In his recent apostolic letter entitled Misericordia Dei released on May 2, 2002, Pope John Paul II stated quite succinctly, “It is clear that penitents living in a habitual state of serious sin and who do not intend to change their situation cannot validly receive absolution” (#7(c)). The Holy Father, however, did not identify any particular sins falling into this category.
The Holy Father is not stating anything new. The basic catechesis of the Sacrament of Penance on “How to make a good confession” follows five steps: First, the person makes an honest and thorough examination of conscience. Second, the person has contrition for the sins committed. Third, the person makes a firm amendment not to sin again. Fourth, the person confesses his sins to the priests. Fifth, the person receives sacramental absolution and then performs the assigned penance.
Especially pertinent to the question at hand are the second and third steps. Quoting from the Council of Trent’s Decree on the Sacrament of Penance, the Catechism defines contrition as “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (#1451). Contrition may be considered perfect when it is motivated by a sincere love for God; on the other hand, contrition is considered imperfect (or is called “attrition”) when it is moved by the ugliness of the sin, or the fear of divine punishment and eternal damnation. These notions are expressed in the Act of Contrition, first attrition and then perfect contrition: “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all of my sins because of Thy just punishments but most of all because they offend Thee my God who art all good and deserving of all my love.”
If a person realizes the sinfulness of an action, and is truly sorry for that sin, then that person must resolve not to commit that sin again. Granted, a person may “slip” and commit the sin again, but he does not intend to do so when confessing it. For instance, many individuals have confessed impatience or the use of bad language; presumably, they are truly sorry for those sins, do not want to commit them again, and by God’s grace and firm purpose will not. However, just driving around the Washington area– the greatest occasion of sin for all of us– may well result in the slip where the sin of impatience or bad language occurs again.
This scenario is different from the habitual sinner to whom the Holy Father refers. If a person is engaged in some kind of sin and knows when entering the confessional that he will indeed return to that sin, he is not truly sorry. In such a case there is no real repentance and conversion. For instance, if a person confesses adultery but intends as soon as he leaves the confessional to return to an adulterous union, he is not truly sorry for that sin and does not have the firm purpose of amendment to change his life. The priest then has no choice but to postpone granting absolution and encourage the person to renounce the sin. The same would be true for a divorced person who has married outside of the Church without a declaration of nullity for the previous marriage, or the person who intends on actively living a homosexual lifestyle. Keep in mind that God in His infinite mercy desires to forgive sin and reconcile the sinner to Himself, but the sinner himself must intend as best he can to abandon sin and return to the Lord.
In his Holy Thursday Letter to Priests in 2002, Pope John Paul II stated, “Unless it appears otherwise, the priest must assume that, in confessing his or her sins, the penitent is genuinely sorry and is determined to make amends…. Clearly, when there is no sorrow and amendment, the confessor is obliged to tell the penitent that he or she is not yet ready for absolution. If absolution were given to those who actually say that they have no intention of making amends, the rite would become a mere fiction; indeed, it would look almost like magic, capable perhaps of creating the semblance of peace, but certainly not that deep peace of conscience which God’s embrace guarantees” (#8). As a person strives to grow in holiness, may the words of Psalm 51:19 be ever in mind: “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.