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X. The Confession of Sins

The Externals of the Catholic Church

The telling of sins in Confession, or in other words, the receiving of the Sacrament of Penance, is something distinctively Catholic. It is true that it is found in schismatic churches but only because they have preserved it and continued it from the time when they were Catholic. When the Greek and Oriental churches separated themselves from communion with the Roman See, they retained nearly all the dogmas and practices which then prevailed in the Christian world. The Sacraments, the Mass, the priestly office and many other essentials of Catholicism are still to be found in those schismatic bodies, and the necessity of confessing sins is recognized in them just as it is in the Church of Rome.

There is hardly anything in the whole system of our religion which is so misunderstood and misrepresented as is Confession. Even learned non-Catholic writers and preachers show astounding ignorance of the true facts of the case when they treat of the “Romish” practice of confessing sins; and as for the rank and file of our separated brethren, the extent of their misinformation is appalling.

Objections Against Confession. Confession is the bugbear of Protestants. Four centuries of misstatement, of oft-repeated falsehood, have resulted, among non-Catholics, in almost universal misunderstanding of the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church regarding the forgiveness of sins. Of course, any one who wishes information about Confession may get it from even the simplest books that explain Catholic doctrine; but the average non-Catholic does not try to get it. He cheerfully and unquestioningly receives what has been handed down to him, and passes it on to others; he repeats the slanders over which his ancestors gloated, and looks upon Confession as a slavish superstition — if not as something worse.

The usual ideas of the average non-Catholic are somewhat like this: “Catholics believe that, to be forgiven, they need merely to tell their sins.”

“Priests have sometimes given a license or permission to commit future sins.”

“Catholic priests, through the confessional, acquire a complete and harmful domination over souls.”

“Being mostly evil-minded men, they delight in hearing confessions, and revel in listening to accusations of sins, especially those of women.”

It would hardly seem to be necessary to refute these assertions or even to notice them. Some of them are so preposterous that it is strange that they can be believed by any sensible person. However, the gullible always outnumber the sensible; and a word or two concerning the Church’s real teaching may not be out of place.

The Answers. The Church does not teach, and never has taught, that “the telling of sins is enough to bring forgiveness.” The telling of sins, while necessary in most cases, is by no means essential to the Sacrament of Penance; there is something far more important, something without which there can be no sacrament — namely, contrition, or sorrow for sin, with its necessary consequence, a firm purpose of amendment. Mortal sin may be forgiven without confession: it never can be without contrition.

Of course, no confessor ever gave a “license” or “permission” to commit sin. The idea is blasphemous. The Sacrament of Penance is intended and used only for the good of souls — to wash away sin, to give graces for the strengthening of the soul against future sin; and the advice, reproof and encouragement given by the priest are also potent factors in bringing about amendment. Many well-informed non-Catholics, who know nothing of the supernatural effects of the Sacrament of Penance, bear willing testimony to the good effects of Confession in promoting purity, honesty and respect for divine and civil laws.

But, say our Protestant critics, suppose that a priest is a wicked man, does not the confessional give him ample opportunity to indulge his evil propensities?

Not so much as one might think. Of course, there are unworthy priests — not many, thank God; but the Church has safe-guarded the confessional and the penitent against them. No priest could absolve one who has been his accomplice in sin. No priest would be likely to try to use the tribunal of penance for wicked ends; for the person to whom he had spoken evil could not be absolved by any other priest until the name and guilt of the unworthy confessor had been revealed to the bishop of the diocese, and the said person would be excommunicated if the accusation be not made promptly.

We can assure our readers that the average priest finds his work in the confessional the most monotonous and at the same time the most comforting part of his labors. There is no desire to remember the sins that he hears. He has no time for curiosity. The hearing of confessions is a task that would be a drudgery were it not for the consciousness which every confessor has, that he is doing God's work, and is accomplishing more good than he could do anywhere else. In the long hours spent in the confessional he can give comfort to the sorrowing, can send the sinner away purified from all stain, can guide the earnest soul to higher perfection; and oftentimes, good priest though he be, he has to confess himself inferior in sanctity to some who kneel at his feet.

What Catholics Believe. We Catholics believe that our Saviour has given to His Church a sacrament for the remission of sins committed after Baptism, this remission being affected by the absolution of the priest, joined to true supernatural sorrow, earnest purpose of amendment, and sincere confession of all grievous sin when confession is possible.

This sacrament is necessary for the salvation of those who have fallen into mortal sin after Baptism; that is, they either must receive it or must have an actual or implied desire to receive it, joined to perfect sorrow for sin.

What about baptized Protestants who are in good faith? Do we claim that these are all lost, because they do not know the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance and therefore do not receive it? No; they may turn to God in ardent and loving contrition, and, being in good faith, this contrition implies that they earnestly desire to fulfill Christ's law as far as they know it. If they knew the Sacrament of Penance as it is, they would receive it. And so we do not deny that God may be ready to forgive the sins of those non-Catholic Christians who are in good faith and are sorry for their sins.

Our Church teaches us that her priests have real power to forgive sins, and that every person is bound by God's law to confess to the priest every remembered mortal sin committed after Baptism. There is no need of entering here into the Scriptural arguments to prove this doctrine; such is not the scope of this book; but let us see what is necessary for the practical exercise of this power of the priest, and why the obligation of confessing sins necessarily follows from the fact that the priest possesses this power.

The Priest Needs Jurisdiction. What priests have the power of forgiving sins? All priests have it, but all priests cannot use it. No priest can hear confessions unless he has jurisdiction; just as no magistrate can try a case unless it is submitted by law to his tribunal. Every Catholic priest has received this power, indeed, at his ordination; but its exercise depends altogether on the authority of the Church. For instance, if a priest who belongs to one diocese goes to another, he cannot hear confessions there unless he first obtains permission from the bishop of that diocese. He cannot even hear confessions in his own diocese unless he has received “faculties” to do so from his own bishop. In the words of the Catechism, he must be a “duly authorized priest.”

Why Catholics Confess Their Sins Why do we have to confess our sins? Would it not be a great deal more comfortable if we were merely required to manifest our sorrow and not our sins? Undoubtedly; but God has not so arranged it. Our Blessed Saviour gave His Apostles and the priests of His Church the power “to bind and to loose” — in other words, a discretionary power. They are judges, advisers and physicians — not merely absolvers.

Now, a priest is not a mind-reader, nor is he endowed with any miraculous knowledge. He cannot know your sins or mine, nor judge them, nor advise about them, nor suggest remedies for them, unless we tell them to him. Therefore we must tell them, completely and clearly, so that he will know them as we know them; so that they will be displayed before his mind as they are before our conscience.

The Form of Absolution. What does the priest say when he raises his hand over us, after bidding us to say the Act of Contrition? Or, in other words, what is the form of absolution? After reciting the last two sentences of the Confiteor, the Confessor uses these words:

“May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve thee, and I by His authority absolve thee from every bond of excommunication and interdict in so far as I can and as thou needest it; and so I absolve thee from thy sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. May the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, whatever good thou hast done and whatever evil thou hast borne, be for thee unto the remission of sins, the increase of grace, and the reward of everlasting life. Amen.”

Such are the impressive words which God’s appointed minister uses as the sentence of pardon for God's faithful. And when these words are uttered over one who is rightly disposed, the soul that has been loathsome with the leprosy of sin becomes pure in God’s sight; the wickedness that defiled it is cleansed away forever.

The Seal of Confession. Every Catholic knows, and many non-Catholics know as well, that a priest is not permitted under any circumstances or for any reason whatever, to reveal what he has heard in Confession. This obligation of secrecy is what is known as the “seal of Confession.”

The Confessor is not acting as a mere man, but as one who stands in the place of God; and he is never allowed to disclose to any one the matters submitted to him in the sacred tribunal. This law admits of absolutely no exception. Unless the penitent freely gives the Confessor leave to use his knowledge, the priest must not by word or look or gesture reveal sins or weaknesses, or the names or sins of accomplices, or anything that would bring contempt or trouble on the penitent. If harm would thereby ensue, he must not even admit that a certain person has confessed to him. He must not even by change of conduct or manner remind the penitent of anything that has been told in Confession. To violate this law in any way would be a detestable sacrilege, and would entail the severest penalties for the guilty priest. And it is right that this should be so; for any revelation of matters of confession would make the Sacrament of Penance an intolerable evil instead of a ministry of mercy and reconciliation.

An Ancient Practice. The forgiveness of sins, as said above, entails the confession of them ; and therefore the practice of telling one’s sins to a priest goes back to the beginning of the Church. In all the ages of her history the power of absolution, of judgment of sins, has been recognized and used. St. Cyprian urges the sinner to repent “while confession may be made.” St. John Chrysostom tells us that the priests of the Gospel excel those of the Jewish Church, because while these latter could merely declare a man clean of leprosy, the Christian priests “have received power to cleanse the impurity of the soul.” And this is confirmed by others of the earlier writers; they do not argue for the priestly power of absolving, but assume it as unquestionable. Origen, who lived at the beginning of the third century, exhorts the sinner “to find a physician, learned and merciful,” who will judge if his sickness be of such a nature that “it ought to be manifested in the meeting of the whole Church”; and he tells his hearers: “If we reveal our sins, not only to God but also to those who can heal our sins, they will be blotted out.”

In the early centuries public penance, of the greatest severity and sometimes lasting for years, was demanded in reparation for great sins — especially for murder, idolatry and adultery. This practice, however, was later abolished, because it was not of divine origin, and was often a deterrent from reconciliation with God rather than a help towards it; but sacramental confession has endured, because, as St. Leo has said, “It is enough that guilt should be manifested to the priest alone by secret confession.”

The Confessional. The seat which the priest uses, or the enclosure within which the confession is ordinarily made, is known as a “confessional.” In our churches it consists usually of a central box in which the confessor is seated, and side alcoves, fitted with doors or curtains, in which the penitents kneel. The partitions have openings provided with gratings or screens, separating the penitent from the priest, and these may be closed by sliding shutters. The Ritual demands that the confessional be located in a conspicuous place in the church, and it is recommended that in the part where the penitent kneels there shall be a crucifix or a picture of our Lord, to inspire devotion and contrition in the sinner.

This present form of confessional is of somewhat recent origin. In ancient times confessions were heard in the open church, the penitent kneeling before the priest or seated by his side. The division of the confessional into compartments seems to have come into use about the sixteenth century.

The priest, when hearing confessions, wears a purple stole: and, according to the requirements of the Ritual, should also wear a surplice — which latter detail, probably for comfort’s sake, is sometimes omitted by our clergy.

A Secret Sacrament. The Sacrament of Penance is the only one that is always administered in secret. The other six Sacraments are given ordinarily in a solemn manner, in the presence of witnesses or others, with lights and prayers. The Sacrament of Penance is a private affair, concerning no one but the penitent and the priest; and hence it is generally administered in the narrow space of the confessional, and always without pomp or ceremony.

Much more might be written about the sacred tribunal of Penance, but it would be rather an exposition of Catholic doctrine than of practice and would not come within the scope of this chapter. Every Catholic is familiar from childhood with the requirements for a worthy Confession, and every Catholic knows also, from his own experience, the peace and heavenly comfort that have filled his soul when he arose from his knees and went forth “with God’s benediction upon him.” The confessing of our sins may seem hard, but God, in reality, has made the work of reconciliation easy for us. Earnest sorrow, a real purpose of amendment, a sincere accusation — and the sins, be they few or many, no longer exist. They must be told, and the telling is hard — but it is not made to the world at large. They are whispered only to one man, who is bound by a most sacred obligation, bound by his own hope of Heaven, to preserve everlasting silence.