Loren, a reader, asked some honest questions about Catholic beliefs. I have chosen to write separate posts in response to her questions, for the benefit of keeping the topics separate and make it less confusing, and for the benefit of future readers.
Loren’s third question is on confession.
Q: Why must sins be confessed to priests? In the Bible it says Jesus has the power to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6). The Bible also teaches we can ask God ourselves for forgiveness, and He promises to forgive us and cleanse us (1 John 1:9).
A: A sacrament is a means by which God makes salvation possible. For example, the sacrament of baptism is how God removes all our past sins from our lives, cleanses us, and gives us a new white garment. But this (spiritual) garment, which we wear for the rest of our lives, can still get dirty. Confession is another sacrament by which God helps us to wash our garments and make them clean again.
Depending on the translation of the Bible we use, the verse from 1 John 1:9 can be translated as “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” But we use different bible translations, so I’m not going to depend on a particular word in a particular translation to explain this sacrament and how it came about.
This sacrament is rooted in the mission that God gave to Christ in his capacity as the Son of Man on earth to go and forgive sins (Matthew 9:6). The crowds who witnessed this new power “glorified God, who had given such authority to men” (Matthew 9:8). Note the plural ‘men’. When Matthew wrote this gospel, he was probably thinking of the Church’s ministers who received this power from Christ (Matthew 18:18).
After his resurrection, Jesus passed on his mission to forgive sins to his ministers, telling them, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)
The Church teaches us that for minor (or venial) sins, we can confess directly to God. But for grave (or mortal) sins, which crush the spiritual life from our soul, God has instituted a different means for obtaining forgiveness. This is the sacrament of confession. It is sometimes called the sacrament of penance, or the sacrament of reconciliation.
In the early Church, publicly known sins (such as apostasy) were often confessed openly in church, though private confession to a priest was always an option for privately committed sins. Still, confession was not just something done in silence to God alone, but something done “in church”, as the Didache (written in A.D. 70) indicates.
This comes from the understanding that each one of us is a member of the Body of Christ. When one of us sins, the whole Body of Christ is affected. Sin is not a private matter, and neither is faith. When we sin, we sin not only against God, we also sin against the Body of Christ, which is comprised of our brothers and sisters. Hence when we confess our sins, we confess not only to God, but also to our brothers and sisters represented by the priest. We ask for forgiveness not just from God, but also from our brothers and sisters.