Many Catholics only trot off to confession when they feel bad about what they’ve done. But how we feel about our sins is not necessarily an accurate indicator of the severity of the sin.
We usually feel bad about our sin with three different emotions: fear, shame and guilt. Fear is simply the fear of getting caught. “Geesh! What if somebody found out about that!!” This is a very powerful emotion, but not really the best motivation for going to confession. It might be a doozy of a feeling, but it’s self interested. You don’t mind the sin that much. You just quiver at the thought of being found out or being punished.
The second emotion is shame. This is a bit better than fear of being caught, but not much. Shame is the emotion we feel when we face what we’ve done, and that sin contradicts our nice self image. “I can’t believe I’ve done such a thing!! That’s just not me!!” Yes it is. It’s just not the ‘you’ you thought you were. Shame is also not a great motivation for confession, but it’s better than nothing. The emotion of shame is strong, but it’s really just a knock in your pride.
We often mistake fear of getting caught and shame with guilt. The three emotions can certainly be tumbled all together when we’ve done wrong and we classify that jumbled mess of emotions as ‘guilt’. But real guilt is when we acknowledge that we’ve done wrong and feel bad simply because we have done evil.
This is why a good examination of conscience is vital–because we step around all the emotions and simply ask ourselves what we’ve done objectively. This is important because, while we may feel very frightened, ashamed and guilty about some sins–they may not actually be the most serious sins. Likewise, there are other sins that we may not feel frightened, ashamed and guilty about at all which are, in fact, more serious because they are direct actions of disobedience towards God or a form of violence towards others which we do with full knowledge and full consent.
This is where the criteria for mortal sin come in. With a good examination of conscience we can see what we’ve done and ask ourselves if it is grave matter, whether we had full knowledge that it was grave matter, and if we did it anyway with full consent. If so–mortal sin–even if we don’t feel terribly guilty about it. Or, on the other hand, if not–then not a mortal sin –even if we do feel terribly guilty about it.
The other thing a priest can help us do in the confessional is discover the level of our culpability. A sin is a sin is a sin. No difficult circumstances or good intention can make a sin something other than a sin. However–it is true that circumstance and intention can lessen or increase one’s culpability for sin.
So, for example, if a teenage girl has an abortion and she really believes the doctor that it is ‘just a collection of cells’ and she really is in a terribly tight situation health wise and financially and socially, and she is desperate and ignorant–she has committed a terrible sin, but her culpability would be much less than that of the abortionist who knows exactly what he is doing and is killing for money. The circumstances and intention should never be used as an excuse or a justification for sin. However, they may lessen (or increase) the culpability and this is what one can discuss with a priest.
Finally, the good examination of conscience has some excellent benefits. It helps you to be not so nervous before confession. The more objective you are about your sins the less you will feel nervous and ashamed. You will also be able to deal with the ones you feel are the ‘biggies’ by the fact that the good examination of conscience will have revealed other sins to you which perhaps are more profound and deeper in your soul even if they are not as passionate and emotion laden as the ‘biggies’ you are so ashamed of.
Remember too that confession gives us the grace to overcome our sins. God’s help is planted down deep at the root level of our lives. His grace is planted there through confession, and as we live in grace that seed of glory grows and becomes a great tree in which all the bird-like angels of the air can come and roost.