Scripture makes a distinction between two types of sin: mortal sin and venial sin (see 1 Jn 5:16-17). Mortal sin is, as its name implies, the more deadly of the two, for it chokes off God’s life in the soul. Mortal sin kills us spiritually. Mortal sin always involves “grave matter” — the most important things in life. Even nonbelievers will often recognize the gravity of these offences. Thus, for example, murder is a mortal sin, and it is universally recognized as a crime; the same goes for grand theft, perjury, and adultery. Other grave matter, however, can be seen only with the eyes of faith. Thus, for example, it is a mortal sin to miss Mass on a Sunday.
Every time we go to the sacrament of penance, we must confess any and all mortal sins committed since our last confession. We must clearly state the types of mortal sin we’ve committed and the number of times we’ve committed them. If we hold back any mortal sins, then we have not made a valid confession. Indeed, to deliberately withhold confessing a mortal sin is itself a mortal sin. Since a sacrament is an oath before God, such nondisclosure represents a sort of perjury.
We are not strictly required to confess our venial sins — the catechism calls them “everyday faults” — but the Church, the saints, and the mystics have always recommended this (see CCC, 1458).
It’s important to remember, in our confession, that we’re not telling God anything he doesn’t already know. He knows our sins better than we do. He knew Adam’s sin when he invited Adam to confess. He knew Cain’s when he invited Cain to confess. He wants us to confess not for his good, but for ours, because he knows that confession is a necessary step in our process of healing toward holiness.
Confession is necessary, but there are some very limited circumstances in which a priest may dispense with confession and grant absolution anyway. In times of dire emergency, when a number of people are in immediate danger of death — in the heat of battle, or if a plane is about to crash — a priest may pronounce a “general absolution”. Even this requires that penitents must be sorry for their sins, though it dispenses with their need to confess their sins. Even then, the penitent, if he should survive, must go as soon as possible to make an ordinary sacramental confession.
This Excerpt is taken from the book ‘Lord, Have Mercy: The Healing Power of Confession by Scott Hahn. For more information, click me 🙂