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Why should I confess my sins to a priest?” the young woman at the microphone demanded of me. “As a Christian, I confess my sins directly to God.” Her question, raised at one of my recent parish apologetics seminars, is common among many Protestants.
While there is no explicit statement in Scripture that says, “Confess your sins to a priest,” there is a wealth of implicit evidence that leads to this conclusion.
Remember, it’s not an “either-or” proposition: either one confesses his sins directly to God or he confesses them to a priest. Rather, it’s a “both-and” situation. No Catholic can make a good sacramental confession without first confessing directly to God. Only then can one properly receive the Sacrament of Confession, where he receives sacramental absolution of his sins from the priest, who ministers in persona Christi (Latin: in the person of Christ [cf. Lk 10:16; 2 Cor 5:18-20]).
Ultimately, God alone can forgive sins (cf. Mk 2:7). Christ, who is God, possesses this authority (cf. Mt 9:5-8; Mk 2:8-11), which he conferred in a subordinate way upon his Apostles when he said in John 20: 22-23, “‘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.’” The special authority was not merely to declare sins to be forgiven, but to actually forgive them, in the name of Christ.
2 Corinthians 5:18-20 says, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
Notice that St. Paul says this ministry was entrusted to “us,” and that “we” are ministers of reconciliation, and that God is appealing through “us.” Then he switches to “you,” saying “we beseech you to be reconciled to God.” This indicates that St. Paul was speaking about two distinct groups here: those who are ministers of reconciliation, and those who are reconciled to God through their ministry.
This priestly ministry of forgiving sins is linked to Christ’s promise, “Whoever listens to you, listens to me, and whoever rejects you, rejects me” (Lk 10:16; cf. Mt 10:40); and “Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18).
James 5:14-16 says, “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
This passage links the forgiveness of sins with the prayers and ministry of the priests [i.e., presbyters, elders] and with the act of confessing one’s sins. And while the phrase “confess your sins to one another” could reasonably be understood to refer to Christians in general, the emphasis on the ministry of the priests here is an implicit indication of their unique role in forgiving sins.
Mark 1:40-44 tells about a leper who approached Christ and asked to be healed of his hideous illness. “He begged him saying, ‘If you wish, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And he sternly charged him, and sent him away at once, and said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to the people.’” (Cf. Mt 8:1-4; Lk 5:12-14). There’s a parallel between confession to a priest and what happened to this leper.
Sin, especially mortal sin, is like leprosy: a contagious and horribly disfiguring disease which causes one’s flesh to literally rot away. The leper is like the sinner. He asks Christ for healing, as Catholics do by repenting and turning from sin. Christ heals the leper, just as he forgives the repentant sinner. But Christ didn’t simply heal the leper and send him on his way. He instructed him to go into the city and present himself to the priest so that the priest could carefully examine him and verify that he had been cured. Upon making that determination, he would formally declare the man to be healed and permit him to reenter society, just as in the Sacrament of Confession, the priest absolves the penitent. The cured leper then performed a sacrifice of ritual expiation (cf. Lev 14), which corresponds to the penance imposed on the penitent in confession. This passage can help us see why Christ instated the great sacrament of confession.
As 1 John 1:8 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Additional passages to study:
Leviticus 5:5; Numbers 5:5-7; Job 31:33,40; Proverbs 28:13;
Psalm 38:18; Sirach 4:26; Matthew 3:6; Matthew 16:19; 18:18;
Mark 2:7; Acts 19:18; 1 John 1:9-10
Related Catechism Sections: CCC 1424-1497
Patrick Madrid is an author, public speaker, and the publisher of Envoy Magazine. Visit his website at www.surprisedbytruth.com