Confession of sins

Question: As a child, I was taught to confess my sins individually by name and the number of times committed. Is this practice legally required? Some confessors say this amount of detail is unnecessary. Also, how did the confession ritual of the Church get established? There is no biblical record that I know of.

Glen Morton, Peoria, Illinois

Answer: Confessing sins in kind (by name) and number is required only for mortal sins. For lesser (venial) sins it is sufficient to speak of them more generally. For example, one could say, “I get angry at my kids from time to time.”

While you place the requirement of kind and number in the context of law, it is more helpful to see it in a pastoral way. Think of someone who goes to the doctor with significant headaches. To diagnose the problem and its severity, the doctor may ask how frequently the headaches occur, when and where the pain is felt. It is similar with priests. Sacramental norms indicate that serious sins be confessed in kind and number to assist the priest in understanding how significant the problem is for a person. Then he can advise and supply possible remedies and a penance more accurately.

As for the biblical roots of confession, Jesus gave the apostles authority to forgive or retain sin on the night of the Resurrection: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:23). To do this presumes that people must approach the apostles, indicate their sins and, having assessed contrition, the apostles and their priestly successors can absolve or withhold absolution. The Book of James speaks of calling on the priests of the Church when someone is sick so that they can be anointed and “if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven” (Jas 5:15). The Book of Acts says: “Many of those who had become believers came forward and openly acknowledged their former practices” (19:18). The context of the verse indicates it was Paul to whom they came.

The precise rituals have varied over the centuries. But the fundamental teaching of the need to confess serious sins to a priest and receive absolution is a biblical and consistent practice of the Catholic Church.

Original sin

Question: I’ve been taught that, with the sin of the first parents, sickness and death entered the world and that nature was in perfect harmony prior to that. Scientific findings indicate that whole species of animal life came and went prior to the perceived advent of mankind and that nature was possibly even more violent than in current times. How can I reconcile the scientific findings with Genesis?

Joann Capone, via email

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Answer: You read more into what is taught than is necessary. The biblical creation accounts assert that after creating the earth, God formed a garden and placed man there, endowing him with certain preternatural gifts such as immortality and infused knowledge. Within this garden setting was a kind of paradise where mankind was isolated from death and the vicissitudes of the wider created order. But this need not be taken to mean that the wider earth and cosmos was free of this, or that, as you described, great upheavals and extinctions had taken place prior to God creating man. After sin, mankind is consigned to live outside the garden paradise and now faces things such as death and the sometimes-chaotic conditions of the wider world.

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 blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.