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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 Chrysostom’s 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 today’s 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 Church’s 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.

  • Frequent Confession increases our self-knowledge. If there is one knowledge we all need it is the honest appraisal of our own selfish selves. We therefore grow in chastity by the clearer understanding of how naturally egotistical we are. The grace we receive from the sacrament of God’s mercy helps us realize what our Lord meant, that we are His disciples in the measure that we love others as He has loved us.

  • Frequent Confession helps us to grow in Christian humility. As we have said more than once, God punishes the proud by depriving them of the power to control their sexual drives. This sacrament gives us the light to see our nothingness and thus provides us with the grace we need to grow in chastity.

  • Frequent Confession corrects our bad habits. Another name for a bad habit is vice. Among the vices of our fallen nature, lust is second only to pride in its constant need for conversion. The more often we receive this sacrament, the more chaste we become as our lustful inclinations are subdued.

  • Frequent Confession resists our spiritual neglect, which is a synonym for tepidity. In the language of the Bible, a tepid person is lukewarm in the service of God.

    Christ could not have been more emphatic than what He told the apostle John, speaking to the people of Laodicea, “I know all about you; how you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were one or the other, but since you are neither, but only lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelations 3:13-14). There is nothing more important than to overcome tepidity in the spiritual life. Why? Because tepidity deprives us of the grace we need to preserve our chastity. The frequent reception of the sacrament of peace gives us stability in resisting the demon of lust, and thus growing in angelic chastity.

  • Frequent Confession purifies our conscience. We know that conscience is our mind passing judgment on the morality of our actions. A pure conscience is conformed to the will of God. The more often we go to Confession, the more clear our conscience becomes. In other words, the better we see what God wants us to do, and not what we prefer. God wants us not only to master our sexual passions. He wants us to reproduce ourselves in spirit, which is another name for reproductive chastity.

  • Frequent Confession strengthens the will. A strong will is a generous will. A weak will is a selfish will. How the philosophy of the world has perverted the very meaning of words. In the language of our secular culture, strong-willed people are the proud titans of industry and commerce and politics who dominate others in order to assert their power.

    Never before in human history has there been more need for human wills to be strong in their sacrifice of themselves and submission to the will of God.

    God humiliated the proud Romans of the first century of Christianity by allowing them to become slaves of their sexual passions. He is doing the same in our day. One so-called developed nation after another, intoxicated with pride, is wallowing in lust.

    The frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance strengthens our wills to overcome the worse enemy in our lives, which is our own self-will. But more than that, the more we sacrifice our selfish desires, the more we grow in humility, which is the foundation for the virtue of chastity.

    But there is still more. The prevailing culture of our day calls for reparation. The crimes of lustful pride which have created a culture of death demand expiation before the offended justice of God. What better reparation can we make than by the practice of what I do not hesitate in calling heroic chastity. This is a chastity that witnesses to a world drunk with pride and sunk in lust. However, where can we get the strength of will needed to practice heroic chastity? Only from Christ, by receiving His Body in Holy Communion and receiving His grace in the sacrament of mercy.

  • Frequent Confession provides us with salutary self-control. It is impossible to be too clear on the meaning of self-control. What is this self which needs to be controlled? It is the Ego which the English language from time immemorial has capitalized. This is the Ego of which Christ spoke when He defined His true followers. “If anyone wishes to come after me,” He declared, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

    The term “self-control” is ambiguous. In the mind of Christ, self-control means self-denial. It is nothing less than mastering the most assertive part of our created nature, which is to be absolutely independent.

    How, then, does the Sacrament of Confession give us self-control? It gives us what we most need in life, namely to subdue our egomania, that does not stop even at dictating to our Creator and Lord.

    This self-control is at the root of Christian chastity. Those who are chaste, on the Savior’s terms, not only restrain their venereal appetite. They love God so deeply that they want to share His love with others. If they are married, they wish to cooperate with the Creator in reproducing themselves not only in body, but also¾in fact especially¾in spirit. If they sacrifice marriage, in Christ's words “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” they do so in order to be more fruitful in reproducing offspring for eternal communion with God.

    We are not quite finished. The Church tells us that through the sacrament of Penance a salutary self-control is obtained. The mastery of our self-will is salutary from the Latin word salus, which means “salvation.” The frequent confession of our sins is a divinely ordained promise of everlasting salvation. Why? Because only the chaste of heart will see God. Chastity of heart includes purity of body; but more important, it requires purity of soul, which is another way of saying total freedom from adoration of Self.

  • Frequent Confession increases divine grace in virtue of the sacrament itself. What are we saying? We are saying that every time we go to Confession, we infallibly increase the presence and power of our supernatural life. We become more holy, more pleasing to Christ, more believing, more trustful, and above all, more loving of God and more lovable to God.

    In the deepest sense of the word, we become more chaste. We become more purified of the worst stigma that can stain the human spirit, the stain of a sterile self-love.

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.

Catholic Faith
Vol. 5 - #5, Sept/Oct 1999, pp. 5-8

Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica






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