One of the harsh realities facing the Catholic Church is the fact that many of her members no longer receive the sacrament of Confession on a regular basis. For one reason or another, many Catholics don’t feel the need to go to Confession. Let’s look at some of the common objections and discuss why the sacrament of Confession is still as relevant today as it was when Jesus instituted it 2000 years ago.
“I confess my sins directly to Christ. Why do I need to go through a ‘middle man’?” This may come as a surprise to some, but the Church teaches that when you go to Confession, you are speaking directly to Jesus. Why the need for a priest? For one thing, that’s how the Lord designed the sacrament. In John 20:21-23, Jesus breathed on the Apostles and said “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Careful observation of Jesus’ words will show that while He is giving the Apostles the ability to forgive sins, they are also receiving the authority to make a judgment. There are certain cases where absolution may be denied and that decision would be impossible without knowing the details of the offense. Therefore, verbal confession of sins is necessary. Another very logical argument for confessing your sins to another individual is that we tend to be very lenient with ourselves. Jesus was well aware of our human nature when He instituted the sacrament of Confession. Verbalizing your sins to another individual requires a much greater level of humility than confessing them in your own mind. Throughout the gospels, Our Lord stressed the importance of humility for His followers and this is one more way to practice that virtue.
“Jesus only gave that authority to His Apostles. It doesn’t apply to priests!” The Church teaches that the authority granted by Jesus to the original Apostles is passed down to their successors, the bishops. This is known as Apostolic Succession. Due to the large number of Catholics in the world today, it would be impossible for the bishops to carry out their ministry effectively without help. For that reason, they are assisted in their mission by priests. In order to effectively assist the bishops, the authority to forgive or retain sins is also extended to priests.
“The Church teaches that it’s acceptable to’ follow your conscience’ and I don’t feel that (artificial birth control, missing Mass, premarital sex, in-vitro fertilization, etc.) is a sin.” Using this logic can justify any action and seemingly eliminate the need for the sacrament of Confession. While the Church does teach that we should follow our conscience, she also instructs that we must continually inform that conscience by studying Church teaching. The human conscience can be defective, as evidenced by individuals such as Adolph Hitler and Saddam Hussein, who believed that their evil actions were morally justified.
“I thought that the Church did away with mortal sin. Didn’t Vatican II state that nobody goes to Hell anymore?” Sadly, this is a very popular belief, even among Catholics. Just for the record, the Church teaching on mortal (or grave) sin has not changed. There are some sins that render us incapable of eternal life and their intentional commission warrants the punishment of Hell. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.” (CCC 1033)
While the above quotation may frighten some, the good news is that all of our sins (mortal and venial) can be forgiven in the sacrament of Confession. We need only express sorrow for our sins and vow to refrain from committing them again. If we fail, there is no limit to the number of times we can seek forgiveness in the sacrament. God knows that human nature is weak and only asks that we try our best to avoid sin.
“You only have to go to Confession if you’ve committed a mortal sin.” While this is technically a true statement, there is much grace to be obtained even when only venial sins are committed:
Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. (CCC 1458)
For many years, I neglected this great sacrament. I would go two or three times a year, mainly out of habit. I confessed the same sins each time, carefully avoiding any that were too controversial. My spiritual life was stuck in a rut and I wasn’t making any substantial progress in avoiding sin. One day I heard something that changed my life: I learned that the pope went to Confession weekly! Realizing that I didn’t understand the power of the sacrament, I decided that I would start confessing my sins bi-weekly. The results were incredible…For the first time in my life, I started making progress in avoiding my “favorite” sins. The sacramental grace received in Confession was helping me to become a better person!
If it’s been a while since you’ve gone to Confession, I urge you to do as soon as possible. If you’re not sure what to say, simply ask the priest and he will guide you. If you’re concerned that the priest will reveal your sins to others, rest assured that he will not. He is forbidden (under threat of automatic excommunication) from revealing or making any use of any information heard in the confessional. If you’ve been carrying around guilt for a long time and wondering if God can ever forgive you…Hearing these words of absolution will assure you that God has indeed forgiven your sins!
God, the Father of mercies,
through the death and the resurrection of his Son
has reconciled the world to himself
and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
through the ministry of the Church
may God give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins
in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.