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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 grace given.

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.


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 forgiveness (26).

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 day'" (31).

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 pregnancy (34).

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 self-giving.

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 of holiness.

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 children.

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 erroneous opinions.

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 (40).

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 (47);

2.when proportionally grave reasons exist for cooperating in the sin of the other spouse;

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 task.

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




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