Saturday, May 19, 2012

Go to Confession!
The Necessity of a Sacramental Confession

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 1:40-44
During 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)


Prairie Lover said...

It seems that Jesus healed and forgave without hearing confessions. He told the apostles to forgive whom they would, but I don't recall Him telling them to hear confessions first.

So, why must we confess? Why may we not simply approach the priest and ask forgiveness? Does confessing one's sins aloud make us sorrier for them?

Bender said...

I'll include that question and the answer in the next post on making a good confesssion.

Prairie Lover said...

because Jesus set it up that way

Where? I'm still waiting for an answer to my original question. If you don't get on it, I'll just have to go over your head and ask a priest or something.

Bender said...

Well, of course, now I have kind of forgotten my train of thought here, but let's try this for an answer, which I'm just going to steal from the Catholic Encyclopedia. First, some preliminary explanation --

Penance is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ in which forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest's absolution to those who with true sorrow confess their sins and promise to satisfy for the same. It is called a "sacrament" not simply a function or ceremony, because it is an outward sign instituted by Christ to impart grace to the soul. . . . the confession is made not in the secrecy of the penitent's heart nor to a layman as friend and advocate, nor to a representative of human authority, but to a duly ordained priest with requisite jurisdiction and with the "power of the keys", i.e., the power to forgive sins which Christ granted to His Church. . . .

Teaching of the Church
The Council of Trent (1551) declares:

As a means of regaining grace and justice, penance was at all times necessary for those who had defiled their souls with any mortal sin....Before the coming of Christ, penance was not a sacrament, nor is it since His coming a sacrament for those who are not baptized. But the Lord then principally instituted the Sacrament of Penance, when, being raised from the dead, he breathed upon His disciples saying: 'Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained' (John 20:22-23). By which action so signal and words so clear the consent of all the Fathers has ever understood that the power of forgiving and retaining sins was communicated to the Apostles and to their lawful successors, for the reconciling of the faithful who have fallen after Baptism. (Sess. XIV, c. i)

Farther on the council expressly states that Christ left priests, His own vicars, as judges (praesides et judices), unto whom all the mortal crimes into which the faithful may have fallen should be revealed in order that, in accordance with the power of the keys, they may pronounce the sentence of forgiveness or retention of sins" (Sess. XIV, c. v) . . .

(actual answer to follow)

Bender said...


Confession (necessity)
"For those who after baptism have fallen into sin, the Sacrament of Penance is as necessary unto salvation as is baptism itself for those who have not yet been regenerated" (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, c. 2). Penance, therefore, is not an institution the use of which was left to the option of each sinner so that he might, if he preferred, hold aloof from the Church and secure forgiveness by some other means, e.g., by acknowledging his sin in the privacy of his own mind. As already stated, the power granted by Christ to the Apostles is twofold, to forgive and to retain, in such a way that what they forgive God forgives and what they retain God retains. But this grant would be nullified if, in case the Church retained the sins of penitent, he could, as it were, take appeal to God's tribunal and obtain pardon. Nor would the power to retain have any meaning if the sinner, passing over the Church, went in the first instance to God, since by the very terms of the grant, God retains sin once committed so long as it is not remitted by the Church. It would indeed have been strangely inconsistent if Christ in conferring this twofold power on the Apostles had intended to provide some other means of forgiveness such as confessing "to God alone". Not only the Apostles, but any one with an elementary knowledge of human nature would have perceived at once that the easier means would be chosen and that the grant of power so formally and solemnly made by Christ had no real significance (Palmieri, op. cit., thesis X). On the other hand, once it is admitted that the grant was effectual and consequently that the sacrament is necessary in order to obtain forgiveness, it plainly follows that the penitent must in some way make known his sin to those who exercise the power. This is conceded even by those who reject the Sacrament of Penance as a Divine institution. "Such remission was manifestly impossible without the declaration of the offences to be forgiven" (Lea, "History etc.", I, p. 182). The Council of Trent, after declaring that Christ left his priests as His vicars unto whom as rulers and judges the faithful must make known their sins, adds: "It is evident that the priests could not have exercised this judgment without knowledge of the cause, nor could they have observed justice in enjoining satisfaction if (the faithful) had declared their sins in a general way only and not specifically and in detail" (Sess. XIV, c. 5).

(to be continued)

Bender said...

Since the priest in the pardoning of sin exercises a strict judicial function, Christ must will that such tremendous power be used wisely and prudently. Moreover, in virtue of the grant of Christ the priest can forgive all sins without distinction, quoecumque solveritis. How can a wise and prudent judgment be rendered if the priest be in ignorance of the cause on which judgment is pronounced? And how can he obtain the requisite knowledge unless it come from the spontaneous acknowledgment of the sinner? This necessity of manifestation is all the clearer if satisfaction for sin, which from the beginning has been part of the penitential discipline, is to be imposed not only wisely but also justly. That there is a necessary connection between the prudent judgment of the confessor and the detailed confession of sins is evident from the nature of a judicial procedure and especially from a full analysis of the grant of Christ in the light of tradition. No judge may release or condemn without full knowledge of the case. And again the tradition of the earliest time sees in the words of Christ not only the office of the judge sitting in judgment, but the kindness of a father who weeps with the repentant child (Aphraates, "Ep. de Poenitentia", dem. 7) and the skill of the physician who after the manner of Christ heals the wounds of the soul (Origen in P.G., XII, 418; P.L., XII, 1086). Clearly, therefore, the words of Christ imply the doctrine of the external manifestation of conscience to a priest in order to obtain pardon.

Prairie Lover said...

Alrighty then - that works. Thanks!

And let that be a lesson to your "train of thought." :D