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Confession and Growth in Chastity
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The present article must seem strange for two reasons. What can we possibly mean by growth in chastity? In the language of all cultures and the experience of all people, chastity is a virtue that you struggle to preserve. Seriously, is there such a thing as growing in chastity?
So, too, the sacrament of Confession was instituted by Christ to restore us to the state of grace after we have lost God's friendship by committing mortal sin. What does Confession have to do with growing in any virtue, including the moral virtue of chastity?
Our scope here will be to address ourselves to both objections that we have just raised. We wish to talk about chastity as indeed a struggle with our innate passion of lust; but also as a virtue in which we are to grow.
Moreover, the sacrament of Confession is a divinely instituted means not only to forgive our sins against chastity. It is a reservoir of light and strength to enable us to grow in what the saints call the angelic virtue.
Chastity as Self-Control
No one has improved on Saint John Chrysostoms description of our struggle with the passion of lust. Chastity is self-restraint, he told his people, and the mastery of pleasures which fight; just as in war the trophies are most honorable when the contest is violent, not when no one raises a hand against us (Homily on John, 36).
Why should we have to master the passion of lust? Because it is a passion; by its very nature it is blind. This does not mean it is necessarily unreasonable, but it works without reason. It may go out to a person already married, to one who is too old, or too young, to a drunkard, to a scoundrel, to a woman who would not make a good wife for anybody, or to a man who would not make a good husband. Lust does not ask questions. It works just as blindly as our temper and just as instinctively as our fears.
The passion has to be directed away from the wrong person. In other words, it is not real love but only a fascination.
As we are sadly learning from so many tragic victims, lust is the result of our fallen human nature. Before God, we have no choice except to control our sexual desires by controlling our thoughts. We can control our thoughts only by controlling our senses, especially our eyes and ears; we cannot look at everything we see nor listen to everything we hear, if we hope to master our sexual impulses.
In todays climate, which I do not hesitate calling a venereal epidemic, no amount of merely natural prudence or sheer will power can protect us from this plague. If there is one virtue that is impossible without the grace of God, it is chastity.
Growing in Christian Chastity
The moment we speak of growing in chastity, we enter the field of revealed mystery. It is not enough to say that there was no real virtue of chastity before the rise of Christianity. Chastity is a mystery of our faith. We cannot fathom its full meaning. We do know, however, that when God became man, He practiced chastity. We dare not say that Christ had to struggle with His fallen human nature. That would be blasphemy.
Consequently, Christian chastity must be more than self-mastery or the control of our innate passion of lust. If I may dare offer a definition of Christian chastity, I would say it is the virtue of selfless, reproductive love.
Once you make this statement, you open the door to a treasury of spiritual wisdom that only those who have the true faith can even begin to understand.
We get some inkling of what this means from the teaching of St. Paul. He is writing to the Corinthians, as he says, Not to put you to shame, but to admonish you as my dearest children. For although you have ten thousand tutors in Christ, yet you have not many fathers. For in Christ Jesus, through the Gospel, did I beget you. Therefore, I beg you, be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (I Corinthians 4:14-16).
What is the Apostle telling us? He is saying that we can be fathers and mothers of children whom we generate spiritually. After all, our faith tells us that we have two levels of life. We have a physical life, ultimately from God, but proximately from our natural parents. If we are in the state of grace, we also have a supernatural life, which we received from God through a human being whom He used to generate us in spirit.
When we speak of growing in the virtue of chastity, we mean more than just growing in our mastery of the sex impulse. We mean growing in the virtue of charity, indeed, in the virtue of reproductive charity.
This surely calls for some explanation. In one conference after another, we have stressed the close relationship between chastity and charity. But there is more involved here than merely a close relationship. Christian chastity is to be reproductive; but we must keep reminding ourselves that there is a form of reproduction higher than merely reproducing oneself physically. We are to propagate ourselves in spirit. We are to generate spiritual offspring.
This duty of spiritual reproductivity is so basic that, I will dare to say, none of us will get to heaven alone. Either we have enabled others to reach heaven, or we will not get there ourselves.
The last thing we would expect the Church to teach is that men and women, vowed to consecrated chastity, are to be reproductive. Yet, that is exactly what the Code of Canon Law declares. The evangelical counsel of chastity, we are told, assumed for the sake of the kingdom of heaven [is] a source of abundant fruitfulness in an undivided heart (Canon 599).
We return to our question: What is growth in chastity? Growth in chastity is growth in self-giving charity, by which we become channels of God's grace to those whom we love.
We ask another question: What is the most effective way of growing in charity? Growth in the virtue of charity requires an increase in divine grace. This means we must use the resources that our Lord has given to us. We know that the Eucharist is necessary even to remain a chaste follower of Christ. What is not commonly realized is that the Sacrament of Confession is a parallel fount of grace for progress in reproductive chastity.
What Is Frequent Confession?
There has been a drastic drop in confessions in countries like the United States. This prompted Pope John Paul II, on his first pilgrimage to America, to plead with the bishops to restore this sacrament to its indispensable place in the Catholic Church.
However, our focus here is more specific. What exactly is frequent Confession? It is the practice of receiving the Sacrament of Penance, more often than just once a year, or when mortal sins have been committed. Since the beginnings of monasticism, this practice was recommended to religious. Thus St. Ignatius told his priests to go to Confession at least once a week. It was increasingly used by the laity who sought to grow in Christian perfection. Then it fell off until modern times, when it became commonplace in the first half of the twentieth century.
Pope Pius XII had to defend the practice of frequent Confession against those who discouraged the faithful from the frequent Confession of venial sins. He pleaded with the bishops to restore the practice where it had fallen off. We want, he said, the pious practice of frequent Confession to be earnestly advocated (Encyclical, Mystical Body of Christ, 103).
How frequent is frequent Confession? Pope Paul VI provided the norm. He decreed that, to receive a plenary indulgence a person must have gone to Confession and received Holy Communion at least eight days before or after performing the act of piety, which promises remission of all the punishment due to forgiven sins.
The Value of Frequent Confession
There is no doubt that the practice of frequent Confession, in the absence of mortal sins, is a relatively recent development in the Catholic Church. Such development under divine guidance is part of the genius of Catholic Christianity. It is also one of the signs that the Church is an organism that is growing and thriving for the best of reasons: the Church is alive.
Consequently anyone who frowns on frequent Confession and goes back to dusty volumes about the practice of sacramental Penance in the early Church is behind the times. People, who would not be caught dead with a copy of St. Augustine in their hands, will dig up obscure passages from the Churchs ancient practice in their effort to discredit the value of frequent Confession. These critics, I must say, are behind the times. They are reactionaries who fail to realize that the Church is the living and therefore developing Mystical Body of Christ.
Pope Pius XII rebuked those who criticized the long lines of penitents who had nothing more to confess than failures in patience and charity. What he then said, deserves to be memorized:
It is true that venial sins may be expiated in many ways that are to be highly recommended. But to ensure more rapid progress day by day in the practice of virtue, we will that the pious practice of frequent Confession, introduced into the Church by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, should be earnestly promoted. Through frequent Confession genuine self-knowledge is increased, Christian humility grows, bad habits are corrected, spiritual neglect and tepidity are resisted, the conscience is purified, the will strengthened, a salutary self-control is obtained, and grace is increased by virtue of the sacrament itself (Ibid).
The Pope wrote these words in 1943. In the light of what has since happened, I consider his strong defense of frequent Confession prophetic. We shall not restore the Church to her former glory and, please God, to a more glorious future until we bring back frequent Confession.
Growth in Chastity Through Frequent Confession
We return to where we began. How does the frequent reception of the Sacrament of Confession enable us to grow in fruitful chastity? The answer is really the eight ways in which the Vicar of Christ tells us that frequent Confession is beneficial to our spiritual life. Each of these eight ways contributes to our growth in what we are now calling the reproductive virtue of chastity.
Growing in the Likeness of Christ
I would like to close this article with the beautiful tribute authorized by Pope Paul VI. It is one of the most eloquent pleas in papal history for frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance. Issued after the Second Vatican Council, it emphasizes that this sacrament is not only for the remission of mortal sins. It is an infallible means of becoming more and more like Jesus Christ.
Says the Holy Father, Frequent and reverent recourse to this sacrament, even when only venial sin is in question, is of great value. Frequent Confession is not mere ritual repetition, nor is it merely a psychological exercise. Rather it is a constant effort to bring to perfection the grace of our Baptism, so that we carry about in our bodies the death of Jesus Christ who died; so that the life Jesus Christ lives may be more and more manifested in us. In such confessions, while indeed confessing venial sins, penitents should be mainly concerned with becoming more conformed to Christ and more submissive to the voice of the Spirit.
What is the successor of St. Peter telling us? He is saying that by frequent Confession we grow in the likeness of the all-chaste Son of God, whose chastity is another name for His sanctity.
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