Among the items that sincere Evangelicals put before us as problems in discussing the Catholic faith, confession usually comes high on the list. It seems to occupy a place of concern somewhere after Mary, worshiping statues and saints, and “why do you oppose contraception for married couples?” It certainly seems to be of more general concern than deeper issues such as justification, sola fide, or even sola scriptura.
Confession has the allure of secrecy, of drama: the whispered conversation, the sealed lips of the confessor that never in history seem to have been pried open, the very notion of sins briefly revealed and as briefly and permanently forgiven. Perhaps because of this aura of muted drama, myths about it remain. I thought there were no ignoramuses left who still thought that Catholics paid to get their sins forgiven, but I have been assured that such notions still linger. It is 150 years since John Henry Newman wrote powerfully and amusingly on this subject in response to a series of daft articles that had been published in a ferociously Protestant journal in the vanished England of Victoria’s reign. The author of the articles had seen a list of sums of money pinned up in a foreign church and was confident in asserting that this was a list of sins with prices attached. In reality the sums referred to pew rents (to our modern eyes a fairly absurd custom, but certainly nothing to do with payment for absolution). Newman’s demolition of the castle of nonsense created by the Protestant journal was serenely thorough.
But what of the more genuine criticisms: that confession of sins to a priest is non-biblical, that it’s unnecessary, that it makes it easy to keep committing sins because the sinner has confidence that a five-minute chat with a priest can “wipe the slate clean again”?
The biblical argument is an important one. In fact, if it isn’t raised by our opponents, it ought to be raised by us. We need to refer to Christ’s words to his apostles (John 20:2l–22), “Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven,” and the significance of his having breathed upon them as he spoke. How can the apostles announce that some sins are to be forgiven and some “retained” if they do not know what people’s sins are? How would forgiveness work if no sins were mentioned? The problem for the sincere Bible-believing Evangelical is that there is no biblical mandate for his custom of the altar call, in which people are urged to come forward to a given place, nor is there warrant for the notion of a spontaneous testimony while sitting in a circle at a prayer group—yet these are the methods of announcing forgiveness often used by Evangelical churches.
The Catholic Church takes the biblical teaching that the apostle is one who is “sent out” by God and through whom God speaks (2 Cor. 5:20) with the message, “Be reconciled to God.” The words that are used by the Church in absolution are centered in Scripture, which speaks of Christ “reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:18). In the epistle of James we are told “confess your faults to one another” (Jas. 5:16), and in context this refers to confession to the clergy (who also have the authority to anoint sick people with oil in the name of the Lord). There are arguments, then, for saying that the sacrament of reconciliation as practiced in the Catholic Church is biblical. If we wanted to press the point, we could go further and note that the sinner’s prayer printed on cards distributed at Evangelical rallies is not biblical at all, at least in the sense that it is not to be found in Scripture in the words used and that all the biblical evidence points the Catholic way.
What, then, of the idea that confession is unnecessary? I have found it helpful, when talking to a non-Catholic about this, to ask what exactly he does when he wants to tell God he is sorry about something.
“I just tell him I’m sorry.”
“Yes, but how?”
“I . . . well, I just tell him.”
“How? I mean do you kneel down that night when you pray, or do you just say something quickly while you’re walking along, or what?”
The question may sound ridiculous, but, if we are talking seriously and as friends, it isn’t. If, for instance, I had never really prayed before, and I was asking a Christian friend to help me, I would need specific advice. Usually, Evangelicals are not reluctant to give it. They will give ideas to new converts about finding a quiet place to pray, about praying, about using a Bible, about the value of sharing prayer with a prayer partner. I’m not sneering at these things; I’m just stating that they exist, as do Evangelical prayer manuals and inspirational books. It’s not daft to suggest that a new Christian might want fairly detailed and specific advice about asking, and getting, God’s forgiveness.
I have found that sometimes the final answer to my question is, “Well, I would kneel down and say, in my heart, ‘Lord, I am truly sorry that I have done such-and-such,’ and then I would tell him that I will never do it again and ask him to forgive me.” This is satisfactory as far as it goes, but by this point in the conversation there is a recognition that the vague notion that “I’ll just have to say ‘Sorry’ to God” has had to be spelled out in greater detail. Questions have been raised that have not been answered. Does one, for example, name the sin? Does one try to make excuses? Is there a danger of getting morbid or dwelling too much on it? And how does one know that the forgiveness sought has been delivered and received?
The idea that confession to a priest is artificial, superficial, or ritualistic seems less plausible once we have begun to discuss the matter in this way. In fact, there is often a sort of admission that Catholics at least seem to be in earnest in trying to get things right. Indeed, this applies not just to confession but to the very notion of simply saying “Sorry” to God via an act of contrition. Non-Catholics can be mildly surprised, and impressed, by the thought that when a Catholic seeks forgiveness for sin, what he means is something specific, that he is prepared, in principle, to name the sin to God and to say a big “Sorry” for it. For Catholics, it can come as a shock to discover that some non-Catholics do not do this but rely on a vague feeling of remorse and a similarly generalized prayer. This is not to say they are not sincere, but just to note that the whole thing is somewhat less personal in the soul’s relationship with God.
It helps, of course, if at this point in the discussion the question is reversed and the non-Catholic is asking us, “Well, what happens when you go to confession then?” We need to explain that it’s essentially a conversation with God. I don’t think it’s useful to start by explaining the ritual. We have to establish the essence of the thing first. If some Martian were to ask us, “What do you do at a dinner party?” it would only muddle and confuse him if we were to launch into an explanation of details such as greetings and taking of coats and handing over of flowers or chocolates. The accurate answer would be, “We sit around a table and eat and talk with friends.” Pressed for exact details, we can then explain the rituals (handshakes, introductions, showing people to their seats).
So we should explain that the core of confession is admitting to God, and to his representative, the sins we have committed and seeking God’s forgiveness. We then receive an absolute assurance of this forgiveness in absolution. At this stage it is useful to show from a prayer book the short liturgy that is used. People have heard of it, with its “Bless me, Father” ritual (if only from all those confessional jokes), and it is not wholly unfamiliar. We need to show that confession is an act of worship in the life of the Church and that it has an order of service just like any other. Evangelicals will admit that their traditions have rituals too, often written down: the “hymn sandwich” service interspersed with testimonies, the form for weddings and funerals, and so on. These leave a certain amount of room for what is personal. Curiously, our ritual for confession is probably the nearest thing we have to the Evangelical form of worship that is part ritual, part spontaneous personal declaration.
So do Catholics “just go and tell a priest and then go and sin again?” Once we have explained what it means to confess something to God and to one of his representatives, it seems a bit less likely that we would feel comfortable about going off and happily committing the sin again. On the contrary, the almost invariable feeling immediately after confession, and usually for some while beyond, is a sense of certainly not wanting to offend God again. Only later, when we get slack and forgetful, do things begin to go wrong.
It will be objected that most conversations with non-Catholics do not follow a tidy path in this way. Of course they don’t. But there is an outline here that I do believe is better than the embarrassed “Well, it’s just a sort of tradition, I suppose,” or some similar comment when we are asked about why Catholics are meant to go to confession. It does have to be said that we should be prepared for the unexpected when talking about this subject. More than once I have had someone say, “I would love to go and confess something . . .” or even more explicitly, “Well, there are certainly things that I would like to confess . . .” I’m not the only Catholic who has had the experience of someone apparently about to blurt out something rather private in this way. (My reaction was a hurried “Well, don’t start on this now. Tell it to God and in the right way!”—said with genuine terror). The longing to confess, to make a clean breast of things, seems to be deep in all of us. The detective fiction author who uses the device of the “murderer’s confession” instead of making us work out the plot for ourselves is cheating but is able to get away with it because it does seem to strike a genuine chord. There have been real-life cases of people unable to endure their own silence following a crime and having to unburden themselves to the police, to a friend, or, bizarrely, to the newspapers.
None of this means that explaining confession is going to be easy. Perhaps the hardest thing of all is explaining it to a Catholic who has been taught that it’s not necessary any more, that it went out with Vatican II, that its a neurotic tradition rooted in the 1950s or in a guilt-laden patriarchal society which oppressed people. Here we can point to the new catechism, to the teachings of the modern Church (including Vatican II and many papal and other pronouncements since). But we’ll still meet with strong resistance. The funniest reaction—I mean literally in the sense of being amusing—is the often stated, “I don’t really commit sins. I haven’t got anything to say.” A non-Catholic heard a modernist Catholic say this and laughed aloud asking, “What’s the trick? I mean, how have you managed to live your life differently from the rest of us?” That seemed to me to say everything that needed to be said.
There is much that remains to be discussed: the whole notion of penance, the idea of reparation, and some of the practical aspects of confession itself. We can’t hope to cover everything in one conversation. But we can speak with a Scripture-based confidence in explaining how God wants us to be reunited with him after we have broken the relationship by sin. We can know that failure to make this explanation can result in people continuing to carry prejudices and confusion about a subject that is closely and correctly perceived as central to Catholic life.