Forgotten & Forgiven Mortal Sins

by Jimmy Akin

in Sacraments

A reader writes:

I am aware that if one goes to confession and supplies the requisite contrition, then all sins which the person committed are absolved–provided that the person does not intentionally conceal any mortal sins.

Correct.

Also, I have been told by several priests that this means that if one remembers a mortal sin after confession, they should know that they are forgiven for it so long as they mention it the next time they go to confession.

Correct, though this should be formulated a little differently. You are forgiven if you meant to confess all your mortal sins and just forgot one. Having been forgiven of the one you forgot, you are still obligated to confess it the next time you go to confession. It’s not that your forgiveness of it is conditional on you adopting the intention to confess it next time. That sin has already been forgiven. It’s that you incur a new sin if you refuse to adopt the intention of confessing it.

Now I remember that you did a similar blog topic about this fairly recently, but my question is one that I don’t think you dealt with in that blog.

My question is after one has remembered the mortal sin, how soon is one required to seek out confession?  For example, if I go to confession and mention everything I can bring to mind, but immediately afterward remember a mortal sin, must I go to confession to mention the mortal sin as soon as possible?  Or could I just wait 2 weeks, a month, etc., until I feel like going to confession?  And can I receive communion in the meanwhile?

Since you are not in a state of mortal sin, you can receive Communion prior to your next confession.

As to how long you can wait before the next confession, the fact that you have an already-forgiven-but-not-yet-confessed sin does not create an obligation to go at any particular time, though one might suggest that one should go before one is likely to forget the mortal sin that needs to be mentioned.

Consequently, church law does not require one to go within any particular time frame, other than the obligation to confess one’s mortal sins at least once a year. It would be arguable whether this law applies to forgiven-but-unconfessed sins or not. The purpose is clearly to deal with mortal sins that haven’t been forgiven, so in the absence of clarification that it applies to those that have as well, it would seem that liberty would be presumed on the grounds of it being doubtful whether the law applies to this case (canon 14).

Now, there is language in some Church documents about going to confession "as soon as possible," but this is connected with a different situation, which is described in canon 916:

A person who is conscious of grave sin is
not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous
sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no
opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation
to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of
confessing as soon as possible.

What this canon is talking about is a person who has not been to confession and who can’t go, not a person who has been and just forgot a sin. That person needs to make an act of perfect contrition in order to get back into a state of grace and thus able to take Communion, and making an act of perfect contrition includes the will to go to confession when it is possible (and reasonable) to do so.

The Code formulates this in terms of going "as soon as possible," but what it means by this is as soon as it is possible and reasonable for a person to go. The Church does not expect you to do unreasonable things just to be able to go a sooner. (E.g., driving recklessly in order to get to the church a little faster or demanding that the priest get out of bed to hear your confession.) There is an unstated reasonableness condition in this canon.

This may be where you got the idea about needing to go "as soon as possible," but it does not apply to your case. It deals with those who have an unforgiven sin and can’t go to confession before Communion, not those who went to confession and got forgiven but forgot to mention something.

Your sins already have been remitted by the sacrament of confession. You just forgot something.

This kind of situation happens all the time, and if there were a requirement to go to confession within a particular timeframe, it would be on the books.

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{ 18 comments }

Rick September 14, 2006 at 1:20 pm

Well done Jimmie

Ed Peters September 14, 2006 at 1:44 pm

Jimmy, I’ll say it again: you better be planning to collect all of these gems into a book.

John September 14, 2006 at 2:25 pm

Is an “act of perfect contrition” the same thing as the “state of perfect contrition”? I’m not sure what the “act” is; but I understand that the “state” of perfect contrition is the complete renunciation of one’s sins wholly because of the offense which they cause to God. My understanding is that perfect contrition is the only circumstance under which a person who dies without having one’s mortal sins absolved in sacramental confession can escape eternal punishment. Further, the state of perfect contrition can be experienced only as a special grace from God. That is, of course, an old-time concept. But I think it is still considered Church doctrine.

Ray from MN September 14, 2006 at 4:30 pm

I did not go to Mass for a period of 23 years. I didn’t join another religion. I was just lazy and knew/planned/hoped that ultimately I would return to the Church.
Making a long story short, I finally did return, went to Confession without having spent a huge amount of time in an examination of conscience, unconsciously missed confessing most of my Mortal Sins both in number and in type, but was indeed genuinely contrite. The Confessor did not ask me any probing questions and gave me absolution.
I was reasonably knowledgeable in the faith as it had been imparted to me up until 1960 and felt that all of my sins had been forgiven, even though I had through forgetfulness and the emotions of the experience had omitted many sins from my Confession.
I still floundered over another 15 or so years and it has been only most recently, the past half dozen years, that I have really begun to be serious about my faith and my salvation.
I am of the belief that all of my sins have been forgiven even though many have been unconsciously forgotten during my Confessions.
Until recently, I was not aware of any requirement that one has to mention forgotten sins at the next opportunity. They did not teach that to us in the 50s.
Would this be a time for me to do a General Confession? I can think of things in general that I have omitted or, being in a relativistic frame of mind at times, not of the opinion that they were sins but bad habits.

Some Day September 14, 2006 at 4:33 pm

Definetly.
I love to do general Confessions because you feel light, and the grace of God is very sensible.
The priests get a bit startled at such a long one, but I just tell them I wanted to do a general one. Bimonthly seems to be a good idea.
I also go weekly, which helps tremendously.

J.R. Stoodley September 14, 2006 at 11:15 pm

Ray,
You may know this, but just to be clear, if by “General Confession” you mean to include all mortal sins you have ever commited (as well as presumably a significant portion of your venial sins) that is not necessary. All that is required is to confess all those grave sins which you have never confessed before. A full General Confession including sins you have already confessed may well be a good idea at this point, but it is not required.
I would recommend getting a good spiritual director before following Some Day’s advise about frequent General Confessions. Usually in the Church General Confessions are done in rare, big occasions, for instance when you return to the full practice of the faith after a long absence this could be a good thing to do, and when you are about to get married or ordained or take vows in a religious order. Basically it is done when making a new begining in your life. I am afraid very frequent General Confessions may deminish the special “new begining” quality of these occasions.
Then again I am no more qualified to give you advise than Some Day, so again try to find a good, faithful, devout spiritual director, or at least a good priest you can discuss this with at some point.
Also, it would be a good idea to make an appointment in advance before making a General Confession or just a confession likely to take a long time, rather than just standing in line on Saturday (or whenever it is) and surprising the priest and the people behind you in line with a 20 minute confession or whatever. You don’t want to be rushed or worried about delaying others.

Questioner September 14, 2006 at 11:59 pm

“A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession …”
Is this to say that if one is aware of mortal or grave sin, then one is not even to attend Mass until it confessed (not just sitting out of Communion)? Or does “not to celebrate Mass” refer to the celebrant (priest) and not the congregants?

J.R. Stoodley September 15, 2006 at 12:10 am

Questioner,
I’m certain “celebrate mass” refers to the celebrant, not the congregants. It is a mortal sin for the priest to celebrate mass with unconfessed mortal sin (though the mass remains valid) and anyone must not recieve the Eucharist with unconfessed mortal sin, but attending mass on Sundays remains both beneficial and manditory.

Matt McDonald September 15, 2006 at 7:55 am

“It deals with those who have an unforgiven sin and can’t go to confession before Communion”
I just wanted to point out that the canon which permits communion without sacramental confession only would apply in grave circumstances, ie. you’re in serious danger of death, or perhaps you are in such a position that you would cause serious scandal by abstaining (I’d be very leery of this situation, seems unlikely to me).

Paul September 15, 2006 at 10:59 am

Usually after my confession I am in such joy of “dying” to my old sinful state, that I tend to try to not think about the previous sins, including not trying to remember the ones I forgot. I’m assuming we don’t have to actively think of mortal sins you forgot. Am I making sense?

Tim September 15, 2006 at 7:01 pm

“A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession.”
Jimmy, this brings up a question. I knew I am not to take communion if I haven’t gone to confession when I have committed a grave sin. But what does it mean when it says we are not to celebrate Mass?
Does it mean I am not to attend Mass? What does the verb celebrate mean here?
Thanks.

bill912 September 15, 2006 at 7:38 pm

It refers to priests, Tim. Only priests celebrate mass.

Ray from MN September 15, 2006 at 7:44 pm

Thank you, J.R.
Ray

Some Day September 16, 2006 at 6:50 pm

I would recommend getting a good spiritual director before following Some Day’s advise about frequent General Confessions.
Sorry I meant once every two months. Not twice a month.

adrian September 24, 2006 at 6:07 am

If I beleive that you I was saved from the brink of commiting a terrible sin only by the intersetion of a guardian angel, do you still have to confess that I would have fallen to the temptation were it not for such a special intervention?

J.R. Stoodley September 24, 2006 at 9:41 am

You only have to confess the sins you actually commited. If however you mean that you conciously decided to commit a mortal sin but were then prevented from doing it by some outside factor, that decision was a sin. I don’t know if it would be a mortal sin but I would guess it is, and it would be a good idea to confess it in any case.
If on the other hand you were just tempted and credit your overcoming the temptation to the help of your guardian angel, you did not commit a sin but rather overcame temptation. Whether your guardian angel was involved or whether it was the more usual case of the direct grace of God allowing you to overcome temptation, the point is that you overcame it and have no need to confess a sin you did not commit. It is up to your discression whether or not to tell your confessor about your temptations.

NMRN April 12, 2007 at 12:34 pm
Frank July 27, 2008 at 3:43 pm

A divorced lady at work is living with this guy. He’s single and both are catholic. She’s expecting a baby from this guy and she wants to go to confession. Can the priest confess her? And later take communion?

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