Skip to comments.CONFESSION AND CONFUSION
Posted on 07/08/2007 4:08:14 PM PDT by annalex
Dear Friend of Catholic Answers:
Many years ago I was at the cathedral in San Diego for confession. I told the unseen (and now long deceased) priest my sins and waited for his counsel. What I got was: "Why are you wasting my time?"
"Pardon me, Father?" I said, thinking I had misheard him.
"I asked why are you wasting my time? You had only venial sins to confess. You can have venial sins forgiven by saying an act of contrition or during the penitential rite at Mass. So why are you wasting my time?"
Uncharacteristically, I was momentarily speechless. Then I leaned close to the grill and said, "Father, I don't think you understand the theology of this sacrament. Let me explain it to you."
After I explained it, I left his confessional and went to the one on the other side of the cathedral, where I confessed my anger. It was only much later that I realized I needn't have done that because righteous anger is no sin.
If priests can be ignorant of the basics of sacramental theology, we shouldn't be surprised that many lay Catholics and nearly all non-Catholics are ignorant of such things too. How often are you asked the "where is that in the Bible?" question when it comes to confession, for example? No doubt you have the proper answer easily at hand, but for the two or three readers of this E-Letter who may not, here are some starter points:
Christ gave his own power to forgive sins to the apostles. See John 20:22-23: "Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain [not forgive] they are retained."
Just before this Christ breathed on the apostles--only the second time in Scripture that God breathed on anyone. The first: Genesis 2:7, where God breathed on man and made him a living soul. In Genesis God gave man the power to live. In John he gave some men the power to make souls re-live by bringing them back to the state of sanctifying grace.
The power to forgive sins was not something proper to the apostles. It was not something they had by nature or by right. No, it was a power granted to them freely by God, as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:18: "This, as always, is God's doing; it is he who, through Christ, has reconciled us to himself and allowed us to minister his reconciliation to others."
Note the last part: "allowed us to minister his reconciliation to others." Just as our Lord forgave sins, so could the apostles--because they were given the power to do so by Christ. That means that when a priest forgives sins, it is Christ who is forgiving sins through him.
NOT AN INVENTION
Some non-Catholics--Fundamentalists and Evangelicals mainly--say that auricular confession (confession "to the ear" of a priest) was a late invention, something unknown to the Church of the early centuries. It was a way for an overweening clergy to keep lay folks in check by learning about their private lives and threatening them with eternal repercussions.
Nice little theory, but it fails the factuality test. If confession were an invention, we'd expect to see it objected to by people who, at the time of its invention, knew that it had no apostolic pedigree. Yet there is no record of protests in the early centuries.
The only protests come centuries later, at the Reformation, which is when opponents of the Catholic Church rewrote history to justify their theological novelties. Those Reformers who didn't like the idea of confession (or the idea of sacraments in general) gratuitously claimed that confession was something cobbled together in the Middle Ages or, at any rate, was not part of the original deposit of faith.
Strange, then, that Origen (writing in 241), Cyprian (251), and Aphraates (337) were among many of the ancients who said that confession had to be to a priest. Not only is there no evidence of anti-confession protests in their centuries, but all the writings about confession are in favor of it and explain how it is to be done.
Sure, the penitent was expected to think about his sins (performing an examination of conscience), to be sorry for them, and to ask God for forgiveness in private--but all that was preparatory to going to the priest, because only through his absolution could one be sure that one's sins were forgiven.
THE CONFESSION BOX IN SCRIPTURE
I like to say that John 20:22-23 not only establishes confession but even the confessional. Look at those verses again. If a priest has the power to forgive or not forgive a penitent's sins, this means he must learn what those sins are and must judge whether the penitent really is sorry for them.
If you go to confession and tell the priest that you committed murder but are not sorry for having done so, you won't be absolved. He will weigh what you did and will judge--using common sense--whether you are sorry for having done it, and then will decide whether for forgive or "retain" your sin.
The priest can't learn what your sins are and whether you are sorry for them unless you tell him your sins and tell him your sorrow. He can't guess at what you have done and whether you are sorry. You have to be present before him, either face-to-face or through-the-grill, for him to gain the knowledge and make the judgment. Therefore, the confessional is implied in John 20:22-23.
QED, as they say.
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For you pinging pleasure.
Why would one expect to see protests in the early centuries against something that wasn't taking place in the early centuries???
I had a silimar experience on ce, several years ago in Colorado Springs while visiting. First, I had to find a parish with Saturday confession as my cousin’s parish did not. In a neighborhood, and perhaps not even with a sign to mark it, was the church. Inside the plain brick building I did not see a vigil lamp so I asked someone where the tabernacle was and they did not know! I did find it in a little room off the entry way.
So anyway, I went to confession and the priest began to snort and asked again how long had it been since my last confession. It had been a week. He raised his voice and asked if my pastor allowed this. I said that he did and actually I was a third order religious and this was the norm. He was thoroughtly disgusted. He asked me if anyone else was waiting and I told him yes and he said, “Well, too bad for them.” And he got up and left!
Wow, what did you do? I would have sent a letter to the bishop.
Origen (writing in 241), Cyprian (251), and Aphraates (337) were among many of the ancients who said that confession had to be to a priest. Not only is there no evidence of anti-confession protests in their centuries, but all the writings about confession are in favor of it and explain how it is to be done.
He also said that confession was good once a month, sin or no sin. And if we had no sins to report we were to say, paraphrased: I have no sins to confess but I am still sorry for all my past sins and I ask for God's blessing from you, father.
Just because Origen and a few other late writers put down their opinions about something down on a piece of papyrus does not mean that that practice was accepted by the church community, or even worth the time disputing. If church patriarchs protested in writing all the controversial theological opinions of Origen and the oft-heretical Alexandrian theologians, there would have been no papyrus left for anything else. There was no protest because there was nothing to protest. The obscure words of a few late writers was not worth the time or papyrus to answer, that is, if they were even aware of them.
If we can make confession to God without the priest, then why do we have confession with a priest present?
In the early Church, confession was public; that is, one confessed one's sins in the presence of the entire faith community. When this became impractical, it was the priest who "stood in" for the community, as its presiding officer and as its witness to the penitent's repentance.
Further, while we can indeed confess directly to God -- even a casual reading of the daily prayers reveals that we should do this -- we often find that we need help and advice in overcoming the very things we have confessed.
We do not confess "to" the priest; rather, we confess to God "in the presence of" the priest who, as the prayer before Confession clearly states, is God's "witness" and who, having witnessed our confession of sins offers pastoral advice on how we can better our lives and overcome the very things we can confess. Just as one would not attempt to diagnose, much less cure, one's own physical ailments, so too one should not attempt to diagnose, much less cure, one's own spiritual ailments.
It is often the case that those who object to revealing their sins in the presence of a priest or to seek his advice have no qualms about revealing their sins to their neighbors, friends, psychiatrists, and so on, usually with the intention of obtaining advice -- advice that is not necessarily godly or spiritually profitable, or even just plain "good," for that matter.
So, we confess in the presence of the priest to acknowledge that our sins, whether we wish to accept it or not, affect the entire faith community on the one hand, and that we cannot "heal ourselves" on the other. The priest is there to help us overcome those things for which we seek forgiveness, to give advice that a friend or neighbor might not be in a position to give, and to bear witness on behalf of the faith community, of which he is the spiritual father, that we have indeed repented and been forgiven by God.
A bishop and a martyr, St. Cyprian, bishop and the Mesopotamian sage Aaphrates, and the single greatest influence on the Christain Canon, Origen, write that confessions are to be to a priest, and everyone ignores it? Yeah, right.
that’s terrible. Saint Joan of Arc went to confession almost daily. Saint John Vianney pray for this priest.
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