When You *Don't* Have to Say Something in Confession

Properly catechized Catholics know that, when we have committed mortal sins, we are obliged to confess them, how many times we committed them, and any circumstances that affect the moral species of the act (e.g., stealing from a church is different than ordinary stealing because of the element of sacrilege is involved, ditto for lying after having taken an oath before God as opposed to ordinary lying, adultery vs. fornication, etc. Note that these distinctions all involve the kind of sin being committed, not the degree of sinfulness; the Church has not required that we confess circumstances that affect the degree of sinfulness, only the kind).

Often times it is difficult for one reason or another to make this kind of confession, and if you read older moral and pastoral theology manuals they offer extensive discussions of the situations in which penitents are excused from making this type of confession.

Recently I received an email inquiry about how this fact relates to the 1983 Code of Canon Law’s statement that:

Can.  960 Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary means by which a member of the faithful conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and the Church. Only physical or moral impossibility excuses from confession of this type; in such a case reconciliation can be obtained by other means.

Individual confession and absolution is the kind of sacramental confession we normally make: One person (an individual) talking to a priest, who absolves him. This is opposed, for example, to a priest offering a general absolution to a bunch of people at once in a grave circumstance (e.g., they’re all in an airplane that is about to crash and there is no time for individual confession). This latter is allowed in rare and grave circumstances. By nature it is an extraordinary situation, as opposed to individual confession and absolution being the “only ordinary means” of reconciliation.

The term “integral” confession is less familiar. What “integral” means is “complete.” In other words, the kind of confession we talked about at the top of the post, where for all your mortal sins, you say what each sin was, how many times it was committed, and anything that affected the species or kind of sin it was.

Why my correspondent was wondering was—since Canon 960 says that “only physical or moral impossibility excuses from confession of this type,” does the 1983 Code of Canon Law override all of the treatments given in older works of moral and pastoral theology about when one is excused from integral or “complete” confession.

The basic answer is no. The 1983 Code is not trying to change prior Catholic practice on this point. It had been the common teaching of Catholic theologians long before the 1983 Code that only physical or moral impossibility excused from making an integral confession. The Code is recognizing and incorporating this common teaching and thus giving canonical expression to what was already the traditional view. It thus does not override prior moral and pastoral thought on when one is excused from an integral confession. Whatever the older manuals said about this subject, to the extent it was sound then, is sound now. The 1983 Code didn’t change anything.

Of course, readers will wonder what some of these principles were, so let’s talk about that (which will allow me to answer some related queries sent by my correspondent).

The first concept we need to mention is physical impossibility. What’s that? Pretty much what it says. If, for example, you are in a crashing plane and there is no time to make a complete confession, you’re excused from doing so and can be absolved anyway. If you’ve had a stroke and are unable to communicate, you are similarly excused on grounds of physical impossibility.

What about moral impossibility? This category is meant to cover situations where it is physically possible to make an integral confession but there is some other factor that makes it very difficult to do so. Where the precise line on the next obvious question—“Just how difficult are we talking about?”—is a question that requires a judgment call, and it is here that the old moral/pastoral theology manuals play a useful role. This is exactly the kind of question they explore, using examples and principles to sketch out the answer.

For example, to take a very common example, let’s suppose you have forgotten how many times you committed a particular sin. Theoretically, you might be able to think harder and longer on the question and maybe come up with the exact number, but maybe that wouldn’t happen. Maybe you’d never get the exact number—or know with confidence that you had gotten it—and waiting to go to confession in that case would deprive you of the grace of the sacrament indefinitely, which is itself a grave thing. It could also send you tumbling off into the pits of scrupulosity—also a grave thing. Consequently, sound moral and pastoral theologians down through the ages have judged that one should only make reasonable efforts to determine the number of times one has committed a sin. If you’ve made a reasonable effort (i.e., what a normal faithful Catholic, not a living saint, would do) and can’t name the exact number, you are excused from doing so. You should, to the extent possible say things like, “I did this at least once” or “I did it a few times” or “I did it a lot of times,” but you are not bound to name any specific number.

Another situation—again very common—that excuses from an integral confession is scrupulosity. People suffering from this condition often get in destructive patterns of confession where they repeatedly confess sins over and over, go into agonizing and unnecessary amounts of detail, confess numerous sins of a venial nature because they can’t tell whether they were mortal, etc. Sound confessors have, down through the ages, developed rules for helping penitents fight such scrupulosity, such as telling (or even ordering) the penitent not to confess a sin unless he is absolutely sure it was mortal and that it was committed since the penitent’s last confession. If there is doubt about either of these points, the penitent should not confess it. (Note: This is the opposite of the advice given to people who don’t have scrupulosity, in which case a “confess it just to be safe” rule applies; it is the condition of scrupulosity that makes the difference in what is appropriate for the penitent to do).

Another common example—closely linked with scrupulosity—is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Sufferers of this condition have painful and distressing thoughts, and the more they dwell on these thoughts, the worse they become. They need, to the best of their ability, to ignore them, relax, and move on. Thus if a penitent with OCD (or anyone, for that matter) is having compulsive sexual thoughts or disturbing religious thoughts or similar things and if confessing them would tend to stir up these thoughts, it is very easy to justify a non-integral confession regarding them. First, if they are compulsive then the person is not fully consenting to them and they are not moral. Even if the person has consented to them, if mentioning the details in confession would stir them up then the penitent should not go into detail. If he can get away with saying, “I’ve had impure thought” or “I’ve had bad thoughts” with out stirring them up then he should do that, but in principle even that can be omitted if the danger of stirring them up is significant enough.
rom an integral confession. If the tendencies are strong then there may well be.

For people who have conditions like this, I recommend that they discuss the matter with their priest or spiritual director and ask the question directly, “Should I confess this kind of material.” That way, if they are later confessing to a new or unfamiliar priest and he says, “What kind of bad thoughts are you talking about?” they can reply, “I have scrupulosity/OCD and my priest/spiritual director has told me not to go into detail on this because it will only stir up the thoughts.” That will satisfy almost any confessor (actually, it will satisfy any confessor who is exercising sound judgment).

My correspondent asked about the situation of a penitent with “tendencies toward scrupulosity” but not full-blown scruples or OCD. Here there is a judgment call that must be made by the penitent and his confessor or spiritual director. If the tendencies are only mild then there may not be an excuse from integral confession. If the tendencies are strong then the penitent may well be excused.

Of course, the penitent should always maintain the attitude that he would confess the sins, with number and species-changing circumstance, if there wasn’t a situation preventing this (e.g., if I remembered, if it wouldn’t stir up these thoughts). If he has the attitude that he willfully would not confess a particular mortal sin no matter what then he is deliberately withholding something from confession that must be confessed. That would invalidate the sacrament. But as long as he has the will to confess everything he is supposed to then the confession will be valid, even though there are reasons that excuse him from confessing certain things.

There is a lot more that can be said on this subject. Indeed, there are whole chapters in the older moral and pastoral theology manuals. But I hope this much brings comfort to those who find themselves in such situations.