When is mortal sin not mortal sin?

I have two brief questions about priests who have told me that my confessed sins are not mortal.

First, I tend to go to confession about once a week. On occassion, when I have confessed sins that the catechism expressly states are mortal, the priest has simply stated that he does not feel that the sins are mortal. He then has not offered me absolution. It hasn’t been that he doesn’t think my particular sin was mortal, but that the sin is not mortal under any circumstances, basically disagreeing with Church teaching. Do I need to seek absolution elsewhere when this happens or am I given absolution anyway, even though the priest doesn’t exactly “go through the motions?”

Secondly, on occasion, priests have told me that given my own personal circumstances, they didn’t feel that my moral culpability was sufficient for mortal sin. I always abstain from taking Eucharist when I perceive that I have committed a mortal sin. However, one priest recently told me that I should take Eucharist at mass after committing a particular sin anyway, because my personal circumstances were sufficient mitigating factors to preclude mortal sin and that my need for the Eucharist was greater. My question is, therefore, was this priest obfuscating the Church’s teaching on mortal sin? I can imagine another priest telling me differently for various examples. A friend told me that I should follow the dictates of my own conscience. What do I do, however, now that I perceive conflicting messages from various priests but don’t have a strong enough moral compass to discern appropriate action?

Dear PR,

If you confess only venial sins to the priest, he should give you absolution. If you go to Confession once a week, chances are that most often all you will have are venial sins. This is a laudable thing to do and the priest has no right to not absolve you.

If you form your conscience according to the Catechism, you are on the right track. It is impossible for me to know which priest gave you correct advice—if any, since I don’t know the specifics. But I do know that a priest should not be contradicting the Catechism. I will contact you privately on this.

Fr. Vincent Serpa, O.P.

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