Are you scrupulous?… Some helpful tips for confession.

From the book ‘Pardon and Peace’ by Fr. Alfred Wilson (with Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat, 1946):

“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 — if 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 it now?

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 matter.

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 to mind.

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.” [1]

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 commonsense.

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. [2]

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 possibly give.


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 kind themselves.

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 for all.”

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.


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.


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 scrupulosity.


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.


Do not confess doubtful sins as certain, to be on the safe side; because if you do, there won’t 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.


…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 sacrilege.

Sacrileges are not so easily committed. An indeliberate misstatement 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 confessing accurately.
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 experience.


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.” [5]

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: “Ah, 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 deep trust.

1. Walshe, op. cit., p. 8.
2. Galtier, op. cit., p. 170.
3. Considine, op. cit., p. 102.
4. Cf. Ibid.
5. Scharsch, op. cit.