Cases of Conscience from The Casuist
Necessity of General Confession for a Convert Rebaptized Sub Conditione
Mr. N., a convert to the Catholic faith, was baptized, as a child, in the Lutheran Church. He is now 50 years of age. There exists reasonable doubt as to the validity of his baptism received in the Lutheran Church, and for this reason he is rebaptized, conditionally, on his reception into the Catholic Church. But now there arises this question: Must Mr. N. make a full confession of all the mortal sins he may have committed since his baptism as a Lutheran? Or may he be excused from making a full confession, because since his first baptism is doubtful, the sins committed after it are materia dubia for confession, and therefore need not necessarily be confessed? Would it not be sufficient for Mr. N. to confess a few sins, after his baptism as a Catholic, and thus receive a valid absolution, indirect for all his sins committed since his first baptism? It will be a great hardship for Mr. N. to repeat the sins of half a century, and it seems unreasonable to subject him to this hardship, since he has only doubtfully contracted, in his first baptism, the obligation of confessing his sins. Moreover, Ballerini and other authors assert that it is not of strict necessity that converts should make a complete confession of their lives. Therefore we ask, may Mr. N. be excused, under the· present circumstances, from making a full confession of his whole life?
Answer: Mr. N. will have to make a full confession of all his sins from the day of his baptism in the Lutheran Church. This may appear a hardship, nevertheless it is so ordained by the second and third plenary councils of Baltimore, and by repeated declarations of the Holy See.
Lehmkuhl treats of this matter at some length, and maintains that after the recent decisions of the Holy See, concerning this matter, there can remain no doubt about it. Many theologians were inclined to exempt converts from this obligation, when they were rebaptized sub conditione, on entering the Catholic Church, because since the validity of their Catholic baptism was doubtful, it remained also doubtful whether the sins committed before it were really remitted by sacramental absolution, or by the Catholic baptism. Hence these theologians thought that to such converts, if they confessed matter sufficient for absolution, although they made no general confession of their lives, absolution might be given conditionally, and thus all their sins would be remitted indirectly, provided their first baptism in Protestantism was valid. And thus they tried to save the convert from the hardship of a life-confession on his entering the true Church.
But against all this reasoning of the theologians (cf. Ball. ad Gury, tom. 11, 231, n. 4), the Holy See has expressly declared that converts who receive conditional baptism must confess all the mortal sins of their past lives, as to kind and number, and be absolved from them conditionally. The Holy See gave this decision in 1715, in the well-known case of Charles Wippermann. And again, in 1868, when the bishops of England, through Cardinal Manning, asked the Holy See for a ruling on the question. The case of Charles Wippermann, of course, was a particular case laid before the Holy Office. But the intention of the Holy Office, in deciding it, was to pass a sentence and give a decision, which might apply to all cases coming under this head, and which might be regarded in the future as the law on this matter; for the decree must be regarded as an authentic interpretation of the divine law by the Holy See, and not merely as a local law or as a disciplinary measure of the Church. The Church will not, and cannot, prescribe anything as necessary matter for confession which is not so by divine law. In accordance therefore with the divine law, sins committed after a doubtfully-valid baptism must be submitted to the power of the keys in the tribunal of Penance. This we learn from the positive declaration of the Church. Reason, likewise, confirms it. For, though one who is doubtfully baptized has not a certainty, but only a probability of receiving sacramental absolution of his sins, it does not allow that the obligation to confess them is only probable, and may be disregarded; for the duty of confessing and performing the penance received is for all more certain than that probability of receiving the effects of the Sacrament. Whether the penitent receives the sacramental effects of the absolution depends on the validity of his first baptism, so that doubt may be always entertained about it.
But the duty of confessing and doing the penance admits of no such doubt, since it is based upon grounds morally certain and sufficiently evident. If this were not so there would be an end of all human obligations. By baptism men come under the jurisdiction of the Church. This is the external rite by which men are admitted as members. But no one doubts that a man remains subject to the jurisdiction of a social body, into which he has been admitted by the acknowledged external rites, till that reception is proved to be invalid. All, therefore, who have been baptized, and who were desirous of receiving baptism validly, though there exists doubt about the validity, are subject to the jurisdiction of the Church and to her laws, and are bound to comply with the divine command of confessing their sins. In other words, the doubt about the baptism has this effect, that the baptism may be regarded as invalid in the sense that it ought to be repeated conditionally, lest the man risk his eternal salvation; but not in the sense that a doubtfully valid baptism impairs or wipes out all a man’s obligations toward the laws and regulations of the Church, among which is the precept of confessing all one’s mortal sins committed after baptism. (cf. Schieler, Theory and Practice of the Confessional, p. 190)
–Taken from the Reign of Mary Quarterly Magazine, Issue 95