Why Do Catholics Practice Confession of Sins to a Priest?

A Protestant Christian friend of mine wanted to know why Catholics confess sins to a priest rather than straight to God. He quoted 1 Tm 2:5 from the Bible to explain that Christ is the one true mediator between God and man. He therefore felt that the Church did not have the authority to require confession of sins to a mediator (a priest). Here my response to his question.

Well it's a fair question, and is certainly a loaded one. And it's certainly one that I have thought about myself. What it comes down to is that Christ is the one true mediator between God and man. But how he accomplishes the mediation is his choice. Upon ascending into heaven Christ instituted a church that would be his earthly guide for all nations. A church that would be protected and guided by the Holy Spirit, to preserve his Christian truths and guide all men to Jesus for their salvation. Essentially, this is where the Catholic Church came from. It was founded on Peter, the first of the popes. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells Simon after his confession of faith:

"Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." --Matthew 16:17-19

Basically, in this passage Jesus does a curious thing. He changes Simon's name to Peter. Peter translated into Aramaic (the language of Jesus and his apostles) is Kepha, or rock. So what Jesus did was say that Peter is the rock. Not just any rock, but the rock on which he will build his church. Jesus also says that the church would be infallible and would preserve his truths when he says "the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it..." (knowing the truth of Christianity certainly is necessary to be saved). He also gives Peter binding and loosing powers as well as the keys of heaven (strong symbols of authority) thus giving Peter ultimate teaching authority over the church. In order to preserve this authority and give the gift of teaching to the church, it had to be preserved from error in the future. This is why the successors of Peter have always been the leaders of the Church.

True ability to interpret scripture and preserve the teachings of Christ are only fully possible within the Catholic Church. This is evidenced by the wide array of Protestantism, which hold a large amount of conflicting teachings (an example is the necessity of Baptism) even though all claim to be interpreting the Bible correctly. Although much truth exists in other Christian religions, the only infallible truth lies within the Bible and the Traditions of the Catholic Church. If Christ had not established a teaching, living, apostolic church then how could we properly understand the doctrines of the Bible? Note that 2 Peter 1:20 says "know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation". And even the Ethiopian eunuch on his way to Damascus while trying to interpret scripture asks for Philip's help (who is ordained as a priest in Acts 6:5). "Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, "Do you understand what you are reading?" He replied "How can I unless someone instructs me?" (Acts 8:30-31) Thus the church has the authority to properly teach the doctrines of faith for our salvation. This is why I am Catholic. Because without the Church I can't be sure that Christ's teachings are being properly preserved. If you read the Father's of the Church their writings correlate with Catholic views on a ministerial priesthood, the sacraments and many other Catholic doctrines. The first Christians themselves were Catholics. Acts 6:1-6 shows the establishment of the priesthood under the apostles of the Church.

In the end, it is the divinely ordained teaching authority of the Church that assures me of the validity and necessity of the Christian Sacraments; especially that of Confession.  The sacrament of reconcilliation (confession), the Church teaches, is the normative, necessary means by which a Christian receives the forgiveness of God.  The efficacy of confession is derived from Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, where he served as the divine substitute for our transgressions.   Not only does the Church teach the need of regular confession, but the Bible also records Christ’s institution of the sacrament following his resurrection from the dead when he first appeared to the assembly of apostles (John 20:19-23): 

On the evening of the 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 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.” 

 This moment, when Jesus breathed on his apostles, constituted both the institution of the Catholic ministerial priesthood and the sacrament of confession.   Christ gave his first priests, the apostles, the authority to forgive and retain sins.  It was his intention that all sin be forgiven though the Church by aural confession of sins to the priests.  We should realize that in Holy Scripture God breathed on man only twice: once when he breathed life into the clay of earth to create man (Genesis 2:7) and the second time when he breathed the life of grace into his Church.  Both instances were that of an intimate, riveting moment between God and man.  It is clear that the ability to forgive and retain sin given to the apostles, requires that each of us (even to this day)  confess our sins to the priests of the Church so that our sins can be forgiven or retained.  

As Christ well knew, confession of sins to a priest requires humility, trust in God and the Church, and contrition of heart.  Confession of sins to a priest gives us the assurance that our sins are forgiven, even though we may not be perfectly penitent.  For that is what God requires outside the bounds of sacramental confession: a man who goes directly to God for forgiveness of sin can be forgiven, but only if he is perfectly contrite and resolved to sin no more.  Those who are outside the Church by birth and circumstance can still be saved and forgiven of sins, but only if they are perfectly penitent and are unaware of the divine institution of the Church.  A Catholic who will not consent to a sacramental confession, is the man the Church grieves for the most.   He has all the instruments of salvation laid out at his feet, but he will not lay his pride down at the foot of the Cross to pick them up. 

I know sacramental confession often seems like a frightening, humiliating act for those who have neglected the sacrament for many years.  I myself, after deciding to return to full communion with the Church, had to endure a heart-pounding moment of decision in which I laid down my pride and returned to the confessional.  I found that the priest was compassionate, gentle and welcoming.  He realized that my presence there was an act of God’s grace.  No priest will ever condemn a penitent man; and since then I have always found this to be the rule.  Over time, confessions become less frightening; but they always require a measure of humility and resolve.  Yet, nothing in the world can compare to the joy of the soul after a good confession.  The veil of sin falls away and the light of grace fills the soul.  In the end, nothing in the world is as precious as the forgiveness of sin through the Sacrament of Reconcilliation.

--S.M.M.

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