“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been 2 weeks since my last confession. I (insert sin you probably confessed last time, and the time before that, and probably a year or two ago)
Sound familiar? If you are like the other millions of Catholics who go to confession regularly, then you have probably confessed the same sin more than once. In a perfect world, our firm purpose of amendment would stick and we would only have to confess the sin once before ridding ourselves of it forever. Unfortunately, nobody is perfect. But it is a very curious phenomenon of our fallen natures, that we cannot follow through with what we have vowed to do. Why is it that, much like Usher, our confessions have a part II that we never expect? Why is it that we tend to confess the same sin over and over again without it ever really changing, despite the fact that at the time, we have a real firm purpose to amend our ways? I would venture to guess that it is because we always confess the what but rarely like to think about the why? Put a little more rigorously, we are comfortable enough to confess the sin but are uncomfortable when we are asked to inquire which imperfection or vice in us led us to the sin. How does one get there? It is not enough to desire a life of holiness. We must examine our consciences and acknowledge the root causes of our wickedness, our vices.
A vice, as defined by St. Thomas Aquinas, is a habituation that is contrary to a virtue (S.T., I-II, Q.71, A.2). A virtue is the disposition or excellence of a thing that befits the things nature (S.T., I-II, Q.71, A.1). If something is said to be a vice, then what that means is that the disposition of the thing runs contrary to the nature of the object itself. The nature of “knifeness” finds its perfection when it slices or spreads certain objects. The virtue of the knife would be its sharpness and sturdiness. As long as the knife remains so, it will reasonably accomplish the goal for which the knife has been made. The sharpness and sturdiness are the virtues/excellence in the knife. If the knife were dull or made of marshmallow, these qualities would be vices in the knife because they detract or pull away from the actualization of its nature. A dull marshmallow-knife will not help the hunter to properly dress the buck he has just hunted for food. In fact, these vices will ruin his dinner.
Now, man is called human on account of his rational soul. So whatever is contrary to reason does not contribute to the flourishing of his nature. Human vices are those habits we choose, which run contrary to reason. These vices include pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth. Pride is unreasonable, and therefore not befitting of our nature because it puffs up our humility when it causes us to accord ourselves as more important or powerful than we actually are. Envy is unreasonable because it strangles gratitude by ascribing more worth to the possessions of others than they actually have. It also renders us incapable of distinguishing between wants and needs. Lust is unreasonable because it dupes love into turning another into an object of self-gratification instead of seeing him as a rational agent deserving of love. We are not born with vices, we habitually make the same bad decisions until they are accorded vices in us.
The act of confessing a sin in a sacramental confession presupposes that there has been a real examination of conscience. It isn’t enough to confess the sin and go on your merry way. Sins are like symptoms. They are manifestations of a deeper spiritual malady. If we want to make a firm resolution to not commit a sin again, we must examine our consciences by asking which imperfection of vice in our soul disposed us to commit the sin in the first place. St. Bonaventure gives us a great example of what I mean when he discusses the real sin of Adam and Eve [My Emphasis].
Because her mind was not upon the infallible truth, her desire soon began to lean toward the perishable good. And so she set her heart upon what the devil promised, and agreed to do what he proposed. In her craving for superior knowledge, she rose to pride, which drew her into gluttony, which in turn finally cast her down through disobedience. The first act was a thought, the second a feeling, and the third a deed…The woman, led astray, beguiled the man. He, too, turned to the external book and to perishable good. In his excessive love for the woman’s company and the solace of her presence, he shrank from reproving her lest he endanger his own happiness. Because he did not rebuke where he should have rebuked, the woman’s sin was imputed to him. When, out of concern for his own delight, he failed to reject the woman’s offering, he committed an act of selfish love that cast him out of the friendship of God, and made him fall into greed and disobedience… Both the man and the woman disobeyed the command, but for different reasons. The woman was deceived, the man was not. Yet in both man and woman there occurred a disruption of order in all their powers, from the highest to the lowest: first in their intellect, then in their senses, and finally in their actions. Both fell into disobedience and succumbed to greed because both had risen in pride. In the woman, it was out of avidity and desire for what she had not; in man, out of excessive love and concern for what he had. (Breviloquium, Part III, Chapter III)
It is clear from St. Bonaventure’s understanding, that if Adam and Eve both tried to go to confession, saying ” I ate of the fruit of the tree” somehow wouldn’t quite cut it. The end result was that both of them committed the same sin of eating the fruit. But their motivation, the state of soul that led to the sin was radically different and in accord with their natures as both man and woman. Eve was drawn to a disordered pride which led her to a disordered desire for the food. Her lack of consideration for her smallness in relation to God and his loving command caused her to desire and reach for something which was not hers by right. In pride, she was undone by the overwhelming feeling that she needed to make an empowered choice. Adam was drawn to sin by a disordered affection for his beloved. But his love was selfish in that it was turned inward. Knowing that reproving his beloved would surely anger her, he opted to do as she desired, that she would be inclined to give more affection to him. Adam was slothful and like a coward shrank away from the fortitude the love of God called him to. Adam was undone by the selfish fear which caused him make her happy instead of preparing for the fight.
To go to confession is to be honest about our own wickedness and vices. The Seraphic Doctor has pointed out something very important here. It isn’t enough to go to the truth booth and confess that one had sex. Why was it done? Being in the mood is the surface motivation. Were you lonely? Did you despair of God’s ability to fulfill your desires for companionship? Were you prideful? Are you more given to concern yourself with your own endeavors than God’s? It takes a great amount of pride to know the commandments of the almighty and choose to do the contrary. In what context did the sexual encounter happen? Were you thinking about the dignity of the other person, their hopes, dreams, loves, sadnesses, or did your lust compel you to only concern yourself with the pleasure you received from their body? Were you envious of the encounter you heard someone else had? Did it bring you to pursue your own encounter instead of contenting yourself with where God has you? Did you try to flee from the temptation to have sex or were you slothful in responding?
To confess the sin without any contemplation of the vice that compelled you is to leave open the possibility that you will commit it again. It is to have your leg crash through the wooden lat of a rickety rope-bridge, get pulled out, and never go back to fix it for the next time you have to cross it. If a woman does not know she is given to pride, how will she look for opportunities to exercise humility the next time the option is given? If a man does not know that he is given to sloth or cowardice, how will he push himself to dig for the fortitude required when the opportunity tries to impose itself upon him. So long as we do not admit our own vices, just when thought we’d confessed all we could confess our sins on the side, will always tell us we have one on the way.
Let us fly to confession where the Crucified makes all things new by the gift of his blood. Let us beg the Holy Ghost to reveal to us our hidden faults so that we can give it The Ol’ Catholic Try.