What Sins Are To Be Confessed
Among the propositions condemned by the Council of Trent is the following:
“That to obtain forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament of Penance, it is not
necessary by Divine law to confess each and every mortal sin which is called
to mind by due and careful examination, to confess even hidden sins and
those that are against the last two precepts of the Decalogue, together with
the circumstances that change the specific nature of the sin; such
confession is only useful for the instruction and consolation of the
penitent, and of old was practised merely in order to imposecanonical
satisfaction” (Can de poenit., vii). The Catholic teaching consequently is:
that all mortal sins must be confessed of which the penitent is conscious,
for these are so related that noone of them can be remitted until all are
remitted. Remission means that the soul is restored to the friendship of
God; and this is obviously impossible if there remain unforgiven even a
single mortal sin. Hence, the penitent, who in confession willfully
conceals a mortal sin, derives no benefit whatever; on the contrary, he
makes void the sacrament and thereby incurs the guilt of sacrilege. If,
however, the sin be omitted, not through any fault of the penitent, but
through forgetfulness, it is forgiven indirectly; but it must be declared at
the next confession and thus submitted to the power of the keys.
While mortal sin is the necessary matter of confession, venial sin is
sufficient matter, as are also the mortal sins already forgiven in previous
confessions. This is the common teaching of theologians, in accord with the
condemnation pronounced by Leo X on Luther’s assertion, ‘By no means presume
to confess venial sins . . . in the primitive Church only manifest mortal
sins were confessed” (Bull, “Exurge Domine”; Denzinger, “Enchir.”, 748). In
the constitution “Inter cunctas” (17 Feb., 1304), Benedict XI, after stating
that penitents who had confessed to a priest belonging to a religious order
are not obliged to reiterate the confession to their own priest, adds:
“Though it is not necessary to confess the same sins over again,
nevertheless we regard it as salutary to repeat the confession, because of
the shame it involves, which is a great part of penance; hence we strictly
enjoin the Brothers (Dominicans and Franciscans] to admonish their penitents
and in sermons ‘exhort them that they confess to their own priests at least
once a year, assuring them that this will undoubtedly conduce to their
spiritual welfare” (Denzinger, “Enchir.”, 470). St. Thomas gives the same
reason for this practice: the oftener one confesses the more is the
(temporal) penalty reduced; hence one might confess over and over again
until the whole penalty is cancelled, nor would he thereby offer any injury
to the sacrament” (IV Sent., d. xvii, q. 3, sol. 5 ad 4).
Written by Edward J. Hanna. Transcribed by Donald J. Boon.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI. Published 1911.
New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911.
Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur.
+John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York