Thursday, February 16, 2017

Genuine Repentance

Imagine with me for a moment a priest sitting in the confessional, and after the penitent makes his confession, the priest has reason to believe that the penitent intends to return to the sin in the future. What is he supposed to do? Give the absolution and warn him not to give in to temptation? No. If there is a genuine doubt in the priest's mind he is supposed to delve more deeply into the situation with the person to be sure that he is truly penitent (hence the reason for the title "penitent").

Now imagine a deeper level of the problem. Imagine that the priest presses the individual, and he admits that he full well intends to return to the sin because his situation is different from others and God would understand. Now what is the priest supposed to do? At this point, Church law forbids the priest from granting an absolution (and if he does it is not valid).

Let us take this one step further. Imagine that the "penitent" (for want of a more accurate term at this point) is able to hide his intent to return to the sin, and the priest unknowingly grants an "absolution". Not only is that "absolution" not valid, but the "penitent" at that point remains in a state of grave sin, and were he to receive the Eucharist in that state, he would be deepening his sin.

Please note: The seal of confession binds me from disclosing anything told during the sacrament. Therefore the above situation is entirely made up, no matter how much it may be similar to any actual events either in my own ministry or that of any other priest.

What we are speaking about here is the necessity of genuine contrition. This means that the person who is making confession sincerely desires and intends to cease committing the sins that were confessed. If there is no intention to cease immediately (and not merely at some indeterminate time in the future), then the "penitent" is not truly penitent. We read in the old Catholic Encyclopedia: "Without sincere sorrow and purpose of amendment, confession avails nothing, the pronouncement of absolution is of no effect, and the guilt of the sinner is greater than before" (emphasis mine). Notice those words and do not gloss over them. If there is no "purpose of amendment" then the confession "avails nothing" and the absolution is not genuine.

The Catechism tells us that the sinner must have "the desire and resolution to change [his] life" or he is not truly seeking reconciliation, but merely a salve for his conscience. As much as our consciences need to have a genuine salve to heal them, that is not sufficient for the reception of God's forgiveness. We also read in the Catechism in another place, "without this [interior willingness to change one's life], such penances remain sterile and false". Sterile and false; in other words, ineffective and deceptive. This fits perfectly with what we all know: hypocrisy is a great evil. Yet, we also know that we can lie to ourselves and make our hypocrisy look acceptable (in our own eyes at least).

In fact, the Catechism also outlines for us the fact that there is a difference between interior repentance and an exterior repentance. It distinguishes the two in this way: "Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed." Yes, one may fall back into the sin in a time of weakness, but that is not the same thing as saying "I know I will give in to this sin the next time the temptation arises, but please grant me an absolution now in case I die before the next time I commit the sin. After all, I have very good reasons to justify it."

Those who want an absolution, but who intend to commit the sin again at a later time, are comparable to those who just want to sweep things under the rug, rather than have them actually thrown away, but they are worse. Someone who sweeps something under a rug, does it to hide it, but I cannot imagine someone doing so in order to bring the dirt back out again and spread it on the floor! Who would do something like that? No one that I know of. I do not like sweeping things under the rug (someone always trips on them later!). Either we do so ourselves, or someone else does, and that means they suffer because of our sins. There are all kinds of excuses that people can come up with to return to a sin; "if I don't, they will mock me", "if I don't, he/she will be mad at me", "if I don't, I will lose money", "if I don't, I won't get sex", "if I don't, I will have to work harder." All of these excuses deny the final line in the traditional act of contrition: "I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to amend my life, and to do my penance. Amen."

In the sacrament of confession we are dealing with an eternal transaction, not merely a temporal covering that enables someone to feel good in spite of his impenitence. The sacrament of penance should never be used to allow one to receive communion so that next week we can say yes to the sin once again. I know these words are hard, and may be very challenging to some of my readers, but we are not discussing cookie recipes--we are talking about our eternal souls. We live in an age of compromise and self-centered pride, and these things have clouded our thinking to the point of where we are often unable to make a proper self-examination of our spiritual state. I encourage everyone to go to confession, and do so regularly (go the extra mile, and make it more often than the bare minimum of once a year!). I also, however, encourage you all to do some serious examination of heart and be sure that you are genuinely penitent--if not, then you know what to confess to the priest!