Why Confess Sins to a Priest?


pope_confession_OsservatoreWhen you ask a Protestant one of their biggest objections to the sacrament of confession, they will usually retort that it is against Sacred Scripture to go to a priest to confess your sins, as the forgiveness of sins comes from God alone.  Apologists are frequently able to beat back this charge.

Yet I would like to look at the matter from a different angle.  I don’t really want to focus on a biblical rationale for every aspect of the sacrament of confession, not yet at least.  Instead, I’d like for us to ponder why it is fitting that God chooses to use priests in the forgiveness of sins through the confessional.

One of the common themes throughout Sacred Scripture is that the people of God, while accountable as individuals, are also part of something larger than themselves.  The Bible affirms the importance of a personal relationship with God, but views a personal relationship in and of itself insufficient.

We act this way because we all view ourselves part of the same larger family.  When the flood wiped out most of humanity, the world was repopulated through Noah and his children.  The blessing of Abraham (a descendant of Noah) was not just for his own benefit, but for all of his descendants throughout history. (Gen 15:5)  Just as the sins of a few Israelites led to suffering for the whole (such as when they were forced to wander in the wilderness due to the unbelief of the elder generation), so did the actions of one benefit the entire body.  (Numbers 25:1-9)

In the New Covenant, Christ took this communal nature one step further.  To describe the relationship between Christians, St. Paul uses language describing each Christian as a different part of the body.  (1 Cor 12:11-20)  If different parts of the body require each other to function, one part not working would impact the entire body, even if that part was small.

Sin impacts our ability to live as we should.  So long as we sin and are attached to sin, the body is limited in its effectiveness.  As a result, there is no such thing as a “victimless sin” within Christianity.  All are impacted by our sins.  When we go to confession, we acknowledge not only that our own sins offend God and damage grace within ourselves, but that they damage the effectiveness of all Christians everywhere.  When one commits a mortal sin, they do more than damage their own soul.  They provide scandal to the Church, as Christians are not living as they should.  This impacts the Churches abilities to save souls through Christ.  Our confession reconciles us not only to God, but to each other.

People will still answer that a priest is not required for this reconciliation, as surely we could just confess our sins privately to God and beg for forgiveness privately for how our sins have damaged the body of Christ.  While this is certainly true from a theoretical perspective, this is just not the case from a biblical one.  When one repents of their sins in the Bible, it is always done to another individual.

The clearest case of this is with David after he commits adultery and arranges the murder of the woman’s husband.  David only repents of his sin once God’s representative Nathan confronts him.  (2 Samuel 12:1-13)  David knew he had sinned grievously in his adultery, otherwise he would not have had Uriah killed to conceal his crime.  Even knowing the extent of his guilt, he refused to repent.  This speaks to the human psyche’s ability to rationalize away what they do so that it is no longer a sin.  This is a skill humanity has nearly perfected in today’s age.

Another thing worth considering is how professing something vocally changes things.  It is very easy to say something silently with no witnesses.  It is something altogether different when you have to acknowledge your faults before another.  One could say it becomes a far more serious endeavor when you are not only willing to renounce your sins, but renounce them forcefully out loud.  The first step on the road to repentance requires you to renounce those sins.  While it possible to fake such, it becomes far harder to do so.  (It goes without saying that such a faked confession would be a sacrilege, and compound sin upon sin!)

A final point to consider is the nature of the priest involved in confession.  In addition to serving as God’s representative, they are also someone who has spent at least seven years in deep theological, philosophical and spiritual training in how to help their parishioners overcome sin.  Since the point of repentance is that we can learn to overcome sin, it is fitting that we would seek out those trained to help us accomplish that purpose.

The question we must ponder is not whether or not God could have done things differently.  Given the evidence, it would be tougher to find a more fitting way of doing things.


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  • mally el

    Thank you, Kevin. Our Lord did establish this sacrament-rich Church in which we have the opportunity to be reconciled to God, and also to maintain this communion.
    Though it is true that God forgives us when repent. The Prodigal Son’s father was not bitter and angry; his love, in which forgiveness is an ingredient, was always present. It was up to the son to remove the barrier that his defiant action had introduced. His return removed the barrier which enabled the bond to be re-established. The father was not interested in the young man’s list of wrongdoings; he was just happy that his son had truly returned home.
    This is an important point. He did not merely say ‘sorry’ while he was in the pigsty; he sought reconciliation. And this is what the Sacrament is all about.
    Our disobedient acts set up a barrier between us and God and his family – the Church. When we repent we need also to re-establish our bond or communion with our Lord in and through his very own Church. This is where the Church’s chosen representative – the priest – comes into the experience.

    • ColdStanding

      I now understand more fully what you are suggesting in emphasizing the reconciliation aspect of the sacrament of confession. My problem is still the same with it. Kevin has pointed out that our priests take extensive training in moral theology. This is very useful in helping us parishioners understand how we are falling into sin. It is important to be detailed because an experienced confessor can provide specific guidance for avoiding the occasions of sin and also how in committing one sinful act, we may be committing other sins we are unaware of.

      The final phase, as it were, of the sacrament is the issuing of a penance. Here again, it is very helpful to be specific: we need to do penance and make amends for for the specific wrongs we have done.

      On the basis of this last point alone, it is pivotal to be specific and enumerate the number and circumstance of the sins committed. Which one of the Doctors of the Church has said we can dispense with the penance component of the sacrament of confession? How can an apt penance be given if the only thing we say in the confessional is that we are, in a general sense, sorry for the wrongs we have done?

      Therefore, I beg you to consider the ramifications of the policy you are proposing. I believe it will be very damaging to the common understanding of the sacrament. It already suffers from neglect and misunderstanding. It needs rediscovery not modification.

      • mally el

        We are conscious what we have done and generally the number of times they have been done. There are some wrongdoings we do not recall.

        On a few occasions Jesus forgave people. Not once did he ask them to recite some prayer as a penance. What he did ask the rich man, who had not disobeyed any law, to do was to deny himself his earthly pleasures and treasures and to follow him. The rich man would have been prepared to fast and to do penance but the conversion that was demanded was out of the question. That was, and is the tough part. It was so different from the prodigal son who was prepared to do anything in his father’s house.

        Very often it is what we have not done or are not prepared to do that is important.

        In yesterday’s talk, Pope Francis said: “I would ask the many young people present to be generous with their God-given talents for the good of others, the Church and our world.” He added that “we will be judged by God on charity, on how we loved him in our brothers, especially the most vulnerable
        and needy”

        I admit that I fall far short of what our Lord desires but I will not give up trying to be better. Only the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist can assist me to grow in love and commitment to our Lord.

        • “Denial of self” is just as much a penance. I’m asked to pray an Our Father, because in my sins, I rejected Our Father. A Hail Mary, because I trusted in my own goodness to stay out of sin, rather than begging the Virgin to plead to her Son that I be given the graces to avoid sin, etc.

          I really don’t like the formulaic “say x our fathers and x hail marys” and I really think penance should be more individually tailored. (If you have a priest that does such, blessed are you!) Yet I don’t doubt the theological implications and benefits such has.

    • Kevin Tierney

      I don’t really think there needs to be a seperation between the list of wrongdoings and his returning home. The purpose of the confessional and the priest is to heal, not accuse (St. Ambrose), but in order to heal, the priest (and you for that matter!) need to know what you are sick with.
      Just as certain medicine needs to be taken with a meal, certain penances are established to the absolution, so that it will bring the greatest fruition for the individual. that is of course up to the priest. Personally, I think some priests should do more, but that’s their call, and they will be judged/rewarded accordingly to how they carried out their mission.

  • Tasco Magnon

    In becoming our own accuser we deny the Great Accuser the opportunity to badmouth us before God. Even if a perfunctory act of contrition and a few prayers are all we are given for penance, we still have to humiliate ourselves and satisfy what the sacrament demands. Accusation, contrition, confession, satisfaction for the offense and absolution are all necessary steps but also steps that show that the penitent has a modicum of humility and goes before a man who stands there in Persona Christi ready to forgive and never tires of forgiving, even seventy times seven. We learn to do the same with those who offend us. This sacrament opens the floodgates of the mercy of God. HE can never be praised enough for having given us such treasure.

    • Mary Kochan

      Priceless comment