The gift of Confession
Sin is social in its effects, so Christ established a social means for forgiveness . . .
Christ never engaged in unnecessary acts. He instituted the sacrament of Confession (aka Penance or Reconciliation) as the ordinary or normative way of having one’s sins forgiven. This means that it’s the standard way.
Yes, sins are forgiven when one sincerely repents and prays earnestly to God. In fact, before you even enter the confessional, you must say a sincere act of contrition, so the very sacrament acknowledges the need for a direct request to God that he forgive your sins. But confessions to a priest make a lot of sense: first, because of our limitations; second, because of the nature of sin.
We all fool ourselves at times. We talk ourselves into and out of doing things. We adroitly avoid unpleasantness, and little is more unpleasant than acknowledging our sinfulness. When we confess to God privately, we run the risk of only feigning sorrow. We might even fool ourselves into thinking we’re really sorry when we’re not. No sin can be forgiven unless we’re truly sorry for it. Here’s where a priest, trained in hearing confessions, can help us see past our pride or our remaining attachment to a particular sin.
After all, Jesus knew what he was doing. He gave the apostles — and through apostolic succession, the bishops and the bishops’ helpers, the priests — the power to forgive sins: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:22-23). He wanted them to forgive or not forgive (retain) sins. How do they know which to forgive and which not to forgive? Only by being told the sins by the penitent. Then, after questioning if necessary, the priest can evaluate the penitent’s sorrow.
Jesus likened our relationship with him to a vine; he is the vine and we are the branches (Jn 15:5). Every branch is related to every other branch through the vine. If one branch becomes ill, neighboring branches become ill. Even branches far away are affected. Spiritual illness comes when we sin. It’s impossible to sin and not influence others. We may not be aware of the influence, but it’s there. Since every sin is social in its effects, Christ established a social means for forgiveness. In Confession we relate our sins and our sorrow to another human being, who represents both our Lord and the whole community of the faithful.
Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith,” page 64 (Ignatius Press, 1995).