|Pope Francis hearing a confession.|
(Image source: catholic.com.)
The Catholic doctrines surrounding the Sacrament of Reconciliation (aka Confession, aka Penance) present a challenge to many Protestants, especially those of the free-church/Evangelical lineage. “Why,” the Protestant asks, “must I go to a priest to have my sins forgiven? Why can’t I just pray to Jesus directly? After all, my sins are between me and God!” If the Protestant is an Evangelical of the “once saved, always saved” stripe, he may even say, “Jesus has already taken away all of my sins, past, present, and future! Why would I need to ask?”
Sin is not a private matter
I’ve already discussed the assurance of salvation elsewhere; if you need to, please consult that post first. The rest of the discussion will assume that a mere assertion of faith in Christ is not sufficient in itself to achieve salvation, that we can lose our salvation through our own fault.
Sins don’t occur in a vacuum or a void space. In all cases, there is at least one person other than God who is offended by a particular sin — namely, the sinner himself, even if he fails to recognize it. Most of the time, there is at least one direct victim of the sin; there are often witnesses. Many sins hurt the community, even when they’re not illegal. And sins done in public cause scandal in the classic sense: they testify against the Church and the Faith to non-Christians. Moreover, we know just from watching the news that many sins done in secret become public knowledge due to circumstances beyond the sinners’ control, becoming scandals in the common sense. How could you ever think that your sins are “just between you and God”?
So we’ve assumed that an assertion of faith, even a “conviction of salvation”, doesn’t of itself secure salvation, because “if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.” (Hebrews 10:26-27 NASB)[*] Only those who “persevere to the end” (Matthew 24:13), who “[do] the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21), will be saved. How then, does a Christian repair the damage and put himself back on the path?
What prayer does and doesn’t do
There is the temptation to think that a simple prayer to Jesus can take care of everything, for “[i]f you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.” (John 14:14) But if we take this passage too literally, we run into trouble. If you ask Jesus in His name to be given a winning lottery ticket, you know the odds are you won’t. If you ask Jesus in His name to kill your wife, you’ll heap a sin on yourself. We know through experience that sometimes God answers even reasonable prayers with a “No”, for reasons we can’t now know (but we trust will be revealed to us in the end [cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12]).
“Well, then, what good is prayer? What good does praying do?” The questions betray a mechanistic, almost determinist, attitude towards prayer. Prayer is not a magic incantation or a spell, like those thought to invoke and control demons: we can’t and don’t “make God do” anything, whether through prayer or not.[†]
Prayer is a request or a plea: by asking God to do things, we subject and entrust ourselves to His Will of our own accord. “Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) On the one hand, prayer does God the courtesy of treating Him as a free moral agent, rather than as a genie compelled by magic to grant our wishes; on the other, when God does grant our requests, He pays us the free compliment of allowing us to participate in His divine plan, which He is not morally obligated to do.
Before we go further, I should correct a common misconception: Catholics do not, in any meaningful sense, “go through Mary” for forgiveness. While the Blessed Virgin Mother holds a special place in our hearts and our doctrines, she doesn’t absolve us of our sins except to the extent that she joins with the rest of the Church in the ministry of reconciliation. Mary prays for us; while we hold that her influence surpasses that of the angels and saints, in the end the action or decision still rests with God.
As I’ve said before, sin is not a private matter, even when committed in private. The “go straight to Jesus” argument encodes an “all men are islands” mentality, in which we have no moral obligations, responsibilities, or duties to other people, and in which what we do has no implications for, or effect upon, anyone else. This is false, not simply from a Christian perspective, but from any reasonable philosophical perspective. You can’t just ask for forgiveness from Jesus without asking your victims or the broader community for forgiveness as well: there’s no “cutting out the middleman”.
What does confession do?
James tells us:
Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders[‡] of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. (James 5:14-16; bold type mine)
There’s quite a bit going on in this passage. First, we note in passing that this paragraph supports the Sacrament of the Sick (aka Holy Oils), in which the priest anoints a sick person with oil and prays over her for healing and comfort. Second, the word elder translates the Greek word presbyteros, which is the root through Middle Latin of the English word priest.[§] Third, the passage establishes that the prayers of the elder, or priest, offered in faith will not only restore the sick to health but also secure forgiveness of sins. Finally, James commands that we confess our sins that we may be healed.
What does confession do? By confessing a sin, one takes ownership of it. We know that often, when we say, “Sorry,” we’re not really contrite; we’re simply offering a socially-obligatory insincerity, like responding “I’m fine, thanks” to the question, “How are you (doing)?” Not only are we not really sorry, we would do it again with no hesitation. We also know that we often fail to recognize a sin as a sin; even now, some people are trying to rewrite 2,000 years of Christian moral teaching to make certain behaviors at least morally neutral, if not praiseworthy.
By confessing X, we acknowledge that X is a sin, and that by doing X we failed not only God but our fellow Christians. We acknowledge the community dimension of sin, the separation it imposes between us and our fellow man. Also, by confessing, we offer the Church the opportunity to forgive in response to the commandment that we forgive each other our sins (Matthew 6:14-15,18:21-35), and to exercise the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19) — not just the Church as an institution, but as a community as well. In taking ownership of our sins, we also, in the same action, release them to be taken on by Christ.
Applying the merit of Christ’s sacrifice
All fine and dandy, but does the Church really have the power to forgive sins?
Yes. First, Jesus established as part of his authority the true forgiveness of sins when he cured the paralytic (Matthew 9:2-8). Second, when Jesus bestowed his mission upon the apostles, he also bestowed upon them the authority to forgive and retain sins (John 20:21-23); this contradicts the notion that absolution merely “covers over” the sin like a blanket. Third, Jesus also gave the apostles, as representing the Church, the power to bind and loose on earth and in heaven, as the guidance of the Holy Spirit would direct them (Matthew 18:18; cf. John 14:26,16:13).[**] Fourth, as we learned in the discussion of apostolic succession, the Twelve did not consider their apostolates intrinsic to themselves, but rather a role that would need to be transmitted through the ages in order to fulfill the Church’s mission to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19).
What the Church does, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is apply the redemptive merit of Christ’s sacrifice to the sins the penitent confesses, absolving the sin and imparting forgiveness on behalf of God and the communion of the faithful. Strictly speaking, this application is not her power, but Christ’s power working through her, and isn’t contingent on the sinlessness of the priest. Because it’s Christ’s power, working through the Church by his authority, the sin is permanently removed.
The priest confessor may impose a restitutive or atoning element, so the penitent may work to repair the broken relationships. Nevertheless, the conditions under which the priest may licitly withhold absolution are very limited; the sacrament may not be used coercively. The sacrament has been abused in the past. However, as the old Latin maxim holds, the misuse doesn’t invalidate the proper use.
The Christian community as the Body of Christ
None of this, of course, necessarily implies a limit on Christ’s ability/willingness to forgive or the efficacy of his saving death. Certainly, Jesus may directly forgive a person’s sins if that person is contrite, in extremis, and has no recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation for reasons beyond his control. There is also a principle in Catholic teaching concerning invincible ignorance; that is, ignorance which is not the person’s fault and which can’t be remedied by any reasonable means, such as a person to whom the gospel has never been revealed. Paul argues that those who never had the Law of Moses yet fulfilled the moral requirements of the Law “are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts,” and thus may be excused at the Last Judgment. (Romans 2:12-16) Jesus forbade us to pass judgment on each other’s souls (Matthew 7:1-5); so we can’t say with any final certainty that a particular person is either saved or damned.
Nevertheless, the pesky question remains: If Jesus wanted us to apply directly to him for forgiveness, why would he have given the power to retain sins to the apostles?
The answer is, because we’re not all in this alone. Jesus never meant for Christianity to be a “do-it-yourself project”. Rather, by founding a Church, giving it human leaders, even establishing one human whom he called “Rock” (Matthew 16:18; cf. John 1:42) to be its visible head as his stand-in or vicarius (John 21:15-19), he gave Christianity a community element: the Body of Christ (Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:20-27).
And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.
[*] For the purposes of this post, I’ve chosen to use the New American Standard Bible, a Protestant translation, for all Scriptural citations; small caps and italics as given.
[†] This is also why scientific experiments testing the efficacy of prayer are almost doomed to fail: they treat the granting of a request by God as a material cause-effect phenomenon.
[‡] Gr. presbyteroi, which is the root of the English word priest.
[§] Priest is used in English New Testament translations for hieros, a priest of the Temple or of another cult; modern translations, even Catholic translations, use elder to translate presbyteros to make a linguistic distinction, even though it obscures the origins of the Christian sacramental priesthood.
[**] The Greek future perfect passive in Matthew 18:18 implies that what the Church declares bound and loosed on earth will have already been decreed so in Heaven; the Holy Spirit would not permit the Church to declare bound that which God did not Himself first bind, or intend to have bound at the time of the declaration.