‘Bless Me Father’—Catholic Sin Explained

As the Vatican’s Synod on the Family winds down, there’s a lot of talk about sinners. Welcome to their world.

ROME — I was raised a Catholic in small-town South Dakota and, I confess, I’ve been grappling with sin, or at least hearing about it, since I was, oh, about 7 years old. It’s not an easy concept and now, in Rome, as I cover the Synod on the Family, talk of sin hangs very heavily in the air. So it seemed like a good moment to review what is and isn’t, and might be or could be, a sin in the eyes of the church. It’s not as clear-cut as you might think.

“Bless me father for I have sinned.” Those are words that every Catholic knows very well. It is the standard opening line a penitent says to the priest to kick off a “good confession” of one’s bad behavior, almost always in the confines of a claustrophobic wooden confessional in a dark church. And it is only considered a “good confession” when the person confessing doesn’t leave out the big stuff. Simply put, it’s not enough to just show up to confession; to make it count you have to tell all.

Being forgiven has the ultimate reward for Catholics, because only those who have confessed their sins are pure enough to be allowed to take Holy Communion, according to the Catholic Catechism, which is essentially the training manual for the application of church doctrine and an essential part of Catholic life.

According to the Catechism, communion, or receiving the Holy Eucharist, is the pinnacle of the Catholic experience because it connects Catholics to God through the symbolism of the little wafer known as a host, and the wine that accompanies it, which represents the body and blood of Jesus Christ to Catholics. Young children study the Catechism in preparation for their first communion around the age of 7, preceded by their first confession, even though the sins of a 7-year-old are generally (one hopes) quite minor.

Throughout the 2015 Synod on the Family, which wraps up in Rome this week, there has been a lot of talk about sins and sinners. Pope Francis is constantly reminding those in attendance they “are all sinners”—and he starts by calling himself a sinner, too.

There has also been ample talk among those in attendance about how to keep Catholics in the pews by focusing on “hating the sin and loving the sinner,” which, if done correctly, offers a way to forgiveness and repentance without ostracizing or pushing away those trying to find the balance between faith and reality.

Sinning as defined by the Catechism is hard to avoid for anyone living any semblance of normal life, and Francis seems to be the first pope to recognize that struggle. Perhaps that’s why at this synod there has been a special concentration on the fine distinctions that make a sinful act truly sinful.

Most sins can be forgiven, although some cannot because they are “in continuum.” For instance, divorce for a Catholic is not a sin per se, but remarrying is, which is why divorced and remarried Catholics cannot take Holy Communion, since their act of staying remarried keeps them sinning. And it looks very likely that they never will be allowed that gesture of forgiveness, because it opens a can of worms for other types of sins the church is not ready to deal with.

Homosexuality is a sin only if it is demonstrated through sex, which means a celibate homosexual is sin-free. For that matter, so is the homosexual who confesses after each time he or she has sex.

Premarital sex is always a sin and, in some cases, so is passionate kissing if the intent is sexual arousal between unmarried people, although in cases when they are engaged to be married, such kissing can be considered groundwork toward the eventual marital sex act, according to the Catechism—as long as it stays at kissing.

Contraception is a mortal sin, but birth control pills are not sinful as such for those who are taking them strictly to regulate heavy menstrual cycles or to treat endometriosis or even acne, unless the taker of them is having sex, and then both the person on the pill and the person having sex with her are sinners.

Wearing a condom during sex is always a sin, as are other birth control devices like diaphragms, IUDs and morning-after pills.

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Having in-vitro fertilization treatment is a sinful act because it replaces marital sex, but the child born of IVF is pure of sin and not punished for the way his or her parents carried out conception.

According to the Catholic Catechism on marital sex as translated by Roman Catholic theologian Ronald L. Conte Jr., masturbation (mutual and solo) and oral sex are sinful even among monogamous Catholic couples because they are only supposed to engage in “genital-to-genital” coitus, which is the epitome of so-called unitive sex, or sex that which unites the married couple through their complementary God-given sexual organs.

This definition is especially important in the church’s problem with same-sex unions, and is where the term “disordered” originated, since same-sex couples do not have complementary sex organs.

According to the rules: “Unnatural sexual acts (oral sex, anal sex, and manipulative sex, i.e. masturbation of self or of another) are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral because these acts are not unitive and procreative.”

Curious, though, is the fact that, according to the church: “Acts such as a husband kissing and caressing his wife's breasts, or a wife kissing and embracing her husband passionately, are not sexual acts per se, and so these acts are generally moral and do not need to be unitive and procreative.”

There are basic guidelines to sinning that Catholics are taught ad nauseam during their formative years, including the basic categories of sins. Mortal sins are those that are so bad the sinner will not be forgiven without confessing and, according to Catholic Answers, will be separated from God even during death (i.e., go to Hell) if he or she dies unrepentant.

The seven deadly sins, in no particular order since they are equally bad, are pride, greed, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth.

Venial sins are a lighter version and can include gossiping, some petty theft and even big sins that were committed without intent or knowledge. Venial sinners would not risk eternal damnation if they die without repenting.

There are also helpful guidelines of mortal sins, including the seven deadly sins, laid out by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century, which are also called capital vices or cardinal sins. They were made famous in pop culture in the twice-made comedy Bedazzled, and the 1995 thriller Seven, in which Morgan Freeman plays a detective chasing a serial killer who preys on people who represent the seven deadly sins.

The Big Seven encompass a whole range of sin groupings, according to Father Stephen F. Torraco as explained on the Global Catholic Network ETWN. Pride becomes a sin when the vain person believes in himself or herself excessively. Sinful sloth, he says, is often manifested by "boredom" about attending Mass or praying, for example. “Saint Thomas Aquinas calls sloth the sin against the Sabbath,” he says.

A manifestation of envy, another of the seven deadly sins, is ethical relativism, which denies that there are any objective moral norms, Torraco says.

Lust, Torraco says, “is the vehement disorder of sexual desires, as in the case of the so-called homosexual lifestyle or the widespread phenomenon of living together.” The others, anger or wrath, gluttony, and greed, all lend themselves to any variety of sins that must be forgiven.

The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, are believed to be the laws that God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. They, too, have a whole list of subcategories. According to the National Catholic Register’s handy “Confession Guide for Adults,” Though Shalt Not Kill also includes self-mutilation and even sterilization for the sake of birth control. And Keeping Holy the Lord’s Day includes the sin of working on Sundays.

Thou Shalt Not Steal encompasses gambling and not sharing profits with the poor, and Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery also includes not dressing modestly. Lying during confession and worshiping money, security, or power are considered sins under the first commandment: I am the lord your God, you shall not have strange gods before me.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most American Catholics don’t really follow the rule of law when it comes to sin. According to a new Pew Research Center study, while 45 percent of Americans consider themselves Catholic, only a fraction even know what acts are considered sins by the church in Rome, and this despite the fact that 43 percent of American Catholics say they go to confession at least once a year.

Pew found that 57 percent of Catholics believe abortion is a sin and 44 percent believe practicing homosexuality is sinful—both in agreement with Rome. Only 17 percent believe that using contraception is a sin (it is). Of American Catholics, 41 percent believe that buying luxuries and not giving to the poor is a sin (it is) while 12 percent believe that drinking alcoholic and living in a house larger than what is necessary is a sin (they aren’t, although living in a larger house than necessary could fall under “greed,” which is not good).

Luckily for Catholics, all one-time sins can be forgiven if the sinner is sincere in his or her beliefs. Confession, officially called the Sacrament of Reconciliation, can be heard any day of the week or any time of the day, but Saturday night is the most popular moment, presumably because it offers the smallest window to sin again before taking holy communion at Sunday Mass—which can only be taken in a state of grace by those who have made a good confession since their last mortal sin. And for those who just can’t stay saintly that long, Saturday night confession is often followed by anticipatory Saturday night Mass that counts for Sunday.

Although there is no turnstile in the queue to communion that determines who confessed and who didn’t, it is understood that Catholics will follow the honor system and only take communion if they are truly worthy. And the priest cannot refuse communion, even if he knows he should.

“Even if the priest is practically certain that a person should not receive Communion and would be committing a sacrilege by doing so, he should not publicly refuse to administer the sacrament,” says Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum University in Rome. “No person, not even a grave sinner, should be publicly exposed for hidden faults. Everybody has a right to preserve his good name unless it is lost by the sinner’s public actions or in virtue of a public penalty.” And even in most of those cases, a trip to the confessional ought to be enough to clean the slate.