Christ’s Church, like himself, is both divine and human. It is divine in its constitution and doctrine, human in its members. The Church is infallible, but its members are not impeccable. Everyone, from the pope down to the lowliest of the faithful, may fall into sin. Christ, knowing the frailty of human nature, instituted the sacrament of penance to restore to his friendship those who might lose it by sin. Christ said: "They that are well have no need of a physician, but they that are sick" (Mark 2:17).
In the confessional Christ is the physician of the soul. When absolution is given by the priest it is confirmed by God. The priest is the delegate of God—the wire, as it were, between the penitent and God. Confession is a wonderful comfort to the sinner. Many persons go from bad to worse because they have started on the wrong path. Confession gives a new start and a new heart. Confession, however, is not only for those who are in serious sin but for everyone who tries to advance to holiness. Confession is a preventive as well as a remission of sin. It is not only a preventive but also a means of sanctification, since it confers a special sanctifying grace. Some very holy persons go to confession daily, for, as was said previously, confession, although necessary for mortal sin only, is advisable for all those who aim at a holier life.
It is safe to say that no one who perseveres in frequent confession is in danger of losing his soul. It is advisable to have a regular confessor who will give wise advice and direction in the affairs of conscience and life. Confession duly practiced is one of the best helps for right living and eternal welfare.
Unless confession was divinely instituted it never could have obtained acceptance among mankind. No human power or authority could establish such a practice. Christ first demonstrated that he was God and that he had power to forgive sins, and then he delegated this power to the ministers of his Church.
By Word Only
On a certain occasion, when Christ was surrounded by a multitude, including some of the leaders of the Jews, he was interrupted in his discourse by the arrival of a cripple, carried on a bed, and placed directly before him. The assemblage was immediately on edge, expecting to witness a miraculous cure. Now, Christ knew that in the crowd before him there were scribes and Pharisees intent on finding something in his speech or action to criticize or condemn. The Jewish authorities were opposed to Christ because he would not be their king and free them from the Roman yoke and make them a dominant power on earth. When he declared his kingdom was not of this world, they rejected him. But despite their rejection the people believed in him and followed him in great multitudes. The leaders realized that, unless they destroyed him, they would lose their power over the people. Accordingly, they sought on every occasion to find some accusation against him either before the Roman or the Jewish tribunal.
On this occasion Christ decided to manifest in a most unmistakable manner that he was truly God and King of kings, even if his kingdom was not of this world. Among the Jews it was a matter of unquestionable belief that God alone could forgive sins. They did not believe that even Moses, whom they so greatly revered, had this power. As the cripple lay before him silently pleading to be cured, Jesus, to the astonishment of the multitude and of the cripple, instead of healing him said: "Thy sins are forgiven thee." Immediately the scribes and Pharisees said in their hearts: "He b.asphemeth; only God can forgive sins."
Christ, who read their thoughts as we read a book, turning toward them said: "Why do you think evil in your hearts? Whether is easier, to say, Thy sins are forgiven thee, or to say, Arise and walk? But that you may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sin (then said he to the man sick of the palsy), Arise, take up thy bed and go into thy house. And he arose and went into his house" (Matt. 9:4–7).
On this occasion Jesus presented evidence that he had the power to forgive sin. Anyone could say to another, "Thy sins are forgiven thee," but only God could directly say to a cripple, "Arise and walk." The visible healing of the man’s body, by a word only, was evidence of the invisible healing of the soul by a word only. Christ, therefore, had the power of forgiving sin. This power he delegated to the ministers of his religion, saying to them: "As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. . . . Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them" (John 20:21–23). By these words Christ delegated to his representatives the exercise of his own power of forgiving sins.
The Power of Attorney
It will help us to understand this power of delegated authority if we consider that something similar occurs daily in modern affairs. There is in law what is known as the "power of attorney." If a man of great wealth becomes ill or goes abroad, he designates a person to represent him financially. This person so delegated might not have any money of his own. If he went to a bank and in his own name presented a demand for a thousand dollars, he would be ejected or arrested. But if he has the power of attorney, he could present a demand for a million dollars and it would be honored. This great power is conferred merely by a word or a line, legally attested.
Christ gave the power of attorney to his Church with regard to the forgiveness of sins, saying: "Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them." We know, accordingly, on divine authority, that when the priest in the confessional pronounces forgiveness it is ratified in heaven. On leaving the confessional the penitent has the same certainty of forgiveness as if Christ himself in person said to him: "Thy sins are forgiven thee."
It is sometimes objected to confession that there is no need of going to confession to a priest, since one may go directly to God for forgiveness. To this it is answered that God has already replied to that objection by the very fact that he instituted the sacrament of penance. Christ would not have established confession if it were not his will to dispense pardon in that way. If a monarch decrees that his subjects should transact affairs with him through designated officials, that would be the ordinary way of conducting such affairs.
Confession is the ordinary way that God has decreed for obtaining pardon for transgressions against him. We say "the ordinary way" because under extraordinary circumstances the sinner may go directly to God for pardon. In cases of fire, shipwreck, or sudden accident, when confession is not possible, a person by making an act of perfect contrition for his sins will be forgiven directly by God, but if he survives the danger, he must afterwards go to confession, because the act of contrition made in time of danger implied doing God’s will when possible, and once the danger is over, confession is possible. A person who falls into serious sin should make an act of perfect contrition at once, as this, with the intention of confessing later, remits the sin.
Reasons for Confession
The main reason for confession is that it is God’s ordinance. There are, however, several reasons besides God’s ordinance for this manner of regaining his friendship after it has been lost by sin. Confession causes a man to take inventory of his soul’s state. Businessmen, no matter how careful and systematic, take inventory of stock at stated times in order to see just how they stand. By confession the penitent examines the state of his soul in order to see how he stands with God. This examination of conscience may disclose a spiritual condition that warns him that unless he change his ways he may find himself on the broad road that ends in destruction.
A person may gradually get accustomed to a sinful manner of living without realizing that he is in the grip of a dangerous enemy of salvation. Preparation for confession affords the sinner a spiritual mirror in which he may see his soul in all its deformity, and this sight should arouse him to a determination to mend his ways before it is too late. Scripture warns us that many fall away from virtue because they do not reflect on their evil course. Confession causes a man to reflect seriously on the state of his soul, and this alone would be a reason for the institution of this sacrament.
Another reason for confession is that it affords the penitent a means of repairing the offense to God that sin has caused. Every mortal sin is, in effect, an act of pride. When a person commits a sin he violates one of God’s ordinances. God, as it were, stands before the sinner and says: "You shall not do this evil; if you do you shall not enter into eternal life." The sinner defies God and says by action: "Not thy will but mine be done." The sinner thus opposes his will to that of God, challenges his Maker, and in pride does as he pleases regardless of divine authority.
Confession affords a means of atoning for this arrogance and pride. By kneeling down before a fellow man and disclosing the hidden sins of his soul to him, the penitent performs an act of humility, which is in direct contrast to the pride manifested in his defiance of God’s ordinance. It requires no little humility at times to reveal to the confessor the vile state of one’s soul. But this very humility is partial atonement for the arrogance of sin and also acts as a preventive against sin thereafter.
A third reason for the institution of confession is that it affords a practical means of exercising the virtue of faith. Every time the penitent goes to confession he declares by act, if not by word, that Christ is God. The penitent in going to confession does so because he believes that he who instituted this sacrament is what he declared himself to be, the Son of God. He believes on the word of Christ that when absolution is pronounced it is ratified in heaven. Confession, accordingly, keeps alive active faith, and with faith active a person is fortified against the evils and sinful allurements of the world.
It is thus seen that confession, although a divine institution, is not a merely arbitrary ordinance but a sacrament admirably adapted to the needs and welfare of mankind. Many people outside the Catholic Church ardently long for the guidance and comfort that the sacrament of penance gives. Catholics too often fail to appreciate the marvelous benefits of their religion. Persons outside the Church may go through life without a thought of doing penance for their sins. Yet every sin must be atoned for either here or hereafter.
The Catholic is assigned a penance when he receives absolution. Besides this sacramental penance there are various seasons and practices of penance in the Church. For it should be understood that the penance given in confession may or may not satisfy for the sins confessed. In the early ages of the Church the penances given were very severe, sometimes lasting for weeks, months, or years. The purpose was to offer satisfaction in this life for the chastisement still due to sin after the guilt was remitted.
Crime and Punishment
The consequences of sin are twofold, eternal and temporal. By sin a person incurs the guilt of offending God and loses God’s friendship and his right to the inheritance of eternal happiness. Absolution remits this guilt and loss. The second consequence of sin is chastisement, either here or hereafter, for violating God’s ordinances. This chastisement must be satisfied by penance here or atonement in purgatory. The penance that the priest gives in confession is imposed in the hope that with the proper disposition of the penitent it will satisfy for the temporal chastisement due for the sins confessed. The penance imposed may not, however, adequately satisfy for the chastisement due the sins; hence it is customary for penitents to voluntarily do various works of satisfaction for their sins, although absolved. The Church by its seasons and practices of penance reminds the faithful of the need of doing penance outside that imposed in the confessional.
Indulgences are one of the means of satisfying for sins. An indulgence means a milder form of satisfying for sin. The Church acts toward the faithful as an indulgent mother to her children. By the power granted it by its divine Founder it applies the merits of Christ and the saints to the penitent who is properly disposed and changes the severe penances that were formerly imposed to a mild one by which piety is fostered and faith exercised. That is the reason it is called an indulgence.
Formerly penances were given for forty days or seven years or for life. When an indulgence is granted now, it means that by fulfilling the conditions prescribed, satisfaction is offered for sin equivalent to that which in the early ages was satisfied for by those severe penances. That is the reason that Catholics eagerly avail themselves of this treasure house of satisfaction for the chastisement due to their sins.
Frequent confession not only fosters piety but also enables one to acquire an abundance of merit from the sacramental grace that flows from this holy institution. This is why saints as well as sinners have recourse to confession—the saints in order to advance in holiness, the sinners in order to retrieve the past and to enter upon the sure road that leads to everlasting happiness. No merely human institution could devise and perpetuate the practice of confession. It is visible proof that Catholicism is indeed the religion of Christ, the eternal Son of the living God.