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Confession of Sins: A Divine Institution

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

During his first visit to the United States, Pope John Paul II pleaded with the bishops to do something about the drastic drop in confessions in many American dioceses.

“In the face of a widespread phenomenon of our time, namely that many of our people who are among the great numbers who receive Communion make little use of confession, we must emphasize Christ’s basic call to conversion.
“We must also stress that the personal encounter with the forgiving Jesus in the sacrament of Reconciliation is a divine means which keeps alive in our hearts and in our communities, a consciousness of sin in its perennial and tragic reality, and which actually brings forth, by the action of Jesus and the power of His Spirit, fruits of conversion in justice and holiness of life” (Pope John Paul II, Address to the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference of the United States, October 5, 1979).

Underlying this phenomenal decline in confessions is an error of factual history that must be corrected. Some nominally Catholic writers are saying that Christ did not institute the sacrament of Penance or, at least, did not require the confession of sins to a priest to receive sacramental absolution.

Books and articles are being published which claim that confession of sins to a priest is a late innovation in the Catholic Church. General absolution is becoming habitual in some places, and nineteen centuries of Catholic history are being ignored as though they did not exist.

The Institution Of Sacramental Confession

Jesus Christ instituted the sacrament of confession on Easter Sunday night. As St. John describes the event, “the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them, ‘Peace be with you,’ and showed them His hands and His side. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw the Lord. And He said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.’ After saying this, He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven. For those whose sins you retain, they are retained’” (John 20:19-23).

As the Catholic Church explains these words, Christ gave the Apostles and their successors the right to forgive sins if they so judge the penitent worthy and the corresponding right to retain sins or refrain from absolving if the sinner is not sincerely repentant.

The implications of this power of judging whether to absolve or not are at the heart of the sacrament of Penance. By these words, Christ indicated that before receiving absolution, the sinner must disclose his sins. He must confess what he did wrong.

This means that auricular confession, where the penitent speaks his sins and the priest hears his sins, is of divine origin. The Church did not invent the confession of sins. It is a divine law from which no one on earth has the right to dispense. Auricular (or audible) confession is part of divine revelation. It is an unchangeable article of the Catholic faith.

Private Confession Of Apostolic Origin

In the early Church, Christians were expected to live very holy lives. And they did. To become Christian meant to expect to become a martyr. Every pope for the first three hundred years of the Church’s history was murdered for the faith. Countless thousands shed their blood in witness to their love for Christ.

Understandably, therefore, the sacrament of Confession was not so frequently received by persons whose lives were a living martyrdom. Yet, even in the early Church, sinners were reconciled after they had confessed their sins, received absolution and performed what to us must seem like extraordinary penance for the wrong they had done.

The emphasis in those early days was on confessing mortal sins. And there were bishops who had to be reproved by the pope for excessive severity, either in demanding public confession of grave crimes or even refusing to give absolution for such sins as apostasy, adultery, fornication or willful murder.

One document issued by Pope St. Leo the Great in the middle of the fifth century, deserves to be quoted in full. He is writing to the bishops of Campania in Italy, reproving them for demanding a public confession of sins before receiving absolution in the sacrament of Penance.

“I have recently heard that some have unlawfully presumed to act contrary to a rule of Apostolic origin. And I hereby decree that the unlawful practice be completely stopped.
“It is with regard to the reception of penance. An abuse has crept in which requires that the faithful write out their individual sins in a little book which is then to be read out loud to the public.
“All that is necessary, however, is for the sinner to manifest his conscience in a secret confession to the priests alone…It is sufficient, therefore, to have first offered one’s confession to God, and then also to the priest, who acts as an intercessor for the transgressions of the penitents” (Magna indignatione, March 6, 459).

It is a matter of history, therefore, that private, individual confession of one’s sins to a priest goes back to apostolic times. Christ Himself prescribed confession in the sacrament of Penance, and His directives were followed since the first century of the Christian era.

Church’s Infallible Teaching

Among the doctrines of revealed faith which the Church had to defend, was the precept of sacramental confession.

The Protestant leaders in the sixteenth century rejected the sacrament of Confession as divine institution. And they especially reacted against the Catholic Church’s teaching about the need for telling one’s sins to a priest. As a result, the Council of Trent issued no less than fifteen solemn definitions on the sacrament of Penance. Two of these deal specifically with the obligations to confess one’s sins to a priest. They are critically important in our ecumenical age. The following positions are declared as contrary to the Catholic faith:

“If anyone says that sacramental confession was not instituted by divine law or that it is not necessary for salvation according to the same law; or if anyone says that the method which the Catholic Church has always observed from the very beginning, and still observes, of confessing secretly to the priest alone is foreign to the institution and command of Christ, and that it is a human origin: let him be anathema.
“If anyone says that, to obtain remission of sins in the sacrament of Confession, it is not necessary according to divine law to confess each and every mortal sin that is remembered after proper and diligent examination, even secret sins, and sins against the last two commandments, and those circumstances which change the character of a sin…or finally that it is not permissible to confess venial sins: let him be anathema.”

No apology is needed for these long quotations from the Church’s irreversible teaching on the sacramental confession of sins. Nor need we apologize for one more quotation, this time from Pope Paul II. He insists that personal, private confession of sins to a priest in the sacrament of Penance, is the right of every single believer, as it is also the right of Christ, the Divine Redeemer.

A Personal Encounter with Christ

“In faithfully observing the centuries-old practice of the Sacrament of Penance- the practice of individual confession with a personal act of sorrow and the intention to amend and make satisfaction—the Church is therefore defending the human soul’s individual right: man’s right to a more personal encounter with the crucified forgiving Christ, with Christ saying, through the minister of the Sacrament of Reconciliation: “Your sins are forgiven”; “Go, and do not sin again.” As is evident, this is also a right on Christ’s part with regard to every human being redeemed by Him: His right to meet each one of us in that key moment in the soul’s life constituted by the moment of conversion and forgiveness. By guarding the Sacrament of Penance, the Church expressly affirms her faith in the mystery of the Redemption as a living and life-giving reality that fits in with man’s inward truth, with human guilt and also with the desires of the human conscience” (The Redeemer of Man, 20).

Experience proves how valuable is confession for retaining or regaining our peace of soul. Nothing is so disturbing to the human spirit as the sense of guilt, gnawing in the depths of a person estranged from God by sin. Nothing is so restful as the sense of well-being, which comes from the awareness of God’s mercy received from the Sacrament of Penance—which in Christ’s own words is the Sacrament of Peace.

Vol. 41 - #4, July-August 1990, pp. 12-13

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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