QUAERITUR: Do I have to add details when I confess sins?

From a reader:

In confessing a sin is it necessary to describe (giving some details of) the sin rather than merely indicating the name (species) of the sin?

You don’t have to go into great detail, but you ought to provide enough information to make sure that your confessor – and you – know the gravity of the circumstances or how the circumstances attenuate your guilt for the objectively sinful act.

What do I mean?

The first detail you need to provide is how many times you performed the sinful act (which includes thoughts).  We must confess all mortal sins in both kind (species) and number.  Doing X once is one thing.  Doing X 93 times means there is a deeper problem.  That’s important to know both for you and the confessor.

Another sort of detail involves the surrounding circumstances.

In a pinch, especially when there might be a serious time constraint or when there is a language problem, you can be telegraphic, even using the number of the commandment or just a generic label for a sin, the broader category.   But in most circumstances, such as when you are not about to launch an uphill frontal assault on a well-entrenched enemy position or you are not face to face with the lone available confessor before your upcoming heart surgery and he speaks only Chamicuro, but he can just manage to count in English numbers, I recommend that you be a little more specific without doing a complete post-mortem on yourself, without rehearsing every niggling detail.

So, some details may be necessary.  You have to think this through when examining your conscience before getting into the box.

What sort of details might be important and why?  The circumstances can alter the gravity or or guilt for the sin.  Remember, we have to have our wills engaged to be guilty of sinful actions.

Here are a few examples:

Say you stole $50.  It is one thing to steal $50 from Bill Gates and another to steal from the 80 year old widow Mrs. Enid MacGillycuddy who is on a fixed income and food stamps.  It is yet another thing to steal the $50 if the local hoodlum Mr. Spike said he’d slit you from guggle to zatch if you didn’t pay him the money by noon. However, maybe you stole $50 because your daughter needed – urgently – that little spray thing for her asthma, rather than because you wanted to buy bubblegum. Say you belt someone in the chops for speaking disrespectfully to you. It is one thing to belt Hulk Hogan and another to belt little 5 year old Cindy Loo Hoo, and yet another to belt Fr. Lovebeads at Our Lady Queen of Hugs. Belting Father is additionally the sin of sacrilege, by the way. Say that in a fit of pique and ideological fervor you haul out your bag of spray-paint cans to write nocturnal graffiti around the city in protest. It is one thing to vandalize a corner bar and another thing to vandalize a sacred building or consecrated cemetery. Again, the latter is sacrilege. Say you have sex in a way that is wrong. It is one thing to do this with your husband, but it also the sin of fornication if the man isn’t your husband. Moreover, if the man is someone else’s husband you committed adultery. And if the man is actually a child… or not a man at all but of the same sex… or not actually human… or alive…. Those details matter, not all the lurid detailed details.  Say someone says he is weak from hunger and begs for something to eat and you ignore the plea and keep walking. It is one thing if this is a beggar wearing Dolce and Gabanna seconds and you are in Beverley Hills and another if it is your own 7 year old son. But wait! You might be ignoring little Elmer in your plush suburban home in time of plenty and, then again, you might be trying to escape the urban warfare that has erupted in the wake of TEOTWAWKI caused by a globe-killing EMP event from the recent massive CME that struck your Earth several days ago. Say you are angry and you cuss a blue streak. It is one thing to use words that are vulgar or obscene and another to take the Name of the Lord in vain or blaspheme. Get my drift?

As you can see, saying “I stole, I hit someone, I mistreated someone else’s property, I had sex, I ignored someone who was hungry, I used bad language” really aren’t enough, even with the addition of the number of times you did those things.

How often must priests endure “I ate too much, I stole, I kicked my dog…”, when the penitent ought to be saying, “Since my last confession one week ago, I ate too much once, I stole $100 from the pension fund for elderly orphanage workers, I kicked my dog 93 times… but, Father, it was because it refused to fight that other dog and I lost that $100!”

The devil can be in the details.

Reflect on these points (and read more tips HERE):

  • Examine your conscience carefully and regularly.
  • Confess your sins in kind and number.
  • You can commit mortal sins by not doing somethings that you should do.
  • Add only those details that might change the gravity of the sin one way or another.
  • God’s justice we are going to get whether we want it or not. His mercy, however, is always there for the asking.
  • There is no sin we can commit that is so bad that God cannot or will not forgive, if we but ask for forgiveness and mean it.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    This is not only a great essay on Confession, but also on newsgathering, decisionmaking, and storytelling! Details can make a biiiig difference, for sure.

  2. Alan Aversa says:

    What if, after absolution, we realize we forgot to mention a detail which we’re doubtful as to whether it would have substantially increased the gravity of the already-absolved sin? Does that doubt invalidate the absolution? thanks

  3. Random Friar says:

    I often deal with folks who take the Confessional as a gripe session against the person they sinned against. “I yelled at my husband because…” and then spend the next 5 minutes telling me everything that merited that good-for-nothing to get yelled at.

    There’s a fine line between necessary details, and simply gossiping. Anyway, I can’t absolve the sins of spouses, friends and coworkers not in the confessional, so let’s leave them out of it. Plus, I remind them that the other person is not here to defend themselves. The penitent is the one on trial, not anyone else.

  4. Random Friar says:

    @Alan: forgetting never invalidates a Confession. We assume you’re sorry for all your sins, as the penitent often adds, “… and for those I cannot remember.” If it’s serious/grave/mortal, you should confess it the next chance you get, but you are absolved.

    This is another reason for frequent and regular Confession: after some folks have been away for, say, a decade, they might come back with a couple of “Taking God’s name in vain a couple of times, some white lies… and that’s all I can remember.” I am not worthy that such saints should enter into my confessional. ;)

  5. Philangelus says:

    To me, adding details always feels like an attempt to excuse myself from whatever sin I committed. My opinion has always been, how about I just say to God that I’m a sinner, and in the unlikely event that I’m less of a sinner than I’ve accused myself of being, God will know…? Why does it matter sacramentally if I’m not as guilty as I feel I am? [I encourage you to re-read the top entry.]

  6. Liz says:

    Very helpful, Father.

  7. av8er says:

    Both informative and entertaining! Thank you!

    Other name suggestions for future instruction: Schmuckatelli, Binatz, Bagadonuts.

  8. The Masked Chicken says:

    I would like to put in a little plug for having a consistent confessor, if possible, especially if one is prone to scruples or really can’t decide if there are extenuating circumstances. We all have habits of sin, our personal areas of weakness, and it doesn’t help to be getting inconsistent views on the seriousness of what we confess. I have had the experience of making virtually the identical confession to two different priests where one took the sins quite seriously and the other not so much. I know something about moral theology, but the Sunday pew-sitter might not and they might become confused if they get an inconsistent read on the gravity of their sins. During the manualist phase of teaching moral theology before Vatican II, things were more sharply defined for both the priest and laity. Until things settle down, again, having a consistent confessor who is both kind and demanding when they need to is like finding a jewel that should be visited, often.

    The Chicken

  9. NoraLee9 says:

    Dear Av8ter:

    I got called on the carpet as a young teacher in Brooklyn, for use of that first one…. In Yiddish it refers to … Well… Look it up at the Yiddish site a guess.


  10. Stephen Matthew says:

    It seems reasonably easy to know to give details that make a sin worse, particularly actions done, but it seems harder to know what to say about sins of omission or sins within the mind. Also, I agree that mitigating circumstances almost always makes me feel like I am offering lame excuses.


    Thanks for your post Pater, by I remain confused, though marginally less.

  11. “Thanks for your post Pater, by I remain confused, though marginally less.”
    the important part is…GO

  12. Precentrix says:

    A wise priest I know once enunciated it as follows:

    I need to know that you committed a sin of impurity.
    I need to know whether it was in thought, word or deed.
    I need to know whether you were on your own or with someone else.
    I don’t need to know where you bought the magazine.

  13. Kathleen10 says:

    What an enjoyable description!

  14. acardnal says:

    That’s pretty good , Precentrix.

    We used to say and I think it’s still valid, “I’m single/married and committed N number of sins of impurity (in thought, word or deed) with myself/others.”

  15. Lepidus says:

    Good answers Precentrix & acardnal. I was taught something along the lines of “I had lustful thoughts / actions X times”, since that tied it to the deadly sins.

  16. acardnal says:

    If the priest has any questions or is confused about what the penitent is saying, he will ask. If he doesn’t, he understands what the penitent is confessing. No need for concern.

  17. Elizabeth D says:

    Pope Francis is making it more confusing to examine my conscience. I read now an article that says he “issued a more pointed message to the region’s bishops, telling them to better look out for their flocks and put an end to the ‘clerical’ culture that places priests on pedestals—often with what Francis called the ‘sinful complicity’ of lay Catholics who hold the clergy in such high esteem.” I have extremely little idea what is this clericalism and whether I am sinning by the high esteem I have for priests, which is closely related to my devotion to the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance and the fact that priests teach me the truths of the Catholic Faith. I want to know if Saint Francis Assisi was sinning in this way when he said in his Testiment (ie his actual words not a legend about him) “…the Lord gave me, and gives me still, such faith in priests who live according to the rite of the holy Roman Church because their orders that, were they to persecute me, I would still have recourse to them… And I desire to respect, love and honour them and all others as my lords. And I do not want to consider any sin in them because I discern the Son of God in them and they are my lords.” His first biographer Thomas of Celano says that Saint Francis declared: “If I should happen at the same time to come upon a saint coming from heaven and some little poor priest, I would first show honour to the priest, and hurry more quickly to kiss his hands. For I would say to the saint: ‘Lo, Saint Lawrence, wait! His hands may handle the Word of Life, and possess something more than human!’” An early “legend” source says that if he met a priest riding on a horse, Saint Francis of Assisi would want not only to kiss his hands but to kiss the horse’s hooves too. How do I know if I am sinning by esteeming priests?

  18. ALL: I turned on comment moderation and I edited some comments. FYI. I am a bit reticent to allow an open combox when it comes to topics like this and some questions are better asked … well… not in a blog combox.

  19. Pingback: Francis in Favor of Homosexual and Women Priests? - BigPulpit.com

  20. doverbeachcomber says:

    “… if the local hoodlum Mr. Spike said he’d slit you from guggle to zatch …”

    I’m always delighted to find someone else who has enjoyed James Thurber’s delightful tale “The Thirteen Clocks.” In that same vein, I don’t suppose it would be a useful time-saver in the confessional to follow the Cold Duke’s lead and say simply, “We all have our faults, and mine is being wicked?”

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