Catholic “Inventions”: Confession
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the biggest problems non-Catholics have with the Catholic faith. The entire concept was something shrugged off by Protestants as an unnecessary complication and burden imposed on an unlearned public by an overbearing and power hungry church to keep the masses under their thumbs and in their pockets. It is summarized today by the very question,
“Why should I confess my sins to a priest when I can go directly to God?”
“For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,”
– 1 Timothy 2:5
Even more than a few Catholics consider the idea of going to Confession to be an unnecessary formality. Persuaded by the above argument and without the benefit of proper catechesis that has sorely lagged in the Catholic Church for the past thirty years, Catholics were never given the proper understanding of what Confession means and why it is an indispensable Sacrament to Christianity. The above question and correlating verse deserve to be addressed and for those who’ve never legitimately grasped the necessity it is a bewildering formality of archaic functionality. This is especially true in the Christian understanding of today where simplification is the ultimate expression of faith. ‘If it works, why complicate it?’ I believe that especially after the scandals caused by misrepresenting and corrupt religious (not the Church proper, as can be historically proven, by her ill-meaning representatives) that spurred that Protestant Reformation, people are distrustful of the Church and her rites and rituals and are more willing to believe the accusations against them rather than research the truth. In fact, the challenge issued by Benedict XVI when he was Pope is that if one could study Catholic sources and doctrine and still come away with the conscience belief that it was an unworthy form of Christianity, they would be justified in their conscience and before God. Therefore, we have to be willing to address the challenges to its rites and rituals and, to those willing to listen and understand, clarify her positions and beliefs.
So why, truly, is it necessary to go vocalize your sins to a priest instead of to God directly? Isn’t that an unnecessary and humiliating exercise? As with all matters of faith and addressing the things that go on today in a Catholic church, we need to go back to the origin of these practices in order to understand their founding. While I usually start with the Bible as the primary source, since Protestants take it as the first and only source, I’d actually prefer to start with something that was written roughly around the same time the Apostle John wrote Revelation. The Didache is an ancient written text (70AD – 100AD) properly titled The Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles. It expounds much more clearly on ancient Church procedure than the Bible does and was written around the same time the letters of the Bible were. Also since the Bible wasn’t compiled into a canonized book until almost 300 years later, this is a conclusive document to begin with in examining the protocol of the early church.
“Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life.”
“On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure.”
– Didache 4:14, 14:1
In the early practice of the Church, the penitents would confess their sins openly and be given a very long and strict penance. As the Church grew in size and understanding this practice was relegated to a private confession whereby the priest acted as the hearer and assigned a much less strict penance. Again, keep in mind that this was an established practice during the lifetime of the Apostle John and nothing in the entire library of extant Christian history refutes these practices.
So where did these supposed practices come into play? It’s fine and dandy that they existed but where is the DIVINE sanction that this was even legitimate!? This is where the pressing Protestant will demand validation for the claim that the practice is not superfluous. Jesus Himself was the Divine Source for the institution of the Church and her Sacraments. He instituted this Sacrament with his Apostles after His Resurrection when he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:23) This is an authoritative responsibility given to those who are charged with the ministry to “go and preach the Gospel in [His] name.” They are the leaders of this new faith and are thus given spiritual authority over the adherents. How is this so? Because the Scripture says Jesus “breathed on them.” Only one other time in the entire Bible does it directly say that God breathed on creation. Genesis 2:7 where God’s breath gave Adam life. It is also reminiscent of Ezekiel 37:9,10 where the breath of the Lord, as commanded through his prophet, gave life to the dry bones and made them live. The direct breath of God on something in the Bible gives it life and these Apostles are given new spiritual life through Jesus at this moment.
A similar verse of bestowing authority to the Apostles is found in Matthew 16:19 where Jesus gives Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and tells him, “Whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.” (This handing of the keys is a typography of the Kingdom of David as written in the Old Testament where the King would give the keys of his kingdom to his head steward. Cf – Is. 22:20-22) Jesus also bestows this authority to the other Apostles in Matthew 18:18 when he’s teaching them and he says again, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This is a spiritual authority given directly to the Apostles. So what does it mean when it says that whatever they bind on earth is bound in Heaven and loose on earth is loosed in Heaven? and don’t you think that that’s a distinct and powerful authority if, whatever you bind or loose on earth is also done in Heaven?
It means that whatever they allow or forbid churchwise on this earth is likewise approved and licit by Heaven. Therefore, when Jesus reiterates this authoritative power by breathing on them after His Resurrection He states that their authority of binding and loosing is also for the bestowing of forgiveness of sins or the retention of holding those sins against the person. This is given to the Apostles. The representatives of Christ on earth. This is what the Church calls, in persona Christi – in the person of Christ. That is, the representation of Christ on earth. They aren’t Christ, but his representative with the authority to bind and loose which includes the forgiveness or retention of forgiveness of sins. Since Apostles can’t live forever on earth, they had to pass on this authority which has been handed on, in an unbroken succession, to this very day to the ministers of the Church i.e. – the Bishops and their representatives, the Priests.
Another Biblical example which refers to the forgiveness of sins is James 5:13-16, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.” In the context of the chapter we see that James is not simply speaking about any righteous person you happen to find to tell your sins to. In context, James has been talking about the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick and is specifically referring to the duties of the presbyters (the priests) of the Church to anoint a sick person with oil and pray over him because that prayer of faith will “save the sick person (spiritually speaking) and the Lord will raise him up” and that if he has any sins they will be forgiven. Then James says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be [spiritually] healed” because if a righteous person, i.e. – the presbyter [a priest] is praying over your sin, you will be healed/forgiven.
A priest does not and never has, in the history of the Church, had the power in, of, through or by himself the power to forgive a sin. This power is from God and by God alone. A man, by his own regret and desire to be forgiven can take it upon himself to ask God’s forgiveness outside of the Sacrament of Confession and be forgiven provided he is not aware, through the knowledge of his faith, that Confession is a required act. In other words, if he’s never been taught in his faith that Confession was a requirement, he can still be forgiven of his sins. A person is only held liable for what they know (cf. – Romans 2:12-29). The Sacrament of Confession, like Baptism, is what is referred to as a “nominative necessity”. In other words, it is a part of the act of participation in Christian Sacraments, but those acts, in and of themselves, are not strictly required in order for the desire or promise to be fulfilled. For example, if a man in a state of mortal sin confesses to God his repentance and makes the resolve to go to Confession to be absolved, but dies before he is able to visit the Confessional, he can have the assurance that he has been forgiven. Like Baptism, if a person desires to be Baptized into the Church and desires to be in communion with the Church through Baptism but dies before they can be properly Baptized, they are still considered, by the Baptism of desire, to have been Christian. Desire and intention are the judging factors here, but even though the act of Confession and Baptism are ‘nominatively necessary’, they are still ‘necessary’ since desire alone cannot create reality. The desire to perform the act of Confession and Baptism are necessary and the determination to perform those acts must be a part of the intentions of the believer in order to validate the desire of the individual. The action is required because it was instituted as a requirement by Christ Himself.
For example, I steal some money from an acquaintance. I may regret stealing it and I may even resolve in my heart that I want to be forgiven for the theft, but without asking for that forgiveness or resolving that I will ask for that forgiveness, I haven’t really accomplished anything to that effect. There is also the two-fold side of Confession which states that asking for forgiveness is one thing, but that it cannot just be in your mind. Using this scenario, you would need to ask it of the person whom you have wronged, but not only that, for Catholics the two-fold part is that you, as a transgressor, must make reparation for your sin by purging (purgation – Purgatory) the damage your sin has done to the wronged person and to your own soul. That means, returning the money or somehow compensating for the loss of the money to this individual whom you have wounded and affected with your sin.
On a Church-wide level the injured party is the Church and Heaven itself, therefore one is asked to confess their wrongdoing to the representative of the entire Church and Heaven as a whole: the priest. Also, one is asked to repair the damage through a corollary action whether physical, if possible, or spiritual, which is always. You must desire forgiveness, ask for forgiveness and receive it, and make reparation for it. The priest essentially serves as a representative with the capacity of helping you repair your soul because of your sin. As Christ commanded His Apostles, and thus their authoritative descendants to forgive sins, the priest acts as the authoritative representative of Christ on earth who has the power to forgive or retain the forgiveness of sins by evaluating the sinner’s contrition and by assigning an act of penance, which is almost always in the form of spiritual encouragement in order to heal the soul. The penance is given in order to counsel the soul in its state of inequity and comfort the soul in its assurance that God loves and forgives them. A Christian can and does go to God for forgiveness, but the authoritative representative of God can counsel, guide, comfort, and reassure the soul of this very thing.
Another reason Christ knew what he was doing is that a human being, by his very nature is a physical creature and has an innate desire to interact with his surroundings. Man is not a solitary, internal thing and neither is he, nor was he designed to be, in his faith. Therefore, it is good for a man to verbally hear, “your sins are forgiven.” Confession is, by its very nature, a consoling act. Truth be told, everyone confesses. Everyone. Your confessor just may not happen to be a priest. It’s either your friend, family member, the bartender, a stranger on an airplane ride, but man by his very nature has the need to confess his wrongdoings to someone and man always does. In saying things to a Holy individual who will, by his Holy Orders never, ever reveal to anyone what you’ve said under pain of excommunication from the Church, is that he can give you the reassurance, by evaluating your contrition, that God does, in fact, forgive you. Through the absolution granted by God’s Own representative one receives the Grace of the Sacrament and the ability to be free of the weight of that sin. There is much more confidence in that than in simply kneeling by your bedside, praying to God for forgiveness and then standing up and going about the rest of your day. There remains in this scenario, in the darkest recesses of man’s soul, a fervent uncertainty that he is, in fact, forgiven.
So what about what Paul says in 1 Timothy when he talks about there being one mediator between man and God which is Jesus? Doesn’t that mean that there is no other ‘conduit’ to receive God’s Graces than through Jesus and that’s why we only pray ‘in Jesus name’? If we isolate this verse from its surrounding content and utilize it in its most literal sense, then we should be, by those methods, literally only pray to Jesus Christ alone. Don’t speak to God or ask the Holy Spirit anything. Don’t ask your neighbors to pray for you because then you are not utilizing Christ in His role as sole mediator to God. No one else should you be talking to but Jesus Christ Himself because the verse, in isolated form states explicitly that He alone is the sole mediator. However, by isolating this verse we take the phrase out of context. Let’s look at what Paul was saying right before this,
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men. For kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
“… who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth.”
and what is that knowledge of the truth? “[That] there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,”
and why is it important to say He is the one mediator? Because He “gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was born at the proper time.”
Therefore, what Paul is telling us in this verse is what Luke told us in Acts and that is that, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) There is no other path to Heaven than through the Sole Mediator, in other words the Individual who “gave himself as a ransom for all” because He was sent by the Father for the redemption of the world at the cost of His life. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) In other words, the only way to obtain eternal life in Heaven is to believe in Jesus Christ and His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Not through any other religious systems or beliefs can you get to Heaven. This is what Paul is talking about in 1 Timothy 2:5, not about who to confide in or pray with.
Confession can be an overwhelming thing. This is something I struggled with coming into the Catholic Church and I’ve written about it briefly before. Something that comforted me was simply the patient explanation of my priest in the RCIA class and the understanding of what exactly Confession was and was not. God wishes to bestow His Graces upon us and the way He chooses to do it is by cooperating with our human natures. It is not an easy thing to step into a Confessional be it face-to-face or behind a screen to talk about the things you did wrong. This is why, as I mentioned in the other blog entry, that I think it’s a ridiculous suggestion from non-Catholics to claim that it’s an easy thing to just go say you did something wrong to some priest and be forgiven of it because there’s nothing stopping you from going and doing it again once you’ve told him. (As if Confession is akin to walking into a psychologist’s office and doing the same thing with the same implications.) First, because it’s an invalid Confession if you’re not truly contrite. God knows your heart and God is the One to whom you are asking forgiveness. Second, no one is ever moved to go sit in front of any other individual without the buffer of an alcoholic beverage or a reasonably high assurance of their friendship and spill undisclosed secrets to them.
My cousin once visited my church with me to attend the Stations of the Cross. Him not being Catholic gave us the opportunity, when it was over to satisfy his curiosity, to take a peek inside the Confessional. I explained where the priest sat and the option of the penitent to either kneel behind the screen or sit face-to-face with the priest. I said, “you sit right here, look at the priest, and tell him your sins.” My cousin’s reaction, “Oh nah-uh! Nope! No way! I couldn’t do it.”
It’s not a “get-out-of-jail-free” card and it’s not easy, but doing it brings a nearly miraculous feeling of Grace upon you. Penance is almost never what movies make it out to be: “Say three Our Fathers, two Hail Mary’s, and one Glory Be”. Although, that can be the case it hasn’t been my common experience. Rather, the priest, (at least the ones I’ve had the fortune to make my constant Confessors) will talk to you like a counselor. They’ll help you to work through what was going on when you made the choice to sin and with Godly advice encourage you on how best to go forward from that sin. They then usually ask you, for your “penance”, to go spend some time in prayer with God or to read a verse of the Bible which might encourage you to avoid that sin in the future. That’s what Confession really is. A Godly man who will not blab your secrets to the congregation who wants to help you and encourage you to move forward in a positive Godly way.
If you’re Protestant you can go to Confession, but cannot be absolved of your sins from a priest because, not being Catholic, you do not profess to believe in the authority of a priest to render absolution to you. You are not in communion with the Catholic Church and, therefore, unless you wish to be in communion with the Church you can’t be absolved from sin by a priest. If you’re a Catholic, I would encourage you to visit a parish church and find a priest you can feel confident in confessing your sins to so that you can return to the Sacrament of the Eucharist without being guilty of taking the bread or the wine unworthily. (cf – 1Cor. 11:27)
“If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that is not a deadly sin, he has only to pray, and God will give life to this brother — provided that it is not a deadly sin. There is sin that leads to deathand I am not saying you must pray about that. Every kind of wickedness is sin, but not all sin leads to death.”
1 John 5:16,17