Why do Catholics confess their sins to a priest? The priest is just another sinner, is he not? Why not just confess our sins directly to God?
This is the usual set of questions that Protestants ask when regarding the Catholic sacrament of Confession. They are reasonable questions, questions that I hope to answer in this article.
The sacrament of Confession is an ancient sacrament of the Catholic Church, dating back to its institution by Christ. In the early Church, public sins, like apostasy, were confessed publicly, in front of the congregation of Christians. Privately committed sins were confessed privately to a priest.
The writings of the first Christians shed some light on Confession:
“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 [A.D. 70]).
Ignatius of Antioch
“For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of penance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ…” (Letter to the Philadelphians 3 [A.D. 110]).
“[The bishop conducting the ordination of the new bishop shall pray:] God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Pour forth now that power that comes from you, from your royal Spirit, which you gave to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and which he bestowed upon his holy apostles . . . and grant this your servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate, [the power] to feed your holy flock and to serve without blame as your high priest, ministering night and day to propitiate unceasingly before your face and to offer to you the gifts of your holy Church, and by the Spirit of the high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command…” (Apostolic Tradition 3 [A.D. 215]).
Cyprian of Carthage
“Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. . . . I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord” (The Lapsed , 28 (A.D. 251]).
“Priests have received a power that God has given to neither angels nor archangels. It was said to them: “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose shall be loosed.” Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding, but they can bind only the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond that pertains to the soul itself and transcends the very heavens. Did [God] not give them all the powers of heaven? “Whose sins you shall forgive,” he says, “they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” What greater power is there than this? The Father has given all judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men [Matt. 10:40; John 20:21–23]. They are raised to this dignity as if they were already gathered up to heaven” (The Priesthood 3:5 [A.D. 387]).
“If the serpent, the devil, bites someone secretly, he infects that person with the venom of sin. And if the one who has been bitten keeps silence and does not do penance, and does not want to confess his wound . . . then his brother and his master, who have the word [of absolution] that will cure him, cannot very well assist him” (Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10:11 [A.D. 388]).
The Early Christians believed that God gave His priests the power to forgive sins. They believed that a person must confess their sins to the priest in order to be forgiven. This is the same doctrine that the Roman Catholic Church teaches today.
What exactly does the Catholic Church teach on Confession?
First, the Church teaches that God alone can forgive sin. However, God chooses the way He wishes to forgive sin; using a priest. Even in the Old Testament God used His priests to forgive sin.
“If a man lies carnally with a woman… they shall not be put to death… But he shall bring a guilt offering for himself to the Lord… And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the Lord for his sin which he has committed; and the sin which he has committed shall be forgiven him.” (Leviticus 19:20-22)
God used a priest to administer forgiveness, and this did not take away from God’s power to forgive. He merely forgave the sinner through His priest. Just as God used His priests to forgive sin in the Old Testament, He does the same in the New Testament.
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘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 20:21-23)
Having been raised from the dead, our Lord was here commissioning his apostles to carry on with his work just before he was to ascend to heaven. “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” What did the Father send Jesus to do? All Christians agree he sent Christ to be the one true mediator between God and men. As such, Christ was to infallibly proclaim the Gospel (cf. Luke 4:16-21), reign supreme as King of kings and Lord of lords (cf. Rev. 19:16); and especially, he was to redeem the world through the forgiveness of sins (cf. I Peter 2:21-25, Mark 2:5-10). (1)
One instance of God using a man to forgive sin is in 2 Corinthians 2:10. Paul speaks:
“And to whom you have pardoned anything, I also. For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ.”
St. Paul made use of his power to forgive sins in Christ’s name, despite being a sinner himself. Just because a man is a sinner does not negate the fact that he has God given power. St. Peter was a sinful man, and yet he was able to preach and baptize people in Christ’s name. How is the power to forgive sin any different?
It should also be noted that the Apostles were given spiritual authority by Christ in Matthew 18:18:
“Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This authority was passed down by the Apostles to their successors, from bishop to bishop, from bishop to priest. It is the Catholic Church who can trace her lineage all the way back to the Apostles, as the power to forgive sins are passed down to the Church’s priests. This is why Catholics confess their sins to their priest; their priest received the same power over sins as the Apostles.
As the Apostles were men who were given power to forgive sin, how would they have known what sins to forgive? The only way for them to know would be that the penitent tell them their sins. That is why Catholic confess their sins to a priest. Priests are (often) not mind readers. How else would they know what to “bind and loose”?
Many Christians claim to be “Bible-believing”. If they do not confess their sins as God wanted them to, are they truly Bible-believing?
— Patrick E. Devens