ASK FATHER: Why can’t I confess my sins to God and not the priest?

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

if god forgives sins why cant i confess my sins to god and ask god to
forgive me does that suffice for confession

This is one of the oldest and most common Protestant objections to the sacramental life of the Church which Christ instituted.

Let’s start with the easy part.  You CAN confess your sins to God.  You can and SHOULD.  However, you also want to know that you are forgiven and not have to wonder about it.  Christ surely knew of our need to be confident that we are forgiven.  In His mercy He gave us a sacrament so that we would be sure.  It is Christ’s will that we confess sins to the priest: that’s why He gave us a sacrament for this purpose.

Now let’s back up.

Christ, in His earthly lifetime, instituted seven sacraments. One of them is the sacrament by which our post-baptismal sins are forgiven.

Christ forgave sins during His earthly ministry. Since He was not going to be here with us after the Ascension, Christ delegated His own authority to forgive sins so this ministry would continue (e.g., Matthew 16:18-19, John 20:22-23).

In John 20 we read that Christ breathed on the Apostles, imparting the Holy Spirit in a certain way, and said, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Note well that Christ said, “whose sins YOU forgive”, and not merely, whose sins “I forgive through you”. In effect, that is what happens: Christ is the source of all forgiveness. However, as in all good things we do which God inspires in we are also true agents. The Apostles and their successors, bishops and priests, say at Mass, “this is MY body” and in the confessional, “I absolve”.

After that, it is the consistent understanding of the greatest and best writers and theologians of the Church, from the Apostolic Fathers such as Irenaeus onward with the Fathers of the Church, that sins are confessed to the priest who absolves them. Individual private confession was in practice at least by the 5th c. in Rome, since Pope Leo I writes about it. St Ambrose wrote that the right to forgive sins was given to priests alone. He died in 397.  This is not a medieval invention, as some anti-Catholics claim.

So, Christ’s power to bind and to loose sins is given to the ordained.

That means that the priest confessor has to know what to bind and what to loose. In turn that means that we have to tell the sins to the confessor. In turn that means that we have to tell those sins in number and kind with attendant circumstances so that a judgment can be made about them. And since it wouldn’t make sense to loose the sins of a person who isn’t sorry, there must be a demonstration of sorrow for the sins and some indication of purpose of amendment. Once the principles are set down, everything follows logically.

On another level, the sacraments were established by Christ upon basic needs: the need for nourishment, cleansing, companionship, and so forth. They use as outward signs common things: bread, wine, water, oil. It is a human need also to tell your troubles to another. And since all sacraments have both matter and form, the matter of the Sacrament of Penance is what is confessed.

Another important aspect of this sacrament truly demonstrates Christ’s love for us.

When we confess out sins to the priest and receive absolution, provided we do our best we never have to doubt that we are forgiven or wonder about it. We can walk away with true confidence that we have been forgiven. The whole “confess your sins without intermediary to God” approach is not bad in itself, and we should talk to God in this way.

But Christ Himself gave us this Sacrament so that we would have true peace of soul.

The long and short of it is: We confess our sins to the priest in the sacrament of Penance because that’s what Christ wants us to do. This is the ordinary means by which He Himself intended that we obtain forgiveness of our post-baptismal sins.

Finally, dear readers, I am sure you like to have well-crafted answers. Do send well crafted questions.

And, it bears repeating…

GO TO CONFESSION!

Please share this post!
Share

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, GO TO CONFESSION, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to ASK FATHER: Why can’t I confess my sins to God and not the priest?

  1. Thank you for this answer. Fr. Z. My youngest daughter was trying to explain to my oldest daughter why we need to confess to a priest and not just look up and tell God she is sorry. I have three daughters and only one is a devout Catholic, my baby daughter. She was asking about this the other day so she could explain it to her sister. We are both praying for the two daughters/sisters that have left the Church.

  2. LeeGilbert says:

    In his homily this morning Fr. Gabriel mentioned a discussion he had yesterday where his interlocutor was asserting that a priest only acts in persona Christi at the consecration of the bread and wine at the Mass. He said, no, there are three sacraments that confer a character that configures the soul more closely to Christ forever: Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders. Of course, on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, he was emphasizing that our Baptism confers a permanent character, but he did mention that in the confessional a priest also acts in persona Christi ( in the person of Christ). A fair restatement of this would be, I think, “When a priest confers the Sacraments, it is Christ who is acting.”

    But this raises the question for me, if at his ordination the priest receives a character conforming his soul to Christ as priest, what is the extent of this outside his administration of the sacraments? For example, in his prayer life, in his counselling, in his conversation, in his homilies?

    Specifically, are Catholics being naive in seeking advice from a priest as from a divine oracle, precisely because of his ordination, OR are they being naive in discounting his advice when it appears too difficult, or irrelevant? My guess is that this is a very fuzzy area, but there have been a couple of times when I have- as an experiment in grace, as it were- followed advice from a priest in the confessional that seemed really beside the point only to have that choice remarkably blessed by God and my problem solved. But perhaps I have answered my own question, for in the confessional the priest is acting <in persona Christi whereas a conversation in the rectory parlor is something else altogether. Or is it?

  3. Bob says:

    “When a man is guilty in any of these, he shall confess the sin he has committed, and he shall bring his guilt offering to the LORD for the sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin. (Leviticus 5:5-6)”

    As seen above the ancient Jews also confessed to the priest and the priest would sacrifice the animal in their stead. It was the priest who made atonement for sins. Oral confessions to a PRIEST was necessary and is nothing new.

    If we asked a Protestant if they would have gone to any of the Apostles to have their sins forgiven what would their answer be? They cannot deny that Christ bestowed his power to forgive or retain sin to his own Apostles and so would they have refused to confess to them as scripture commands them because they are not God? If they answer that only God can forgive sins then they are echoing what the scribes and Pharisees said about Christ when he forgave the sins of the paralytic. One would have to do some serious twisting of scripture not to come to the conclusion that priests CAN forgive in “the person of Christ”.

    With the sins I’ve committed in the past I would be in great doubt of my having been forgiven if I hadn’t heard the words, “I absolve you of ALL of your sins…” from the priest. If you are sorry and ashamed of your sins then you at least know that your conscience is working as it should and all you need now is to confess your sins to Christ through his priest.

  4. BrionyB says:

    As I see it (and please correct me if I’m wrong), sacramental confession has an additional function, as well as the forgiveness of sins, which is to reconcile us with the Church. So, if I have committed a mortal sin, I believe I am forgiven by God as soon as I repent and make an act of perfect contrition, and if I were to die in that moment (before having the chance to go to Confession) I hope I would not have condemned myself by my sin.

    However, I would not (and must not) receive Communion until I have been to Confession, because I have placed myself “out of communion” with the Church by my actions, and logically it is the Church that has the means and authority to resolve that situation and receive me back again.

    Also, there are many graces available to us through the Sacrament, which we would not receive otherwise (for example, we can obtain plenary indulgences for ourselves or for the souls of the departed); so even in the absence of mortal sin it is a very good thing to go to Confession regularly.

  5. tho says:

    My reason for coming to your blog was exemplified by the your clear and concise answer, where even a dope like myself comes away better informed. Thanks Father.
    When you get a chance in the future, will you please tackle pre destination, in the same way.

  6. robtbrown says:

    BrionyB says,

    As I see it (and please correct me if I’m wrong), sacramental confession has an additional function, as well as the forgiveness of sins, which is to reconcile us with the Church. So, if I have committed a mortal sin, I believe I am forgiven by God as soon as I repent and make an act of perfect contrition, and if I were to die in that moment (before having the chance to go to Confession) I hope I would not have condemned myself by my sin.

    If anyone is not in a state of grace (i.e., in mortal sin), it is impossible to make a perfect act of contrition. A perfect act of contrition is not just an act of really good concentration. A perfect act of contrition is an act of perfect Charity–whoever is in mortal sin lacks Charity

  7. If we’re going to accept God’s mercy, we have to do it on His terms, not ours. He requires us to go to confession when we commit a mortal sin. The Sacrament of Penance is thus also a frontal assault on pride. It makes us go against our own will by confessing our sins to a priest and thus risking humiliation and embarrassment. And if we have to suffer some embarrassment in order to be forgiven for a particular sin, would that make us more likely or less likely to repeat the sin in the future?

    robtbrown says: If anyone is not in a state of grace (i.e., in mortal sin), it is impossible to make a perfect act of contrition. A perfect act of contrition is not just an act of really good concentration. A perfect act of contrition is an act of perfect Charity–whoever is in mortal sin lacks Charity

    I don’t think this is accurate. If you’re in mortal sin you can make a perfect act of contrition, by God’s grace. But, absent an additional grace from God, you can’t be sure you have made an act of perfect contrition. Plus, you must still receive sacramental absolution.

  8. Rob83 says:

    A priest giving counsel on this topic once asked why I hadn’t come banging on his door in the middle of the night for absolution rather than waiting until a regularly scheduled time. It was rhetorical…I think. He was trying to make a point that it is presumption to not seek confession at the earliest possible opportunity when one knows they are not in a state of grace.

    This is where the lesson comes in that it is a sound idea to confess and repent of sins to God at once, coupled with the intention to go to confession at the earliest opportunity. God cannot be fooled, but an imperfect act of contrition in such a state may be the occasion of the grace to get to the sacrament.

  9. Charles E Flynn says:

    @Anita Moore, O.P.(lay)

    From page 19 of Adrienne von Speyr’s “Confession”:

    If I mention to a third party that I am discussing various aspects of my life with another, he will generally agree that it is a good idea: “You’re doing the right thing, and I’m glad you’ve found someone who can help you along.” In a way, this will elevate me in his eyes. But if I tell him that I go to confession and that it redeems me, this lessens my status in his eyes, for those who do not go to confession always have a great deal to say against it. It compromises human freedom and one’s legitimate pride; it is antiquated and even medieval because it involves so many external forms. Those who do not go to confession feel they are above it; in going to confession I place myself in a “lower class.” At the same time, however, everyone is familiar with human dialogue; people opt for or against it at will and make use of it only when and to the extent that it suits them. For one who confesses, however, any choice on the basis of “it suits me” has ceased.

  10. robtbrown says:

    Anita OP says

    If you’re in mortal sin you can make a perfect act of contrition, by God’s grace. But, absent an additional grace from God, you can’t be sure you have made an act of perfect contrition. Plus, you must still receive sacramental absolution.

    Of course, it’s a matter of God’s grace: Sanctifying grace, gratia gratum faciens, which, if lacking, means someone is not in a state of grace, i.e., mortal sin.

    In fact, St Thomas explains the meaning of “mortal” in mortal sin by saying it refers to the death of sanctifying grace by which someone is able to gain forgiveness for himself via prayers or mortification. Thus, the phrase “act of perfect contrition” smacks of Pelagianism, which is common among American Catholics.

    Nb: Sanctifying grace and mortal sin are not merely moral categories, they indicate ontological distinctions

  11. Sundown says:

    Great post again. Thankyou Fr Z.
    In 2019 I started taking my sons to confession every month, instead of once per year.
    We are used to it now, it is part of normal life. No more fear.
    The drip drip drip of reading Fr Zs posts made me realise we had to make this change.
    I am embarrassed it took so long to dawn on me.
    Onwards and upwards to twice per month + bring mom!

  12. Pingback: MONDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

  13. Imrahil says:

    Dear robtbrown,

    I think your problem with the – indeed unwisely so-called – act of perfect contrition (we had better say “act of contrition properly so-called” or “act of contrition as opposed to attrition” – is sufficiently answered by the Angelic Teacher in Summa theol. Supp. 5 I. I might add that of course the mere act of contrition requires actual grace.

    The Compendium of the World Catechism teaches the following as an Act of Contrition:

    O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen.

    Whoever can say and mean that, including the part I rendered in bold (which makes the distinction from attrition), has contrition.

    (There’s rather little in there about “heart of hearts” or “every fibre of being and character” or even perfection. It is rather a mistake to think that so-called perfect contrition would make a man a canonizable saint immediately.)

    — Whether one has this cannot be known for sure (with the surety of faith); but I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to say it might be guessed with some human confidence, as we know the state of grace can. Which is also why it’s not that much of an affair if a contrite sinner delays his Confession, even until next Easter – provided he refrain from Holy Communion which the Church has forbidden. Which is why the Church has Commanded by her legislative authority that the sinner confess his sins (“that is, his mortal sins”, as the theologians explain) every year.

    But of course the instinct of the contrite sinner is to Confess soon, especially given that at least since Pope St. Pius X., it has (laudably!) become a great incentive to be able to receive Holy Communion again.

  14. Imrahil says:

    “commanded” should be in lower case, sorry.

  15. Cafea Fruor says:

    I think the important question is, why wouldn’t someone want to go to confession? The opportunity to get your sins off your soul anonymously, hear the words of absolution (so much better than merely wondering if you’re really forgiven), and maybe get a little direction/advice for improvement all at the same time. And all that for free. It’s way cheaper than therapy.

    Really, hearing the priest give you absolution is priceless. Those words are one of the best things a person can ever hear.

  16. Lurker 59 says:

    @Cafea Fruor “why wouldn’t someone want to go to confession?”

    Many reasons, from having a bad experience(s) in Confession, to it not being preached on or easily available in many (most?) parishes, to the very real fact that being in mortal sin will repulse a soul from the sacraments.

    “It’s way cheaper than therapy.”

    Confession isn’t therapy, shouldn’t be used as such, and shouldn’t be approached as such. I say this for both priest and penitent, please just don’t. If a penitent needs psychological therapy, the money is well spent on a professional. Being absolved of one’s sin’s does not solve mental health problems and attempting such can make things worse. The miracle of Confession is that one’s sins are absolved not that one is curried of destructive non-normative cognitive processes, habits, vices, etc. For priests, you probably don’t have a background in psychotherapy, and if you did, in the Confessional you have no capability of developing a profile for the individual, or conducting a proper inquiry to form a basis of any sort of diagnosis, prognosis, or therapeutic plan for the individual who needs therapy. Additionally, giving psychotherapy to someone in therapy can be destructive to the program that they are currently receiving.

    Please, in the Confessional, keep any advice sought/given, if at all, to the sins confessed. Keep non-general personal spiritual advice in an appropriate encounter and psycho-therapy to a paid professional.

  17. Cafea Fruor says:

    @Lurker 59. Good grief. You’re interpreting my words way more literally than I intended them. I was not actually trying to say one should use confession as therapy. The two are hardly the same, and I’m intelligent enough to know that. What I was trying to get at, albeit perhaps unclearly, was that confessing one’s sins to a priest unburdens the soul similarly to how therapy heals the mind. Unconfessed sin is damaging not just to the soul, but also to the psyche, so the fact that confession is made in person to a priest is actually beneficial to the psyche and not just the soul, because we’re a composite of body and soul, and I’m sure the Lord intended that because He knows our souls and psychology because He created them. That there can be emotional relief from confessing one’s sins can’t be an accident.

  18. Imrahil says:

    He was trying to make a point that it is presumption to not seek confession at the earliest possible opportunity when one knows they are not in a state of grace.

    He was wrong; or rhetorical, and it would be wrong if what he said is presented as a statement. Even dangerous, if people with tendency towards scrupulosity chance to hear it. (A real thing; and in our age with its hesitancy to speak about sin an all the more pressing problem. Pendulums tend to swing in the other direction.)

    The obligatory thing is to Confess the sin at the next confession; at the latest, in one’s yearly Confession, customarily around Easter, and not to receive Holy Communion by then.

    The decent Catholic instinct does more than that, to be sure. What a normal Catholic does will, details set aside, look a bit like this: he sets an Act of Contrition immediately and arrives for Confession at next weekend’s regularly scheduled Confession time. (Assuming, of course, he lives in a decent parish with regular Confession-times.)

    And it’s not presumption to trust in our Lord’s mercy and the validity of one’s contrition in the meantime.

    [Here’s why I don’t like this comment. First, it may be the practice of a “normal” Catholic simply to wait until the next confession. However, we know neither the time or place of our death. It could be at any time. Also, the more one grows in the spiritual life, the more one begins to hate sin.
    Moving beyond “normal” and toward greater spiritual perfection need not result in scrupulosity, but rather desire for God so great that even small flaws become abhorrent.]

  19. robtbrown says:

    Imrahil,

    You’ve defined contrition psychologically (whoever can say and mean . . . ). As I noted before, according to St Thomas, contrition is informed by Charity (which only exists if someone is in the state of grace, i.e., without mortal sin). Attrition is without Charity.

    Thus, according to St Thomas, not only is perfect contrition (and its act) impossible without Charity, so also is contrition.

    As I’ve noted here before (more than once, I think), acc to St Thomas Christ the Priest is the principal cause of every celebration of every Sacrament, the minister is the instrumental cause. It obviously follows that mortal sins can be forgiven without the Sacrament, but as Fr Z said, the Sacraments give us certitude.

    It also obviously follows that it is possible that someone who is dying in mortal sin without any Sacramental opportunity can have sins forgiven. That forgiveness is not accomplished any act of penance. Any so called act of contrition (or more precisely, attrition) is an appeal for such forgiveness, not an efficient cause of it.

  20. Imrahil says:

    Reverend Father, with all due respect,

    yes, there may be Catholics with greater hate for sin who may not be content with waiting for the next Confession. (It has already happened with me.)

    But the point as I see it is, apparently there are priests, or there is one priest, who says it would be “presumptuous not to Confess at the earliest possible opportunity” and even went on to say explicitly that this includes calling at night (with the specific time of day perhaps rhethorics, but the clear implication that waiting even for next Saturday, or the day after tomorrow, were in actual fact presumptuous).

    With “presumptuous” or rather “presumption” having a precise Catholic definition and being a mortal sin, this is an error, and a dangerous one that could lead people into despair at that.

    (If, which is not impossible, the priest knew better, it is even something worse, which I personally happen to abhor more than a lot of things: an exhortative lie.
    And while my personal dislike is unimportant, the fact that even truthfulness set aside these things tend to be counterproductive is perhaps not so unimportant.)

    [I didn’t like your comment then, and I still don’t like it now.]

  21. robtbrown says:

    Imrahil,

    I forgot to add that actual grace is not used by St Thomas–it is a latter addition. IMHO, it’s a concept that at first seems obvious, but on further examination, raises some questions.

  22. robtbrown says:

    Imrahil says,

    And it’s not presumption to trust in our Lord’s mercy and the validity of one’s contrition in the meantime.

    Validity of contrition? Contrition is not a Sacrament. It provides the Sacramental matter for the Sacrament.

Comments are closed.