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Dear Father Angelo,

I have heard some relatives discussing the Christmas confession that some of them made.

They directly attacked the confessor who asked a wife if she uses contraceptive methods with her husband …

They also complained about the fact  that he did ask her for the number of mortal sins committed …

It seems to me a miserable thing to attack a confessor who, in my opinion, has simply done his duty.

In the afternoon they returned to the subject again and said that this would keep people away from confession.

What do you think?


Answer from the priest

Dear Giuseppe,

1. To attack the confessor knowing that he cannot defend himself anyway because he is bound to secrecy is certainly a miserable thing to do.

2. In itself, the priest has the right to question penitents if he has the impression that the accusation is not complete.

It is true that the priest should assume that everyone knows how to confess, but unfortunately the opposite is true.

Precisely for this reason he must be cautious in asking questions in regards to marital intimacy. It could leave the faithful embittered over issues whose meaning they don’t quite understand.

It seems to me that the case you are referring to reflects this situation.

3. The Pontifical Council for the Family, with the contribution of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Apostolic Penitentiary, on February 12, 1997 published a Vademecum for confessors to help them in this matter.

I will explain the points they have made and which apply to  our case and which help us to understand why  the priest in question might have not been perhaps very prudent.

4. The Vademecum says that “the priest confessor, bearing in mind that the sacrament was instituted for sinful men, accepting penitents must presuppose, unless there is evidence to the contrary, the good will to be reconciled with God. He knows that their repentance is expressed in different degrees (n. 2) “.

It must be assumed that the penitent has the good will to be reconciled means that he/she has no will to keep silent about some grave sins of which he/she is aware.

5. It then says that “with regard to an occasional penitent, who confesses after a long time and shows a serious general situation, before asking direct and concrete questions on the subject of chastity, it will be necessary to enlighten him/her so that he/she understands these duties in a vision of faith and remind him/her of the invitation to holiness and his/her duties regarding the procreation and education of children ”(n. 3).

By occasional penitent we mean someone who is near the next occasion of sin, that is, in a situation that makes that sin easy.

Who confesses after a long time and shows a serious general situation” and that is clear from the first lines of the confession as it is easily understood that there is little Christian life due to, for example, the permanent absence from Sunday Mass, the absence of prayer, the presence of blasphemy,  betrayal in marriage … Someone who comes to confess because there is a family celebration and who senses that it would be nice to be able to take Communion as well as attend Mass …

So in such a compromised situation of Christian life, asking whether contraception is used in conjugal intimacy is like asking  a question whose meaning he/she does not understand at all.

In such cases – which are less rare than you think – it is necessary to try to build something by leaving a good word, an exhortation to go to Mass so that the Lord might bless the family and protect the children, an exhortation to address more often the thought of the Lord, of marriage fidelity …

6. In fact, the Vademecum recalls that “certainly the principle, also with regard to conjugal chastity, according to which it is preferable to leave penitents in good faith in case of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance, is to be considered always valid, when it is foreseen that the penitent, even if oriented to live in the sphere of the life of faith, would not change his/her own conduct, on the contrary he/she would go on to sin formally; however, even in these cases, the confessor must tend to bring these penitents closer and closer, through prayer, the call and exhortation to the formation of conscience and the teaching of the Church, to welcome God’s plan in his/her own life, even in those needs “(n. 8).

Formally sinning in theological jargon means also subjectively committing a grave sin, whereas previously sin was such only from the point of view of the matter, lacking in the subject the full awareness of the mind and the deliberate consent of the will to commit a sin.

In our case, the confessor’s question tends to make the evil done serious even subjectively, compromising the already serious enough situation of the faithful. And at the same time it can make the sacrament more annoying and less accessible (in theological jargon it is called “hateful”).

7. This does not mean that the priest must leave the penitents in their situation. Because evil, even if one is not aware of it, hurts.

Nonetheless, in some cases it is necessary to start from afar, inviting them to the Christian life, to the attendance of sacraments, to participate in catechesis and to listen to sound preaching.

Then, having made a certain journey, they will more easily understand that some experiences are incompatible with  progress in spiritual life and do not correspond to the spirit of the Gospel.

I wish you well, I remind you to the Lord and I bless you.

Father Angelo