VADEMECUM FOR CONFESSORS
CONCERNING SOME ASPECTS
OF THE MORALITY OF CONJUGAL LIFE
The following document was issued in February of 1997 by the Pontifical
Council for the Family as a guide for priests in ministering the Sacrament of
Penance. The text alone follows (without footnotes).
Through His Church, Christ continues the mission He received from the Father.
He sent the Twelve to proclaim the Kingdom and to call people to repentance and
conversion, to metanoia (cf. Mark 6:12). The Risen Christ transmitted His own
power of reconciliation to them: "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you
forgive, are forgiven them" (John 20: 22-23). Through the outpouring of the
Spirit effected by Christ, the Church continues the preaching of the Gospel,
inviting people to conversion, and administering the Sacrament of the remission
of sins, by means of which repentant sinners obtain reconciliation with God and
with the Church and see the way of salvation opening up before them.
This vademecum traces its origin to the particular pastoral sensitivity of
the Holy Father, who has entrusted the task of preparing this aid for confessors
to the Pontifical Council for the Family. With the experience he acquired both
as a priest and a Bishop, the Pope ascertained the importance of clear and
certain guidelines to which the ministers of the Sacrament of Reconciliation can
refer in their dialogue with souls. The richness of the doctrine of the
Magisterium of the Church on themes of marriage and the family, especially since
the Second Vatican Council, has raised the need for a good synthesis regarding
some questions of morality pertaining to conjugal life.
If, on a doctrinal level, the Church has a solid awareness of the
requirements of the Sacrament of Penance, it cannot be denied that a certain
void has been forming with regard to implementing these teachings in pastoral
practice. The doctrinal data, therefore, is the foundation supporting this
vademecum, and it is not our task to repeat it here, although it is called to
mind in various passages. We know well all the richness that has been offered to
the Christian community by the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, illuminated then by the
Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, and by the Apostolic Exhortations, Familiaris
Consortio and Reconciliatio et Paenitentia. We also know how the Catechism of
the Catholic Church has provided an effective and synthetic summary of the
Church's doctrine on these subjects.
"To evoke conversion and penance in man's heart and to offer him the gift of
reconciliation is the specific mission of the Church... It is not a mission
which consists merely of a few theoretical statements and the presentation of an
ethical ideal unaccompanied by the energy with which to carry it out. Rather it
seeks to express itself in precise ministerial functions directed toward a
concrete practice of penance and reconciliation" (Apostolic Exhortation
Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 23).
We are happy to put this document in the hands of priests, a document that
has been prepared at the request of the Holy Father with the aid of the
competent collaboration of professors of theology as well as some pastors.
We thank all those who have offered their contribution to making this
document possible. We are especially grateful to the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith and the Apostolic Penitentiary.
1. Aim of the Document
The family, which the Second Vatican Council has defined as the domestic
sanctuary of the Church, and as "the primary vital cell of society" (1),
constitutes a privileged object of the Church's pastoral attention. "At a moment
of history in which the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to
destroy it or in some way to deform it, and aware that the well-being of society
and her own good are intimately tied to the good of the family, the Church
perceives in a more urgent and compelling way her mission of proclaiming to all
people the plan of God for marriage and the family." (2)
Over recent years, the Church, through the words of the Holy Father and a
vast spiritual mobilization of pastors and lay people, has greatly increased her
concern to help the entire community of the faithful to consider with gratitude
and fullness of faith, the gifts given by God to men and women united in the
sacrament of Marriage, so that they may be able to realize an authentic path of
holiness and offer a truly evangelical witness in the concrete situations of
life in which they find themselves.
The sacrament of the Eucharist and the sacrament of Penance play a
fundamental role in this path toward marital and domestic holiness. The former
reinforces union with Christ, the source of grace and life, and the latter
rebuilds it, whenever it has been destroyed, or increases and perfects conjugal
and family unity (3), menaced and wounded by sin.
To help married couples be aware of the path of their holiness and to carry
out their mission, it is fundamental that their conscience be formed, and that
God's will be fulfilled in the specific area of married life, that is, in their
conjugal communion and service for life. The light of the Gospel and the grace
of the sacrament represent the indispensable elements for the elevation and the
fullness of conjugal love that has its source in God the Creator. In fact, "the
Lord, wishing to bestow special gifts of grace and divine love on it, has
restored, perfected and elevated it" (4).
The moment in which the spouses ask for, and receive the sacrament of
Reconciliation represents a salvific event of the greatest importance for
accepting the demands of authentic love and of God's plan in their daily life.
It provides an illuminating occasion for deepening their faith and a concrete
aid in carrying out God's plan in their lives.
"It is the sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation that prepares the way for
each individual, even those weighed down with great faults. In this sacrament
each person can experience mercy in a unique way, that is, the love which is
more powerful than sin" (5).
Since the administration of the sacrament of Reconciliation is entrusted to
the ministry of priests, this document is addressed specifically to confessors
and seeks to offer some practical guidelines for the confession and absolution
of the faithful in matters of conjugal chastity. More specifically, this
vademecum ad praxim confessariorum intends also to offer a reference point for
married penitents so that they can draw ever greater advantage from the practice
of the sacrament of Reconciliation, and live their vocation to responsible
parenthood in keeping with divine law, authoritatively taught by the Church. It
will also serve as an aid for those who are preparing for marriage.
The problem of responsible procreation represents a particularly delicate
point in Catholic moral teaching relating to conjugal life. This is especially
the case with regard to the administration of the sacrament of Reconciliation,
in which doctrinal affirmations confront concrete human situations and the
spiritual paths of the individual faithful. It has become necessary, in fact, to
recall firm points of reference which make it possible to deal pastorally both
with new methods of contraception and the aggravation of the entire phenomenon
(6). This document does not intend to repeat the entire teaching of the
Encyclical Humanae Vitae, the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, and
other documents of the ordinary Magisterium of the Supreme Pontiff, but only to
offer suggestions and guidelines for the spiritual good of the faithful who have
recourse to the sacrament of Reconciliation, and to overcome possible
discrepancies and uncertainties in the practice of confessors.
2. Conjugal Chastity in the Doctrine of the Church
Christian tradition has always upheld the goodness and honesty of the marital
union and of the family against numerous heresies which arose from the very
beginnings of the Church. Willed by God with creation itself, brought back to
its primal origin and elevated to the dignity of a sacrament by Christ, marriage
consists of an intimate communion of the spouses of love and life, intrinsically
ordered to the good of the children that God wishes to entrust to them. Both for
the good of the spouses and of the children, as well as for the good of society
itself, the natural bond no longer depends on human decision (7).
The virtue of conjugal chastity "involves the integrity of the person and the
integrality of the gift," (8) and through it sexuality "becomes personal and
truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to
another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman." (9)
This virtue, in so far as it refers to the intimate relations of the spouses,
requires that "the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in
the context of true love" (10) be maintained. Therefore, among the fundamental
moral principles of conjugal life, it is necessary to keep in mind "the
inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own
initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning
and the procreative meaning." (11)
Throughout this century the Supreme Pontiffs have issued various documents
expounding the principal moral truths on conjugal chastity. Among these, special
mention is due to the Encyclical Casti Connubii (1930) of Pius XI (12), numerous
discourses of Pius XII (13), the Encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) of Paul VI
(14), the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (15) (1981), the Letter to
Families Gratissimam Sane (16) and the Encyclical Evangelium Vitae (1995) of
John Paul II. Together with these, the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes
(17) (1965) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (18) (1992) deserve special
mention. Important also, in keeping with these teachings, are some documents of
the Episcopal Conferences, as well as those of pastors and theologians who have
developed the subject and given it a deeper understanding. The example should
also be mentioned of many married persons, whose commitment to live human love
in a Christian way constitutes a most effective contribution for the new
evangelization of the family.
3. The "goods" of Marriage and the Gift of Self
By means of the sacrament of Marriage, married couples receive from Christ
the Redeemer the gift of grace that confirms and elevates the communion of
faithful and fruitful love. The holiness to which they are called is above all a
The persons called to live in the married state realize their vocation to
love (19) in the full gift of self, which adequately expresses the language of
the body (20). From the mutual gift of the spouses comes, as its fruit, the gift
of life to the children, who are a sign and crowning of their spousal love (21).
Contraception, directly opposed to the transmission of life, betrays and
falsifies the self-sacrificing love proper to marriage, "altering its value of
total self-giving" (22) and contradicting God's design of love, in which it has
been granted to married couples to participate.
VADEMECUM FOR THE USE OF CONFESSORS
1. Holiness in Marriage
1. All Christians must be fittingly made aware of their call to holiness. The
invitation to follow Christ addressed, in fact, to each and every member of the
faithful, must tend towards the fullness of the Christian life and to the
perfection of charity in each one's own state (23).
2. Charity is the soul of holiness. By its very nature, charity-a gift that
the Spirit infuses in the heart-assumes and elevates human love and makes it
capable of the perfect gift of self. Charity makes renunciation more acceptable,
lightens the spiritual struggle and renders more joyous the gift of self (24).
3. Human beings cannot achieve perfect self-giving with their own forces
alone. They become capable of this by the grace of the Holy Spirit. In effect,
it is Christ who reveals the original truth of marriage, and, freeing man from
all hardness of heart, renders him capable of fully realizing it (25).
4. On the path to holiness, a Christian experiences both human weakness and
the benevolence and mercy of the Lord. Therefore, the keystone of the exercise
of Christian virtues-and thus also of conjugal chastity-rests on faith which
makes us aware of God's mercy, and on repentance which humbly receives divine
5. The spouses carry out the full gift of self in married life and in
conjugal union which, for Christians, is vivified by the grace of the sacrament.
Their specific union and the transmission of life are tasks proper to their
conjugal holiness (27).
2. The Teaching of the Church on Responsible Procreation
1. The spouses are to be strengthened in their view of the inestimable value
and preciousness of human life, and aided so that they may commit themselves to
making their own family a sanctuary of life (28): "God himself is present in
human fatherhood and motherhood quite differently than he is present in all
other instances of begetting 'on earth'" (29).
2. Parents are to consider their mission as an honor and a responsibility,
since they become cooperators with the Lord in calling into existence a new
human person, made in the image and likeness of God, redeemed and destined, in
Christ, to a Life of eternal happiness (30). "It is precisely in their role as
co-workers with God who transmits his image to the new creature that we see the
greatness of couples who are ready 'to cooperate with the love of the Creator
and the Saviour, who through them will enlarge and enrich his own family day by
3. From this the Christian's joy and esteem for paternity and maternity are
derived. This parenthood is called "responsible" in recent documents of the
Church, to emphasize the awareness and generosity of the spouses with regard to
their mission of transmitting life, which has in itself a value of eternity, and
to call attention to their role as educators. Certainly it is a duty of married
couples-who, for that matter, should seek appropriate counsel-to deliberate
deeply and in a spirit of faith about the size of their family, and to decide
the concrete mode of realizing it, with respect for the moral criteria of
conjugal life (32).
4. The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is,
of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be
held as definitive and irreformable. Contraception is gravely opposed to marital
chastity; it is contrary to the good of the transmission of life (the
procreative aspect of matrimony), and to the reciprocal self-giving of the
spouses (the unitive aspect of matrimony); it harms true love and denies the
sovereign role of God in the transmission of human life (33).
5. A specific and more serious moral evil is present in the use of means
which have an abortive effect, impeding the implantation of the embryo which has
just been fertilized or even causing its expulsion in an early stage of
6. However, profoundly different from any contraceptive practice is the
behaviour of married couples, who, always remaining fundamentally open to the
gift of life, live their intimacy only in the unfruitful periods, when they are
led to this course by serious motives of responsible parenthood. This is true
both from the anthropological and moral points of view, because it is rooted in
a different conception of the person and of sexuality (35).
The witness of couples who for years have lived in harmony with the plan of
the Creator, and who, for proportionately serious reasons, licitly use the
methods rightly called "natural," confirms that it is possible for spouses to
live the demands of chastity and of married life with common accord and full
3. Pastoral Guidelines for Confessors
1. In dealing with penitents on the matter of responsible procreation, the
confessor should keep four aspects in mind: a) the example of the Lord who "is
capable of reaching down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above
all to every form of moral misery, to sin" (36); b) a prudent reserve in
inquiring into these sins; c) help and encouragement to the penitents so that
they may be able to reach sufficient repentance and accuse themselves fully of
grave sins; d) advice which inspire all, in a gradual way, to embrace the path
2. The minister of Reconciliation should always keep in mind that the
sacrament has been instituted for men and women who are sinners. Therefore,
barring manifest proof to the contrary, he will receive the penitents who
approach the confessional taking for granted their good will to be reconciled
with the merciful God, a good will that is born, although in different degrees,
of a contrite and humbled heart (Ps 50:19) (37).
3. When occasional penitents approach the sacrament, those who have not
confessed for a long time and manifest a grave general situation, it is
necessary, before asking direct and concrete questions with regard to
responsible procreation and chastity in general, to enlighten them so that they
can understand these duties in a vision of faith. Thus it will be necessary, if
the accusation of sins has been too succinct or mechanical, to help the
penitents to place their life before God, and, with general questions on various
virtues and/or obligations in accordance with their personal conditions (38),
remind them in a positive way of the invitation to the sanctity of love, and of
the importance of their duties in the area of procreation and the education of
4. When it is the penitent who asks questions or seeks clarification on
specific points, even if only implicitly, the confessor will have to respond
adequately, but always with prudence and discretion (39), without approving
5. The confessor is bound to admonish penitents regarding objectively grave
transgressions of God's law and to ensure that they truly desire absolution and
God's pardon with the resolution to re-examine and correct their behaviour.
Frequent relapse into sins of contraception does not in itself constitute a
motive for denying absolution; absolution cannot be imparted, however, in the
absence of sufficient repentance or of the resolution not to fall again into sin
6. The penitent who regularly confesses with the same priest frequently seeks
something besides absolution alone. The confessor needs to know how to provide
guidance to help him or her to improve in all Christian virtues, and, in
consequence, in the sanctification of marital life (41). This certainly will be
easier where a relationship of actual spiritual direction exists, even if this
name is not used.
7. On the part of the penitent, the sacrament of Reconciliation requires
sincere sorrow, a formally complete accusation of mortal sins, and the
resolution, with the help of God, not to fall into sin again. In general, it is
not necessary for the confessor to investigate concerning sins committed in
invincible ignorance of their evil, or due to an inculpable error of judgment.
Although these sins are not imputable, they do not cease, however, to be an evil
and a disorder. This also holds for the objective evil of contraception, which
introduces a pernicious habit into the conjugal life of the couple. It is
therefore necessary to strive in the most suitable way to free the moral
conscience from those errors (42) which contradict the nature of conjugal life
as a total gift.
Though one must keep in mind that the formation of consciences is to be
accomplished above all in catechesis for married couples, both general or
specific, it is always necessary to assist the spouses, also in the moment of
the sacrament of Reconciliation, to examine themselves on the specific duties of
conjugal life. Whenever the confessor considers it necessary to question the
penitent, he should do so with discretion and respect.
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.
9. The pastoral "law of gradualness", not to be confused with the
"gradualness of the law" which would tend to diminish the demands it places on
us, consists of requiring a decisive break with sin together with a progressive
path towards total union with the will of God and with his loving demands (43).
10. On the other hand, to presume to make one's own weakness the criterion of
moral truth is unacceptable. From the very first proclamation of the word of
Jesus, Christians realize that there is a "disproportion" between the moral law,
natural and evangelical, and the human capacity. They equally understand that
the recognition of their own weakness is the necessary and secure road by which
the doors to God's mercy will be opened (44).
11. Sacramental absolution is not to be denied to those who, repentant after
having gravely sinned against conjugal chastity, demonstrate the desire to
strive to abstain from sinning again, notwithstanding relapses. In accordance
with the approved doctrine and practice followed by the holy Doctors and
confessors with regard to habitual penitents, the confessor is to avoid
demonstrating lack of trust either in the grace of God or in the dispositions of
the penitent, by exacting humanly impossible absolute guarantees of an
irreproachable future conduct (45).
12. When the penitent shows a willingness to accept the moral teaching,
especially in the case of one who habitually frequents the sacrament and
demonstrates trust with regard to the spiritual help it offers, it is good to
instill confidence in divine Providence and be supportive, in order to help the
penitent to examine himself honestly before God. For this purpose it will be
necessary to verify the solidity of the motives inducing a limitation of
fatherhood or motherhood, and the licitly of the methods chosen to distance or
avoid a new birth.
13. Special difficulties are presented by cases of cooperation in the sin of
a spouse who voluntarily renders the unitive act infecund. In the first place,
it is necessary to distinguish cooperation in the proper sense, from violence or
unjust imposition on the part of one of the spouses, which the other spouse in
fact cannot resist (46). This cooperation can be licit when the three following
conditions are jointly met:
1.when the action of the cooperating spouse is not already illicit in itself
2.when proportionally grave reasons exist for cooperating in the sin of the
3.when one is seeking to help the other spouse to desist from such conduct
(patiently, with prayer, charity and dialogue; although not necessarily in that
moment, nor on every single occasion).
14. Furthermore, it is necessary to carefully evaluate the question of
cooperation in evil when recourse is made to means which can have an
abortifacient effect (48).
15. Christian couples are witnesses of God's love in the world. They must
therefore be convinced, with the assistance of faith and even in spite of their
experience of human weakness, that it is possible to observe the will of the
Lord in conjugal life with divine grace. Frequent and persevering recourse to
prayer, to the Eucharist and to the sacrament of Reconciliation, are
indispensable for gaining mastery of self (49).
16. Priests, in their catechesis and in their preparation of couples for
marriage, are asked to maintain uniform criteria with regard to the evil of the
contraceptive act, both in their teaching and in the area of the sacrament of
Reconciliation, in complete fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church.
Bishops are to take particular care to be vigilant in this regard; for not
infrequently the faithful are scandalized by this lack of unity, both in the
area of catechesis as well as in the sacrament of Reconciliation (50).
17. The pastoral practice of confession will be more effective if it is
united to an on-going and thorough catechesis on the Christian vocation to
marital love and on its joyful and demanding dimensions, its grace and personal
commitment (51), and if consultors and centres are made available to which
confessors could easily refer penitents in order to acquire adequate knowledge
about the natural methods.
18. In order to render the moral directives concerning responsible
procreation concretely applicable, it is necessary that the precious work of
confessors be completed by catechesis (52). Accurate illumination of consciences
with regard to the sin of abortion certainly forms an integral part of this
19. Regarding absolution for the sin of abortion, the obligation always
exists to have regard for the canonical norms. If repentance is sincere and it
is difficult to send the penitent to the competent authority to whom the
absolution of the censure is reserved, every confessor can absolve according to
canon 1357, suggesting an adequate penitential act, and indicating the necessity
to have recourse, possibly offering to draft and forward it himself (53).
Especially in these times, the Church considers it to be one of her principal
duties to proclaim the mystery of mercy, revealed in a supreme degree in the
Person of Jesus Christ, and to bring mercy into life (54).
The pre-eminent setting for proclaiming and realizing mercy is the
celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Precisely this first year of the triennium of preparation for the Third
Millennium, dedicated to Christ Jesus, the only Saviour of the world, yesterday,
today and for ever (cf. Heb. 13: 8), can offer a great opportunity for the work
of pastoral renewal and catechetical deepening in the dioceses, and specifically
in shrines visited by many pilgrims where the sacrament of forgiveness is
administered with an abundant availability of confessors.
May priests always be fully available for this ministry on which the eternal
beatitude of married couples depends, and also upon which, in good part, their
serenity and happiness in this present life rests. May priests truly be for them
living witnesses of the Father's mercy!
Vatican City, February 12, 1997.
Alfonso Cardinal Lopez Trujillo
President of the Pontifical Council for the Family
+ Francisco Gil Hellín