ROMAN CATHOLIC BOOKS
PARDON AND PEACE:
Alfred Wilson, CP
Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat,
THERE is a good deal of truth
in the saying that "the man you hate
is the man you don't know." Not a few penitents are nervous about
Confession, and if they do not exactly hate it, certainly dread it and
suffer in varying degrees from an unreasoning dread of Confession ---
One of the chief aims of these chapters is to show that this dread is
due to misunderstanding and grossly exaggerated ideas of the
requirements of Confession. The Confession you dread is the Confession
you don't know. Many fear Confession not for what it is, but for what
they think it is, most of their difficulties being homemade. Let us
consider a few of the bogeys which often scare people as they approach
the Sacrament of Penance.
Many penitents are tormented by doubtful sins. At the first onset of
temptation, they become panic-stricken and confuse the sensing of the
attraction of temptation with consent, so that every temptation becomes
for them prospective matter for confession. About the past, too, they
are always uncertain; uncertain if they confessed the sin at all,
uncertain if they confessed it sufficiently, uncertain if they made the
sin black enough, uncertain if the priest understood, uncertain if they
were really sorry, uncertain until they are driven to distraction ---
not to drink. Here is a specimen worry.
Remember that night some years ago when you were going home from a
party. The sky seemed crammed with dancing stars as merry as yourself.
The lampposts were obviously up to tricks and never seemed to be there
when you tried to lean against them. Somehow you don't remember much
more about it except that you woke up next morning with a bad head and
got a terrible scolding from your wife. Unfortunately, there is no
doubt about the incident, but you are not sure whether you realized at
the time what was happening or was likely to happen, nor whether you
have already confessed what did happen. Two problems worry you:
1. Was your lapse deliberate or indeliberate?
2. Have you ever confessed the incident; and if not, must you confess
There is no obligation to confess doubtful sins. The catechism for the
Diocese of Rome, approved by Pope Pius X, has this question: "If a
person is not sure of having committed a sin, must he confess it?"
And the answer is: "If a person is not sure of having committed a sin,
he is not obliged to confess it; but if he wishes to, he must add that
he is not sure of having committed it."
The Council of Trent tells us that we are bound to confess all mortal
sins of which we are conscious. In this case you are conscious, not of
sin, but of a doubt about sin; and you cannot simultaneously be
conscious of doubt about sin and of sin, any more than you can be
conscious simultaneously of certainty and uncertainty in the same
Common sense tells us that a doubt cannot create a certain obligation,
any more than uncertainty can, of itself, produce certainty. If there
were an obligation to confess every sin of which we are not quite
certain, Confession would become a bugbear, especially to people with a
bad memory. Doubts are, therefore, matter for solution rather than
absolution, and are to be solved not absolved.
Many people will be inclined to
object to this: "Yes, that's all
very well in theory, but in practice, is it not far better to tell
doubtful sins? In fact, would it not be unwise to omit them?"
It all depends. If very occasionally you remember such sins and do not
make a habit of it, nor "get in a state" about it, then it is better to
confess them just as they are, and have done with them. But if, on the
other hand, you do make a habit of it and are constantly afraid of
having omitted sins, then it is far better not to confess.
Experience ought to have taught you that you will not remedy things by
repeating confessions. Be honest with yourself --- has the repetition
of confessions brought you any nearer to lasting peace of mind? If you
are obsessed by doubts about past sins, you will not rid yourself of
the obsession until you find and remove its cause. You are definitely
in the scrupulous class and should employ the technique suggested in
Chapters IX and X [Fuddle and Fif, Fears and Phobias]; and above all,
you should contemplate assiduously the infinite mercy of God.
In all probability you are much more concerned about the damage and
danger to yourself than about the injury done to God, so your scruples
have no kinship with true contrition. Moreover, you are making the
mistake, elsewhere indicated, of trying to make yourself secure by your
own devices. You will never obtain the mathematical certainty which you
desire, not even if you go on repeating confessions until Doomsday; so
the sooner you give up trying and trust the mercy of God, the better
for yourself. Behind all this worry there is probably a subtle worship
of the "Great-I- Am." You are so surprised and indignant that the
"Great-I- Am" should have failed so badly that you can't get over it,
and turn in fierce indignation against yourself. The remedy for this
fierce vindictiveness is humility.
A scrupulous person will still feel inclined to object: "But suppose I
did omit a serious sin! You must admit that I may have left something
out!" Granted. It is possible, though unlikely, that you may have
omitted a serious sin in confession; but even if you did, provided the
omission was not deliberate nor due to gross negligence, the sin was
covered by the absolution. The sin is forgiven, you have satisfied the
law of confession as far as you can; therefore, no further obligation
can arise unless a certain unconfessed mortal sin comes spontaneously
The next move is with the Lord. If there is still a serious outstanding
sin which He wishes you to confess, it is up to Him to bring it to your
mind; and if He does not trouble to do so, it is safe to conclude that
He wishes bygones to be bygones. If He does not recall the sin to your
mind, He has no one to blame but Himself. Of one thing we can be
certain and it is this: He will not half-do anything; whatever He does,
He will do thoroughly and well. If He chooses to recall a sin to your
mind, He will recall it with clarity and certainty, and not in a vague,
foggy, disturbing way. His inspirations never destroy our peace of mind.
It should be easy to see that the Lot's wife obsession is a grievous
temptation of the devil, who hopes by it to destroy your concentration
on the present. Your concentration on the present, and the graces of
the present, must suffer if you are always thinking of the past.
Walking backwards, like walking blindfold, may be great fun in
household games, but it is grave folly elsewhere. You cannot be always
thinking of the past without being spiritually blear-eyed. If you would
give as much time to finding and correcting your predominant fault as
you give to worrying about the past, you would soon become a Saint.
Before there can be any obligation to go back on the past, three things
must be certain:
1. That what you did was a mortal sin in itself.
2. That it was a mortal sin to you.
3. That you have not already confessed it.
Consider the conditions carefully:
A Mortal Sin in Itself --- Doubts about the objective seriousness of
the sin can be solved easily and quickly by inquiry or study.
A Mortal Sin to You --- In your childhood or youth you may have done
something gravely sinful, without realizing the sinfulness then. God
will judge you according to the knowledge you had then, not according
to the knowledge you have now. "No afterthought or view of a past sin
can make it a sin if, through ignorance, it were not such when
committed, nor can any afterthought or subsequent knowledge make a sin
greater than it actually was when it was committed." 
Many people in their youth practise self-abuse without knowing the
seriousness of it. It would be a lie to confess such things as serious
sins, because the knowledge required for serious sin was lacking.
Mortal sin always presumes full knowledge of the gravity of the offence
and full consent.
Not Already Confessed --- If you have reason to believe that you did
confess a sin, even if you have also reason to believe that you did not
confess it, there is no obligation to go back. In practice this means
that those who have always done their best at each confession, at least
since their conversion, need never go back, because it is morally
impossible that they could have omitted anything really serious.
Therefore, they have no real doubt at all; or, at any rate, no doubt
which cannot be solved quite easily by the application of a little calm
A FALSE ASSUMPTION
Behind the worries of the Lot's wife devotees there often lurks a false
assumption. Many people imagine that what they say in the confessional
must correspond exactly, and to the letter, with what they did. If such
accuracy were necessary, Christ might just as well not have instituted
the Sacrament of Penance at all, because it would be practically no use
to us. Probably we never, or hardly ever, tell our sins exactly as they
are before God. In many cases it is morally impossible, without special
illumination from God, that we should achieve literally exact statement
of what we have done. Take the case, not by any means unheard of, of a
man who has been forty or sixty years away from the Sacrament. If he
has to tell his sins with absolute accuracy, he might as well give up
his soul as lost.
Had Christ required that in every circumstance, confession of past sin
should be materially complete, allowing nothing for possible lapses of
memory, He would have subordinated His gift, in practice, to the
retentiveness of memory of the persons concerned; and as a man's sins
accumulated in the course of his life and the necessity of receiving
the Sacrament became the greater, the less capable would he have been
of making the necessary dispositions, since to him, this integral
confession would then be morally impossible. It was imperative,
therefore, that however material this integrity must be in principle,
it should be reduced in practice to such an integrity as circumstances
of time and persons should permit. 
Absolute integrity in our confessions is generally unattainable and,
therefore, not required: no one is bound to the impossible. What is necessary is that we do our best
(not necessarily our bestest-best) to make what we say correspond with
what we did, and having done that, we have done all that Our Lord
expects or demands. He has not guaranteed us infallibility in
Confession and therefore He neither expects nor commands it. Let us
beware of insulting Jesus by presuming that He demands more than we can
Another worry of penitents is sometimes occasioned by the foolish
conduct of those who have an unhealthy craze for making general
confessions. The example of this bogus thoroughness creates in
sensitive souls a suspicion and fear that, because they never go back
on the past, they may be too lax and easy-going. The devil seizes the
opportunity and suggests that they are too lazy and cowardly, and too
concerned about their confessor's good opinion to do anything of the
The craze for making general confessions is a symptom of spiritual
hypochondria and is distinctly unhealthy and morbid. We should think a
man morbid if he wanted a regular X-ray of his internal organs just to
reassure himself that they were in good condition. This is an almost
exact parallel of what the spiritual hypochondriacs want to do, and one
line of conduct is as wise as the other.
General confessions should be used sparingly, like castor oil;
otherwise, the remedy will cause far more damage than the disease. A
general confession is useful, if one has not been made already, when we
are taking some very important step, for example, joining a religious
order, or getting married. "It should be made once and well, and once
Towards the close of life, or annually at retreats, it is profitable to
make a simple review since the last general confession. An occasional
overhaul is useful, but frequent overhauls are as useful for the soul
as they are for a car.
Beware of spiritual hypochondria --- it is a disease.
WANT OF FAITH
Worries about the past are generally the outcome of want of faith. "I
should be so happy," says the doubting Thomas, "if only I knew that my
past sins are forgiven'"
These unbelievers want experimental knowledge and visible proof of
forgiveness, they desire to see their souls pure after Confession, just
as they see their hands clean after washing. What they need is more
virile faith. The desire for proof amounts to a refusal to live by
faith. "Blessed are they that have not seen and have believed," and
blessed are they who are content to take Our Lord at His word. He will
not gratify the desire for the evidence of the senses, because He is
too kind to deprive us of the merit of faith and trust.
Instead of following up their worries, the scrupulous would be far
better employed making acts of faith, "I believe, Lord, help Thou my
unbelief!" Instead of cherishing a secret notion of their own
hyperprudence, let them regard themselves instead as sadly deficient in
faith and humility. In all their worries there is not a particle of
piety but only a considerable amount of pride, cowardice and unbelief.
THE QUESTION OF CONSENT
It would not be surprising if the reader has already sighed with
disappointment and said: "O! He's missed the very point I thought and
hoped he was going to discuss. My main difficulty is not the distant
past but the immediate past. What worries me most is the question of
consent to sins of the mind, to sins --- of thought, especially in the
matter of purity."
This is a big question, which cannot be adequately treated here. It is
hoped, however, that the few principles which follow will be sufficient
to solve the majority of cases of doubt about consent.
Let us consider the question of impure thoughts. It is morally
impossible for a person who is habitually careful about purity to give
full consent to impure thoughts without being fairly certain of it.
When the will is habitually set against impurity, full consent to
impure thoughts implies a somersault of the will, a volte-face, a
turning round from North to South Pole. It is impossible for such a
complete change to take place in the will without the mind being pretty
certain about it. Uncertainty is, therefore, a clear sign that there
was no full consent. In this matter we should go by what the
theologians call "the law of presumptions." If a person regularly gives
way to sins of impurity, in case of doubt it is probable that there was
sin. If a person never or hardly ever gives way to sins of impurity, in
case of doubt it is morally impossible that there was serious sin, for
the reason just given.
In the latter case, there is no real
doubt, and so no question of
taking the benefit of the doubt, if we ignore the worry and, after
making a short act of contrition for any partial consent there may have
been, go blithely on our way.
Unless we do this, we shall fall easy victims to the devil of
NOT BLACK ENOUGH!
People often worry about the confession of sins of impurity because
they imagine that they did not make them black enough.
When confessing sins of impurity, it is neither necessary nor wise to
go into details unless the circumstances change the nature of the sin.
All that is required is to tell the kind of sin and the number of times
it was committed. "Immodest touches once" would include any number of
such touches at the one session. In this matter quite a lot is taken
for granted; if, for example, intercourse is confessed, it is taken for
granted that there were accompaniments; and so it is unnecessary to
mention the fact. The time element need not, as a rule, be mentioned;
because it makes no essential difference whether the sinful acts
endured for five minutes or five hours.
In confessing sins of impurity, the rule is "No unnecessary
circumstances, please!" In other words, there is no need to make them
black --- which statement can be taken in two ways with equal truth.
CONFESSION OF DOUBTFUL SINS
Do not confess doubtful sins as certain, to be on the safe side;
because if you do, there wont be any doubt about your lie. It is a lie
to confess as certain what you know to be uncertain; and such a
surrender to unreasoning fear and timidity weakens both character and
spirituality. Tell the truth and be simple and terse about it. If you
think it more likely that you consented to sin, say so; if you think it
less likely, say so --- and don't waste a lot of time about it.
If you are doubtful about a sin, do not spend much time trying to solve
the doubt, because the longer you analyse yourself, the more confused
you will become, and you may even renew the temptation.
A SLIP OF THE TONGUE
Not infrequently one finds penitents who are distressed because they
imagine that they have told a lie to the Holy Ghost and received
absolution sacrilegiously. The genesis of the worry is generally
something like this.
The penitent has neglected to tell the number of times he has committed
a certain sin, probably a venial sin. The confessor asks: "About how
many times have you committed this sin?" The penitent is confused, his
mind suddenly goes blank and he blurts out an answer, which is, of
course, nothing more than an honest guess. On reflection, he realizes
that his guess was very wide of the mark and, possibly, a considerable
understatement. He is paralysed by fear that he has committed a
Sacrileges are not so easily committed. An indeliberate mis-statement
or error is not a lie. An honest guess is not a lie. The priest knew
that a considered answer was impossible and, therefore, to safeguard
the penitent, asked for an approximate number, "about how many times?"
An approximate number was all that could be given in the circumstances
and all that was asked.
What is the penitent to do when he discovers his mistake?
1. Learn wisdom. If sins are worth confessing, they are worth
2. If there was a question of mortal sins, the penitent must confess
the surplus at his next confession, which he need not anticipate.
3. If there was question of venial sins, he need do no more about it
except learn wisdom.
You may ask: "If there was question only of venial sins, why did the
priest ask about the number of times?" Probably to teach you to be more
workmanlike and less slipshod in your accusations. More probably
because he wanted to find out if the fault was inveterate or just a
casual one. This knowledge might make a considerable difference to the
advice he would give you. Dismiss your worry but learn from your
THE OLD, OLD STORY
In the chorus of an old popular song, the words occur: "telling the
old, old story, over and over again." Perhaps these words strike you as
an uncomfortably accurate description of your ordinary confessions. For
many people the sameness of their confessions is a real worry.
"Father," they say ruefully, "I've always got the same old story. My
weekly budget hardly ever varies. I have always the same list of sins."
Well, cheer up --- you always will have.
This worry reminds one of some of the old stories of the comedians: for
example, of the story of the Scot and the Jew who went to see a play
called The Miracle. The Scot
went ahead to the box office and paid for both of them, whereupon the
Jew turned on his heel and walked away. The commissionaire, seeing the
Jew walk away, said to him:
"Aren't you coming in to see The
"No," said the Jew. "I 'as seen ze miracle."
The point of such stories is the shock or absurdity of a man suddenly
doing something so utterly contrary to his disposition. Any such moral
miracle would be so unexpected as to seem incongruous and make us
laugh. Now, we all inherit a certain disposition which inevitably
determines the tendencies of our personality. Both our virtues and our
vices will follow in the wake of our disposition. If we began to act
habitually in a way contrary to our known dispositions, our neighbours
would decide that we were acting a part. If they saw that the change
was genuine, besides having a fit, they would recognize a miraculous
transformation and become either scared or amused.
If you are naturally inclined to be dour and humourless, you will not
have to confess levity, nor excessive hilarity, and you will tend to be
rather hard on those who have to confess them. Liverish, wet-blankety
types won't be liable to fits of the giggles; it is a pity, but a fact!
The naturally generous may have to confess prodigality, but never
parsimony. Prodigality will not be included in the budget of the mean;
though it might be a blessing if it were, because such a swing of the
pendulum to the opposite extreme might tend to restore the balance.
Your nature remains the same, your temptations remain the same, the
circumstances of your life remain the same, so it is hardly surprising
that your faults remain the same. You can take it for granted that they
will remain in the same grooves unless the circumstances of your life
are radically changed.
If you were born with a short temper or a long tongue, you will always
be troubled by your pet foible; but don't settle down to it in a
fatalistic way as though nothing could be done about it. You cannot
eradicate natural tendencies, but you can learn to control them, and
the maintenance of steady self-control is the making of character and
It has often puzzled me how comparatively little even good people have
to show for their many confessions, how they settle down into a sort of
fatalism, as if they never could be or hope to be markedly better than
when they started. There is no need to worry, then, because you have
always the same list of faults; but there is real need to worry if you
are doing nothing about it and taking the situation for granted, as
though you could never reasonably hope to diminish the number of your
failures and achieve gradually almost perfect self-control. It is a
wise plan deliberately to persevere with the same list of sins, until
you get sick of it and are driven in desperation to strong effort. You
simply cannot, week after week or fortnight after fortnight, see
yourself as you are, steadily fix your eye on a glaring fault, be
heartily sorry for it and thoroughly ashamed of it, and yet do nothing
to amend. Remorse, self-reproach, will after a time become so
intolerable that they will goad you into action. 
Do not quote your disposition as excuse for your faults. One often
hears people say: "Oh it was my nerves!" "Nerves" are no excuse for
getting on everybody else's nerves. We should be careful about our
habitual faults, which harm our spiritual life and embroil our social
relations more perhaps than we care to realize. We are aware what harm
may be caused in the body by a slight derangement of one small bodily
organ, for example, a bad tooth, a sore throat, or a spot on the lung.
In the spiritual order, probably half or three-quarters of our troubles
of mind and soul are due to similar spots, and if we removed them, life
would be happier both for us and for others. 
Our faulty tendencies, like the poor, we shall have always with us, the
occasion of myriads of graces and incalculable strengthening of
character and enriching of personality, if we fight; the occasion of
innumerable sins and of steady deterioration of character, if we shirk
THE SAME AGAIN
Another worry which bothers many people is often expressed like this:
"Father, I am sure I shall do the same thing again, so my contrition
cannot be genuine."
This very real worry is worth careful analysis. It originates in this
way. First of all, the mind reviews the spiritual situation and surveys
the past, the present and the future. Looking back, it sees many falls
and considerable evidence of weakness of will. Looking to the future,
it sees difficulties ahead, the same stale irritating difficulties; it
takes into account the weakness of human nature, the difficulty of
sustained effort, the monotony of routine, the effect of bad example,
and so on. Having considered all this, the mind turns very cynically to
the will and says: "It's all right for you to make your fine
resolutions now. At the moment you are all keyed up, but tomorrow you
will slacken off and then down you will go again."
The point is: Are you keyed up now? If you are, that is enough. All God
asks is a firm resolution here and now; He does not demand a guarantee
that your resolution will remain firm until the crack of doom. No one
could give such a guarantee. "If anyone thinketh himself to stand, let
him beware lest he fall." If here and now you are determined to try not
to fall again, it is waste of time to speculate about the future. If
you want contrition, you have it.
It is never wise nor humble to be cocksure of our resolution.
Cocksureness is as disastrous and odious in the spiritual life as in
ordinary life, and its root is pride, not strength. There are some who,
after a good confession and after working themselves up to sensible
sorrow, seem to imagine that they are quite changed beings, who will
never be in danger of falling again. As a result of this delusion, they
confide in their own imaginary strength. Their cry is very like that of
St. Peter: "Lord, though all should deny Thee, I will never deny
Thee!," and very unlike that of St. Philip Neri: "Lord, beware of this
Philip or he will betray Thee! Lay Thy Hand upon my head, for without
Thee there is not a sin I may not commit this day!"
When the presumptuous fall into sin again, they are surprised and
indignant and become almost bitter and spiteful with God, as though He
had let them down. It does not seem to strike them that they hardly
deigned to ask God's help, and that since, in their hard-headed
presumption, they tackled the task single-handed, they have no one to
blame for their failure but themselves.
One strong resolution is not going to make us Saints. The coalition of
Satan, the "old Adam," the world and the flesh. is not so easily
broken. It is neither wise nor humble to persuade ourselves that we
shall never sin again. "He that thinketh himself to stand, let him
beware lest he fall. ... We carry our treasure in frail vessels." "We
must reckon with possibilities of sin and even probabilities, if there
is question either of venial sins or of mortal sins by which we have
long been enslaved." 
Moral re-integration requires an uphill and tedious struggle and is
hard to achieve, "the kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the
violent bear it away." The wise man says: "I shall most likely fall
again, but I am going to do my very best not to fall." The proud man
says: "I shall never sin again."
As you are making your purpose of amendment, the devil may insinuate
into your mind something like this: "Don't flatter yourself! Do you
fancy that you are going to avoid all sin? Why! you are still the same
person, the same old two-and-sixpence, and always will be." The way to
answer him is: "Yes, I know that I am the same person, the same old
two-and-sixpence, and always will be. I know that I shall never be
strong enough to vanquish you by myself. Of myself I can do nothing,
but I can do all things in Him Who strengtheneth me." "Power is made
perfect in infirmity." Spiritual strength comes from the recognition of
our weakness and impotence, the strength of Divine Omnipotence.
Most worries about Confession would cease if all cultivated a spirit of
trust in our Divine Saviour. Father Dignam, S.J., was once accused of
treating a penitent with too much kindness. He replied, as a look of
indescribable sweetness suffused his face: "Ab, you don't understand
what a priest's heart is." Those who approach Confession with unending
misgivings and torturing scruples do not understand the Heart of the
Great High Priest, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the confessional, the priest feels an enormous compassion and a
boundless desire to help. Add together the compassion of all priests
who have ever been or ever will be and you have garnered nothing
comparable to the Infinite Compassion Incarnate which broods over you
whenever you present yourself at the confessional.
His compassion is more than maternal. If you were confessing a fault to
your mother, you would be quite certain that she would make allowances
for your confusion and shame and defective memory. The compassion of
Christ is infinitely greater than the combined compassion of all
mothers of all time. If you believe that, you must not treat Our Lord
as if He were a proud, stony-hearted tyrant. We are missing the whole
point of the Sacrament of Penance unless we approach it in a spirit of
1. Walshe, op. cit.,
2. Galtier, op. cit.,
3. Considine, op.
cit., p. 102.
4. Cf. Ibid.
5. Scharsch, op. cit.
THE IMAGE PLAIN LARGE