The Protection of the Priest's Innocence

Dear Catholic Answers Forum,
I had a question about the limitations within the Sacrament of Confession. I heard a rumor that when an individual is confessing his sins to the priest, especially sexual sins, the individual must be very careful in choosing his words because if the individual is too explicit in explaining/confessing his sins to the priest then the innocence of the priest might be in danger. In other words, the priest might be lead into temptation because of the explicitness of the confession of the sin. However, on the other hand, individuals are advised to be openly clear when confessing their sins. Has anyone ever heard about this issue? Has anyone ever heard about “considering the protection of the priest’s innocence” within the sacrament of confession? What do you guys think? I feel as if I am the only one who has ever heard about this issue? Is this a famous issue? What do you guys think? Have you heard any official statement regarding this?

The short of it is that when confessing any mortal sins the penitent has an obligation to tell their number and kind (that is, enough information to distinguish the sin from other sins that are related to it–for example, it is not enough to say, “I committed sins against purity”). You have to give also any aggravating circumstances to the sin (e.g., was the sin with a married or unmarried person, a person of the same or opposite sex), etc. When confessing sins against purity as a married person, it is necessary to mention this fact, as it would also be necessary were the person to have a vow of celibacy, whether as a priest or religious or as a layman. Concerning the nature of the act itself, anything things that increase culpability (e.g., with impure images, whether they are of unnatural acts, and the like). This may seem a bit embarrassing to you and the confessor, but it is necessary. Some people (even priests) may claim that this is unnecessary, but because it is an aggravating factor of the sin, it must be mentioned. While keeping this in mind, all sins should be confessed with euphemisms as much as possible (e.g., one can say that he was “impure with himself” without using terminology that would sound crass) and certainly without any descriptions or stories. (Apparently this latter fault can be common in women regarding sins in general, not necessarily with sins against purity, though.)

The “priest’s innocence?” Sounds like an urban legend from a more naive time. I’ve heard priests tell males on retreat that in Confession, they should just “man up” and call a spade a spade, especially in sexual matters. I don’t think euphemisms do anyone any good. There’s power in having confront a fault head-on.

By euphemisms I mean using language that is identical to what may be common usage but is not as crass. This would only apply when the words are equivalent and could leave no doubt of the particular species of sin.

Priests go to school for moral theology, and no you wont shock him, no you don’t need to make your confession x-rated, either, just use the commonly accepted proper word for the sin, neither the vulgar nor the medical term is necessary, just say it, without the adjectives and adverbs.

wow - this issue seems to be so foreign - i am surprised this issue has not been addressed before - how do you know when your confession is too explicit or not clear enough? wow this is really important to address because our priests should not be hurt, especially within the sacrament of confession

You should err on the side of clarity. If you say too much, the priest will let you know. As other have pointed out, priests have to study all of these things during their moral theology and confession practicum classes. They won’t be scandalized at what they hear.

I sometimes feel sorry for the priest having to listen to all those sins, so, I have wondered about the protection of the priest’s innocence.

I think it’s best to be direct though and use plain English and be economical about the sin, avoiding telling narratives. The priest will ask you to elaborate if he thinks it’s necessary - but they rarely do though.

wow - this is such a terrible predicament for priests - are there any priests on this forum who could address this issue

I spent time at the seminary and have discussed this in depth with priests and deacons who were in the process of studying about it. Trust me, what everyone has said here is correct.

So you mean the priests will not be hurt by explicit confessions?
What do you mean when you say that what every said here is correct?
How should we approach this issue?

What do you mean by protecting the “innocence” of the priest? They are human beings like the rest of us, subject to the same type of temptations as the rest of us, and, especially today, in this culture, most have already been exposed via the media to almost every kind of sexual sin out there. They are not naive. And if they are, about a month of hearing confessons will cure them of that.

When you go to Confession, you confess the sin, you don’t need to use euphemisms, but you don’t need to use vulgar language, either, just confess the sin. If a priest’s moral state is so fragile that hearing confessions causes him great temptations, I would say he has a personal and spiritual problem that needs to be addressed.

Thank you so much for your clear and concise answer. What I spoke about the innocence of the priest I was referencing the possibility that the priest might not be familiar with some of the details of a particular sin with which he has no experience. For example, if the priest is still a virgin and is not familiar with some gruesome sexual sins, an explicit confession/description of a sin might hurt him and damage his own purity.
There needs to be at least some type of limitation or boundaries regarding verbal confessions.

I believe that the rule of thumb is state the sin, describe any circumstances that make it a worse or lighter sin, and leave it at that. If the priest needs clarification, he’ll ask for it.

Example (without being too graphic, and no, this is NOT from my experience! :stuck_out_tongue: ): “I am unmarried, and I committed the sin of fornication.”

The priest may ask for clarification (“Was this a spur of the moment act, or did you plan it?” “Did you use contraception?”) about the circumstances. He doesn’t need to know–and I can’t imagine a good reason for asking about–the specific details of what happened during the act unless the actions themselves would be a type of, erm, sexual sin even if conducted between husband and wife. (Trying to keep this fairly G-rated, here.)

A good confessor has heard pretty much everything; he isn’t going to throw you out of the confessional, be particularly shocked, or, in all likelihood, be tempted to sin based upon what he heard. It is, I think, our responsibility not to get pornographic about descriptions of sexual sins. One need not get into the gory physical details (except for the case stated above, and even then it can be stated as the name of the sin, not a description) to properly confess a sin.

Hope that helps.

In this respect, they have to study all these details in moral theology. In order to keep better decorum and seriousness in such discussions and to avoid scandal, I have heard of priests even teaching in surplice, stole, and biretta for such classes. (This attire is the customary attire for a sermon outside of Mass or for a priest giving the sermon who is not the celebrant of Mass.)

The whole “innocence of the priest” thing comes from an era that doesn’t exist any more. Priests do not start seminary when they are 14 any more. Men who want to become priests today begin their studies at 18 at the earliest. And on top of that, so-called “older vocations” (age 30+) are becoming the main age range now.
The overwhelming majority of priests have been out in the world, held a job for a period of time, dated, etc. before they entered seminary. So unless the penitent is telling their sins as if they’re narrating a dirty novel on tape then its highly unlikely anything the penitent says is going to be scandalous.

I’d never heard of that, but it makes perfect sense. It also strikes me as particularly interesting that they’d use vestments generally reserved for the sacred to handle something so deadly to the soul–not unlike a priest doing an exorcism, right? It would simultaneously be a symbol of the gravity of the matter at hand and the priest’s authority. “Tu es sacerdos secundum ordinem Melchisidech”, and all that.


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