Parish Resource - Fr. Jorge Presmanes

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Confession of VenialSin as a Means of Ongoing Conversion of Life

by Rev. Jorge Presmanes, OP, DMin
Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida

Children are often asked about what they want to be when they grow up. The answers that flow from their fertile imaginations cover a whole gamut of professions that range from superhero to astronaut, from fireman to president of the United States. As the child grows older and high school graduation approaches, they often devote much energy to asking themselves that question. Yet, while many of them spend considerable time thinking about what they want to be, they spend much less time pondering a question of even greater worth: "What kind of person do I want to be?"

Identifying the kind of person we want to become and how we order our lives in order to achieve this goal is the gateway to growth in the moral life. In the same way that a student chooses to become a lawyer and then takes the concrete steps required to become one, the moral life requires intentional acts that help us become a person of good and trustworthy character. But unlike the process of becoming a lawyer, which is complete upon graduating from law school and passing the bar exam, the process of becoming the kind of person we want to be is a lifelong endeavor. There is no graduation date for becoming a good and faithful friend, nor is there a final exam for becoming a just, honest, and loving person.

In this brief reflection on the moral life, we explore the importance of confessing venial sins as a means of ongoing conversion. Sin is the failure in genuine love for God and neighbor (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 2nd ed. [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV)–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2000], no. 1849). In the Catholic tradition, we categorize sin as being either venial (minor) or mortal (death-dealing). A mortal sin is a grave failure of love that is committed freely and deliberately. A venial sin is one that is less serious in nature, or a morally bad act that is grave in matter but committed without full knowledge or consent (CCC, no. 1862). The goal of confessing any sin, venial or mortal, is to shed light on that which impedes our faithful discipleship of Christ, to accept responsibility for such action, to be reconciled with God and each other, and to receive the grace to be able to continue to grow in the process of conversion. While the Christian is not obliged to confess venial sins, shedding light on them in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is invaluable in assisting the believer to grow in the moral life.

In the moral life, it is the conscience that serves as the voice of God, which is ever calling the human person to right relationship with him and with creation. It is conscience that directs us to virtuous action and calls the believer to move from irresponsible (sinful) to responsible (virtuous) behavior. Conversion is the term that refers to this movement. Human experience tells us that there are two conversions, an initial conversion and a continuous conversion. If the initial conversion is the decision to move from irresponsible to responsible behavior, the continuous conversion is the ongoing process of confronting and changing the irresponsible habits that were formed prior to the initial conversion (see Donald Gelpi, SJ, Grace as Transmuted Experience and Social Process, and Other Essays in North American Theology [New York: University Press of America, 1988]). For example, a student who is a habitual procrastinator may find herself feeling overly stressed because she is behind on her assignments. Because of the pain caused by the irresponsible behavior that is procrastination, she makes the decision to procrastinate no more and resolves from that moment on to change. But no matter how earnest her intention to change, chances are that sooner or later she will begin backsliding and again fall behind on her assignments. This is more than likely to happen, not because she was insincere in her commitment to conversion, but because of the "bad" habits that she had developed long before her decision to change. Thus, the continuous conversion is the ongoing process of being attentive to the bad habits that impede our growth in the moral life. For the Catholic, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or the "sacrament of conversion," is vital for a fruitful continuous conversion, "because it makes sacramentally present Jesus' call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin" (CCC, no. 1423).

In public discussion about ethics, the focus is often placed on the big issues that peak our culture's imagination, such as capital punishment, euthanasia, cloning, stem cell research, and the like. While these matters are of grave ethical importance, they are not the primary concern in how people of faith live their everyday lives. Moral development is rooted in the small and ordinary decisions that shape human life, but that does not mean that the process is simple. Experience teaches us that life is complicated and at times problematic, as we attempt to negotiate work, relationships, and commitments within the limits of time and the contexts in which we find ourselves. In order to manage this often complex reality, we develop certain practices or patterns of behavior. And, for better or worse, these practices form habits, and habits define the kind of person we are becoming (James Keenan, SJ, Virtues for Ordinary Christians [Franklin, Wisconsin: Sheed & Ward, 1996], 4).

St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) offers three particular insights that have proved invaluable for growth in the moral life. His first insight was that every intentional human act made by a person in freedom is a moral act. His insight is akin to the physical law of motion in basic physics: to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the moral life, there is a reaction to every intentional human act that is made by a person in freedom. The reaction to the moral action will affect us and those around us for the good or for the bad. For example, the decision to throw an empty can in the recycle bin (right) as opposed to the garbage (wrong) is a moral act, as is the decision to show up on time for an appointment (right) as to not waste the time of the person you are meeting (wrong). St. Thomas's insight affirms what was noted above, that while contemporary culture's primary focus on ethics is concerned with the extraordinary, for the average Christian who is trying to live a morally upright life, the primary concern is the very ordinary day-in and day-out decisions that we make and the impact these decisions have on us and others.

His second insight was that what we do is what we become. For example, a basketball player becomes a great basketball player by playing basketball over and over again, just as a person becomes habitually generous by acting generously in repetitive fashion. St. Thomas is building on Aristotle's observation that "human beings are creatures of habit." We know from experience that our actions when continually repeated develop into habits. The "bad" habits that impede our forward movement to become the kind of person we want to become are called vices, while the "good" habits that help us advance in the moral life are virtues. The habitual practice of the virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and charity) is the means by which we achieve forward movement in our progression toward God. This concept of immanent activity is crucial in order to understand the importance of confessing venial sins as a means of ongoing conversion, because venial sins, when repeated, may very well become mortal ones. For example, the repetitive practice of telling venial (little) lies may develop into a pattern of lying about things that are of grave matter. In the same way, the repeated practice of cheating on exams, if not attended to in the ongoing process of conversion, will likely lead the person to become a cheater who may not think twice about cheating on a tax return or even a spouse.

St. Thomas's third insight was that ordinary life provides the individual with the opportunity for moral development. Something as ordinary as our morning commute to work or a drive to the mall provides us with an opportunity for growth in the moral life. Driving may provide the opportunity to grow in patience by practicing patience with other drivers, or the opportunity to become prudent by making sound and safe decisions in our driving. Thus, according to St. Thomas, if we want to grow rightly in the ethical life, then we must be aware that every act is a moral act and is one more stepping stone on the path to who we are becoming. As a result, every waking moment provides the Christian with the opportunity to either advance or regress on the road to moral growth.

In colloquial speech, when we want to tell someone not to worry about unimportant things, we often repeat the axiom, "Don't sweat the small stuff." But as we have noted above, in the moral life of the Christian, it is most often the "small stuff" that is of utmost importance. These ordinary decisions help us to either progress or regress in the moral life. When the regress is fruit of venial sin, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a rich font of grace that propels the believer forward in the continuous conversion of life.

Copyright © 2014, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV)–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.