Can You Go to Confession if You Are Not Sorry?

A student asked me an interesting question recently: Can you go to confession if you are not sorry for your sins? What if you know you will commit that sin again? Should you still go?

There is a lot wrapped up in this simple question. So let’s break it down.

Matter Matters

Like all sacraments, confession is a means by which God transmits His grace into our lives through something tangible and physical. Each sacrament has its proper matter, which is necessary for the validity of that sacrament. For baptism, it is water. For the Eucharist, it is bread and wine. For confirmation, it is oil. Sometimes we ourselves are the matter for the sacrament, as in matrimony and holy orders.

The proper matter for the sacrament of penance is a penitent; that is, someone who is repenting of their sins. Repentance entails a genuine sorrow for one’s sins; what we call contrition. The Catechism defines contrition as “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (CCC 1451).

Notice the two parts of that definition.

  1. You have to be sorry for your sin.
  2. You have to resolve not to sin again.

For most of us, this seems like a pretty high bar. But a too strict understanding of what contrition requires can keep us away from confession, depriving us of the grace we need to help overcome the sins we struggle with. So let’s look at these two parts in more detail.

Sorrow for Sin

In discussing contrition, the Catechism makes a further distinction between perfect and imperfect contrition. It says that perfect contrition “arises from a love by which God is loved above all else” (CCC 1452). Imperfect contrition is called, “a gift of God, a prompting of the Holy Spirit. It is born of the consideration of sin’s ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner… Such a stirring of conscience can initiate an interior process which, under the prompting of grace, will be brought to completion by sacramental absolution” (CCC 1453).

In other words, perfect contrition means that, motivated by the pure love of God, you are as sorry for your sins as you can be. Imperfect contrition, on the other hand, recognizes that you can still be at least somewhat sorry for your sins, even if that sorrow is not perfect. Perhaps it is motivated by fear or guilt. Or it may be motivated by an intellectual understanding that your sin is wrong, even if you don’t quite grasp it in your heart yet.

The Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt

What this means is that even if your level of contrition is less than perfect, you can still find God’s forgiveness and mercy in the sacrament of penance. Think about it. The God who humbled Himself to be born of a virgin and become man, who would then suffer and die for our sins, is all about meeting us where we are. Whatever level of contrition you have, He will meet you there. He can use it to effect true spiritual healing. You just have to have some amount of contrition to open the door to His mercy.

The parable of the Prodigal Son is a good example (Lk 15:11-32). The son in the story repents of wasting his father’s inheritance. He is motivated by the fact that he is sleeping in a pig sty and eating the pigs’ food. He decides to go back and ask his father to hire him as a servant. He’s motivated by his own well-being more than pure love for his father. But as soon as the father sees the son approaching, he runs to meet him, embraces him, places a ring on his finger, and welcomes him back as a full son. This is the kind of welcome our heavenly Father wants to give us in the confessional, even if our sorrow is less than complete.

Never Sin Again?

But what about the second part, the resolution to not sin again? For most of us, this seems unrealistic. We are sinners. We are not perfect. We know, if we are honest with ourselves, that we are very likely to sin again. So does this recognition of our own weakness mean we can’t ever go to confession or be forgiven by God? Not at all.

Never sinning again in the future is not a condition of receiving God’s forgiveness now. Nor is the penitent required to promise never to sin again, as this would be unrealistic. What is required is the resolution to not sin again. This means that, at least in that moment of repentance, you don’t want to sin any more. One can have the desire to not sin, even while knowing the chance of sinning again is real.

We are fallen creatures, subject to temptation. Sin can become habitual, and habits can be hard to break. Certain sins can be addictive, making them even more difficult to overcome. We need God’s grace to free us from sin. If we wait to repent until we have totally conquered sin on our own, we’ll be waiting for our entire lives. And then it will be too late.

If you have no intention at all of giving up your sin, then no — your confession won’t be valid. You can’t confess on Sunday a sin you committed on Saturday if you have plans to commit that same sin again on Monday.

But that’s different than recognizing that you still struggle with that sin. You can confess on Sunday a sin you committed on Saturday, knowing it’s very likely you may commit it again on Monday, if you sincerely want God’s help in freeing you from the desire for that sin.

A priest told me once never to despair of struggling with sin. Struggling with sin is a good thing. It means you are fighting it. It’s when you stop struggling that you should start to worry, because that usually means you’ve given up.

Just Go!

So what’s the answer to the question? It depends. If you really are not sorry at all, and have no intention to stop sinning, then no, you are not able to make a valid confession at that point, because you have not repented at all.

But the fact that you are asking yourself, should I go to confession? indicates at least a certain understanding that you have done something wrong and that repentance is needed. And that may very well be enough to begin the process of genuine conversion. God is a God of miracles and of mercy. He can work with imperfect contrition. He will meet you where you are in your process of repentance, and He will draw you to Himself.

So if you are thinking about going to confession at all, just go! Don’t deprive yourself of the grace and mercy God offers through this sacrament of conversion.