QUAERITUR: Confession of tendencies and spiritual direction

From a reader following on recent entries about confession:

Dear Fr. Z,

I try to go to confession often – biweekly if not weekly.  I, like another commenter on your post, usually confess tendencies along with sins.  Is confession an appropriate time to seek direction (with due respect to time), or should that be done at another time?  Thank you!

First, it is a wonderful thing to hear that you have a routine of regular confession.   Given the effects of the sacrament, and our great need, it is amazing that priests have let this sacrament fall into desuetude in some many places.

I think people should try to get their minds around the idea that "tendency" has different meanings.  Sometimes people use the word loosely, to describe what they actually do in a habitual manner.  Sometimes people use it to describe an interior inclination, a habitual impulse. 

In the first case, there is an action involved.  In the second, there may be a mere urge, which the person successfully fights of, a thought he corrects and does not give consent of will to, much less act upon.

In that case, a tendency isn’t a sin.

Confession should mainly be for confession of sins.

The second part of the question gets at a practical issue: time.

Sometimes people need a little more time to get out what they need to get out.  In that case, perhaps they should be the last in line or make an appointment.  There are other people in line, after all, and if you need, say, a half hour, be considerate of the needs of others.

This is often the case of people who are seeking "spiritual direction", or lots of advice or conversation with the priest about particular problems.  Remember: confession isn’t time for chat.  It has a purpose. 

If you are looking for a more extensive conversation with the priest, and you don’t think that you can do this in a reasonable amount of time when confessions are scheduled because there is always a line, then try to get an appointment.  If there is no line, or there are also other confessors available, then perhaps you can avail yourself of the moment, with due consideration for the purpose of a sacramental confession.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Fr. Lane says:

    With great respect I do personally differ with regards to “tendencies.” When asked how to make a good confession I start with the usual…mortal sins in number and kind, deliberate venial sins, habitual faults, and then temptations. Why? Realizing that they are not sins I still encourage this for two reasons: cultivation of the virtue of humility, and to bring all things to light; because one thing the devil loves is when we keep a secret with respect to our interior struggles. Of course it is not necessary for a good confession, but it does no harm either. Those are my thoughts on the topic.

  2. Jacob says:

    When I go in for confession, I always consider what I want to tell the priest and try to remember one thing when considering:

    He’s a priest there to absolve my sins, not a therapist there to pour over every little bit of my psyche and/or soul.

    That usually serves as a good clarification tool for what I want to discuss in the confessional.

  3. Al says:

    I’d have to recommend a spiritual adviser or director. Especially if you’re dealing with recurring challenges. Mine happens to be a priest that is there to help with discernment and those things that Fr. Lane mentioned.

  4. jaykay says:

    I think the “tendencies” thing can get a bit overdone these days e.g. “I tend to get a bit snappy when challenged”, as though to give the impression that this is something that happens occasionally but usually after a profound struggle within myself… when what’s actually meant is that I’m a habitually bad-tempered person who just can’t take any criticism at all. It can “tend” (sorry) towards the victim mentality e.g. I just can’t help myself, I’m a victim of circumstances. Poor little me. Sob.

    I recognise something of this in myself and I do struggle to confess properly, saying “I have done this x times” etc. It can be tough and humiliating. But what a relief when it’s out.

  5. W. Schrift says:

    I’ve always had the tendency to ramble. So what I’ve started doing is actually writing down an examination of my conscience, and just reading it from the sheet while in the confessional (usually a “to-do list” sized piece of paper, nothing dramatic).

    I find the physical act of writing down the sins to be penitential and humbling, and there is a nice sense of “Ego te absolvo” when the penance is completed and the paper ripped up or otherwise disposed of.

    The priest appreciates it, I think – and given the long lines before and during Sunday Mass, I think the other people waiting for Confession also appreciate it.

  6. Andreas says:

    I appreciate Fr. Lane’s comment above. Perhaps one should be cautioned to avoid being vague: “I am inclined to get snappy at work” is vague. “I got snappy with a coworker 4 times this week” is more specific. And one should avoid discussing others more than self: “Certain person is always provoking me”. So? Am I here to confess my sins or certain person’s sins?

    But, reading the lives of saints (Therese of Avila for example) one thing is clear: they did work on their struggles and tendencies and they did seek spiritual advice from their confessors on such matters. I think confession, especially for someone who goes frequently, should be a little more than just a dry enumeration of failures. There may be some spiritual murkiness, uncertainty, persistent temptations, and similar things that might shed additional light on one’s state of mind. If it isn’t dragged out to no end, why not make it part of a good confession?

  7. While I see Fr. Lane’s point, at the head of the thread, and I think that is good for people who can and will keep the distinctions clear, I think a lot of our faithful do not make such distinctions easily, and some tend to accuse themselves of sins when they are really talking about tendencies, faults or temptations–not the same thing.

    A point I make to people is our goal is to make a right judgment; to have our judgment about right and wrong conform to that of God. We do not want to be either more lax or more strict, both are distortions of God’s ways, and lead, in time, to a distortion of the image of God we have and project to others.

    While I want to be as talkative with people as will be helpful to them, I have found myself distracted from the sacrament itself by too much of that; I have asked, “did I give you a penance?” Some people ask me questions at the end.

  8. Regarding the second point about lengthy spiritual direction in the confessional, our therapeutic culture encourages people to “talk things out.” And given the decline in the popularity of the sacrament, priests are understandably reluctant (to a point) to do anything that might discourage penitents. This is why effective catechesis from the lectern is essential.

  9. Fr. Lane: I think the point is that people often confess vague “tendencies” instead of their sins.

  10. C, says:

    I have heard people say that they would prefer to discuss private matters with a priest in a confessional, due to the seal of confession–under both civil and canon law.

    Is it truly abusive to do anything other than confess one’s sins while in the confessional? Is it illegal to place any other spiritual discussion under the seal?

  11. Anthony says:

    I prefer to get some “spiritual direction” in the confessional if time allows. One may be particularly embarassed/ashamed of certain sins and may feel much more confortable dialouging with a priest behind the screen and under the seal. Of course, if there is a long line, you’d be inconveniencing others, possibly denying them the sacrament if the priest can’t hear their confessions if its time for him to celebrate Mass. For a more lengthy confession I find it better to confess (if your priest hears confessions before weekday Masses) before a weekday Mass, as they are usually less crowded and there aren’t as many other people waiting for the sacrament.

  12. Anthony in Texas says:

    It seems best to meet with a priest for spiritual direction, outside of the scheduled times for confession.

    You can

    1) Stand in line and have your confession heard during the scheduled time, and later call for an appointment


    2) Call for an appointment for spiritual direction, and ask the preiest to hear your confession during this time.

    I prefer option 2. However, once your confession has been heard, you will need to openly discuss your sins and faults with him again and permit him to discuss these matters with you – because of the Seal of the confessional.

    Even though you have more time this way, this is not meant to be a therapy session. That being said, you will find that this extra time with the priest will help you get to the heart of the matter.

  13. “But, reading the lives of saints (Therese of Avila for example) one thing is clear: they did work on their struggles and tendencies and they did seek spiritual advice from their confessors on such matters.”

    IIRC, at that time, it was forbidden for priests to give spiritual directionto nuns outside of the confessional, so that may be part of the reason for this historical fact.

  14. Julie says:

    Thanks for this post, and the other re-post on confession.

    I also go to Confession frequently (every week or so), and have found that it’s helped me to “go deeper” in recognizing “tendencies” which really ARE sins. I think “tendencies” is often a word used to sugar-coat sins. Maybe not intentionally, though, so context, as you point out, is always important.

    While I practice “be blunt, be brief, be gone”, I’ve also recognized that sometimes more is needed. While I’ve NEVER rambled in confession, (um…as I do in comboxes), I HAVE learned how to give a brief explanation, perhaps on a point that is bothering me and needs direction. Otherwise my “laundry list” is patently obviously a laundry list and so absolution almost seems rote, no advice given.

    That way I’ve gotten a little advice, but of course, one cannot do that with EVERY sin.

    But with regard to “spiritual direction”, that’s a dangerous term; it usually ends with a “I don’t do spiritual direction” kind of answer. For those needing more direction, just don’t use that phrase even if all you’re wanting is a deeper confession, or the priest will think you’re asking for a longer-term committment. (I am seeking that, can’t find one and know from experience that the phrase is almost taboo.) Just sayin’.

  15. Tony from Oz says:

    I’ll say amen to what has been said. However, in my experience, it has often been the priest who has been responsible for prolonging confessions. I know this from my own experience and – also empirically from observing long sessions with every penitent (not all who wld be ‘talkative’) whilst awaiting – ‘how long, O Lord! – my own confession! Indeed, one once said that he didn’t feel he had ‘celebrated’ the sacrament unless he had spent at least 10 minutes with a penitent! No doubt this is a result of bad ‘feelings based formation at seminaries.

  16. veritas in srq says:

    I agree with Fr. Lane with respect bringing the interior struggles to light in the manner he describes. Tendencies are the tethers between us and sin. When I confess my tendencies in addition to my sins that eminate from them and because of them, it is like breaking that tether at the root. It is then that I feel like I am getting at the heart of the matter and giving the devil one less pathway for temptation.

  17. Paul says:


    I can appreciate (I think) your annoyance at improper confessions, [Don’t put words in my mouth. I didn’t say I was annoyed.] but please understand how badly formed many of our consciences are. Just to take my own case, due to serious catechetical malpractice and an evil former life, I have managed to end up with a simultaneously lax and scrupulous conscience. Basically, I have a more or less permanent intuition that I am in a state of mortal sin combined with a nearly complete inability to actually mention a single sin I’ve ever committed (at least since my conversion).

    I find it utterly impossible to distinguish between a temptation consented to and one not. How does one determine it? And without being certain, I couldn’t stand to not confess it. And, of course, I’m never certain. Even as it stands now, I’m always tempted to believe that all of my confessions and communions are sacrilegious. If I actually knew of anything that I deliberately omitted, I’m fairly certain my head would explode. [I think the key here is to make it a regular part of your evening, before sleep, to examine your conscience. Slowly but surely you will find your way through your distinctions, especially with regular confession. And we must all learn to trust the Lord’s promises, namely, that our sins truly are forgiven. That is harder for some people. In that case, some time with the Blessed Sacrament can be very helpful. Coming to know the one who made the promises by being in His Presence, can help.]

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