Need for Annual Confession

ROME, FEB. 16, 2010 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: Many priests recommend the faithful to have confession at least once year, as in the second precept of the Church (Catechism No. 2042, “You shall confess your sins at least once a year”). But I heard a priest say that this is not necessary unless there are grave sins, as in Canon 989, “All the faithful who have reached the age of discretion are bound faithfully to confess their grave sins at least once a year.” Theoretically, one consequence of this assertion is that after first confession (before first Communion), there would be no more need to receive this sacrament unless there are grave sins. Practically, some faithful do not receive this sacrament for many years because “they did not commit any grave sins.” Catechism No. 1457 also refers to the above canon (“after having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year”). Here, it points out that confession is obligatory only for grave sins. As you know, Canon 989 has a juridical obligation. However, Catechism No. 2041 points out the obligatory character of the five precepts of the Church too. My personal interpretation is that there is no contradiction if we can distinguish a “juridical” obligation of the Canon 989, and a “pastoral” obligation of the second precept. I completely support the urging of regular and frequent confessions. But strictly speaking, is the second precept obligatory only if there are grave sins? — G.M., Hong Kong

A: I believe that this conundrum can be resolved by looking at the contexts. First of all, Canon 989 builds directly upon the previous canon 988:

“Can. 988 §1. A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which the person has knowledge after diligent examination of conscience.

“§2. It is recommended to the Christian faithful that they also confess venial sins.”

Thus, Canon 989 indicates that the maximum time for fulfilling the obligation of 988.1 is a year. For this reason, several expert commentators on canon law hold that, effectively, Canon 989’s strict obligation of confessing once a year regards serious sins. On the supposition that a person has not committed any serious sins, this canon would not apply to them.

In this light, Catechism No. 1457 quotes Canon 989 because it is dealing with the need to confess ones serious sins before receiving Communion.

Catechism No. 2042, even though it refers to Canon 989 in the footnote, deals with its topic under the title of man’s vocation and his life in the Spirit. As our correspondent points out, the Catechism considers fulfilling the second precept as a minimum requirement of spiritual growth.

Because of this, the second precept does not mention “serious or mortal sin” and obliges whether serious sin is present or not. By doing so, Catechism No. 2042 says that the annual confession “ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism’s work of conversion and forgiveness.” Here, reconciliation is not seen just as the obligatory means of being shriven of mortal sin but as one of the habitual and even necessary means of spiritual progress.

The Compendium to the Catechism also makes no mention of the need for serious sin. Thus, No. 432.2 formulates the precept as: “To confess one’s sins, receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation at least once each year.”

By doing this, both the Catechism and its Compendium descend from the ethereal spheres of canonical theory to the reality of the Christian life.

The idea that the annual canonical obligation to confess obliges only in the case of serious sins is fine on paper, but the experience of many directors of souls is that it is rare for someone to avoid any serious sin over a period of one or more years.

Indeed, when serious sin is avoided over the course of years, it almost always occurs in souls who regularly and frequently confess their venial sins and make use of the sacrament of reconciliation in order to grow in their delicacy of conscience and love for God. Such souls are also likely to practice other means of spiritual progress such as regular prayer, frequent Communion, and charitable service.

We also need to remember that the obligation does not fall upon those who are unable to fulfill it due to age, infirmity or some other good reason.

Perhaps the difficulty stems from having diluted the concept of mortal or serious sin, so that it is no longer perceived. At times, sin is reduced to violations of the Sixth Commandment. We pastors need to remind our faithful, and ourselves, that the deadly sins are seven (pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony and sloth) and that each poisons the soul in its own way.

Finally, the obligation to annual confession aids us in combating the sin of presumption before God’s judgment.

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