Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Confession and Scrupulosity

1. The grace of the Sacrament entails the forgiveness of all sins, known and unknown, voluntary and involuntary, sins of omission and commission, so that as long as you approach Our Lord with a penitent heart, with faith, love and repentance and a desire to be forgiven of all of your sins and to amend your life according to God's grace and power, determined not to sin again, you receive the absolute and comprehensive forgiveness of all sins. The Sacrament is given to us and the grace of Absolution cleanses us from all sin even if we approach the Sacrament with imperfect contrition, for man's contrition, no matter how perfectly sought or formed, can never match the severity of sin or the unconditional love and mercy of God. The Sacrament exists for the very reason that we cannot on own power and merit approach unto God: we come to the Mystery of Penance as sinners, spiritually weak and diseased, in need of God's wholesome remedy and healing power granted to us freely by the Sacrament. So we should never despair because of the horror or ignominy of our sinfulness, for God is more willing to forgive than we are to repent and amend. Because we can never come to Confession with absolutely perfect contrition, being sinners inundated with concupiscence, the inclination and attraction to evil, God supplies His grace in the Sacrament of Penance to strengthen our weakness, to heal our infirmity, to cleanse our guilty stain and taint, and to perfect that which is lacking or insufficient in our souls. Confession is sola gratia, grace alone, and the Sacrament is thus God's free gift of forgiveness through the Precious Blood of Christ; we can do nothing to earn or deserve the plenary Absolution, the liberation form sin and evil, that God wills to give us in this Mystery of His love. God's love is more powerful than our sin, and He manifests the power of that love in the Sacrament.

Please remember that the Sacrament is personal, it restores a personal relationship and communion between God and the penitent sinner, it is not judicial or juridical in that sense that God only matches us or corrects us according to the level of our own repentance or contrition for sin. If we come to the Sacrament with a true penitent heart and a lively faith, earnestly desiring forgiveness for all of our sins, remembered or forgotten, mortal or venial, we are forgiven, full stop. If our past confessions were somehow flawed or if we feel that we did not manifest enough genuine contrition, then subsequent confessions in and of themselves cover that concern, for the very desire, the very remembrance of such perceived failings, is the matter of the Sacrament to be forgiven, and is forgiven through repentance. It is our hearts that Our Lord sees in the penitence we offer, and if we offer our sorrow for sins, past or present, well-remembered or obscure, God's mercy and reconciling love forgives all. The Absolution in the Sacrament of Penance depends upon the power and promise of Christ to forgive sinners, not on the perfection of our own confession, for no sin-laden mortal can perfectly confess. We are only asked to confess to the best of our weak ability, for it God Who moves us to penitence in the first place. Grace prevenient and actual, going before us and leading us to Confession, grace giving us the consciousness of our sins, grace moving us to repentance and faith, grace empowering us to make a good confession, that is what we need, and precisely what God provides. We must ultimately abandon our sins, not only in the sense of not holding on to them in order to commit them again, but we must abandon them to God and allow Him to forgive us, for He has, and will yet forgive our sins and free us from the power of sin in our lives. Jesus is the beginning, the middle and the end of Penance. In the Sacrament of Penance Christ Himself, the Absolver, the Priest, the Intercessor, compensates for our weakness and our failings and our flawed and imperfect contrition and presents us to the Father in Himself, free from sins and given a new life, His Life. All we can bring of our own merit or substance to Confession is our sins - Christ's righteousness and holiness is His gift to us in Penance, Christ becomes our vindication, our sanctification, our justification, our righteousness, our absolution. Jesus Christ saves us by His freely-given and totally unmerited grace in the Sacraments, and so it is with Penance. Let us trust utterly in Him and not fear to relinquish ourselves into His hands. We must indeed 'let go and let God.' Christ will make up for where we lack in the Sacrament of Confession, as He always prevails for us in the whole sacramental life. Commend your sins to the Cross and rest in the Lord Jesus, Who died to make it possible for you to be liberated from these fears.

2. The Absolution itself, the sacramental gift, is not conditional in that once the sacramental grace is imparted by the priest in the Name and Person of Christ, the gift is given and is objective in its efficacy and effect. It is conditional in the sense that the person who receives the gift objectively must then subjectively cooperate with the grace, and use it to his salvation. We are saved by grace apart from works of the law, but then, being given this grace, we must 'work out our salvation with fear and trembling' for we are 'God's workmanship, made for good works' by grace. If restitution should be made for a serious sin, then it is the obligation of the penitent to see to it, as a matter of charity and justice, that the wrong, if it can be rectified, should be in an appropriate and Christian manner. It is not a matter of God withholding His forgiveness, it is a matter of the Christian soul truly responding to and cooperating with the grace has been so freely given. We are made holy and brought to communion with God by synergy, for God will not impel or force us to receive His grace or live lives pleasing to Him: He will, however, equip us with His grace to do what is right and to obey the commandments. 'If you love me, keep my commandments.' It is not a matter of saving ourselves, but of fulfilling and actualising the new life of God in us by allowing Our Lord to reproduce His life in us. God will not withhold His Absolution from an authentically penitent heart; the grace given sacramentally in Penance will enable and empower the penitent then to exercise the life for which the grace is given. The Sacrament is not conditional; once it is given, it is given as divine grace objectively communicated to the recipient. But how we use that grace and the extent to which we cooperate with it is up to us, aided as we are by divine grace all the while. Reconciliation and restitution lie with us as the fruit of that forgiveness which we have been given by God.

3. Finally, scrupulosity should be guarded against because it can itself become a sin or lead us into sin - it can evolve into the sin of despair, that is, the belief that God does not love us and cannot forgive our sins because we are so evil or so far beyond the pale that God could not possibly care for us or forgive us as other men. Despair is the unwillingness to allow God to forgive us because we place a barrier of disbelief and unreceptivity before God's merciful countenance. The sin of despair is really a form of spiritual narcissism, a self-absorption and self-obsession that sees one's own sins as more important or powerful than God. In turn, the sin of despair easily leads to the sin of presumption, a libertinism, which believes that, because God cannot and will not forgive our sins, we might as well sin and sin boldly, a self-permission to commit sins with the underlying assumption that one is already beyond the reach of God's forgiveness and mercy: that is a most serious state indeed. Mild scruples may sometimes, if only rarely, be helpful in the keeping us in check and motivating us to true repentance and amendment of life, but there must be a deliberate balance in the Christian life and an unhealthy preoccupation with one's sinfulness or evil can assuredly be destructive to a happy and peaceful conscience; it can cripple the soul, making it impossible freely to live the Christian life with that vital virtue and characteristic, joy! Scruples are not the same thing as a genuine contrition for sins because of our love for God, for scruples tend to dwell not on God but on self, and direct the soul to be anxious and to worry about itself and about a perfection achieved apart from God's grace. We are called to be penitent, not scrupulous. Scrupulosity tends to devolve into selfishness, a dysfunctional egotism focussed on self and one's own needs and imperfections rather than on God and His attributes, virtues and graces. The Catholic life is a wholesome life, a life of spiritual joy and peace, which are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. If scruples so disturb the conscience and paralyse the soul that they stifle the spiritual growth of the individual, they are clearly harmful and should be, again, abandoned to the mercy and providence of God.

Many heresies have arisen because of scrupulosity, most especially Calvinism, Jansenism, and every form of puritanism, which robs us of the joy and happiness of life, eschews the goodness of human life and creation, and smothers the true Christian spirit of wholeness and personal integration brought about by the Incarnation. There is an essential difference in the life of a Catholic between a healthy and graced illumination of conscience by the Holy Ghost regarding sin and a properly-formed conscience sensitive to moral evil on one hand and scrupulous self-loathing or self-deprecation on the other. We are called truly to repent of our sins by mourning for them and lamenting their wickedness in contrition, but we are equally called to have hearts overflowing with joy, rejoicing in the overwhelming love of God Who forgives us all our iniquities and is 'faithful and just to forgive us all our sins.' Contrition, after all, is about love, love for God and our detestation of that which comes between us and God's love as a result. Repentance should flow from love, and Absolution should be gratefully received by love. 'Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.' That is Our Lord's message to us about our struggle, our war against the world, the flesh and the devil. Let us rest confidently in the promise and victory of Christ. If you have a doubt about a thought, word or action, whether or not it is a sin, it is best simply to confess it and ask a priest about it in Confession. At that point, it should be released and not allowed to preoccupy or worry again.

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