As we continue through the precepts of the Church, I wish to just remind people of the purpose of these columns. After teaching for 25 years in classrooms at various levels, it has been apparent to me that it is human nature that people will avail themselves to the lowest standard set. The job of those who are in authority is to set the standard high AND help those placed in their care to get there. The Church understands this well and in having these precepts, they are setting a standard of criteria of what is the minimum of someone to call themselves Catholic. These precepts are not a checklist, but items to be indicative of someone who wants that relationship with God.
Since our Catholic Faith is primarily about a relationship with God, our Catholic family, and the human race, any and all aspects familiar to us regarding relationships come into play. Those relationships will have times where harm has been done; we call that sin. Sometimes those sins will hurt the relationship, sometimes those sins will destroy the relationship. For the relationship to go forward, there must reconciliation. Hence, the Church also addresses this reality.
In the Code of Canon Law, it is stated: “After having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year.” (Canon 989) The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) handles this from 1440-1470.
Let’s break this down:
“After having attained the age of discretion” Classically, this age had been determined to be 7 to 8 years old. The age of reason is that moment when there exist a level of understanding of the difference between good and evil/ right or wrong. This is important as there are three criteria for a mortal sin to be a mortal sin: a) Serious matter, b) full knowledge, c) full use of free will. ( see CCC 1857-1859) Once one can understand on a necessary level these, then sin that can sever the relationship with God can happen. When one or two of these criteria are not in play, then venial sin has been committed. (CCC 1862) Venial sin damages but does not sever the relationship with God. However, it does need to be forgiven as well. There are times in Mass where these sins are addressed and forgiven. However, once mortal sin has occurred, then confession becomes necessary before any other sacrament can be done.
“Each of the faithful” Those who have passed the age of reason and are baptized are those counted among this group.
“is bound by obligation” Because baptism enters us into a relationship with God, there are certain obligations that would be endemic of a good thriving relationship. Among those, would to be honest when harm has been done to the other in that relationship. The gravity of mortal sin destroys our relationship with God. It cannot ignored nor left unattended. To die in a state of mortal sin is to die having forfeited heaven. Hence, reconciliation must take place if we are to be restored into that relationship. Using our human relationships as an example, when we have been deliberately hurt by one we love, can we simply ignore it? If no sorrow is expressed to us, regardless of our desire to forgive, then full reconciliation cannot take place. Our sorrow and mercy act as balms to heal that damage done. If we love the other, then we will readily want to heal the damage done by our choices and seek to show mercy to those who have harmed us. The obligation existent in the relationship to mutually love each other would drive us to seek reconciliation.
“to faithfully confess serious sins” Serious sin, also known as mortal sin, must be confessed. The first criteria for mortal sin, grave matter, is specified by the 10 commandments: honoring one’s mother and father, prohibition against the taking of innocent human life, theft, lying, adultery (any use of human sexuality outside of the bonds of marriage), lust , and coveting. When a person has crossed these line knowingly and full use of free will, they have willfully severed that relationship with God by pursuing activities that God has said gravely offend Him and His plan. These are moral issues; whether a particular society finds them legal or preferable changes nothing of their reality nor effects. Seriousness is not dictated by society nor government, but by God.
“at least once a year” Notice, first, it says ‘at least’ and not ‘at most’. This is connected to another of the precepts, to be dealt with later, that one must go to Communion at least once a year. The bottom line is, though, that one is not to receive the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin. To receive the Eucharist in mortal sin is itself the mortal sin of sacrilege. It is to act as if a relationship is there when it is not; it is an act of deceit. Relationships thrive on truth. They need the activity of mercy and sorrow to bind harm. No more than I hope one would only apologize to a spouse or loved one once a year, would I imagine a person who wants that relationship with God would simply allow separation to fester until that time of the year came around.
The most common objection to confession is the protestant belief that I don’t need to confess my sins to a priest; I can just tell God I am sorry and be done with it. We start with that this is not biblical. In the Old Testament, the Book of Leviticus is clear that the priest acts as an intermediary or intercessor in the sin offering. That a priests would act as a conduit of the mercy of God is clear. In the Gospel of John, after the Resurrection, Jesus says to the eleven “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. Jesus was sent for the forgiveness of sin and the reconciliation with the Father that was now possible through His death and Resurrection. They were to now share in this mission. Furthermore, he breathes on them (a sign of the life of God) and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit, If you forgive men’s sin, they are forgiven them, if you hold them bound, they are held bound.” (John 20:21-23) These men and their successors were given a new authority they did not have before. They were to be those who acted as intermediaries who forgive or withhold forgiveness (let that sink in for a second); they are the new priests. If we were to merely say in our own hearts, “God, I am truly sorry”, then such a gesture would be unneeded.
In fact, since the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with the Father is only possible by the working of the Holy Spirit (see above passage again), only those to whom the authority given to the Apostles and their successors (also known as bishops) can extend this forgiveness in the manner that Jesus Himself set up! At ordination to the levels of priest and bishop in the sacrament of Holy Orders, the same Holy Spirit that was given to the eleven is given to these men for the same exact reason. Bishops can delegate the authority of reconciliation to only priests. By the way Jesus set things up after the resurrection, one most certainly does need the sacrament of Reconciliation to be restored to a relationship with God that has been severed by mortal sin.
Remember this precept exists for one reason: to keep us in a eternal relationship with God. It gives us multiple opportunities to seek His grace for conversion. It isn’t an imposition, but a blessed relief so that we can allow healing to take place