“The Catholic religion does not bind us to confess our sins indiscriminately to everybody; it allows them to remain hidden from all other men save one, to whom she bids us reveal the innermost recesses of our heart and show ourselves as we are. There is only this one man in the world whom she orders us to undeceive, and she binds him to an inviolable secrecy, which makes this knowledge to him as if it were not. Can we imagine anything more charitable and pleasant? And yet the corruption of man is such that he finds even this law harsh; and it is one of the main reasons which has caused a great part of Europe to rebel against the Church.
“How unjust and unreasonable is the heart of man, which feels it disagreeable to be obliged to do in regard to one man what in some measure it were right to do to all men! For is it right that we should deceive men?” (From Self-Love by Blaise Pascal)
A former co-worker once challenged me regarding the Catholic teaching about Confession, saying that the Bible says that we can and should just confess our sins to God directly. So I challenged her in return, asking whether she’d change her mind if I could show her, from the Bible, that Jesus wants us to confess to a Priest. She gave me a look that seemed to imply that being drunk at work was inappropriate of me, so I upped the ante and told her I would demonstrate the Sacrament of Confession, from the Bible, on our next 15-minute break (New Evangelisation tip: such challenges work better when you bring your Bible to work with you). Exceedingly incredulous now, yet also quite intrigued, she said “You’re on!” By the time break rolled around, she seemed to have forgotten about our conversation, and I had to track her down in the designated smoking area. As soon as she saw me, though, she remembered and pressed me for my answer (while the other smokers listened quizzically). So I pulled my Bible out of my bag, and this is what I said:
Suppose I stole your iPhone. Since you don’t have a home phone (because who does, anymore?), all of your contacts, and your primary means of getting in touch with anyone are gone. Now say, not only have I stolen it, but I’ve destroyed it, as well–so there’s no hope of you getting it back. You’ve been seriously inconvenienced. Your daycare can’t get a hold of you to tell you that your kid is sick. Your family can’t get a hold of you and fear you’re in trouble or something. Perhaps worst of all, no Facebook! What kind of monster would do this to you?!
Now say I realise that I did something horrible to you, and I’m sorry, and I still want you to be my friend. Would you still be friends with me? No? Not even if I said I was sorry? Really sorry? Really really sorry and I’ll give you $5 to make up for it? $10? $20? At this point, my co-worker thinks I’m completely off my nut, and I tell her I think she’s right to think so. So I zero in on what she finds wrong with the scenario, and I ask, “When someone wrongs another person, who has the right to set the terms of how they are to be reconciled? The one who did the wrong, or the one who was wronged? Obviously the one who was wronged. When we sin, we wrong God, and so it’s God who has the right to tell us how we are to be reconciled to Him. When we just “go straight to Jesus and tell Him we’re sorry”, it’s the same as me destroying your iPhone and expecting you to be cool about it because I said I’m sorry. The Bible is pretty clear about how Jesus wants us to reconcile to Him. The fact that through His death and resurrection, He’s made reconciliation possible, doesn’t negate the fact that we still have to come to Him, and come to Him on His terms. So what are His terms?
In John 20:21-23, Jesus appears to His Apostles after His resurrection and commissions them, saying, “‘Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.'” That is, Jesus imbued His Apostles with His Spirit and authority to forgive sins. But how would they know what sins to forgive (or which to retain) unless people confessed them? It’s no coincidence that the same person who wrote this Gospel (himself one of the Apostles just commissioned by Christ) also wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity” (1 John 1:9). My Protestant friends and family like to assert that this passage is the proof that we only need to confess our sins to Jesus, and not to a Priest, but the verse doesn’t say that. It doesn’t say to whom we are to confess, only that we are to confess. Still, the same Apostle who told us that Jesus commissioned him and his fellow Apostles to forgive sins, is here telling us to confess those sins. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to conclude that he meant we were to confess to the Apostles or those appointed by them as they were appointed by Christ.
However, if more proof is required, in the book of James, that Apostle tells us that, in the context of a different sacrament (the Anointing of the Sick), that we are to call the priest (or “elder”, Gk. Presbyteros–which is where we get the English word, priest), who will anoint him and pray for him so that the sick man will be healed, and if he’s committed sins, they’ll be forgiven (cf. James 5:14-15). St. James goes on to say, “Confess therefore your sins one to another: and pray one for another, that you may be saved. For the continual prayer of a just man availeth much” (v.16). In other words, with the priest present, we should confess our sins to “one another” (that is, the Christians present). In the early Church, this public confession of sins in the presence of the priest was in fact the practice, but after a while, the Church in her wisdom realised that publicly confessing placed too hard of a burden on people, and so private Confession to the priest became the norm, since as James 5:15 affirms, it’s through his ministry that sins are forgiven, in keeping with Jesus’ own instructions in John 20:21-23.
How is it that the priest forgives sins? It isn’t the priest, in and of himself, who does so, but Jesus working through the priest. Recall again Jesus’ words, “As the Father hath sent me, I also send you” (John 20:21). The Church, following St. Paul, refers to this as the priest acting in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”). In 2 Corinthians 2:10, the Apostle writes, “And to whom you have pardoned any thing, I also. For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned any thing, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ” (emphasis added).
In summary, then, Jesus commissioned His Apostles to forgive sins; they instructed us to confess our sins to them in order to receive that forgiveness; and they in turn ordained other priests in order to perpetuate the Church through the generations, bestowing their Christ-given authority onto them. Protestants, claiming to follow “the Bible alone”, insist on teaching that we only need to confess to Jesus directly, but the Bible teaches otherwise. If anything, it teaches that we need to confess before everybody! I’m thankful that in the Holy Spirit-led wisdom of the Church, private Confession became the practice. That alone is often difficult enough for our sinful pride to handle. These are, however, the terms Jesus laid out for our reconciliation with Him.
Now, when you’re challenged by friends and family about Confession, you’ll be able to offer a convincing explanation. After all, my co-worker was convinced.
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