I have some friends at work that are usually pretty cool, until the question of religion comes up. They are non-denominational (thankfully, they aren’t in the sola scriptura crowd) and usually have some pretty compelling questions about the Church that I normally don’t have a problem answering. Sometimes I find myself stumped and tell them I will look it up and usually find what I’m looking for here. However, when they were asking about confession to a priest, I explained the general reasons and quoted a couple of lines of scripture I could remember, but I knew I was grasping for straws overall because this is one area I haven’t really done my homework. So, as usual, I promised I would get back with them on it. Before I go in tomorrow, I want to make sure that what I typed up (we don’t have time to talk at work usually, so we end up giving each other literature quite frequently) sufficiently explains why Catholics confess to a priest and is not off the mark. Any feedback is appreciated.
To begin, I want to address the difference between what I call Private Confession and Public Confession. Private Confession is the direct elucidation of your sins to God, ie, “Lord, I have done X and Y and I am sorry. Please forgive me.” followed by the Sinner’s Prayer or some other method of self-atonement. Public Confession is an elucidation whereby you are vocally confessing to another person or persons, thereby being forced to dissolve the walls of personal privacy around your sin. In the Catholic Church, Public Confession is utilized, though it should be remembered that the vast majority of the time, a Public Confession is going to still be a private conversation between the confessor and the priest.
James 5:16, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful,” is a direct command that Private Confession is not sufficient and that a sinner must confess to another, and that the latter must offer a prayer for the sinner in order for the sinner to obtain absolution. While by itself, this passage is insufficient to cultivate Biblical support for the practice of confessing to the clergy, it is the foundation upon which the sacrament of Reconciliation is built, and explicitly denies the sufficiency of Private Confession.
The Old Testament in Leviticus and Numbers indicates that the Priesthood made atonement in the name of sinners:
Leviticus 6:7 and the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD, and he will be forgiven for any one of the things which he may have done to inur guilt.
Leviticus 16:30 For on that day [the priest] shall make atonement for you, to cleans you, [that] you may be clean from all your sins before the LORD.
Numbers 15:28 And the priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who commits an error, when he sins unwittingly, to make atonement for him; and he shall be forgiven.
None of these passage explicitly states that a Public Confession is necessary, but reason infers that it is necessary else why would the priest have the knowledge of the sin in order to make atonement? IN a similar manner, the Catholic Priest must have knowledge of the sin in order to utter the prayer of absolution for the sinner and proscribe a penance. Here one must remember that it is not the act of penance that absolves the sinner, but the prayer of absolution itself, in the same manner that the Old Testament priest is making atonement thereby absolving the sinner, the Catholic priest is doing the same. The modern requirement of penance is a meditation to focus the mind and spirit away from sinful behavior, especially repetition of the behavior warranting the confession in the first place.
Knowing that Public Confession is necessary and Private Confession is not sufficient, and that intervention by the preist to make atonement on the part of the sinner was already proscribed in the Old Testament, Christ imparts the authority upon the Apostles specifically, not the disciples in general, to forgive and retain sins in John 20:23 “If you forgive the sins of any, [their sins] have been forgiven them; if you retain the [sins] of any, they have been retained.” And then Paul goes on to inform us that he has already been forgiving sins by the time he is speaking in Second Corinthians 2:10 “But one whom you forgive, I [forgive] also; for indeed I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, * for your sakes in the presence of Christ.” Here Paul is fulfilling the role of hearing the Public Confession of another, intervening on his behalf by absolving the sinner, and doing so under the imparted authority of Christ. Because it is the Apostles specifically who are empowered to absolve sin, it falls to the ordained clergy that can trace their ordination through the unbroken line of Apostolic Succession to the original Apostles to absolve the sinner today. A confession to another lay person is insufficient, just as a confession appealing directly to God is insufficient. While the mode may be different in that a separate confessional probably was never used by Paul and the other Apostles, the function has not changed and its present validity is preserved via Biblical proof offered here, and Apostolic Tradition.
The catholic.com tract on the matter is attached to illustrate the Church Fathers’ opinions on the matter
I thought about including information on Contrition, but figured that this was enough for now to illustrate the requirement of confession to a priest, and that I could cover contrition later.
Thanks in advance for any advice, corrections, or additions. :)*