. Venial sins are, moreover, confessed in the tribunal of penance, as an act of humility, and in order to draw down greater and richer graces on the recipient, particularly when one is so happy as to lead a life undefiled by mortal sin. In this case, however, we must be very careful to excite true contrition and a firm purpose of amendment; for without sincere contrition there can be no remission of sins, either in or out of the tribunal of penance. Thus whoever confesses venial sins alone, and repents not heartily of at least one of them, draws upon himself, by his confession, the guilt of sacrilege.
Q. May sins once confessed be repeated, and the grace of the sacrament obtained?
A. Certainly; supposing that one should have been so happy as to fall, since the last confession, into no sin: for contrite self-accusation of sins once committed, alone is necessary for the validity of the sacrament. This self-accusation may be as frequently repeated as we wish. The grace of the sacrament consists in its effacing the stains of sin when our consciences are thereby defiled, or in imparting, when this is not the case, new treasures of sanctifying grace, as water cleanses us from the stains contracted or, when we are free from such, serves to promote the cleanliness of the body; and again, as one light dispels the darkness of a room, but if a second be added the light will be much increased.
Q. When is it particularly advisable to renew our self-accusation of sins once committed?
A. When we have not to accuse ourselves of sins, or at least of mortal sins consented to since the last confession, it is well in this cass, in order to obviate all fears respecting true contrition, to add at the end of our accusation: "I include and accuse myself of this or that grievous sin, into which I unfortunately fell." The sin is then specified. We are, however, to be on our guard against repeating, in detail, the sins committed against the sixth commandment, provided they have, once been confessed, with due dispositions, as this might, perhaps, lead to a new carnal temptation. Should any one wish to renew their self-accusation on this point, it is to be done in general terms.
Q. When does it become incumbent on us to repeat the sins once confessed?
A. When we wish to receive the sacrament of penance, and have not since its last reception incurred the guilt of either a mortal or a deliberate venial sin; as also when making a general confession, or when we have reason to fear that our former confessions were not accompanied with the due dispositions.
Q. What is general confession, and what classes of persons have recourse to it?
A. General confession is a detailed and full accusation of all the sins committed since we arrived at the age of reason. A confession of this kind should be made by those who approach for the first time the table of the Lord, those who are entering on a new state of life, and those who find themselves admonished either by serious illness or advanced age to prepare for their passage from this land of exile-to their eternal home.
Q. On whom is general confession incumbent?
A. On all those who have not sincerely and contritely confessed their evil deeds, and particularly such as are the slaves of evil habits.
It will, moreover, be found a salutary custom, after having made a good general confession, to make a confession annually of all the faults committed since the general confession: this will be found highly conducive to a knowledge of ourselves, and will also serve as a security for the validity of our ordinary confessions. General confessions, however, proceeding from scruples or mistaken devotion are neither to be commended nor practised.
It is much better to confess frequently, with careful preparation, and earnestly to strive to progress in virtue, to think of the good which we can and should yet perform, instead of morbidly brooding over the evil once committed, and now unfortunately beyond the power of recall.
Q. Who instituted the sacrament of penance?
A. Jesus Christ, who expressly declares: "Whose sins ye shall forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins ye shall retain, they are retained." John, xx. 3.
By these solemn words, Jesus Christ appointed the Apostles and their successors in the holy ministry, the priests and bishops, as judges in matters of conscience, possessing the power of retaining or remitting sins according to right and justice. The appointment of this judicial tribunal likewise imposes on the faithful to the end of time the obligation of entirely and sincerely revealing the wounds of conscience. For how could the Apostles and their successors duly exercise the powers granted them, if they were not made acquainted with the spiritual infirmities and miseries of those who apply for the exercise of this saving power? Christ, however, never gave to the Apostles, or never does to their successors, any revelation as to the spiritual condition of those who have recourse to them for the remission of sins; this being denied the judges, it follows that the applicant must disclose the state of his conscience to him from whom he solicits aid. The necessity of this obligation becomes apparent from the solemnity with which Christ imparted this power to His Apostles. He breathed upon them and said: "As the Father hath sent me, so also do I send you. Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whose sins ye shall forgive," &c. The import of these words is evidently this: "As I have received from the Father the power to forgive sins, so also ye, by the power of the Holy Ghost, whom I impart to you." Had not these words made it a duty for the faithful to disclose to the Apostles the state of their conscience, the stupendous power thus conferred would have been a vain, though pompous declaration, for why confer authority which can neither be exercised at all, or, at least, in any rational manner? Had Christ merely conferred on His Apostles the power to forgive sins, the case would be different, but this was not the only authority with which He invested them; He likewise expressly empowered them to retain guilt. The exercise of a power of this nature necessarily supposes a thorough knowledge of the disposition of the heart and the state of the conscience, and not merely of the exterior, which is so often deceptive. The penitent may, indeed, be a hypocrite, or he may conceal or gloss over his guilt; in this case, however, he must describe to himself all the dread consequences involved by the receipt of an invalid absolution, obtained from the priest on false pretences.
Q. Has confession been practised ever since the times of the Apostles?
A. It has; we find this practice alluded to in Holy Writ. St. James exhorts us: "Confess ye your sins one to another" that is, those who have fallen into sin, to those who have the power to free them from their guilt ( James, v.). In the Acts we find that many of the faithful came and confessed, and acknowledged what they had done. Acts, xix. 18. The tribunal of penance was, indeed, less frequently resorted to in the primitive ages of the Church, when the first Christians were characterized by such distinguished purity of life, than after the lapse of ages and increasing degeneracy of the people had cooled the first fervor of charity. The small number of priests and bishops, whose whole time and attention was devoted to the announcement of the Gospel, likewise precluded the possibility of confessions being practised as at present. That confession was in use in the times of the Apostles, is clear from what we have cited; particularly, when the testimony of Scripture is taken into account, in conjunction with what tradition and history have to offer on the subject.
Q. How do the Fathers of the first centuries express themselves on this head?
A. They speak of confession as a duty generally known and complied with, the origin of which may be traced to the times of the Apostles. Tertullian, who flourished in the second, century, writes of confession of sin made to a priest, and adds: "Some there are who shun this, as an exposure of self, and defer it from day to day, being more afraid of the shame than desirous of a cure, like to those who affected by some malady conceal it from the physician, and thus perish, falling victims to false shame." De Poenit. 9 and 10. Nothing can be more explicit than the words of Tertullian.
St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, observes: "I entreat ye, beloved brethren, every one of ye confess his sins, whilst yet life is spared to the sinner, and his accusation may be received; whilst satisfaction may be made and absolution obtained (Cyp. Tract, de Lapsis.)". Origen writes on the same subject: "Behold, Scripture teaches that we should not conceal sin in our bosoms. Those who suffer from indigestion, or the presence of diseased matter in the stomach, feel relieved when they have vomited it up; so those who have sinned and conceal their guilt within themselves are internally oppressed, as it were suffocated, by the poisonous effluvia of sin: When the sinner, however, becomes his own accuser, when he denounces himself and confesses, he vomits forth the crime and removes the cause of his malady (Orig. Hom. ii. in Ps. 37.)." St. Basil teaches: "We must reveal our guilt to those who are intrusted with the administration of the mysteries of God (St. Bas. in Resp. ad Quest. 228)." St. Ambrose warns us: "Some are anxious to be admitted to penance so as to have communion speedily dispensed to them. Such persons rather seek to bind the conscience of the ministers of reconciliation, the priests, than to free themselves; for their own consciences are not eased, and those of the priests burthened; for the command, ' Set not holy things before swine,' is not observed (Lib. 2 de Poenit.)." St. Augustine admonishes the faithful of his time to approach the tribunal of penance, saying: "Do penance as the Church prescribes, in order that the Church may pray for you." Let no one say to himself, "I do it secretly before God. He from whom I expect pardon knows it, as I do myself." To what purpose, then, the following words: '"Whatsoever ye shall loose upon earth shall be loosed in heaven?' Have the keys been delivered to the Church in vain? Has the Gospel been set at nought, and Christ's words proved futile, of no avail ( Horn. 49, 50)? St. Chrysostom assures us "that whoever is ashamed to confess his sins to a priest, but is not ashamed to commit them, in the sight of God, if he does not confess and repent, shall be covered at the last dread day with shame and confusion, not before one or two individuals, but before the whole world (Orat. de Muliere Sam)." St. Leo the Great says: "The manifold mercy of God so aids human frailty, that not only by the grace of baptism, but also by the remedy of penance, the hope of life eternal may again be secured, so that those who have profaned the grace of regeneration, being judged by their own judgment, may obtain remission of their sins; and herein has it pleased the Divine goodness to decree that mercy and pardon are only to be obtained by the mediation of the priests. The Mediator between God and man, "the man Christ Jesus," imparts to the ministers of the Church the power to impose the satisfaction of penance on those who confess, and again admit them, purified by this atonement, to pass to the reception of the other sacraments through the gate of reconciliation. The Council of Trent pronounces this dogma in the following solemn decision:
"If any one deny that sacramental confessions is divinely instituted and necessary for salvation, let him be anathema." Sess. xiv. can. 6; and, again: "If any one shall say, that in order to receive the remission of sin, according to divine institution, it is not necessary to confess each and every mortal transgession which after due and assiduous examination can be remembered, let him be anathema." Can. 7. This divine institution and constant practice of confession since the time of the Apostles, is also most clearly and amply proved from the fact, that according to the doctrine and practice of the Church, it is not only the laity who are bound to have recourse to penance, but also priests and bishops, and even the Pope himself. The priesthood, however, would never have submitted to an act in itself so painful and humiliating, had not confession been ordained by Christ himself, and continually practised in the Church from the primitive ages. If confession had been introduced by mere human agency, history would surely be able to point out the date of its introduction, as well as the name of him who possessed such magic influence or boundless power over men as to induce them willingly to submit to that which costs human pride so severe a struggle. History is, however, silent on this subject: no trace of the introduction of confession is to be discovered; it follows, therefore, that the practice of confession is coeval with the existence of the Church. According to the very correct principle of Tertullian, "that which is universally practised in the Church, and whose origin and introduction cannot be pointed out, must be regarded as an apostolic institution or ordinance (Lib. de Prcescript.)." We know exactly, for instance, when and by whom public penances were done away with; and when Catholic apostates, under the name of Protestants, declared against confession; but we do not know by what Pope or council confession was introduced, or has any one as yet been able to discover it. The introduction of such a practice would certainly have excited general attention, supposing it to be introduced by human caprice or policy in the course of ages. And would not the great ones, the proud ones of the earth, on whom this duty is as binding as on the lowliest mendicant, rebel against it? Can it be supposed they would tamely and silently have submitted to an innovation so humiliating and so painful. The eastern sectaries who severed themselves in the primitive ages from the communion of the Church, fully agree with her in practising confession as necessary and salutary for the obtaining of life eternal. The Greek schismatic Russians of today, as well as those earlier sects, may be adduced to prove the truth of our position, that confession is not a known invention or ordinance introduced in progress of time into the Church, but a divine institution.
Q. Has Christ made self-accusation in the tribunal of penance a condition for the remission of sin, as well as a means of atonement?
A. Yes; the sinner having presumed insolently to rise ill rebellion against his Lord and Master, by the commission of sin, it is just and proper that he should be obliged to humble himself before Christ's representatives:
1. In order to pluck out more effectually the root of all evil within us, which is pride, and to excite and confirm in our hearts those dispositions which form the fundamental condition of our reconciliation with the divine majesty, viz., humility, and sincere and humble contrition.
2. To inspire us with dread of falling or relapsing into sin, which even here below has produced consequences so humiliating and painful.
3. To assist, by confession, in arriving at self-knowledge, and to encourage and incite us to make more rapid and successful progress in the way of virtue by the admonitions, intrusions, and paternal exhortations of the confessor.
4. In order not to expose us to the danger of deluding or deceiving ourselves in so momentuous a matter which might easily occur were we constituted sole judges of our own interior.
Our dear Lord wills, furthermore, for our consolation and encouragement, that our reconciliation with Him be confirmed and attested by the judicial sentence of His anointed minister. Even the heathens have some idea of this, as we learn from Seneca, who advises us to unbosom ourselves to a judicious and virtuous friend; to lay open before him our infirmities and evil propensities, and also our falls, in order that we may live in unblemished morality. Sincere and thinking Protestants cannot deny, and do frankly acknowledge the beneficial effects resulting from a secret self-accusation made to the minister of God. Leibnitz, one of the