Vademecum for Confessors

Written by the Pontifical Council for the Family

(Vatican.va, 1997)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr

As I prepare the up-coming Winter issue of the Review I am getting deeply into the controversy surrounding October’s Synod of Bishops. The issue is to feature books on marriage and on Pope Francis. It should be a very interesting and illuminating edition, to say the least. In the midst of my research, I came across a reference to a ‘handbook for confessors’ the Vatican prepared a number of years ago. Now, I have a doctorate in theology, and honestly, I had never heard of it. Why not? No, I did not concentrate my studies on the sacraments or on moral theology, but I have studied both fields. One of my favorite courses was a ‘situational ethics’ course, where the sacrament of penance came up a great deal, as the course was taught by a priest and the majority of the students were priestly candidates. Why was this Vademecum never mentioned? I have my theories as to why, but that is a tale for another time…

The word vademecum means ‘take with you,’ what English-speakers have classically referred to with the terms ‘handbook’ or ‘pocketbook.’ Pope Benedict once described the Compendium of the Catechism as a vademecum, for instance.

It is very, very short. I found it on the Vatican website here.  It comes with an introduction and is accompanied by extensive footnotes, which are much longer than the document itself. I was initially disappointed when I saw how short it was. I was secretly hoping it would be like the Medieval confessor’s handbooks I studied during my history undergrad. Those confebooks detailed all the sins a confessor would hear in confession and prescribe penances of varying length and intensity for them (hint: they were all intense and long, usually bread and water for X-number of years). No, I don’t think that would be the right approach for confessors today, but a list of sins with comments about their gravity might be helpful to some.

Yes, it was short, but it was about the most sophisticated document I have encountered in a long time. Not only sophisticated but admirably spiritually adept. There is no way that your ordinary rank-and-file pew-sitter would be able to understand it, though, but for people with some good theological background it provides just such a wonderful window into the depths of the theology of penance: the Church’s understanding of the concepts of guilt, conscience, conversion, knowledge, etc., upon which the theology of the sacrament is based.

The Vademecum was prepared by the Pontifical Council for the Family, and its full title is Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life. And yet, how closely has it touched the families for whom it was meant? It was never meant for married people directly, of course, but the question remains: how many priests have been influenced by it? I hazard to say that because of its sophistication a great number of pastors would not be able to understand it fully. I shall have to consider writing a commentary on it so that its wealth might be more fully shared. The theology of confession is not a reserve of priests alone, although they have the key role to play in applying it. Anything that might benefit them would be of benefit to the laity who take their faith seriously. Of course, it has to be translated in language they would understand. No doubt, the key reason why the Church has not publicized this document as it has others is this passage:

8. The principle according to which it is preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance, is certainly to be considered always valid, even in matters of conjugal chastity. And this applies whenever it is foreseen that the penitent, although oriented towards living within the bounds of a life of faith, would not be prepared to change his own conduct, but rather would begin formally to sin. Nonetheless, in these cases, the confessor must try to bring such penitents ever closer to accepting God’s plan in their own lives, even in these demands, by means of prayer, admonition and exhorting them to form their consciences, and by the teaching of the Church.

This would have to be explained at length, because I think without proper contextualization its teaching would surprise and upset many. But it is, nevertheless, rock-solid according to the tradition.

In my own experience, my knowledge of the theology of the sacrament of reconciliation has greatly aided me to make good confessions, to understand more fully what my sin is, what I need to do to change, etc. Of course, this is not an exact science, as they say, and that is the type of error to which the old penitentiaries I had mentioned above gave rise to. The fact is, only Christ’s blood makes up for our sins, not our good confessions, nor the meticulous execution of our penances, etc. I don’t like to say that sin is a mystery, because by definition only God is infinite in greatness and so by definition the only One who cannot be fully intellectually grasped. Sin is not infinite, and so, by definition, it is not mysterious. This is not to say, of course, that our life in Christ is not mysterious. It is mysterious because our life in Christ is about plunging into God’s infinitude. Sin is powerfully vexing, yes, and can seem mysterious because it keeps us from our infinite ascent into God. Sin is sin, though and nothing more. It is about putting ourselves in God’s place, the center. There’s not a lot of mystery in it if we simply break it down into those bald terms. Sin takes on the appearance of a great, untraversable obstacle, but in Christ it is not. We cannot surrender ourselves to our own addiction to sin. Yes, we are wonderfully made, (cf. Ps 139:14) complex beings, but the psychological web of lies and miscues that we set within our minds in order to protect our sins are not too great for God to plumb. No, we cannot be remade into something holy by simply performing hard penances. We can be renewed in the grace of Christ poured out for us despite us. That is another wonderful thing about this Vademecum: it is sensitive to the inner-working of the soul and, most of all, respectful of God’s supreme sovereignty over all of it.

I look forward to finding other books that can help in confession and to telling you about them both here on the website and in print.

One thought on “Vademecum for Confessors”

  1. Okay; I read this document years ago and yes, the passage you single out certainly caught my attention. So how does one determine whether or not someone is “oriented towards living within the bounds of a life of faith”? And how does one arrive at the “foresight” that “the penitent…would not be prepared to change his own conduct, but rather would begin formally to sin”? How does one (objectively?) assess whether someone else is in a state of “subjectively invincible ignorance”? I’d love to hear some explanations of this.

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