Confession Question: Erroneous Conscience

Hello,

I would appreciate your thoughts on a conversation that I had with a friend regarding the philosophical concept of “erroneous conscience.” This friend was told by his confessor that it is not necessary to confess mortal sins (as defined by the Church) if, after full examination of the Church’s teaching, one honestly believes that the action in question is not sinful. One who commits such acts may also receive the Eucharist.

According to the confessor, such a person is acting with an “erroneous conscience.” In this case, confession is not required because:

  1. One who does not honestly believe that an act is sinful cannot be acting with “full knowledge,” one of the three requirements for a sin to be mortal. (CCC 1855)

  2. According to St. Thomas, it is a sin to violate one’s conscience.

  3. One who confesses an act that one does not consider sinful cannot truly have contrition and is thus committing the sin of sacrilege.

Can anyone comment on this advice? I’ve done some research myself online, and all I can find is the exhortation that “one is bound to form one’s conscience in light of Church teaching.” I’m not sure that it matters, but I’m pretty sure the sin in question is the use of artificial contraception. My friend and I have discussed Humanae Vitae and John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” on occasion, and I know that he has considered extensively church teaching on contraception and does not agree with it.

Should I advise my friend to seek another confessor? In all my years of being Catholic and studying about the church, I’ve never come across this concept of “erroneous conscience,” and I’d hate for my friend to be led astray by an unorthodox teaching or (perhaps more likely) one priest’s idiosyncratic view of St. Thomas.

I am not sure that you have set the right premise, “ it is not necessary to confess mortal sins (as defined by the Church) if, after full examination of the Church’s teaching, one honestly believes that the action in question is not sinful”, because:

(1) the Church’s teaching on sin is pretty clear; you can only consider it is not a sin if you disagree with it. And if that is so, you definitely have a problem with your belief and with the Church. Believing it is not a sin will not make it not a sin.

(2) If you truly you do not think it is a sin out of ignorance, then of course you will go to receive the Holy Eucharist. You can make a mistake this one time but after you realize it is wrong or were told by a priest it is wrong in your confession, usually mistake like that will not be committed twice. In any case, always believe that God forgives and therefore confess our sins as long as it is against the teaching of the Church.

God bless you.

Let me try to phrase my question as clearly as possible. Suppose act X is clearly defined by the Church to be a mortal sin. Suppose also that an individual knows that act X is objectively sinful but, subjectively, after full consideration of the Church’s teaching, cannot agree with the Church’s conclusion. By following his conscience and committing the act, is this person 1) bound to confess act X when he goes to Confession; and 2) can he receive the Eucharist without confessing act X?

The real issue here is not the confessor (though that is one issue), but rather that your friend is obstinately rejecting defined Catholic teaching that conception is intrinsically evil and is a mortal sin. Your friend is not free to decide what is a mortal sin and what is not. By his logical, he can decide in his “conscience” that murder is not a “mortal” sin, and so be an ax murderer, omit “murder” in his confessions, recieve the Eucharist, and go to Heaven!

I don’t think so, homie.

That is obviously illogical. Mortal sins are not up to interpretation. You need to tell your friend about Padre Pio—a Saint—and his confessions. Have him check this out: he wouldn’t be trying these tricks with Padre Pio, that is for certain:

padrepio.catholicwebservices.com/English/Confess.htm

As for the other statement that “one is bound to form one’s conscience in light of Church teaching,” I think that sums it up: we must submit our consciences to Church teaching. Surely, we can all realize that we are just little humans who make mistakes, right? If we make mistakes and need absolution, then certainly we cannot be trusted to “determine” what is and isn’t a “mortal” sin (or any kind of sin). If we have ideas in our consciences that contradict Church teaching, we absolutely must chose infallible Church teaching over our very fallible “consciences.” Not to do so is illogical, and very prideful, as well. Pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins: we do not “know better” than the Church on matters of faith and morals, period.

I have to wonder why anyone would even want to be a Catholic if he thought he “knew better” than the Catholic Church. Try to work on your friend, because he is of bad will to think such things. Even if you got him the best confessor around, it wouldn’t matter, because he would apparently intentionally omit his mortal sins because he “knows better.” Omission itself is a mortal sin. He doesn’t seem too interesting in pleasing God, but rather massaging his ego and his interpretor of things. Those ideas are foreign to the Church: the Church does not deviate from the teaching of Jesus Christ, and neither can he. This is a very grave situation for your friend’s soul, indeed. He really needs to put his ego away and submit to the Truth, and not his “opinion.”

Especially when you phrase it that way, your friend’s illogicality becomes even more clear. Let’s say X is murder.

“I know the Church says murder is objectively a mortal sin. But after having fully considered it, I cannot agree with the Church’s conclusion, and I subjectively declare that I am hereby not only allowed to commit murder, but I am likewise free from the obligation to confess my murders, because according to me, they are not sins. Plus, I get to go to Heaven. Boy, this Catholic thing is a piece of cake!”

No, no, no, no, no! This is all wrong. This is so completely foreign to the Church that I wonder if you’re friend is not actually a Protestant. He seems to have somewhere in him the false idea of eternal sanctification, and justification by conscience, but even most Protestants would not say what he’s saying! These are not Catholic ideas, and they are utterly inconsistent with the teaching of our Lord. There is absolutely no defending what your friend is saying—he is furthermore trying to corrupt you, and you know better than to listen to the “death-dealing tongues of heretics.” This is totally immoral. Even making excuses for sins is a sin, lest “deciding” what a sin is or isn’t? Get out of here! Who does this guy think he is?

I’m reminded of that lowly archangel who responded to Lucifer’s defiance of God, when Lucifer cockily and pridefully declared “Non serviam,” (“I will not serve”), with the proper repsonse to Lucifer of “Michael?” (“Who is like unto God?”) Lucifer doesn’t get to decide to ignore God’s will without consequence, and neither do we. We know that little voice now as our powerful ally, Saint Michael the Archangel. God did not excuse Lucifer’s “non serviam,” and He will not excuse your friends “non serviam.” This is really just outrageous.

Some from the Catechism for your discussion…some things to consider.

I

1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man "takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin."59 In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.

1792 Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.

see full treatment:

vatican.va/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a6.htm#III

and

1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart133 do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

Full: vatican.va/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a8.htm#IV

also see Canons: 750 -thru 753 vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P2H.HTM

and a good thing for the friend to ponder…read to the end vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/homilies/2009/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20090628_chius-anno-paolino_en.html

Thanks for these thoughts and resources. I spoke with my friend about the issue this morning, and he responded:

  1. He does not believe his position on artificial contraception to be right and the Church’s to be wrong; rather, he has “read all there is to read on the issue and nonetheless does not understand the Church’s position.”

  2. He had resolved to “prayerfully reconsider the issue” in the hope of eventually understanding the Church’s position.

  3. His confessor told him that he should not deprive himself of the Eucharist while striving for such understanding and that he should not confess the sin during confession so as not to commit the sin of sacrilege.

So, at least he realizes that his subjective views on artificial contraception are not in line with objective truth as defined by the Church. Still, I’m going to encourage him to refrain from communicating while he is still using artificial contraception.

Well, I think you have a lot more charity for him that his priest does, unfortunately, because you are right. He absolutely should not be receiving our Lord as Eucharist as long as he is not receiving our Lord as True. That’s really disappointing about the priest—man. This is a mortal sin, not something one can “think about.” What has happened to our priests…O, Te confido, Jesu, Te confido, Jesu…et dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt.

At least you’re looking out for your friend’s soul. :slight_smile:

With all due respect, I understand that you are worried about your friend,
however, who are you to contradict what his priest/confessor tells him?:frowning:

Actually, who are any of us to question this?
We do not know all of the details, only those the OP shared,
who is relating information that he got from someone else,
who may or may not have articulated exactly what the priest said correctly or in proper context.

As far as “not believing” the Church’s stance on birth control, there is no real sin in that.
Where the sin comes in is in “practicing” artificial birth control. I can hold the opinion that the Church is wrong,
but I still must follow the “rules” if I wish to be in full communion.
There is a very big difference here.

If anything, I would want my friend to continue to receive communion, as the graces and benefits from the sacrament, can help to guide him into making the right decisions.

Bottom line, none of us know for sure what the intent was here. If it were my friend, I would hope that he would listen to his priest before he listens to a bunch of “arm-chair theologians” who think that they “know better”.

Do you honestly think that Jesus would deny your friend? :shrug:

The act is not defined as a “mortal” sin, it is defined as “grave matter”. It is the other two conditions, full knowledge and full consent, that raise an individual instance of the sin to mortal. In short, “mortal” is attached to the culpability of the sinner, not the sin itself.

If a sin is grave matter, it can be mortal if the other conditions are met. If it is a minor matter, then it can never be a mortal sin but is still a sin for which it is beneficial to use the healing power of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

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