ROME, 16 FEB. 2010 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
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
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
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
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
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
Finally, the obligation to annual confession aids us in
combating the sin of presumption before God's judgment.
* * *
Follow-up: Annual Confession [3-2-2010]
Related to the question on annual confession (Feb. 16), a
Canadian reader had asked about his personal situation. Baptized
into a Protestant denomination as a child, he had not completed
the RCIA yet. He wanted to know at what point he could go to
"I mean officially, so it's recognized; so I can be absolved, do
penance, etc. It's going to be some time yet before
confirmation, etc., and I really need to go to confession, my
heart is very heavy with 55 years of life without God, and I'm
despairing that I've got months and months yet to live with my
sins. I can't find anything specific on this in the Catechism."
The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults has an appendix with
a rite for admitting an already baptized person into the
Catholic faith. The norms attached to this rite require that the
candidate receive an adequate doctrinal and spiritual
preparation adapted to the reality of each case. The candidate
should strive for an ever more sincere adherence to the Catholic
faith in which he will find the fullness of his baptism.
The norms suggest that during this time the candidate may
already have some share in sacred things according to the norms
established in the Ecumenical Directory. This directory does not
deal specifically with the case of those undergoing a conversion
process, but allows for a Protestant who shares Catholic beliefs
regarding the sacraments to receive the Eucharist, penance and
sacrament of the sick in grave situations such as danger of
In the above-mentioned rite of admission, No. 9 of the appendix
in the Italian edition states that if the person is to be
admitted during Mass (as is by far the preferred practice), then
considering his personal condition he should confess his sins,
informing the confessor of his imminent admission. Any lawful
confessor may be used.
Thus, we can deduce that it is possible for someone to be
validly admitted to confession before formal admission into the
Catholic faith. In the precise case above, our reader could
request permission from the bishop to anticipate first
confession so as to continue the process of preparation for
admission and confirmation with greater peace of soul.