Forgotten sins

Question: Given the dramatic rise in Alzheimer’s disease and the necessity of remembering our sins in order to properly confess them, what is your take on those people who haven’t been to confession in decades who now can’t remember that far back in order to make a valid confession? Do you think their souls are in mortal danger?

Janet Cooper, San Diego, Calif.

Answer: It is the instinct of the Church to work with people at every stage of their journey and trust in God’s mercy. Even when people are comatose, the priest seeks to reach them, asking them to call to mind any sins, and to call on the Lord. A priest may even lead such a person in a brief examination of conscience on the possibility that, though unable to communicate with us, they can still hear to some extent, and in the depth of their soul God is still prompting them to repentance and faith. The priest then gives the absolution, and the person receives it to the degree that he or she can or is needful. Priests also anoint people in such conditions and, if they are near death, give the apostolic pardon. Thus the Church trusts in God’s mercy and unfailingly extends the offer of that mercy unto the very end, even to those who have clinically died, but the body still has some warmth.

If this be the case for the comatose, even more so for those who are still alert, though beset with various stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The priest will engage them to extent that he can, give the absolution and extend anointing and other blessings as seems needed and fit.

The ultimate determination of a person’s ability to fruitfully receive the sacrament belongs to God. For example, whether a person had sinfully refused to get to confession long before slipping into dementia is not something we can fully know. Neither can we always know if a person, in dementia, has experienced a change of heart and true repentance. Thus, we exhort them as far as possible and extend the sacraments, commending them to God who sees into the heart and knows a person’s final disposition.

Being certain

Question: I wonder why we talk about certainty. It seems to me that certainty is a form of arrogance, since it says we have no doubt about something.

Name, location withheld

Answer: You speak too categorically. Certitude is not necessarily absent of all misgiving or doubt. We can distinguish between different types of certitude, admitting of varying degrees of misgiving. The highest form of certitude is the certitude of faith that does not admit of error. The certitude extends to the truths of our faith as revealed by God who can neither deceive, nor be deceived. The certitude is in God, not in us.

Metaphysical certitude regards truths that are self-evidently necessary; for example, that I who am thinking must therefore exist; or, that a triangle has three sides are things about which we can have nearly absolute certainty.

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Physical certitude rests on the laws of nature. Such truths are generally consistent and discoverable as laws by experience and permit us to confidently predict the future by the past. But physical certitude can occasionally give way to outside factors, which alter the outcomes.

Moral certitude involves judgments made concerning human character and conduct; for the laws of human nature are not quite universal, but subject to occasional exceptions. I can depend on others with this certitude, but realize that people sometimes disappoint, even if rarely.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at Send questions to