In this day and age (perhaps in all days and ages), unmarried couples inevitably struggle with sexual temptation. The Catholic Church provides many resources for how and why couples ought to resist such temptation. But there seems to be a disconnect. Too many couples still fall, but worse, they don’t really know how to seek forgiveness. For all of the Catholic Church’s talk about sexual sin, there seems to be very little talk about what one is supposed to do after falling into it.

The little ways my husband and I fell before marriage became an enormous source of anxiety, guilt, and loneliness for us. Certainly, sin ought to provoke some level of anxiety and guilt. But our anxiety and guilt was only partly about the sin. It was mostly about the path to reconciliation. It was about the uncertainty of that path. Were all sexual sins grave? Didn’t Jesus equate a lustful look with adultery itself? So should we have treated “mere” lustful desire as mortal sin? Told the priest we needed emergency confession?

But then the majority of priests we did turn to dismissed these milder sexual sins entirely. They seemed annoyed at our desire for pastoral care. They said we were scrupulous and gave absolution reluctantly.

Mary Magdalene

Detail, Mary Magdalene, Frederick Sandys (1829-1904).

There were a few priests who seemed to take the little falls seriously. But then it was almost like they took them too seriously. I found myself awkwardly trying to describe specifics in order to make it clear that we hadn’t done this or that and then wondering whether or not I should even be revealing such specifics to a priest at all. Confession became a source of stress and confusion, and I often left wondering whether we said enough or said too much or said it right or wrong and then whether or not we were really absolved of the sin.

Other devout couples I’ve spoken with have shared similar experiences. But it isn’t just a problem for couples. Single people also live in our culture of twisted sexuality. Porn addiction is rampant and, again, despite all the talk about avoiding it, there’s very little clear guidance for the aftermath. Too many people remain in a torturous limbo for too long — they avoid confession out of embarrassment, or worry about how to explain themselves, or fear of the priest’s reaction, or simply because confession is unavailable. They don’t know whether or not to receive Communion (this is a particular problem for daily Mass attendees, since confession is often only offered on Saturdays).

And many seriously worry that if they died suddenly, then God would send them to hell. Unfortunately, in such a state of despair, the sin is far more likely to happen again.

Detail from David and Nathan

Detail, David and Nathan, Angelika Kauffmann (1741-1807)

I think that clear answers to a couple questions would help resolve this anxiety for so many people.

First: Is confession ever an emergency outside of the deathbed? If “mortal sins” must be confessed immediately — if reconciling in the heart is not enough — then emergency confession must be made far more available and far less awkward to request.

No one wants to look like they just murdered somebody, but that’s exactly how personally requesting confession feels.

If confession never needs to be immediate then guidelines for receiving Communion in the midst of grave sin needs to be made much clearer for this sexually struggling generation.

Secondly, what exactly is a mortal sin? The many times I’ve asked this in confession, I’ve only received the same textbook answer. “Grave, full knowledge, full consent.” Well, what’s grave? French kissing? Regular kissing, but with lustful thoughts? Touching? Such a list seems too simplistic for such a serious matter. And shouldn’t every sin require full knowledge and consent? How is it a sin otherwise?

On the other hand, we can look at every sin committed by every human being in all of history and give a reason for why the sinner didn’t really have full eschatological knowledge or consent. Humans can be persuaded by seemingly good ulterior motives.

Now, I’m not saying that I don’t believe in mortal sin. But I have always found the definition to be unclear and confusing. Perhaps the answer is simply that you just “know” when it’s mortal. Perhaps mortal sin is a sin in which you want to leave God. If you feel bad the whole time and really regret it when it’s done and your first thoughts turn to confession — perhaps that’s proof you’re not in the “state of mortal sin.” I wish I knew the answer because it’s obviously an extremely important topic. It shouldn’t just be some catechetical detail.

Detail, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, Giacomo Franceschini ( )

Detail, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, Giacomo Franceschini (c. 1700 )

In the end, we can have all the homilies and articles and pamphlets explaining the benefits of chastity, but we are failing the flock if we don’t have better explanations regarding the process of reconciliation and returning to chastity. People need to know the uncomfortable details. They need to be told, “if you commit a sexual sin, here’s how you confess it.” They need to be told, specifically, what kinds of things prevent them from receiving Communion.

They need to be told when they ought to treat confession as an emergency.

And finally, most importantly, they need to know that they will never be refused mercy. No person who loves Jesus and is trying to love Jesus better should ever feel like something is standing in the way of reconciliation.