A leper came to Jesus and, kneeling down, begged Him and said, "If you wish, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, He stretched out His hand, touched him, and said to him, "I do will it. Be made clean." The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, He dismissed him at once. Then He said to him, "See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them." - Mark 1:40-44During His ministry, Jesus healed many sick and diseased and injured people. Such affliction is to be understood not only in the literal physical sense, but also, in the Divine pedagogy, it symbolizes sin, which disfigures our soul. Thus, in performing these healings, Jesus not only demonstrated that He is Lord over physical creation so as to perform miraculous medical cures, the healing by Jesus also signifies that God seeks not to condemn, but to heal us of what really ails us. God delights not in the death of any man, and He wants to spare us from that. In telling the man to show himself to the priest and make an offering, Jesus indicated that not only was he healed of the leprosy that disfigured him and made him an outcast, but he was also healed of his sins, resurrected from a kind of death, and reconciled to rejoin the community. (See Pope Benedict, Angelus, February 15, 2009)
The greatest sickness and disease and injury that man suffers is not medical, but spiritual -- sin is the greatest affliction because sin brings with it, not merely temporal suffering and death, but eternal suffering and death. St. Augustine explains that "evil" is a privatio boni, a privation or distortion or perversion of the good. (see Enchiridion, ch. 11 et seq.) Similarly, more than merely "breaking the rules," sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor. (CCC 1849-69) Because, by its very nature, sin is a privation or distortion or perversion of love and/or truth, because sin is a deviation from or inconsistent with or contrary to Love and Truth, that is to say, contrary to He who is Life itself, sin separates us from life. Such sin does not hurt Him -- we mere creatures do not have that power over the Almighty to hurt Him or harm Him in any way -- but it does hurt and injure and disfigure us, and Jesus wants to heal us and restore us to spiritual health.
Jesus has now ascended to heaven, but He has not left us to our own devices, He has not left us to suffer the illness of sin. To help accomplish His continuing mission of healing us, of reconciling man to God, to redeem us and sanctify us, our Savior and Lord established the Church as His Holy Bride, two become one, and He gave us the sacraments, which are administered by the Church. Two of the sacraments that were given to us by Jesus are (a) the Sacrament of Baptism and (b) the Sacrament of Penance, also called the Sacrament of Confession or the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Baptism cleanses us of Original Sin, but it does not abolish the weakness of our impaired human nature nor our inclination to personal sin. Experience shows that we inevitably will commit some individual and personal sin even after we have been baptized, such that we become fallen again and lose that state of grace. However, if we examine our conscience and make a good sacramental confession of our personal sins with a contrite heart and a determination to avoid further sin, through the Sacrament of Penance, by the Crucifixion and Resurrection, we are absolved of our individual sins and reconciled to God through the priest who acts in persona Christi. Furthermore, grace is given, if we accept it, to avoid further sin. Having been established by Jesus Himself in establishing the Church, such sacramental confession is the ordinary means of forgiveness by God and, therefore, is morally obligatory.
But why a sacramental confession of sin to a priest? Why not simply go to some quiet place and confess to God one-to-one?
(1) Again, as just stated, one reason for the necessity of sacramental confession is because Jesus established the Sacrament of Confession/Penance, and He did so because He wanted us to utilize it. In all humility, we must understand that it is His system of forgiveness, not ours, and we do not have either the freedom or the power to compel a different system of reconciliation.
(2) Another similar reason is because Jesus established the Church as a whole for a reason. Ours is not a hub-and-spoke kind of religion, ours is not that type of highly individualized one-on-one relationship with God. Rather, we are more like drops of water in the ocean, each being diffused throughout the whole, yet still retaining our individuality.
Thus, the Sacraments, including Confession, are not individualized, but are communal. Man, male and female, is by his nature a social being. Being made in the image of God the Trinity, we were meant to exist as He exists, in relationship. We confess, not in privacy, not with God and ourselves alone, but rather, we confess and receive absolution in the entirety of the Church.
It may look as if there are only two people in the confessional, but in actuality, the whole of the Church is present. Confession, no matter how private in human terms, is a social act, involving all of the faithful, both here on earth and in heaven. All of the Church, being part of the Body of Christ, is bound up in the work of redemption and forgiveness. The Church is not a mere bystander, a mere observer on the sidelines. Rather, as the Bride of the Crucified One, she shares in His redemptive mission, including the Sacrament of Confession.
As such it is necessary to turn to the Church and seek and obtain sacramental confession and absolution, and not merely consider sin and forgiveness to be a private affair. After all, sin is not a private affair, but is intensely social. Every sin, even though committed secretly and in apparent isolation, has social implications. Accordingly, sin being a social act, so too should forgiveness be a social act.
(3) Moreover, the premise of the question is flawed. In the case of sacramental confession, all appearances to the contrary, you are not really making your confession “to the priest.” You are making your confession to the Lord.
The priest is not present in his personal capacity. Rather, he is present and acts in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. And it is because there is someone there, physically present, that one can, not merely confess one's sins, but receive tangible absolution, that is, tangible evidence of forgiveness (or withholding of forgiveness if the necessary contrition is lacking).
Let us remember what the nature of a “sacrament” is, as instituted by Christ — it is an efficacious outward visible sign of the invisible reality of the conveying of grace. In the case of the Sacrament of Confession, you have (a) the outward, tangible, visible signs of vocally confessing out loud, which on a practical level makes the confession more concrete, rather than merely theoretical or merely a passing thought; and (b) the priest, acting in persona Christi, giving absolution, which is an outward, tangible, visible sign of the invisible reality of forgiveness by Christ and grace to avoid further sin.
In giving absolution, it is not the priest who forgives, but Christ. Father So-and-So has absolutely no power whatsoever to personally forgive sin. Only God can forgive sin. But, having received the authority of Christ to act on His behalf in imparting the Sacraments, with Christ acting through him, Father So-and-So does have that power by Christ through the Holy Spirit, so that it is the perfect and holy Jesus doing the absolution, not the imperfect human priest.
It might also be helpful to consider the formula (words) of absolution said by the priest:
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”So, we see here that such forgiveness is by God, through the ministry of the Church, and in the name of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The priest himself is not doing the forgiving, rather, it is God forgiving through the priest, who acts in persona Christi. (CCC 1440-49)
It is actually a rather ingenious system that Jesus set up.
Although we do have a spirit, we are also bodily creatures, and we experience and come to know things by and through our bodies. As human persons, we need a physical act involving our bodies for us to know that something has actually happened. We can say that we don’t need that, that we have faith and that faith alone is all we need, but as a practical matter, we are all Thomas and we all need to see and touch in order for us to know for certain.
Especially when we are dealing with the transcendent and spiritual, we need some outward sign for us to authentically know the reality of the transcendent. A “sacrament” is such an outward sign.
Moreover, because we are not merely spiritual beings, but are body and spirit, for something to involve us and impact us only on a spiritual level is to engage our being only partially, rather than engage the whole of our being, soul AND body.
A prime example of this is the Eucharist, i.e. Holy Communion. Now, we can stay at home and pray to Jesus and, in that manner, obtain a spiritual communion with Him. But to be spiritually in communion with Jesus is incomplete communion — it is a union with Him in only a part of our being, and only a part of His Being. In order to be fully in communion with Jesus, in order to be fully joined in union to Him in the entirety of our being and the entirety of His Being, we must be in communion, not only spiritually, but bodily. Our spirit joined with His Spirit, our body joined with His Body. One can obtain the whole and complete communion — communion in the full and true sense — only by receiving the Eucharist, the real Body and Blood of Christ. Only then are we joined with Him in the entirety of our being.
Likewise in the other Sacraments. Only because there is an outward visible sign that acts upon, not merely the spiritual component of our being, but upon the bodily component as well, only in this way is the grace imparted upon the compete entirety of our being.
Without the Sacrament of Confession, where one confesses to God in the presence of the priest who then has the authority to convey absolution, you have a confession that is merely potential and, hence, you have forgiveness that is merely potential. When one “confesses” merely to oneself or secretly in the recesses of one’s mind, merely thinking about the sins, even though one may feel remorse, it is really only a possible confession.
Until it is reduced to actual words that are actually spoken out loud, so as to give them a reality that goes beyond mere thought, then it is merely an idea. And without the confession being a reality, without the contrition/repentance being reduced to a tangible reality, there can be no forgiveness.
This is the ordinary means of forgiveness - the Sacrament of Confession - as established by Jesus in establishing the Church. (CCC 1450-58, Can. 960)
But what about people who die after they have committed some sin but before they have gone to Confession? And what about non-Catholics? What about non-Christians? Are they automatically consigned to hell because they did not participate in sacramental confession and receive sacramental absolution?
The Sacrament of Confession is the ordinary means of forgiveness which Catholics are obligated to resort to because Jesus set it up that way and because forgiveness is not a one-on-one proposition, but rather, the entire Church is bound up in and participates in Christ's redemptive mission, such that forgiveness is obtained by the Crucified and Risen Christ through His Church.
But there are extra-ordinary means of forgiveness, that is, means other than the ordinary sacramental means. The faithful of the Church are bound by the sacraments, but the all-merciful God is not. The God of Divine Mercy can forgive whoever He wants to forgive in the manner in which He wants to do so.
The Church believes and teaches that those Catholics who have died in sin, but before going to Confession, can attain eternal life in heaven if they were contrite and repentant and would have gone to Confession if they had lived and had the opportunity. Likewise, "non-Catholics" are entrusted to the love and mercy of God and can attain eternal life in heaven by extra-ordinary means if (and this is over-simplifying it) they too have love for God and perfect contrition.**
To reiterate, a Catholic with “perfect contrition” and a firm purpose of amendment can be forgiven all sins by God directly if the person dies before he or she is able to make a sacramental confession (e.g. a traffic accident, a crashing airplane, etc., such that whenever I fly, as the plane is speeding down the runway, I always express contrition and prayer "just in case"). However, if there is time to make such a sacramental confession prior to death, such as when death is not imminent and the person goes on to live for years after, then a sacramental confession is necessary. Indeed, the failure or refusal to seek such a sacramental confession might in itself be a sin for which such sacramental confession and absolution are needed.
If the sacraments are available, then one has an obligation to seek and make use of them. Jesus instituted them for a reason, to make them the usual and ordinary methods by which the relevant grace would be conveyed. That there might be extra-ordinary means (usually in the case of unexpected and sudden death) to receive such grace does not mean that we may dispense of the ordinary means via the sacraments altogether. Although God is not bound by the sacraments, we are.
However, as with the Mass, the best way of thinking of the Sacrament of Confession is not as an obligation, but as an opportunity. Even if sometimes embarrassing to do so, it should not be thought of as having to go to Confession, but as getting to go to Confession. An opportunity to express our love for God and to receive His love and forgiveness in return.
** That does not mean that all the divisions in Christianity are fine and of no consequence. That does not mean that all churches and denominations are equal or that they enjoy equality of truth. They do not. To the contrary, there is only one truth, and the schisms and divisions in Christianity are wrong and a gross violation of the will of Jesus that we be one. But the question of the salvation of non-sacramental non-Catholic Christians, and of non-Christians, is another discussion for another time. One such discussion may be found here. See also the authoritative document written by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and ratified and confirmed by Pope John Paul II, Dominus Iesus, Declaration on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.
Next: The Necessity of a Good Confession (including an examination of conscience)