Three problems with Confession

This post brings up three ‘problems’ with the sacrament of Penance that I’ve been thinking about for a long time now and I’d like to, here, try to put my thoughts in order and share these curious difficulties, and hopefully in the process come to the solutions.

Briefly, we should outline the presuppositions here in Catholic theology. Confession in the earliest Church was communal (James 5:16), and is often described as very strict.

Sinners acknowledged their guilt before an assembly of Christians presided over by the bishop and were enrolled in the order of penitents…
~O’Collins & Farrugia, “Catholicism: The Story of Catholic Christianity” p.273

The Didache also says that confession is necessary before the Eucharist (Didache 14.1), and it was the Bishops in the early Church who had the right to prescribe the penance required for serious or ‘mortal’ sins (1 John 5:16-17). It was typical for a confession of mortal sin to consist of one Christian confessing his or her sins publicly to the entire community, and then submitting to the Bishop to receive penance and absolution. This would typically happen only once in a lifetime. Thus:

Reconciliation essentially involved the whole community praying for the penitents’ conversion and renewed life.
~O’Collins & Farrugia, “Catholicism: The Story of Catholic Christianity” p.272

Over the ages as the Church developed the celebration of this sacrament changed, and eventually:

Leo the Great objected to a ‘public confession of sins in kind and number being read’ from a written list: ‘it is enough that the guilt of the conscience be revealed to priests alone in secret confession’ (DH 323; ND 1606).
~O’Collins & Farrugia, “Catholicism: The Story of Catholic Christianity” p.274

The absolution, of course, was always the responsibility of the bishops, as “the bishops were the lords of penance”. Finally, most Catholic theologians, taking after the Medieval Master Peter Lombard, have spoken about the sacraments ‘systematically’ in terms of their respective matter and form. However, here the Church’s language changes a little bit to accommodate the sacrament. The ‘matter’, is simply called the ‘proximate matter’ because it isn’t matter in the same way as the bread is the matter of the Eucharist, or the water the matter of Baptism. The sacrament of confession requires as its proximate matter 3 things: first, contrition (perfect or imperfect) on the part of the penitent including the will to avoid the sin and its ‘near occasion’ in future, second, the act of confession itself, and finally the Penance. St. Bonaventure, among others taught also that:

The absolution as an external ceremony is the matter, and, as possessing significant force, the form.

In any case though:

Regarding the form of the sacrament, both the Council of Florence and the Council of Trent teach that it consists in the words of absolution. “The form of the Sacrament of penance, wherein its force principally consists, is placed in those words of the minister: “I absolve thee, etc.”; to these words indeed, in accordance with the usage of Holy Church, certain prayers are laudably added, but they do not pertain to the essence of the form nor are they necessary for the administration of the sacrament” (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, c. 3).


For valid administration, a twofold power is necessary: the power of order and the power of jurisdiction. The former is conferred by ordination, the latter by ecclesiastical authority. At his ordination a priest receives the power to consecrate the Holy Eucharist, and for valid consecration he needs no jurisdiction. As regards penance, the case is different: “because the nature and character of a judgment requires that sentence be pronounced only on those who are subjects (of the judge) the Church of God has always held, and this Council affirms it to be most true, that the absolution which a priest pronounces upon one over whom he has not either ordinary or delegated jurisdiction, is of no effect” (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, c. 7).
~Catholic Encyclopedia

One must remember, then, that there are times when confecting the Eucharist is licit for a priest, and times when it is not, but in the case of confession, there are times when the priest is giving the sacrament, and other times when it only appears that the priest is giving the sacrament – but this is not only illicit, it is also not the sacrament. For the words of institution to satisfy the form of the sacrament they need the power of jurisdiction as well as order.

As a preliminary question, I should clear up something I previously may have been wrong about; what if somebody doesn’t satisfy the penance? Obviously if they refused to satisfy the penance then they are directly refusing to satisfy the sacrament, and the Grace will not take its effect. However, once one has confessed and wills to fulfill the penance, they can, as is common practice today, share in the Eucharist before satisfying the penance. This, I take it, is evidence that if one should, through negligence or forgetfulness, fail to satisfy the sacrament this way, the sacrament itself can take its effect only in the case that the penitent wills to fulfill the penance (that is, is still humbly seeking God with contrition in her heart), such that if the penitent were reminded what to do, they would quickly satisfy the sacrament without fail. I think then that the will to satisfy the penance can stand in place of the satisfaction itself until such a time as the satisfaction is made. It is only in the case that the penance has not been satisfied by reason of refusal or negligence that the sinner is in a state of mortal sin perpetually.

Thus, we must keep these principles in mind when approaching the following apparent paradoxes. First, that the proximate matter and form consist of contrition, confession and satisfaction of penance, and that the form consists of the words of absolution administered by one who has the power of order and the power of jurisdiction.

First, Psychopathy and related difficulties

First, what about a psychopath? A person who has psychopathy is biologically/psychologically incapable of feeling regret or remorse, or at least feeling ‘contrition‘ (perfect or imperfect). In the grand scheme of the sacramental life, it looks as though psychopaths are ill equipped for salvation. It may be harder for a psychopath to enter the kingdom of heaven than a rich man. They cannot ever, it seems, satisfy the proximate matter of contrition. What then do we say?

I think a few things can be said briefly on this point, and the first is that God is just. That is to say, somebody who does something evil is not always somebody who does something sinful. A mass murderer may be without culpability, while a liar is guilty. For something to qualify as sin it needs not only grave matter but consent of the will given a knowledge that it is evil. For instance a child who shoots a family member when they thought what they were playing with was a toy gun is not as culpable as the man who shot at his companion and missed. For something to qualify as sin, it requires the power to will the evil, and a psychopath may not so easily be able to tell the difference.

Obviously a psychopath does have some way to relate to God, but how that is may be a mystery to us – indeed, how we each relate to God is obviously a mystery to each other. I think perhaps a psychopath must have will and intentions which, at the deepest level, aim to orient that person towards God or else away from him. Two interesting hypothetical situations or ‘thought experiments’ come to mind. Let us imagine that there is one psychopath who is a mass murderer, by no fault of his own, and simply doesn’t happen to be culpable for those sins. His actions would have no more moral character than an earthquake. Upon being put to death (Capital punishment) he is found to be in God’s friendship, and (perhaps) goes through purgatory nonetheless. Second thought experiment: Imagine that there is a psychopath who realizes that there is a God, and life after death, based solely on arguments which she finds convincing. In the interest of self-preservation, she spends her life in ministry bringing others closer to God through religion (let us suppose she is Catholic, perhaps because she thinks there’s a good chance that this religion stands the best chance of being right). She receives the sacraments regularly, is involved in prayer as well as spiritual disciplines. All the while, of course, she feels absolutely nothing and yet has convinced everyone that she is just like them (she’s a good actress and can hide her psychopathy well – and religious people aren’t hard to imitate). She dies seeking this benefit for herself: the salvation from Hell and the Eternal life in the hereafter. She dies, then, outside the fellowship of God. Why? Because her heart was not oriented to the love of neighbor or the love of God, but only the love of herself. Is she culpable for this? Well, the only way it is even relevant to God is if this were true of her herself. That is to say, if it were true of her at her deepest level; true of how she relates to God.

I take it that these are both plausible scenarios, even while accepting the power of the sacraments in themselves. This thought experiment also serves as a way to solve problems which are perhaps more common, such as Alzheimer’s. If somebody has forgotten what sins they have committed, do they exist as such on their conscience anymore? Imagine another scenario, where a Catholic commits a mortal sin and then has amnesia while terminally ill. Perhaps they forget that they are Catholic, and therefore they don’t seek out confession before death, nor feel contrition for anything they did. Are they truly in the state of mortal sin? The question should rather be this – how do they relate to God? Once we’ve considered these cases we begin to realize that we are not all that different. What if one person lives an entire life in the fellowship of God, and then commits a mortal sin and dies. Obviously Catholics commit mortal sins all the time (or at least commit actions which are, all things being equal – meaning addictions or other factors notwithstanding – grave matter, and mortal sins) for which Catholics must go to confession. Masturbation is one example, as would be lying, and so on. So while one might have a hard time imagining somebody who commits no such sins their entire lives, one can easily imagine that one might die in the state of mortal sin even while they spend the majority of their lives in fellowship with God. Do we really have such an advantage over those with amnesia, Alzheimer’s or psychopathy?

Two preliminary things have to be said before one begins to see the answer which lies in the principles of God’s justice and providence. First preliminary thing to say is that for those of us who think this a serious concern, we should be praying before problem-solving. Catholics pray to Mary all the time with the words of Scripture, and then ending off the prayer we say “please pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” Second, is that to look at this whole situation without keeping in mind God’s justice and providence does make it look rather like ‘chance’ happenings. We can imagine that, where somebody died rejecting God, they may have died in his fellowship if only they had been taken from this life a month before. I submit that this is not an intellectual problem, but an emotional one – God does not leave such things to chance. The answer, I submit, would be to keep the principles of God’s justice and providence in mind when examining such affairs. Ultimately these situations seem to call into question God’s providence, but for those who believe in God’s providence we are ultimately committed to his providence being informed by his justice and mercy. Therefore God must provide the necessary and appropriate Graces and opportunities to every person who dies, even if in ways that we cannot see or search out. Another thing I would say is that, while the efficacy of the Sacraments is always implied by them, and while the sacraments are ordinarily instantiated according to their ordinary matter and form being satisfied, everybody also knows that extra-ordinary sacraments (or the effects of the sacraments) can and do instantiate. For instance, somebody may have perfect contrition and by reason of that alone they may receive the effect of absolution without the sacrament. Similarly baptisms require water and the Trinitarian formula and so on, but people might receive the same effects by extra-ordinary means, such as by martyrdom, sometimes called the baptism of blood, or else by a baptism of desire and so on. Since God is ultimately the minister of the sacraments, the Church is committed to the teaching that he will never fail to realize them while the ordinary matter and form are satisfied, but the Church accepts that God acts powerfully even outside the visible Church or the ordinary means. We should always avoid treating the sacraments as tools, and recognize in them the Grace that at every moment God desires us to receive from him.

With these principles in mind one begins to see not only that psychopathy doesn’t really pose a particularly special problem, but that every single death is equally shrouded in mystery for us. However, if one is committed to God’s justice, and committed to his providence, it becomes clear that God knows exactly how to provide everyone the Grace that they need before the moment of death, and that he does.

Second problem: the Power of Jurisdiction

A priest who offers confession outside of the diocese where he serves cannot absolve a penitent unless he has the right from the Bishop. Apparently its not only not licit, but it’s also not even the real sacrament. This has often worried me before because it seems to imply that a priest who goes on vacation or is visiting from elsewhere cannot forgive sins at all. I rolled up my sleeves and did a bit of digging on this, and here’s what I found.

Canon 883 of the now-abrogated 1917 Code of Canon Law stated:

Ordination to the priesthood gives a man the power to forgive sins. His right to hear confessions in a particular locality is normally given by the local Ordinary (bishop) and this is called jurisdiction. With jurisdiction, a priest may use his power of forgiving sins, and without jurisdiction, a priest may not.

Though it’s now abrogated, the theological principles underlying it still inform the current code of canon law.

The following come from the Code of Canon Law:

Canon 966 section 1; ” §1. The valid absolution of sins requires that the minister have, in addition to the power of orders, the faculty of exercising it for the faithful to whom he imparts absolution.

Canon 967; ” §1. In addition to the Roman Pontiff, cardinals have the faculty of hearing the confessions of the Christian faithful everywhere in the world by the law itself. Bishops likewise have this faculty and use it licitly everywhere unless the diocesan bishop has denied it in a particular case.§2. Those who possess the faculty of hearing confessions habitually whether by virtue of office or by virtue of the grant of an ordinary of the place of incardination or of the place in which they have a domicile can exercise that faculty everywhere unless the local ordinary has denied it in a particular case, without prejudice to the prescripts of  can. 974, §§2 and 3.

Canon 974; “§2. When the faculty to hear confessions has been revoked by the local ordinary who granted it as mentioned in  can. 967, §2, a presbyter loses the faculty everywhere. If some other local ordinary has revoked the faculty, the presbyter loses it only in the territory of the one who revokes it.”

Clearly then, this indicates that the Bishop has the power of jurisdiction more immediately than the priest. The priest has it only by reason of the Bishop, as the priest is the extension of the Bishop. This seems to imply that priests who travel and hear confessions are doing so illegitimately.

On an ocean trip, all priests may hear confessions on the boat during the time of the voyage and absolve the faithful who travel with them (even though the boat may pass through districts subject to various Ordinaries or stop for a while in some port), provided they have been properly approved for confessions either by the bishop of their own diocese, or by the bishop of the port where they take the boat, or the Ordinary of any of the ports at which the boat calls.

Presumably the same would be true of space travel, though those canons don’t exist yet to my knowledge (although I found out that these canons also were applied to travel by plane by Pope Pius XII).

How can one solve this difficulty? Well, there is no real difficulty here theologically, since the Bishops are the ‘lords of penance’ and the priests are only being allowed to operate in place of the Bishop. However, a more pragmatic answer is the one the Church seems to give: simply provide a standard of canonical presumption. That is, the Church presumes, all things being equal, that priests today, according to the current code of canon law, have the implicit permission of the bishops of the Diocese that they visit unless they have been informed otherwise. This was introduced in the 1983 code of canon law and, of course, could in principle change. The Church could change canon law so as to ensure that priests cannot presume to have the power of jurisdiction until it is explicitly granted to them, just as it was in the 1917 Code. This is revealing, because it tells us more about the nature of the sacrament – this really is something which priests are only able to do because of the Bishops they represent.

Finally: the Power of the keys

In considering everything which has been said thus far certain questions suggest themselves. For instance, what of a priest who has been excommunicated? It seems clear that they do not have the power of jurisdiction and therefore the sacrament just cannot happen with them any more than the Eucharist could happen with a Baptist minister. What, though, of a Bishop? It seems as though the whole logic of ‘jurisdiction’ is ultimately connected with the Papal model of ecclesiastical hierarchy. Thus, when the Pope excommunicates a Bishop, it seems that that Bishop wouldn’t have the power of jurisdiction, right? Not so fast – what about the Eastern Orthodox Church? Or the Oriental Orthodox? If their priests and churches have this sacrament, doesn’t that imply that they have the power of the jurisdiction afforded by the keys? However, what of the schism? In 1054 the Pope excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople, and the patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated the Pope. Understandably, those excommunications have been lifted today and are ‘not remembered’ by the Church. Even so, what of the Eastern Orthodox churches in the thousand years between 1054 and the modern ecumenical movement? Keeping in mind that the Church seems to recognize that, in all this period, the sacrament of confession really did exist among these communions.

This has always been the most troubling paradoxical problem for me. However, a nuanced solution is not impossible here either. First, one has to recognize that there may be distinctions between anathematizations and excommunications, along with prohibitions without excommunications. A priest might be in communion and at the same time not be allowed to perform the sacraments (though he still could perform some of them illicitly). Also, the excommunication in 1054 was directed at Michael Cerularius (the Patriarch of Constantinople) and not directed at the Church of Constantinople or others. Thus, while Michael Cerularius was not in communion himself, perhaps his faculties (the faculties shared by the priests under him) were preserved. The Bishops of the East who followed him were also never excommunicated, and thus their faculties were certainly intact. In other words, the kind of excommunication in 1054 was of one man and not of the entire communion of Constantinople. The power of Jurisdiction remained in the East because, from the West’s perspective, it was never taken away to begin with.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this reflection.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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