Is Confession Necessary?

Tuesday, September 09, 2003



Yesterday afternoon, I took my lunch break to head to a Catholic parish in a downtown area where priests hear confessions daily. I generally make use of the sacrament about once a month or so. While I have had an occasional bad experience in confession, I have usually found the sacrament a comforting and pleasant experience.

Since yesterday, I started reflecting on the sacrament from the viewpoint of non-Catholics or lapsed Catholics and realized there may be a topic for an essay here. I imagine to many people outside the Church the Sacrament of Reconciliation, more popularly called confession is a fascinating and mysterious practice.

For those completely unfamiliar with confession, the practice gets its name because a person goes to a priest to confess their sins. In turn, the priest, acting in the person of Christ, will declare the person's sins forgiven.

Because the priest acts in the person of Christ and declares sins forgiven in the name of the Trinity, Catholics believe that words proclaimed by the priest are a promise that God has actually forgiven those sins. Indeed, Catholic school children preparing for their first confession are often told that if they were hit by a car and died immediately after going to confession, they would go straight to heaven.

The priest is bound to what is known as a "seal of confession" so that anything heard in the confessional cannot be repeated or acted upon. Even in discussing confessions with another priest to seek advice, or in a teaching situation, a priest must be careful to refrain from naming the person, the place, or the time of a particular confession so that the penitent's privacy is maintained.

Priests are taught to act in civil disobedience if the government ever requires the violation of the seal. Many Catholic saints gave their life to protect the seal of confession. Even when I lived with priests while in the seminary, I cannot remember even the most gossipy priest ever violating the seal of confession. To my knowledge, the seal is taken incredibly seriously by every priest I know.

There are generally four objections made to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, mostly by non-Catholics, though a growing number of Catholics also have questions about the sacrament.

I have a Methodist co-worker who claims that Catholics have it too easy. His feeling is that we can do anything we want, even murder another person. Then we go to confession and claim we are right with God. His view is that we should apologize directly to those whom we sin against. So, the first objection is from those who find the entire practice too easy.

My co-worker's objection is atypical for a Protestant. Most Protestant Christians see the idea of confessing sins to a priest as an unnecessary reliance on our works to achieve righteousness with God. This is our second objection. Protestants divided with the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century precisely over the issue of the role of faith and religious works. To the Protestant, there is no obligation to go to a priest to confess our sins when we can go straight to God in complete trust that he hears our prayers and is ready to forgive anyone who asks. To those who share this view, the entire practice is too hard.

The third objection is from non-Christians who maintain that it is absolutely silly to think a mere human being can declare our sins forgiven in the sight of God. From an atheistic perspective, the practice is mere superstition. From the perspective of a Muslim or some Jews, the practice borders on idolatry.

The fourth objection comes from a former classmate who, like me, left seminary without becoming ordained. He specifically left seminary because he realized he could not keep the seal of confession if someone confessed sexual abuse of a child to him. He was himself a victim of child sexual abuse by an older man. This objection would seem very timely in today's Church climate.

Within the Roman Catholic Church, there has also been a movement among some priests and theologians to reconsider the practice of confession in general. This reconsideration is not so much based on an objection, as an observation that Catholics go to confession less and less since Vatican II. These thinkers are trying to discern if the Holy Spirit may be guiding the Church to a different style of expressing the sacrament than has developed in prior generations.

These Catholic thinkers look at the way confession historically developed and recommend that the current discipline could change or evolve to a more communal celebration of reconciliation as the more common way of expressing sorrow and experiencing mercy. To these thinkers, one-on-one confession to a priest would be reserved for rare instances of very serious sin such as pedophilia, murder, or other offenses that are typically criminal as well as immoral. There is historical precedence for this since we know that in the early centuries of the Church confession was made very rarely and only to a bishop. Yet, in these periods, other communal rites of penance and reconciliation were known.

I agree with the more progressive thinkers that there may be other ways of celebrating reconciliation. However, I do frequent confession, and I want to write a bit about the traditional practice and why I like it.

Before delving in depth to answers to the objections, let me simply say, at a high level, that the sacrament has always been a chance to get things off my chest. If it had no other benefit, I believe the sacrament would find practitioners for no other reason. Who has not felt the urge to talk to someone about things that make us feel sorrowful, guilty, embarrassed, ashamed, contrite, or fearful of karma or justice, or fearful of what happens when we die? Call it cheap and convenient therapy, but I am convinced that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a hidden treasure in the Roman Catholic Church.

Let's turn for a moment to the Scriptures:

When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it became known that he was at home. Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, not even around the door, and he preached the word to them. They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Child, your sins are forgiven." Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, "Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?" Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, "Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, pick up your mat and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth" - he said to the paralytic, "I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home." He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone. They were all astounded and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this." (Mark 2:1-12)

Note in the passage from Mark's Gospel that the opponents of Jesus express our fourth objection. They have a difficult time accepting that a mere man can declare sins forgiven in such a way that he speaks for God. In order to demonstrate that Christ has such authority, the author tells us that Jesus went on to heal the man of paralysis.

Whether history or literary device, the divine inspiration behind the text is creating a powerful metaphor here. Sin and guilt make us feel bound up and paralyzed. In Christ, God declares our sins forgiven so that we experience healing and reconciliation with the divine. This happens through human agency as we hear another person say to us, "Your sins are forgiven."

The actual words used by the priest to declare our sins forgiven are as follows:

God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself. Through the ministry of his Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Protestants will object that it is one thing to say Christ forgives our sins, but quite another to say that a priest needs to forgive our sins too. Catholics do not separate confession to a priest from confession to God. Rather, we believe that we can confess our sins to God through a priest, and we believe that God forgives us through the ministry of priests. The fact that it is not the priest alone who forgives us is evident in the way he absolves "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit".

Yet, there is sense that the priest always acts in the person of the Church, as well as in the person of Christ. This is because the Church is the Body of Christ, and when we sin, we injure not only the individual whom we wronged, but the whole Body of Christ. Acting as a spokesperson for the whole community, the priest is also declaring us reconciled with the Church. As a fellow sinner, the priests is even interceding for us with God on behalf of the entire community! We see this in the following passage from the letter of James:

Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven. 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. (James 5:14-16)

Some people resist confession because they are unaware of any sin, or simply do not feel sorrow for their sins and do not believe their sins merit any type of atonement. I'm not a trained psychologist, but I believe that this is the unhealthy attitude of a sociopath.

If we say, "We are without sin," we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, "We have not sinned," we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)

I may be progressive, and I may believe that conservatives sometimes are too narrowly interpreting Scripture and Tradition, too strictly interpreting justice, and too mercilessly treating sin. Yet, I do believe that we can turn away from God and we can do harm to other people.

The only "entrance requirement" to Christianity is admitting we are sinners in need of God's help. Recovering addicts know that the first step to healing and wholeness is to admit you have a problem. We must confess that we are sinners in need of salvation in order to receive salvation!

But must we confess our sins to a priest? Even if we acknowledge that the practice of confession is somewhat implied in Scripture, and may be healthy in some instances, are we obligated to confess our sins to a priest?

Personally, I think this type of question is about as meaningful as a child asking if she or he is obligated to eat dessert. I do not think of confession necessarily as something I have to do in order to be saved.

It is true that the Church teaches that we have an obligation to confess our sins at least once a year at Easter time. Furthermore, Saint Paul tells us the following:

Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Cor 11:27)

The Church has maintained since the time of Trent that mortal sins should be confessed before receiving Eucharist. This lead many people in the pre-Vatican II era to confess their sins weekly.

However, we already alluded to the fact that in the early Church, confession was a rare practice, and the practice of weekly confession may have encouraged the sin of scrupulosity more than helping people experience the mercy of Christ. (Scrupulosity is a nurotic focus on fault tending to the sin of despair). I do not believe that most people are committing so many truly mortal sins that weekly confession should be considered necessary. At the same time, a more regular habit of confession than once a year can be a wonderful spiritual discipline.

I consider the annual Easter rule to participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation more a rule of thumb for measuring our personal active participation in the life of the community than a moral obligation before God that cannot be violated. I believe that many people will be saved who made less frequent use of the sacrament (i.e. - Don't we believe many Protestants are being saved?).

The sacrament is meaningful to me, especially with a priest who is a good and compassionate listener who is striving for holiness himself. I go to confession because I want to hear the promise of Christ's forgiveness once again. I know this promise is true because it is rooted in the ancient memory of the Church that was left to the Apostles:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, "Peace be with you." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (Jesus) said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." (John 20:19-23)

The Church teaches that a perfect act of contrition made at the hour of death substitutes for confession. Like the Protestants, we do not believe that confession to a priest is absolutely always and everywhere required as the only means of salvation. Yet, Christ promised to leave the authority to forgive sins with the church, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a means by which Christ carries out the delivery of this promise. Why wouldn't I want to receive this gift.

There are those who have been away from confession for so long that the thought of returning causes anxiety. In response to this, I offer that I believe many priests actually live for these moments. I believe that many priests find a validation to their own calling at moments of a deep conversion that are not found in the routine, but in extraordinary moments in people's life that serve as turning points. The return to confession after years away from the sacrament is often just such a turning point for a person. A priest is gifted with the grace to share in this moment, and often shares his own joy with the penitent! In these moments, divine forgiveness of sins mediated through human agency is a felt reality for all involved.

Let's go through our four objections now one by one:

1) We should apologize directly to those whom we sin against. Confession to a priest is too easy: Grace is a gift. We do not earn salvation. Yet, I agree that we should apologize to those we hurt. Justice and charity demand it. Furthermore, the Gospel calls us to heal broken relationships. However, this is not always possible. The person we harmed may have died. Perhaps the sin we committed harmed the self more than the other, and the other does not want an apology. An example of this may be the case with mutually consensual fornication. Perhaps the sin is more directly against God, such as a lack of trust or failure to develop our spiritual life.

2) We can confess directly to God. Confession to a priest is too hard: I am not saying confession is the only means of receiving Christ's forgiveness. We can pray directly to God. Yet, many people lack assurance of the forgiveness of sins through private prayer. For many Christian believers, confession is a certain means of knowing forgiveness according to the promises in Scripture and Tradition. Confession is not so hard if we view it less as an obligation and more as an opportunity to celebrate Christ's mercy with another in the context of a Church community. Confession can be a great cathartic release for pent up feelings of shame, and a powerful reminder of God's infinite mercy.

3) Confession to a priest is idolatrous or superstitious: This charge can only be made by a non-Christian. The Bible makes it clear that in the words and deeds of Christ, the forgiveness of sins is known through human agency. Indeed, a humanism runs all through the Christian message. Yet, this humanism is different than stale humanism of secular atheism. It is an invitation to believe that God is always at work in other people as revealed in what God did in the incarnation event!

4) The seal of confession permits sin, as we see with pedophilia: If the seal were not inviolable, I doubt very much that pedophiles would confess to priests. If pedophiles did not feel comfortable confessing to priests, would they talk to anyone? Is it good for anyone if the pedophile has nobody in whom he or she can confide? Perhaps God can use a good confessor to convince the pedophile to turn him or herself in to the police. However, this could not happen if the seal is ever violated.

Confession is a wonderful sacrament of the Church. While I would never say that a person must use the sacrament to avoid hell, I will say that we get a taste of heaven by participating in the sacrament!

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 3:46 PM

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