Monday, May 02, 2005

What is Confession?

Catholics are often accused by non-Catholics that our Sacrament of Reconciliation (or penance/confession) is free license to sin, because we know we will be forgiven through the Sacrament. Of course, with some denominations, this is a pot & kettle argument, but for the sake of this post, we will concern ourselves only with the Catholic answer to this argument. The best way to do this is to learn about what the Sacrament is and what it is not.

What Reconciliation Is

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this at length and in depth. For the sake of brevity, I will quote portions, but to reference the full context, these quotes are found in Part Two, Chapter Two, between paragraphs 1420 and 1498.

The forgiveness of the Sacrament is imparted only through God. "Only God forgives sins." The requirement for sacramental confession was made by God through Christ's granting of the power of binding and loosing and explicitly at his first visit to the Apostles after his resurrection in John 20.

"Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion." The Sacrament repairs the injured relationship between the individual and God, as well as repairing the relationship between the individual and the Church. Sin, especially serious sin which is matter for mortal sin, wounds our relationship with God and with the world, and so repentance to God alone is insufficient.

"Penance requires ... the sinner to endure all things willingly, be contrite of heart, confess with the lips, and practice complete humility and fruitful satisfaction." An individual whose confession is made without meeting these requirements has not completed the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The culpability of the individual determines whether an insufficient participation in the Sacrament incurs an additional penalty of mortal sin.

"Among the penitent's acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is 'sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again." "Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance..." "The penance the confessor imposes must take into account the penitent's personal situation and must seek his spiritual good." These are the three 'stages' of the Sacrament: contrition, confession, penance. However are these steps alone all that is necessary when we have sinned? The catechism also adresses this question: "Many sins wrong our neighbor. one must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused." An astute confessor will require that justice be served along with the usual penance. Many priests these days are lax about the penance issued, especially compared with the historical tradition of penances which would last years. Sincere contrition will burden the penitents heart to seek justice for their actions, with or without the instruction of the minister.

The proper minister of the Sacrament is the Bishop, and by collaboration the priest. "Since Christ entrusted to his apostles the ministry of reconciliation, bishops who are their successors, and priests, the bishops' collaborators, continue to exercise this ministry."

"The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace." The purpose of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is solely the forgiveness of sins.

What Reconciliation Is Not

By defining what the Sacrament is, we have a clear view of what it is not. It is not a license to sin, because without contrition the sacrament is ineffective. It is not a remedy for the temporal consequences of sin. One who has been forgiven must still pay the consequences of their actions here on earth. Part of those consequences may be included in penance, but that does not bind earthly authority to limit consequences to that penance. For instance, if one stole an item and confessed it, they would still be guilty of the crime of theft in the states eyes and issued the just punishment of that sin. Furthermore, as Christians, we are required to accept the just punishment of our sins without complaint, and receive added grace when we do so. Such is the witness of the Christian, and can look to the patronage of the good St. Dismas, who was relieved of the eternal penalty of his sins by Christ on the cross, but continued to accept the just earthly punishment of those sins.

A corollary misconception among non-Catholic Christians is that confession to any other Christian is acceptable. The Church teaches that only the proper ordinaries of the Sacrament, the bishop and with him, the priest, can grant absolution of sin. This is evident through Christ's bestowal of the power to forgive or retain sins. Only the Apostles were granted that power. All other Christians are instructed to forgive as we wish to be forgiven. To ask another person to take on the role of a priest without the proper ordination, is to ask them to commit sacrilege and disobedience to Christ. So, while we should always seek the forgiveness of those we have injured, it cannot take the place of the proper use of the Sacrament.


At 1:17 PM, Blogger dcs said...

On the whole we (and I mean "we" in the general sense, not specific to the bloggers) have done a poor job in educating our "separated brethren" about sin and the Sacrament of Penance. No surprise, since most Catholics are also poorly educated about sin and the Sacrament of Penance. The Sacrament is not a license to sin; in fact, treating it as such is a sin against the Holy Ghost (presumption) and might even be viewed as a sacrilege.

At 5:17 PM, Blogger st_ignatius110 said...

That is so right. Hence the reason we pray an act of contrition and promise to "amend our ways."
I beleive the Sacrament of Confession is a beautiful reminder of God's mercy in our lives. It is a way to receive Grace...and that Grace will help us make it through each day. We can indeed pray that God keeps us free from the stain of sin.

At 7:42 PM, Blogger David Hopkins said...

I think that more than a few good Catholics over the years have sinned knowing that they would be going to Confession in the near future to "wipe the slate clean." It is no coincidence that Mardi Gras has been so popular! (And BTW, the extreme drunkeness associated with those festvities are mortal sins). To say that that is a sin against the Holy Spirit (an unforgivable offense) is itslef presumptious. One would have to know the heart of the sinner. One can sin mortally under this scenario and still know that they need forgiveness.

At 8:47 PM, Blogger dcs said...

By "presumption" I mean the presumption of forgiveness. It is a sin to commit a sin with the presumption that one will be forgiven. Whether or not a particular individual knows this and has reflected upon it sufficiently is not for me to decide.

At 10:24 AM, Blogger st_ignatius110 said...

To sin and say in your mind that it is ok because God will indeed forgive you is not true repentance. There are, from what I understand, two different Greek words in the NT for repentance. One word simply means you are sorry because you got caught. The other word is used in cases of true repentance. There is a huge difference in being sorry because you got caught...and then having a true sorrow in which you try to amend your ways.

At 11:22 AM, Blogger BekahS. said...

That is true, and it is also true that real repentance is a gift from God. When we find ourselves plagued with the former sense of repentance, we need to pray for true repentance in our hearts. He always answers prayers aligned with His Will.

At 12:41 PM, Blogger dcs said...

Let us not forget that one can be sorry because one is caught . . . and also have true repentence.

At 2:19 PM, Blogger st_ignatius110 said...

Agreed. I should have clarfied a little further. I beleive it all goes back to what Saint Paul says. " Shall we continue to sin that grace may abound? May it never be!"


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