An Apologetic Look at Confession
Of all Catholic doctrines, few are more viscerally rejected by Protestants than that dealing with the sacrament of penance. Whether we are dealing with Fundamentalists or mainline denominations such as Lutherans or Methodists, the argument is effectively the same: Jesus Christ alone can forgive sins, and so it is blasphemous to assert that a mere man can somehow remit the offenses which we have committed against God. Furthermore, since Jesus Christ alone is the mediator between His Father and a fallen human race, it is superfluous to make known our sins to a priest. Rather, men are asked merely to avow their sins to Our Lord in a more or less purely interior and private fashion and to receive His forgiveness in like manner.
Without delving into the scriptural and theological proofs that the Protestant reaction to the Catholic doctrine of confession is unfounded and unreasonable, we shall simply observe that in this way men who profess to be Christians cut themselves off from one of the most profound and beautiful spiritual treasures which the King of heaven and earth has bequeathed to us. They fail to understand that the sacrament of penance manifests to us the goodness of the Sacred Heart of Our Lord Jesus Christ or that to use it well confers on the faithful soul immense spiritual advantages. To better grasp the nature of the spiritual benefits which the good God reserves for those who approach this sacrament worthily, it is helpful to remember that its minister is said to be at one and the same time a judge, a doctor, and a father. If we examine the flip side of the coin, we find that this sacrament causes in the penitent the dispositions proper to a defendant, son, and patient.
Why This Particular Method?
At first glance, there seems to be no special spiritual benefit in appearing as a defendant before the sacramental tribunal of Jesus Christ. What possible good can come from the very fact of accusing ourselves of iniquitous behavior before a representative of Our Lord? It appears to be nothing more than a necessary and painful means of obtaining forgiveness for our sins. Nevertheless, Our Lord chose this method precisely because it is especially well-suited to help us progress in the spiritual life. How? By directly addressing man’s pride, which is, according to the Holy Ghost, the “beginning of every sin” (Ecclus. 10:15).
On the one hand, this saying of the wise man means—according to St. Thomas Aquinas—that the goal of all sinful behavior is to attain a certain pre-eminence or excellence out of proportion to one’s station in life.1 That is to say, we seek an undue measure of good—whether honor, wealth, pleasure—for ourselves in order to set ourselves above others. On the other hand, it can also be understood to mean that human pride causes men to be blind to the real state of their soul. Since we love to think well of ourselves, we find it extremely painful to acknowledge our shortcomings. As a result, we are prone to avert—even unconsciously—our gaze from our faults so as to maintain the illusion of our greatness. The more we think well of ourselves, the more likely it is that we are oblivious indeed to very great evils within our soul.
The method of sacramental confession which Our Lord prescribed for us addresses both these aspects of pride. In the first place, it compels us to blame ourselves of gross faults to another man. We are forced to admit to another that we are ungrateful criminals who have abused the friendship of Almighty God. If we thus accuse ourselves with sufficient generosity and constancy, the good God will impart to us the precious virtue of compunction. Dom Marmion, the great spiritual author of the early 1900s, defined this virtue as the habitual sentiment of regret at having offended the divine majesty.2 In other words, we are constantly aware of our pettiness and meanness before both God and men, thus removing at a deep level our proclivity to seek our self-aggrandizement.
He further remarks that the absence of this disposition of soul causes many souls to struggle to make any true progress in the spiritual life. If a man does not have any real sense of the fact that he has offended Almighty God, that he has unjustly crucified his Lord and Master, he is not likely to experience the urgent necessity of conversion, of identifying and eradicating everything in his soul which is displeasing to God. Again, this sacrament of penance—well-used—obliges us to lay at the feet of a fellow man our sins (somehow, this makes it easier to see them as “real”) and so to acknowledge the unpleasant truths about our soul. Only by undoing this profound pride can we hope to begin to progress towards union with God.
This union with God and subsequent intimacy with the Holy Trinity is the goal of the spiritual life. In the beautiful prayer which He offers to His Father on the eve of His Passion, Our Lord asks that “they may all be one as you, Father, are in me and I in you; so may they be one in Us.”3 Our Lord wills that we partake of the unity which He shares with His Father. In other words, He desires that we become sons of His Father and brethren one of another. These realities admirably expressed are rooted in our soul as a result of the sacrament of penance.
In the first place, in the priest we find a reflection of our Father in heaven, as is manifested by the very title “Father” which we so lovingly bestow upon him. To the priest is given by God participation of the solicitous providence by which He governs His adopted sons. All worthy priests may make their own the ardent words of St. Paul, “My little children, over whom I labor until Christ be formed in you.”4 In fact, when we approach the confessional, we ought to be inspired by a supernatural confidence that we are treating in a certain manner with the very Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We must look beyond all merely human qualities of the man before us and see our Father in heaven acting through him.
The more we are penetrated with a belief in this reality, the more God will teach us through this sacrament our duties towards Him precisely as Father. This will entail principally a firm conviction of our obligation to follow in His footsteps, so to speak. Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us that “we must be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect.”5 Like any child, we should long to make Him proud of us. We read in St. Paul that God was not ashamed to be called the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.6 However, each mortal sin which we commit grieves God and causes Him—speaking humanly—to wish to avoid even being associated with us. By speaking to His representative on earth, we are moved to be ashamed for having let Him down through our own most grievous fault. In the confessional, we kneel before the one who holds the place of our Father, and we cannot hide from the fact that we have given Him cause to be ashamed of us, His children. At the same time, our knowledge of the parable of the prodigal son reminds us that this same Father is eager to forgive us our shortcomings and give us a new opportunity to please Him.
In the second place, speaking to our Father in the confessional is meant to remind us that we are brethren one of another. The priest who hears our confessions must also hear those of the whole parish. The difficulty and embarrassment which we inevitably experience in revealing our most shameful exploits serve to remind us not only of our own weakness but also that of our neighbors. Thus, the sacrament of penance helps cultivate in us a spirit of magnanimity and generosity when confronted with the offenses committed against us by our neighbor. At the least, we are led to recall our Lord’s admonition to St. Peter that we must be ever ready to forgive our neighbor, even seventy times seven times if necessary. As we say “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” we ought to consider the parable of the Unmerciful Servant7 (who owed ten thousand talents) and resolve to be more prompt to forgive the weaknesses of our neighbors—our brothers and sisters.
There is yet another disposition which is proper to penitents: that of a patient. While it is true that we are certainly guilty of the offenses which we have committed against God, it is important to recall that we have been deeply wounded by original sin. Thus, it is not infrequently the case that we violate the law of God not so much through malice as through weakness. Indeed, it is not uncommon that after a hard and bitter conflict we fall into sins which displease us immensely. These lapses are discouraging and if they occur frequently, they tend to provoke us to despair of any victory in our spiritual combat. St. Paul captures this feeling of impotence perfectly in the seventh chapter of his Epistle to the Romans: “For the good which I will, I do not: but the evil which I will not, that I do. But I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind and captivating me in the law of sin that is in my members. Unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Nevertheless, he by no means admits defeat; rather he turns to Our Lord Jesus Christ and His grace.
Indeed, Our Lord came into this world to save sinners, as the Apostle of the Gentiles assures us. St. John reveals to us that “God so loved the world as to send His only-begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”8 Jesus Christ delights in healing us from our infirmities, as He makes abundantly clear in so many of His parables.9 In the Introit of the Mass of the Sacred Heart, we hear the Psalmist’s words: “The thoughts of his heart are from generation to generation to free their souls from death and to feed them in peace.” In effect, it is in thus drawing us forth from the misery of our sins that He manifests most clearly the goodness of His Sacred Heart. Therefore, when we approach the confessional, where Our Lord exercises His prerogative to forgive us and to heal us, we come into intimate contact with the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The more we believe this ineffable reality and prepare our confessions accordingly, He shall slowly but surely remove from us all trace of sin and make our hearts like unto His.
As is all too clear, those Protestants who shun confession turn their backs on the principal method of coming into contact with the goodness of Our Lord. They may speak of a personal relationship with their Savior, but they refuse the eminently sensible means by which He has chosen to forgive us our sins. Furthermore, it is not blasphemous to go to a man entrusted by God with the power to remit sin. Blasphemy implies an immense pride inasmuch as a man puts himself on an equality—to say the least—with the God he mocks. However, we have seen that by orchestrating the forgiveness of our sins in this manner, God in fact produces in us a deep and abiding humility for the very reason that our sins are no longer hidden in our bosom from the sight of men. We ought to thank the good God for granting to us this powerful and holy sacrament which is—even if painful—the source of such manifold spiritual riches.
1 I-II, Q. 84, Art. 2.
2 Dom Marmion, Christ, Ideal of the Priest.
3 Jn. 17:21.
4 Gal. 4:19.
5 Mt. 5:48.
6 Heb. 11:16.
7 Mt. 18:21-25.
8 Jn. 3:16-17
9 Think of the parables of the lost sheep, the woman and the drachma, as well as of the prodigal son. (Lk. 15)