What are sins?
Sins are offenses against God: impulses or thoughts or actions that are in conflict with how He wants us to behave. (As Catholics, we believe people have freewill to listen to God and act in accordance with him, or not.)
Sin takes us farther from God, and confession, or recognition and acceptance of our mistakes, allows us to reconcile with God.
The Role of Priests
So, why do Catholics go to priests to have their sins forgiven, instead of going directly to God?
Catholics go to priests to have their sins forgiven because Jesus gave the Apostles the power to forgive sins. In the sacrament of Confession, sins are forgiven by God working through the instrument of the priest.
As the Gospels show us, Jesus gave the Apostles the authority to forgive sins on the evening of His Resurrection, saying to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21). Then, breathing upon them, He declared, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23).
The term “sent”—“As the Father has sent me, even so I send you”—is an indication that the gift which the Lord bestowed was to be reserved for ordained ministers (see the Gospel of John 13:20; 17:18; Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 10:15; and the Gospel of Matthew 28:18-20). It should also be pointed out that He gave them not only the power to forgive sins, but to refuse to forgive sins as well. This is further indication the gift was for the clergy only since for a follower of Jesus to withhold forgiveness in the ordinary sense would constitute a sin in and of itself.1
The power to forgive sins is connected to the authority to “bind and loose”, given primarily to Saint Peter, the first pope, but also to the Apostles as a group; and to the power of the keys, given exclusively to Peter, though shared by the others in this respect through Peter’s authority (see Matthew 16:18-19; 18:18).2 The authority to bind and loose, to forbid and permit, gives the Apostles the power to exclude one from the community due to sin and to re-admit one through repentance.3
Saint James reveals the centrality of the clergy in the rite of forgiving sins, stating in his only Letter:
5:14 Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord;
15 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.
16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.
Some non-Catholic Christians may assert James’ instruction to “confess your sins to one another” (v. 16) is proof against the necessity to confess sins to a priest. This statement, however, merely reflects the fact that in the early Church confessions were routinely given before the assembly.4 These public confessions were presided over by the clergy, however, under whose authority sins were forgiven. James attests to this, instructing Christians to “call for the elders (or presbyters) of the church, and let them pray over him” (v. 14). The greater emphasis in James 5 is on spiritual rather than physical healing; the Apostle indicates the man’s sins will be expiated through the intercession of the elders (v. 15), which “has great power in its effects” (v. 16).
- A priest has the authority to refuse absolution to a penitent should he discern the penitent has confessed his sins without a firm purpose of amendment. ↩
- As Ludwig Ott observed, “The person who possesses the power of the keys has the full power of allowing a person to enter the Empire of God or to exclude him from it. But as it is precisely sin which hinders the entry into the Empire of God in its perfection (cf. Eph. 4, 4; 1 Cor. 6, 9 et seq.; Gal. 5, 19 et seq.), the power to forgive sins must also be included in the power of the keys” (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Tan Books, 1960, p. 418). ↩
- This is particularly evident from the context of Matthew 18:18, which is preceded by Jesus’ instructions on how the repentant sinner is to be reintegrated back into the fold and the unrepentant sinner dismissed (Ott, p. 418). ↩
- The Didache, which originates in apostolic times, says, “Confess your offenses in church …” (4:14). From Origen (d. ca. 254) we learn that the faithful often went to a private confessor first and, if he so advised, confessed their sins before the assembly so that “others may perhaps be able to be edified, while you yourself are the more easily healed” (Homilies on the Psalms 2:6).
On public Penance, Saint Caesar of Arles (d. 542) commented, “Certainly he that receives penance publicly could have done it privately. But I think he sees, considering the multitude of his sins, that he is not strong enough to cope with such great vices alone; and for that reason he desires to solicit the help of all the people” (Sermons 67:1). ↩