Since confession is shrouded in secrecy, I find that people are sometimes curious to know how they “stack up” as penitents. Are they making “good” confessions? Could they improve? What follows are a few hints.
Basically, we make a “good” confession when we include all the essential ingredients. The Council of Trent taught that
“all [unforgiven] mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession.”
Simple enough. But a couple phrases might need some unpacking. First, a “diligent self-examination” means that we take the time to inform our consciences about the Gospel’s standards of conduct. Perhaps surprisingly, I find that it is those who have not been to confession in many years who struggle to come up with sins, perhaps because they have been taking their moral cues more from the surrounding culture than from the Gospel. Measuring themselves against conventional morality, they find themselves, not surprisingly, pretty “good people.” One can find online detailed lists of sins against Gospel morality, usually organized according to the Ten Commandments. It’s worth consulting them to sensitize one’s conscience before confession.
Second, we confess “all mortal sins” when we confess them in number and kind: e.g., “I missed Sunday Mass twice without good cause.” If it’s been a long time or if the sin is habitual, you can summarize or estimate: e.g., “I’ve been sexually active with my girlfriend since we moved in together last year.” What sins count as mortal? The ones we commit knowingly and with full consent in a serious matter. Serious matters include most sexual sins of deed (as opposed to word or thought), murder (including serious damage to a person’s name), more damaging kinds of lying and theft, and negligence in serious Christian obligations. If you have a question about whether a sin involves “serious matter,” you can always look for guidance in the Catechism. When in doubt, confess.
By “better” confession, I mean those things we might confess over and above the essential ingredients. These include “venial” sins (those sins that strain, but don’t sever, our friendship with God). These basically comprise the sins that don’t meet all the criteria for a mortal sin. There’s even a realm below venial sins, the area of “imperfections.” These can be involuntary feelings and desires—anxieties, resentments, jealousies, lustful urges—that we don’t consent to, but that nonetheless reveal a “twistiness” in our hearts. Or they can be voluntary negligence in things that we’re not strictly obliged to do: e.g., omitting customary prayers, failure to show gratitude, oversleeping, etc.
We’re not obliged to enumerate or even confess these. Still, the Church encourages us to confess even our venial sins regularly, since
“the 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” (CCC 1458).
We can confess our imperfections for the same reason, provided we do not confess only imperfections. A priest cannot absolve unless there is a clear sin. So if we’re blessed enough to have only imperfections on our conscience, then we can end with “… and for all the sins of my past life.” The generic mention of sinfulness makes the priest’s absolution valid, but still allows us to receive the grace of healing for nagging imperfections as well.
Finally, we confess “better” if we can find a pattern in our sinfulness, a predominant fault that connects all the other sins. This allows the confessor to give better counsel and assign more “medicinal” penances.
To learn more about predominant fault, click here