Is there still responsibility for past sins after confession?

Q: I have a confession question. I have heard that past sins, either venial or mortal, even after confessing them stay with you somewhat and only "really" get dismissed after your soul is scrubbed clean by time in purgatory. So would someone with a very bad past who does a turn-around, goes to confession and receives absolution, and leads a good life going forward still be "responsible" for past sins? (Rhode Island)

A: There are many layers to your question, but the short answer is that we are truly and fully forgiven from our sins when we receive absolution after a good confession. However, sacramental absolution by itself doesn't necessarily resolve all the consequences of our sins.

Canon 959 of the Code of Canon Law reflects this reality when it notes that one of the requirements for sacramental absolution is that the penitent be truly sorry for their sins and that they "intend to reform themselves" (or, as this is sometimes translated, that they have "firm purpose of amendment"). In other words, forgiveness of sin from the sacrament of penance can only come about if the penitent is willing to do what they need to do in their life outside the confessional to bring their life into harmony with God's law.

On an observable natural level, it might seem fairly obvious that a sacramental confession does not automatically "fix" all the negative aspects of a situation our sins may have caused. For example, if a person were to confess intentionally inflicting major damage to someone else's property, that newly forgiven sin would still, in a sense, "stick with" the penitent insofar as they would still be responsible for repairing the damage -- and might even need to face secular criminal charges. In a similar but less dramatic way, a person who confesses a tendency to lose their temper with their family members would still need to work toward improving the relationships that may have been injured by their unkind words or actions; that is, other people's hurt feelings do not instantly go away as a result of their confession.

With respect to your question specifically, a person who repented after years of habitual sinful behavior might still have a lot to do to resolve the problems their sins may have caused -- though we can assume that this burden would be made much lighter by the grace of the sacrament.

The idea that "sin has consequences" also extends to the idea of purgatory. God does not punish sins that he himself has forgiven through the sacrament. But purgatory is not intended to be a form of divine punishment, strictly speaking. Rather, purgatory is meant instead to be a time of healing from the negative spiritual effects of our sinfulness.

Many sins have the potential to hurt other people (and sometimes also ourselves) in earthly or bodily ways. But all sin unavoidably wounds the soul of the one who commits it. Even venial sins can make us less capable of loving God and receiving his love, and this spiritual damage does not necessarily go away just because the sin that caused the damage has been forgiven. Purgatory is a state that God in His mercy gives to us so that our souls may be strengthened and purified so as to be made ready to enter into the full glory of heaven.

That being said, there are things we can do on earth to heal our souls and hopefully shorten our time in purgatory. For one thing, a fervent prayer life can draw us closer to God, preparing us for a heavenly life in His direct presence. And it has been traditionally understood that if we patiently bear the sufferings we naturally experience in this life, this can help us grow more detached from sin and the passing things of this world so as to set our hearts more firmly on God alone.

- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.