The practice of entering a confessional to disclose personal sins is as Catholic as the Rosary or a Roman collar.
It’s infamous to those who disapprove of the Church, and a topic of curiosity to those indifferent to the Church.
“Why do you confess things to a priest?” people ask.
Many Protestants present a starker challenge:
“Why do you confess your sins to a mere man instead of confessing directly to God?”
In answer to the first question:
We Catholics confess our sins to a priest because that’s the method of forgiveness that Jesus Himself established during His earthly ministry.
In answer to the second question:
By confessing our sins to Jesus’ minister, His personal representative, we are confessing our sins to God through His priest whom He commissioned for this very purpose.
Catholics are accused of being unbiblical when it comes to confession—which is odd, because the teaching on confession is found in the Bible.
Interested in learning the specifics (and foundational evidence) behind it?
Excellent. Keep on reading!
God Alone Forgives Sins
All Christians recognize—and the Catholic Church teaches—that God alone can forgive sins.
“Only God forgives sins,” states the Catechism (§1441).
The Catechism also says that,
[as] the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, “The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” and exercises this divine power: “Your sins are forgiven.”Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1441-1442
We see Jesus exercise this authority during His earthly ministry.
“Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven,” He says to a paralyzed man (Matthew 9:2).
When His fellow Jews are scandalized by this announcement to forgive sin, their scandal is understandable: they believed Jesus to be “a mere man” and were horrified by His claim to have an authority that belonged to God alone.
But Jesus answered them:
“Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.Matthew 9:4-8
Jesus proved His divinity to them—and therefore His ability to forgive sin—by His power over creation, which He demonstrated through miracles of healing or of absolute power (such as walking on water or cutting a violent storm short with a mere command).
Alright. It’s one thing for the Son of God—being God—to forgive sin.
What’s all this about Catholic priests forgiving sin?
Let’s find out.
A Track Record of Divinely-Chosen Mediators
The Old Testament reveals an interesting thing.
It’s this: from the earliest days of God’s interaction with the human beings He created, He has chosen to speak and work through hand-selected persons on behalf of everyone else.
God doesn’t have to do this. But for His own purposes—which we may find mysterious—He chooses to.
Abraham. Noah. Moses. Isaiah and all the prophets, right up to John the Baptist. The Lord chose to communicate His will through them, to bring about His will through them, and to perform great works through them.
They became His mediators.
Now, many Christians become agitated at the word “mediator,” and point to 1 Timothy 2:5:
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus…1 Timothy 2:5
And we are not denying what St. Paul writes, which is, of course, true. There is one Mediator (capital M) between God and men: Jesus.
Yet in His mercy and unfathomable condescension, Jesus chooses to associate us with Himself—and even allows us to participate in His mediation. It’s not our mediation—it’s His, graciously extended to us.
You might think of us as “lowercase-M” mediators.
For example, when you pray for another person, you are in a real sense mediating on their behalf. St. James writes about this:
…and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.James 5:16
Our humble mediation would not exist, nor have any efficacy, without the one true Mediator between God and man—Jesus—who makes it possible.
No catechized Catholic denies this.
God “Delegated” His Authority to Forgive Sins
Based on this long history of working through human beings, you’d think the Good Lord’s decisions wouldn’t surprise us anymore.
But they do.
Some people think He went a step too far. Because He went and gave certain men His own authority to forgive or retain sins.
We may not like this idea very much. If we were God, we’d have chosen to dispense forgiveness very differently! So we’re scandalized, much like our elder brothers the Jews, who were horrified by the man from Nazareth who claimed to forgive sin.
But God does what He wants, not what we think He should do.
When did He give certain men such authority? A big claim like this requires proof of “delegation.”
Jesus granted the ministry of reconciliation to the twelve Apostles after His Resurrection, as recorded in the Gospel:
[T]he disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “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 20:20-23 (italics added for emphasis)
In this moment, He handed His mission of forgiveness over to the Church; specifically to Her ordained ministers, the successors to the Apostles.
That is why the Catechism says:
…by virtue of his divine authority he gives this power to men to exercise in his name.
…he entrusted the exercise of the power of absolution [power to forgive sin in the name of Christ] to the apostolic ministry which he charged with the “ministry of reconciliation.”Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1441-1442 (italics added for emphasis)
Please note what is (and is not) being said here: when a sinner participates in the Sacrament of Confession, and receives absolution from the priest, it is God who forgives—not the priest himself.
If you find this hard to believe, it will be helpful to read the Words of Absolution recited by the priest:
God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.Prayer of Absolution (italics added for emphasis)
It is Jesus who has granted this ministry to the Church. Our sins are forgiven in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are not forgiven in the name of Fr. Joe.
The priest stands in for the person of Christ—that is, in persona Christi.
When we confess, we confess first and foremost to God whom we have offended. Then the priest—acting on the authority given to him by Christ through the Apostles—forgives us in the name of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity.
Christ told His Church that “the sins She forgave would be forgiven.”
We Catholics take Him at His word.
The Sacrament of Confession is a Ministry
When the Apostles went out and proclaimed the Gospel to the world, they did so primarily through teaching and through the forgiveness of sins.
The Apostles saw themselves as having received a ministry of forgiveness from Christ; Christ forgiving sinners through the Apostles and the Church.
As St. Paul explains:
And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.2 Corinthians 5:18-20
The Apostles and their successors—the bishops and priests of the Catholic Church—are the “ambassadors for Christ,” and if we are to be reconciled to God, we must go through them.
Yes. God truly acts in mysterious ways.
We have to take reality as it comes to us: there is no good jabbering about what it ought to be like or what we should have expected it to be like.C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Confession Is As Old As Christianity
Many of our separated Protestant brethren object to the teaching that the Early Church believed in Confession as described.
Many of them insist that Confession was invented in the Medieval ages by a then-corrupt and controlling Church and her hierarchy.
However, confessing one’s sins to a priest has been the common practice among Christians since the time of Christ.
The New Testament tells us of the practice:
The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.James 5:15-16
…the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.1 John 1:8-9
Sacred Scripture is clear: confession of sins to the Church is a necessary part of receiving Christ’s forgiveness. This sacrament has been a constant and unbroken thread throughout the Church’s history.
The next likely objection will be this: “James and John were NOT talking about confessing to a priest! They were talking about the honest confession of sin to each other! See? It says ‘to one another’!”
But remember: Jesus gave the authority to “forgive or retain” sin to twelve specific men, not to the crowds whom He taught, nor even to the rest of the seventy-two disciples, nor to His own Mother. He breathed the Holy Spirit upon these Twelve as He extended this authority.
In addition to the pages of Scripture, a simple look at history refutes any critic’s claim that the Catholic Church “invented” confession during the Middle Ages or at the time of the Council of Trent.
Renowned apologist Karl Keating offers one of the best refutations of these claims:
…Catholics do not tell their sins to a priest “instead of to God”, but to God through a priest, appointed by our Lord as an alter Christus, or “other Christ”, an official stand-in for Christ.
Origen, writing around 244, referred to the sinner who “does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord.” Cyprian of Carthage, writing seven years later, said, “Finally, of how much greater faith and more salutary fear are they who…confess to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience.” In the fourth century Aphraates gave this advice to priests: “If anyone uncovers his wound before you, give him the remedy of repentance. And he that is ashamed to make known his weakness, encourage him so that he will not hide it from you. And when he has revealed it to you, do not make it public.”
These men, writing as much as a thousand years before the Lateran Council of 1215, were referring to a practice that was already old and well-established, a practice stemming from apostolic times.Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism
Why the Confessional Box?
“Okay, so let’s say Christians back in the early Church did confess their sins in some way. How do we know that they were actually expected to confess to an individual apostle or priest by some kind of one-on-one encounter? And what’s up with going into a creepy box and talking through a screen? I don’t see that described in the Bible.”
The Gospels aren’t like a modern appliance manual.
They don’t contain highly-detailed instructions on how to conduct the liturgy of this newly-founded Church or how to carry out a certain command in practice.
And Jesus is not a micro-manager. (Things might have been easier for us if He were.)
He gave His disciples the authority to forgive sins and sent them out. He didn’t give them a manual (that anyone knows of!) on what the “forgiveness or retention of sins” would look like in practice.
Jesus didn’t say, “Now I want you to build an 8 x 4 wooden box, install a screen, and make it soundproof. The soundproof feature is super important. Next, here’s the formula for what the penitent says and how you respond—Peter, you’re getting distracted again—now, as I was saying: once they’ve recited the formula…”
First, we have to consider the practical need of carrying out Jesus’ commission to forgive and retain sin: how could the Apostles possibly discern whether to forgive or retain a sin unless they were told what this sin was?
And how could they forgive anyone’s sins, unless that person actually repented in their presence?
Let’s consider confessionals.
The building of confessionals developed over time, with the intention being to ensure the dignity of the individual and protect their confession of sin from listening ears.
Having a specific place (or stall) in which to provide the Sacrament of Confession makes confession public in one important way and private in another: public because it is an “official” place in which others can see at a glance what is going on (and thus prevent scandal, as might arise when a woman is seen dialoguing privately with a priest) and private because it prevents others from listening to the sins of a fellow Christian.
It also gives anonymity to the sinner, whom the Church protects; hence the Seal of Confession, which was established to protect the sinner, not the priest.
Let the priest choose for himself a common place for hearing confessions, where he may be seen generally by all in the church; and do not let him hear any one, and especially any woman, in a private place, except in great necessity.Archbishop Walter Reynolds, in 1322 A.D.
Granted, many recently-built churches have abandoned the traditional confessional in favor of a room. This room usually allows for both face-to-face confessions or confession through a portable screen.
But I can honestly say: as a penitent, I have always preferred the good old wooden confessionals—with their privacy and dignity—rather than face-to-face. I’m pretty sure most of us do.
“God of Mercies”
In the beautiful Prayer of Absolution, we hear God the Father spoken of as “the God of Mercies.”
This is abundantly clear in the Sacraments and in the Sacrament of Confession, in particular.
Here’s one particular reason why.
Sometimes we Christians veer dangerously close to Gnosticism, focusing on the soul alone, to the detriment of a proper understanding of the body.
As human beings, we are a composite of body and soul. Ours is an incarnational religion. God Himself became Man and took on human flesh.
Our Lord knows, with perfect tenderness, the reality and frailty of our physical nature. In a sense, the purely spiritual is not “enough” for us; because we ourselves are not purely spiritual.
This is not a bad thing. God is the Creator of all things physical. As C.S. Lewis wrote,
There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature… [God] likes matter. He invented it.C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
The sacraments involve physical objects or physical postures, forms, actions.
In this way, God stoops down to us in our physical nature, enabling us to “see” through outward signs what is in fact happening in an interior and hidden manner.
What’s the point of mentioning this in relation to Confession? How does it make God’s mercy abundantly clear?
Think of it: many Christians suffer from the memories of past sins. We sometimes wonder if we really are forgiven. We may “know” we are, but we struggle with feelings of guilt.
These feelings can be amplified for a Protestant who, having “approached God directly through prayer” and asking God for forgiveness and believing in it for a time or when life was going well, may struggle with recurrent doubts as to whether he’s really been forgiven.
When Catholics ask God for forgiveness, they aren’t left with a purely subjective experience. We don’t depend on a mere personal conviction (or lack thereof) that we are forgiven.
Instead, we are reassured by something external and objective to us, through the clear rite of a sacrament. The priest tells us, in the Name of Christ, that we are forgiven. He prays over us, in the authority of Christ. We hear the words. We receive our penance and carry it out.
We aren’t left wondering if we really are forgiven. If we doubt it, we need simply recall the confessional, and the reality of the Sacrament of Confession.
And we can rest assured that we are free.
Truly He is a God of mercy.
As a father pities his children,Psalm 103:13-14
so the Lord pities those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
Let’s summarize: Catholics confess their sins to a priest because that is the method of forgiveness that God established.
The Almighty alone has the power to forgive sins, and the Son of God granted that authority to His Apostles.
Yes, Protestants ask Catholics: “Why do you confess to a mere man, instead of directly to God?”
But they ought to go directly to God, and ask Him: “Why did you give such authority to mere men?”
In our human weakness, we do not always understand or even agree with the way in which God has chosen to go about this ministry. But as with any of God’s decisions and laws, it is not up to us to decide.
The New Testament testifies to this authority and the ministry of this sacrament, both in the Gospels and in the Epistles.
The Church—which crafted and confirmed those same Scriptures—recognized the Sacrament from her earliest days, and has done so unceasingly.
There is one thing left to do: be grateful for this sacrament, and rejoice at having received such a (strange) and astonishing gift.
Most Catholics learn about confession when they’re little children. But they don’t learn much afterwards.
That’s why so many of them have adult questions that have never been answered.
Understanding Confession is a course for individuals that answers your most common questions and confusions regarding confession! This mini series will give you 1) tips on how to overcome fear and shame, 2) the three things you need for a good (and valid!) confession, 3) clarity on what actually constitutes mortal sin, 4) who the seal of confession really benefits …and much more! Click here to sign up.