Do we need the Sacrament of Confession, or can we pray straight to God?
Christ never engaged in unnecessary acts. He instituted the sacrament of penance or reconciliation, or what we commonly call confession (the terms emphasize different aspects, but refer to the same sacrament).
He instituted confession as the ordinary or normative way of having one’s sins forgiven. This means that it is the standard way.
Yes, sins are forgiven when one sincerely repents and prays earnestly to God. In fact, before you even enter the confessional, you must say a sincere act of contrition, so the very sacrament acknowledges the need for a direct request to God that he forgives your sins.
But confession to a priest makes a lot of sense: first, because of our limitations; second, because of the nature of sin.
We all fool ourselves at times.
We talk ourselves into and out of doing things. We adroitly avoid unpleasantness, and little is more unpleasant than acknowledging our sinfulness and the particular sins we’ve committed. When we confess to God privately, we run the risk of only feigning sorrow.
We might even fool ourselves into thinking we’re really sorry when we’re not. No sin can be forgiven unless we’re truly sorry for it.
Here’s where a priest, trained in hearing confessions, can help us see past our pride or our remaining attachment to a particular sin. He can help us ascertain when we’re sorry and when we’re not.
Often he can tell far better than we can. He can give us solid personal advice too.
After all, Jesus knew what he was doing. He gave the apostles and – through apostolic succession – the bishops and the bishops’ helpers, the priests, the power to forgive sins:
“Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:22-23).
He didn’t give them this power – his own power – for no reason at all. He wanted them to use it. Note that priests are able to forgive or not forgive (retain) sins.
How do they know which to forgive and which not to forgive? Only by being told the sins by the penitent. Then, after questioning if necessary, the priest can evaluate the penitent’s sorrow.
Sometimes people today talk about “victimless crimes.” In fact there is no such thing.
There is always at least one victim, the criminal, and often there are others, known or unknown.
- The drug pusher, for instance, may have thousands of victims, but may meet only a handful.
- The adulterer victimizes all the members of the families undermined by the serious sin of adultery.
- The pornographer victimizes all the readers of a particular magazine, even if they don’t realize they’re being victimized, even if they revel in it.
Just as there are no victimless crimes, there are no sins which affect only the sinner.
Jesus likened our relationship with him to a vine; he is the vine and we are the branches (Jn 15:5). Every branch is related to every other branch through the vine. What happens to one branch influences every other branch. If one branch becomes ill, neighboring branches become ill.
Even branches far away are affected. Spiritual illness comes when we sin. It is impossible to sin and not influence others in society. We may not be aware of the influence, but it is there.
Since every sin is social and its effects – it affects every other Christian, even every other person – Christ established a social means for forgiveness.
In confession we relate our sins and our sorrow to another human being, who represents both our Lord and the whole community of the faithful.