Contraception and Confession

Do priests ever inquire, if the subject is not brought up first by the penitent, whether married people are using contraception? And if not, why not?

In the 14 years I was with my wife, no priest ever asked me this question. (In recent years, one priest challenged why I was in my mid-40s when my only child was born, but that is another story.)

I realize that Humanae vitae did not come right out and say “contraception is a mortal sin”, but the traditional teaching of the Church is that any sexual act, complete or incomplete, where conception is either rendered impossible or is impossible in the first place, is objectively a mortal sin.

I say “objectively”. The matter itself is mortally sinful. As far as full consent of the will is concerned, it is very difficult to contracept accidentally. And as far as full knowledge is concerned, doesn’t the priest have a duty to instruct the penitent who may up to this point have been ignorant of the teaching?

Let me be clear at this point that I totally accept Humanae vitae and all teachings of the Church, and that even NFP can be used for sinful reasons.

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Because confession is a time for the penitent to confess their sins and seek fogiveness. It isn’t an inquisition.

Shame on a priest who would challenge you as to why you only have one child, regardless of your age. Not appropriate, at all (assuming it wasn’t part of a deeper conversation) . I hope you told him so.

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Amen.

Pope Francis said something about the Confessional not being a torture chamber but a place we find God’s mercy.

We confess our sins, we are not interrogated by priests. No one would go to confession if they knew they were going to face the Spanish Inquisition!

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My understanding is that a priest may ask questions to inquire as to a penitents sincere desire to amend their life. Base example: individual confesses to using contraception. Priest asks if they intend to stop. Something like that. Because it is in the priest’s power to withhold absolution should an individual say something to the effect of “no”, or equivocate or attempt to justify continuing in mortal sin.
But I’ve never heard of a priest probing for sins in the confessional. That sounds inappropriate.

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It would be very uncommon. In almost 30 years of marriage, I have never been asked in confession, nor in any other setting. I see no reason why a priest would have asked me. Does a priest in confession go through and ask a litany of sins a penitent may have committed? The closest thing I know of that is a priest leading a new penitent through an examination of conscience. But that is not common and when it is done it is typically people going to confession for their first time (young kids and converts).

I’ve been asked about sins of omission by a priest in confession-----what did I do for the poor, what do I do in my spare time ? I wasn’t offended I was grateful he cared enough to ask to help me make a complete and true Confession. He wasn’t rude in the manner he asked but very kind, caring and concerned.

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The job of the confessor is not to play investigator or prosecutor, but to administer absolution.

Its up to the penitent to give the priest something to work with!

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Good thoughts, all of these. But it’s my understanding that a priest’s duty in confession is, at the very least, to get and keep the penitent out of mortal sin.

Contraception is a mortal sin that, if we are to believe the surveys, over 90% of married Catholics in the West fall into. So if it’s not brought up, then perhaps something is being withheld from confession.

Some do it out of weakness (i.e., they believe the teaching but aren’t strong enough in their faith to live by it), some do it out of ignorance (they’ve never been taught properly or they’ve fallen into the trap of thinking “the Church doesn’t really forbid this anymore and, besides, society accepts it”), and some know the teaching but just flatly do not agree with it.

In all three cases, instruction is called for, and if the penitent is contracepting and refuses to stop, shouldn’t the priest refuse absolution?

Is it more merciful to practice the “spiritual surgery” (as I heard one priest put it) needed to bring the penitent to salvation — even if this means withholding absolution — or not to inquire and have the penitent, essentially, omitting a mortal sin from their confession?

I agree, confession is not a time for blanket interrogation, but if a sin is very common among people of a certain state of life (and I could cite other examples), and if the penitent doesn’t mention having committed that sin, doesn’t the priest have at least some reason to believe it is being committed but left unconfessed?

As a practical matter, very few people confess anymore, yet virtually everyone goes to Holy Communion. Not good.

(And no, I had no problem whatsoever with the priest asking why I first became a father in mid-life, especially when I mentioned that I was with my wife for many years before we had a child.)

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Yes but we’re living in odd times when emotional comfort is put ahead of spiritual mercy.

I certainly would have no problem with a priest asking, but I am not prepared to say that priests should be asking this to every married catholic between 20 and 45 years of age. I think if the priests has a reason to think it might be a problem, fine ask that.

In general, I agree with you that it doesn’t seem right that virtually everyone is going to Holy Communion every Sunday. OTOH, your statement that very few people confess anymore is starting to be less and less accurate around here. As I have posted before, almost all of the parishes around us have confessions 3 times a week, our parish has it everyday except Sunday. And the lines are always quite significant. One parish close by, for years had the typical 1 hour confession time on Saturday, and then a couple of years ago started having it two evenings a week. Lines all the time. As more parishes make confession more and more available, people are definitely going back to confession.

And should the priest not enquire if the penitent is paying fair wages to his or her employees? Or failing to help the poor? Or not working conscientiously when the boss isn’t around? Or any other sins which are explicitly condemned by God speaking through the prophets?

Why is a sexual sin to be raised, but not the sins against social justice (which, it could be argued, God views more seriously, given how often the prophets rail against such sins but never mention the sexual ones).

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Never said that.

When you go to confession, you state your sins. The priest doesn’t play 20 questions with you on this, or any other sin. That’s not what the confessional is for.

Well, I have zero kids and it’s not because my husband and I use contraception. So, really, anyone who improperly speculates on your use or non-use of contraception based on the number of children you have is guilty of rash judgment.

Well, the Catechism does.

Confession isn’t the place the priest does that, unless it’s counsel on a sin being confessed.

The teachings of the church are presented in the home (or not, but this is the primary place children learn the faith), in religious education classes, in adult education offered by the parish, and in homilies.

Sure, but Confession is not the time for catechesis.

Just imagine if a priest put this into practice. How often is he supposed to ask? Does he ask every person at every Confession in perpetuity? If people are confessing behind the screen, how is he supposed to know their age or whether he has asked them this same question before? What happens when he inevitably asks the same person 6 times in a row? If that were me, I’d be a bit annoyed.

I appreciate that you’re looking out for people, but this is not the way to go about it.

A priest has no duty to ask about particular sins during confession. But he has a general duty to properly instruct his parishioners about morals. This link specifically mentions instructing the parishioners about contraception.

No, just if he has a reason to believe it might be the case.

I have always understood that a confession should be prefaced by a brief summary of one’s state in life (age, state in life, or anything else that is relevant to the priest’s understand of the penitent). I always say as well, if I think of it, that I accept all of the Church’s teachings without exception. And I usually use the screen.

That wouldn’t bother me a bit. YMMV.

I was a bit confused at first by the expression “clerical contraception”, but it is an excellent article. At least in my younger years (70s and 80s), it seems as though many priests didn’t teach this because they didn’t believe it themselves. I find that almost without exception, younger priests tend to be more orthodox.

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First of all, I’m not sure what you mean by “or is impossible in the first place”. If by that you mean conception is impossible because of sterility (e.g. hysterectomy for valid reasons, menopause, wrong time of the month), then your statement is false. The Church does not teach that. The only requirement is that there be no imposed barriers to conception such as artificial birth control by either physical or hormonal means. Sterile couples can continue to have sex, couples can have sex beyond menopause, and couples can have sex in periods where the wife cannot conceive due to existing pregnancy, breastfeeding, or her natural cycle. None of those are sinful, much less grave matter for mortal sin.

The next point is that confession is not meant to be a fishing expedition for sin by the priest. It is meant to be a sacrament where we confess sins weighing on our conscience.

This is also not true. A woman may, for instance, be secretly taking the birth control pill, or have had an IUD inserted, without telling her husband. In the case the man is not guilty of the sin of contraception, if he has reason to believe that no birth control is being used.

I was referring to unnatural sexual acts. I can see how my phrase could have been confusing. Sorry.

Quite right. When I said “accidentally”, I meant that contraception, by its very nature, has to be premeditated — it’s not something that one decides to do half-mindfully or in the heat of a given moment. Coitus interruptus might, in some cases, not be premeditated.

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