One aspect of the Catholic faith that can be very foreign to most Protestants is the sacrament of Reconciliation (or Confession or Penance), and that as Catholics we confess our sins to a priest and seek absolution of our sins through this Sacrament. In general, Protestants would view that we can go directly to God to confess our sins, and there is no need for a priest.
As with many things Catholic, this is not viewed as an “either/or,” but rather a “both/and.” Catholics can indeed confess our sins directly to God, and we’re encouraged to do so. One of the long standing traditions of the Church is to encourage a daily examination of conscience whereby at the end of the day we reflect on how we spent the gift of time given to us that day. St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:1-3 “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” As we reflect on our day the Holy Spirit will help us to identify the ways in which we have failed to lead a life worthy of our calling, bring us to repentance and the confession of our sins which are then forgiven unless we have committed a mortal sin. Catholics are required to confess mortal sins to a priest, for these sins have completely severed our relationship with Christ and his Church. We are also required to make a general confession at least once a year. But we are encouraged to make use of the sacrament of Reconciliation often, and in the next few posts I will look at the Scriptural basis for this discipline.
I will start by reminding us of the understanding that Catholics have about sanctification, and its role in our salvation. Sanctification is neither a by-product of salvation nor optional from the Catholic perspective. It is at the very heart of what it means to be saved. It is our transformation into the image of Christ. When we are baptized we become a member of the body of Christ. The catechism tells us that “Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.” (CCC405) This spiritual battle is always and forever dependent upon God’s grace to strengthen us. But it is necessary and not optional. And we see much in Sacred Scripture that supports this view.
In Matthew 5:48 Jesus tells us “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This is not a suggestion. Sanctification is not optional. In Romans 6:22 St. Paul writes “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life.” He writes in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 “But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” The book of Hebrews refers to those in heaven as “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23) and the book of Revelation tells us that nothing “unclean” shall enter heaven (Revelation 21:27). For a more complete review of the necessity of sanctification for our salvation you can read here.
But when I think of Scriptures that speak to our need for holiness and our being summoned to spiritual battle, my mind always turns to Hebrews 12:4-14. While not speaking directly to the sacrament of Reconciliation, it speaks to our struggle against sin, and God’s discipline of us in this struggle.
“In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons?— ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:4-14)
I think the passage within that which reminds me most of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11) Catholics who have been trained by the spiritual discipline of this sacrament can surely attest to the peaceful fruit of righteousness that is the result of frequent confession. At the same time, most of us would also admit that for the moment, it often seems painful rather than pleasant. It is often not easy to acknowledge the specifics of our own sinfulness even to ourselves. It is certainly more difficult to acknowledge to another the specifics of our own sins. But in our own personal “struggle against sin,” both the discipline we undergo as part of this spiritual practice as well as the grace we receive from the sacrament is the most sure way to destroy the hold that a particular sin has on us. It is truly a gift that Christ gave to us through the ministers of his Church to help us to grow in holiness – the holiness “without which no one will see the Lord.”
On a practical note, I have always thought the Sacrament of Reconciliation can be beneficial in two specific ways. Some of us have a difficult time recognizing our own sinfulness, or if we do recognize the areas in which we fail we can tend to compare to what we see in others and conclude that our sins aren’t so bad after all. This can be very deceptive indeed, for the only person we are to compare ourselves to in this regard is Christ. The examination of conscience prior to confession requires us to look at our own sinfulness a bit more honestly, without excuses. And the humility required to then confess those sins to another can be most beneficial in our struggle against sin.
But there are also people who struggle to know in their hearts that their sins can really be forgiven. They believe their own specific sins are so much worse than others, that God could never forgive them. For these people, speaking their sins to another helps to loosen the power those sins have in their life, and hearing the words of absolution from the priest affirms in their heart that their sins really have been forgiven.
In my next few posts I’ll be looking at the specific Scriptural basis for the spiritual discipline of the sacrament of Reconciliation.