Catholic Answers Press has published a new single-volume edition of Radio Replies, the classic question-and-answer book by Australian apologist Fr. Leslie Rumble. This latest sample from the book concerns the sacrament of reconciliation.
Holy Week is almost upon us! Time to get to confession.
503. What is confession?
Confession is a sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ by which those who fall into sin after baptism may be restored to God’s grace. Confession is called the sacrament of penance because it supposes that the recipient is truly repentant of his sins. It involves the admission of one’s sins made to a duly approved priest in order to obtain absolution.
504. On what scriptural authority does the Catholic Church base its practice of confession?
On the promise of Christ, as recorded in Matthew 16, that he would give the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the power of binding and loosing to his apostles and the Church. And again, on the fulfillment of that promise, with specific reference to absolution from sin, as recorded in John 20:23. There we are told that, having breathed upon the apostles, Christ said to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” By those words he gave the power to the official representatives of the Church of forgiving or not forgiving sin as they judged fit; and promised to sanction and ratify their decision.
505. All men are equal. How can a priest set himself above others and presume to be their judge?
All men equally share a common humanity, but not all are equal in office and responsibility. Also no man could have the right to set himself above others in this matter. If Christ had not endowed his priests with power to forgive sin they could not possess it. But he endowed them with this power, and they forgive sin not in their own name but in the name of Christ. A criminal has to answer to the state for his crimes against civil law. How then can a fellow citizen act as judge and pass sentence upon him? In his official capacity he is delegated by the state and acts in the name of the state. Now Christ died to pay the price of our sins and he surely has the right to say how forgiveness shall be applied. We cannot deny the right of Christ to administer forgiveness through agents of his own choosing, nor can we insist that he must forgive us on our conditions whilst we ignore his conditions.
506. We Protestants believe that God alone can forgive sin.
And that is the Catholic teaching also. But the question concerns the way in which God has chosen to administer that forgiveness. We Catholics add that God can delegate his power if he wishes, just as the supreme authority in the state can delegate a judge to administer justice. Would you deny to God that power?
507. But can you prove that God did delegate that power to men?
Yes. Christ was God, and in John 20:21-23 we read these remarkable words, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” Now Christ’s mission was to destroy sin, and he gave that same mission to his apostles. Knowing that their merely human power as men was quite insufficient he gave them a special communication of the Holy Spirit for this special work. To say that Christ did not confer a true power to forgive sin is to rob the whole ceremony and the words of Christ of any real meaning. And it was obviously a power to be exercised, Christians applying to the apostles for forgiveness.