A reader writes:
If we are always in sin, how can we recognize which ones to confess? Should we confess only the ones we are conscious of?
The reader's question is rather interesting, because normally, when discussing the Sacrament of Confession, people want to know how little they can confess, not how much they should confess. So the reader is at least approaching the sacrament with the right intention.
Still, there's something about the reader's second question that indicates that he may be suffering from scrupulosity—that is, in the words of Fr. John A. Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary, "The habit of imagining sin where none exists, or grave sin where the matter is venial." When the reader asks, "Should we confess only the [sins] we are conscious of?" one might be tempted to reply, "How can you confess sins you're not conscious of?" But that is precisely the condition that those who suffer from scrupulosity find themselves in.
Wanting to do what is right—to make a full, complete, and contrite confession—the scrupulous person begins to wonder if perhaps he has forgotten some of his sins. Perhaps there are certain sins that he has often fallen prey to in the past, but he doesn't remember indulging in them since his last confession. Should he confess them anyway, just to be on the safe side?
The answer is no. In the Sacrament of Confession, we are required to list all of our mortal sins by kind and frequency. If we aren't aware of committing a mortal sin, we cannot confess such a sin without bearing false witness against ourselves. Of course, if we go to Confession frequently, the likelihood of forgetting a mortal sin is fairly low.
Venial sins, on the other hand, are often easier to forget, but we aren't required to list all of our venial sins in Confession. The Church strongly recommends that we do so, because "regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1458). If we often fall prey to a particular venial sin, confessing it (and going to Confession frequently) may help us eradicate it. But if confessing venial sins is not technically required, then forgetting to confess one is not something we need to worry about.
Indeed, while we should avoid all sin, venial as well as mortal, scrupulosity can pose a grave danger to our spiritual growth, especially because it can lead some to avoid Confession out of fear of making a bad confession. If you find yourself worried that you have forgotten sins you should confess, you should mention that concern to your priest during your next confession. He can help set your mind at ease and give you some tips on how to avoid the danger of scrupulosity.
More on Sin and Confession From the Baltimore Catechism:
- On Sin and Its Kinds - Lesson Sixth
- On the Sacrament of Penance - Lesson Seventeenth
- On Contrition - Lesson Eighteenth
- On Confession - Lesson Nineteenth
- On the Manner of Making a Good Confession - Lesson Twentieth