Recently I worked on a letter with a friend and for the letter I wrote my first feeble attempt a Socratic Dialogue (a hypothetical conversation) about the Catholic understanding of Confession. It can be found below.
Why do I have to confess my sins to a Priest? Can’t God just forgive me?
Yes, of course God can do that, but is that the way that Jesus and the Apostles have asked us to do it? God doesn’t ordain the easiest option, but the best option and in His wisdom has ordained confession to a representative of the Body of Christ, aka an ordained member of the clergy.
That might sound nice, but it isn’t Biblical. Where does that come from?
The New Testament. Let’s look at a few passages. Open to 2 Corinthians 5:18-20.
See how Paul sees himself as an ambassador of Christ, continuing His ministry of reconciliation? Does he have Biblical ground for that? The answer would be yes!
Paul’s ministry of reconciliation is not the same thing.
We’ll see if the Bible implies otherwise. Turn to John 20:21-23.
Do you see what is happening here? Jesus is sending the Apostles as He was sent. For what purpose was Jesus sent?
To impress fisherman with his feat of walking on water (get it ‘feet’). Well that, and to save us.
Yes! To save us by reconciling us with the Father and bringing us back into the family. What takes us from the family?
Presumably you are referring to sin.
Correcto Moondo. Thus he tells them that if they forgive someone’s sins they are forgiven and if they retain them, they are retained. Now, I don’t know how Jesus expected them to make that call between forgiveness and retention if He didn’t anticipate that they would hear those sins confessed. But something else happens here that is important. He breathes on the Apostles. This should remind us of when God breathed into the nostrils of Adam. Jesus is changing something about the Apostles, he is imparting something of Himself to them, and He tells us what that is. He is imparting the authority to forgive sin.
Yeah, but Paul’s not there. How can you connect this to Paul?
Well, Jesus Himself chose Paul (Acts 9:3-6). Then He led Paul to his Baptism and selected him for ministry (Acts 13:1-3). Note however, that prior to Paul being sent out he receives the laying on of hands. This seems to be a sign of ordination. Paul himself seeks consultation with Cephas (Rock – aka Peter) after his time of conversion (Galatians 1:11-18). So Paul obviously sees himself as sharing in the Apostleship of the others, both because of Jesus’ appointment of Him and their confirmation of his call.
Weren’t we talking about Confession. Why confession to a priest?
Well, we’ve established that Jesus told the Apostles they could forgive sins and that would kind of imply that they would be hearing those sins too. Beyond that we find this in at least two other New Testament books, 1 John and James. 1 John 5:16 says, ‘If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life.’ While this doesn’t say anything about confessing it does say that the prayers of one person can help someone else’s relationship with God (not to mention it shows there is a distinction between deadly and not deadly sin). And then James 5:16 says, ‘Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.’
Wait, no. That says confess your sins to one another! There is nothing about priests in there.
Hold on. Does it say to confess your sins to someone other than God? Have we established that principle that God desires us to verbally confess our sins to someone else?
Ok, now what about the ‘therefore’ in James 5:16? When you see ‘Therefore’ you are obligated to ask ‘Therefore what?’
…Why’d you stop? Oh, really… ‘Therefore what?’
Funny you should ask!
Here is what James wrote right before saying ‘Therefore’, “Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15). Therefore, since the Presbyter has been given the grace to forgive sin through the prayer of faith, confess your sins to one another.
But my Bible says elder.
Which comes from Presbyter, but so does Priest.
But you don’t confess your sins to one another, you sit in a closet and confess them to one man.
The practice of private confession is only about 1000 years old. In the Early church you confessed in the Liturgy (and we still make a general confession in the liturgy) which was presided over by a Bishop or Presbyter (Priest).
But I don’t need a priest. Jesus brought about the priesthood of all believers, and the Apostles ministry died with them. Their job was to record Jesus’ teaching in Scripture and that has been done.
Ok, ok. There is a lot you threw at me there. First, if the Apostles’ job was to write scripture, why do we only have 5 of the original 12 represented as the authors of Scripture? Did they miss the memo?
Second, there is no Biblical grounding for the cessation of the Apostle’s ministry. Acts 1:15-26 seems to imply that the Apostles’ understood that their ministry should continue. We’ve already mentioned Acts 13:1-3. Beyond that, Ordination seems to be an important topic of conversation in 1 & 2 Timothy. See 1 Timothy 5:17-25, which is all about presbyters, particularly verse 22, “Do not lay hands too readily on anyone.” Why would Paul warn Timothy about this? Because the laying on of hands by Timothy ‘effects’ something, it does something. Why? Because it is how he gives what he has received from Paul, “I remind you to stir into flame the gift (the grace) of God that you have through the imposition of my hands” (2 Timothy 1:6). Grace given through the imposition of hands sounds like a Sacrament to me.
Finally, the idea that a communal priesthood is incompatible with a ministerial priesthood is forgetful that Israel was a “Nation of priests” (Exodus 19:6) possessing a ministerial priesthood.
When taken as a whole, it seems to me that Jesus left us men who could hear our sins and, by virtue of Jesus’ own sharing of the Spirit, convey to us the certainty that our sins are forgiven, and continue to be forgiven, as we gain access to Christ’s Paschal mystery.