One of the questions that many people often ask Catholics is, “Who do you need to confess your sins to a priest to receive forgiveness? Can’t I go directly to God for absolution?” The short answer to this is the Catholic belief that God in His wisdom has directed us to confess our sins to Him through the ministry of the priest. Catholics believe that the Sacrament of Confession was instituted by Jesus Christ. This truth is essential in order to understand the Catholic perspective on the importance and necessity of this sacrament in the life of the Church. A primary Scriptural passage Catholics use to show Jesus’ institution of Confession as a sacrament is when Jesus told his Apostles after the Resurrection, “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you.’ And when he 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’” (Jn 20:21-23). This mandate was not meant just for the 12 Apostles, but also for their successors down through the ages in the Church that Jesus instituted. No power was given to them except what had been given by Christ Himself.
Our Catholic belief on the necessity of confessing our sins to a priest connects to what we believe about the sacraments in general. The sacraments are outward signs that are instituted by Christ which confer grace on the recipient. They are outward signs of an interior reality, namely the configuring of the recipient to be more like Jesus. The Church’s steadfast teaching is that the sacraments act ex opere operato which literally means, “from the work having been worked.” In other words, the sacraments work “by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all.” The truth of this teaching was expressed from the earliest years of the Church, when the heresy of Donatism claimed that the validity of the sacraments depended on the personal worthiness or sanctity of the minister. The Church (and most notably St. Cyprian) refuted this heresy by declaring that the enacting of a sacrament is brought about through the power of God and not through the righteousness of the minister. This distinction is very important, for it highlights the fact that a human action can never trump a divine action. The sinfulness of a priest (even if he is in mortal sin) cannot trump the power of God who works in and through the sacraments. Therefore, “from the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister.”
The historical implications that resulted from the re-baptism controversies with St. Cyprian and the Donatists at the fore gave the Church an opportunity to speak correctly about the sacramentum et res or “the abiding sacrament.” The sacramentum et res is a kind of “interior sacrament” whereby a sacrament is always bestowed, except in rare cases when the minister maliciously and consciously refuses the proper intention. In the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, for example, once the sacramentum tantum (sacramental sign) is enacted an indelible character is forever imprinted in one’s soul. They are called abiding sacraments because they impart an indelible character upon the recipient that can never be removed. In addition, the other four sacraments that do not impart an indelible character still are abiding sacraments. For example, in Confession, “the abiding sacrament and its ecclesial significance are rooted in personal decisions of the participants, the immediate intervention of Christ is not always indicated.” The abiding sacrament is still present in Confession, because, “Sorrow for sin may be given by the Spirit outside the sacrament of penance; when it is sacramentalized, as its dependence on Christ and the economy of salvation require, the intervention of Christ cannot be made the subject of a generalization.” In other words, the Spirit moves a person to have contrition for his sins and the next movement that follows should be to have his contrition actualized in sacramental Confession.
The concept of character is very important here, for a sacred character is constituted by, “Membership in the Body of Christ and participation in the worship of the Church: Preaching, Eucharist, Service.” For St. Thomas Aquinas, this notion of participation is crucial, for sacramental character is a participation in the sacred priesthood of Jesus Christ. As Aquinas writes, “sacramental characters…are nothing else than certain kind of participations in the priesthood of Christ deriving from Christ himself.” Jesus receives his priesthood from the Father and His priesthood reascends to the Father. Through Christ’s humanity the baptized are able to participate in a very real way in this priesthood by offering true worship to God. The character imparted to the baptized, confirmed, and ordained can also be called an “ontological change” because it expresses the permanence of the divine creative act.
Because character is a sign and spiritual power of the Risen Christ working in the Church now everything the Christian does is sacramentalized for the worship of God. All human persons inherit the effects of Original Sin, and as a result man’s freedom needs to be shaped and formed. This shows the need for and necessity of the sacrament of Confession! Human freedom is not enough to help man achieve his end (eternal union with God Himself), and therefore freedom for the Christian must be sacramentalized. St. Therese of Lisieux once said, “A humble recognition of our own sinfulness and an acceptance of God’s mercy is the beginning of all growth in holiness.” Sacramentalized freedom therefore strengthens the believer’s participation in the worship of the Church. The role of the Catholic priest in effecting this sacramentalized freedom for the Body of Christ cannot be understated, for it is through the ministry of the priest that the human person is able to receive sacramentalized freedom. Inherent to sacramentalized freedom is the human person’s indelible configuration and conformity to Christ and to His Church. Thus, “just as Christ has the full power of a spiritual priesthood so his faithful are brought into configuration to him in that they share in a certain spiritual power relating to the sacraments and the things pertaining to divine worship.” Confession is the definitive moment of conversion for a Christian whereby she is made holy and brought into more perfect communion and beatitude with God. Without this definitive moment of imparted forgiveness from God then God’s forgiveness would remain nebulous, ethereal and not actualized in one’s soul. The sacraments are outward signs that cause something. In the sacrament of Confession the outward sign of absolution reflects the interior reality of the received forgiveness of the penitent, a causal moment of divine reconciliation.
The Catholic priest shares in the configuration to Christ in a particular way in his reception of the sacrament of Holy Orders, for he is configured to act in persona Christi capitis – in the person of Christ the head. With this conformity to Christ the priest is able to be an agent of God’s power in bringing others to be configured to Christ and in turn to experience sacramentalized freedom. Inherent to this discussion is the fact that all the sacraments can serve as a remedy for sin. They are remedies for sin because man is reduced in his access to God precisely because of sin. Man is in need of his image being perfected and restored through God’s grace, and this image perfection and image restoration is what conforms the human person to Christ. Sacramentalized freedom involves man’s image perfection and image restoration where he is united to God who is his end. Thus, the sacraments unite one with God and heaven. While Baptism is the sacrament that enacts this divine image restoration and perfection par excellence as it removes original sin, so too Confession imparts divine image restoration and perfection as it absolves the penitent of his personal sins that have wounded his soul and the human community.
Aquinas also writes about how the instrumentality of the minister works in the sacramental life of the Church, and he points out that “an instrument acts not by reason of its own form, but by the power of the one who moves it.” It is God who enacts the power of the sacrament through the priest! God is able to bring this power to bear through the priest since the priest has received the indelible configuration to Christ in his reception of the sacrament of Holy Orders. If the sacraments were dependent on the personal worthiness (or lack thereof) of the minister that would completely wipe out the abiding sacrament of Holy Orders, for the sacrament would only be “abiding” provided the priest was in a state of grace. Just as a one’s Baptism and Confirmation cannot be wiped away even if he is in mortal sin, so too the sacrament of Holy Orders cannot be wiped away or even “lifted” for a time if a priest is in the state of mortal sin. Also, if the sacraments were dependent on the personal worthiness of the minister then it could logically follow that some sacraments are more valid than others depending on the level of holiness of the minister who administers the sacraments. This would add a subjective element to the efficacy of the sacraments, instead of the objective efficacy of the sacraments that are available to the faithful regardless of the worthiness of the minister. Therefore, as Aquinas writes so succinctly, “the ministers of the Church can confer the sacraments, though they be wicked.”
The words of absolution the priest prays in the Sacrament of Confession are, “God the Father of mercies, through the death and Resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This is a prayer of hope whereby the penitent receives healing grace from Christ through the priest. Our Catholic belief is that it is God’s will that the Church has been given this sacrament, the definitive moment whereby we receive and hear those words we all long to hear from God: you are forgiven. Jesus in His wisdom is the divine psychologist and knows we need this moment of actualized grace, so there is great logic to God’s desire that this sacrament be an important part of the process of our divine image restoration and divine image perfection. Sin is a reality in our world and in our lives and God has given us a remedy for our proclivity to sin. Confession is that sacrament where our human freedom is shaped and formed by divine grace to choose what is One, True, Good and Beautiful or, in other words, to choose what is of God. St. Margaret of Cortona once said, “Hide nothing from your Confessor. A sick man can be cured only by revealing his wounds.” The telos of Christian discipleship means to become holy, and this can only happen through God’s grace.
In the midst of a Church and a world with sinners and priest sinners the faithful are still called to believe in the objective efficacy of the sacraments and how the sacraments actually do something. It is God who works in and through the sacraments and gives all the sacraments their power. Acceptance of this fact is essential if the human person is to acquire true growth in holiness and attain authentic freedom, not relying on their own gifts and native abilities, but relying on God for everything. This is a freedom that must be sacramentalized. Catholics believe this is how God intends to impart His grace to us, and it is by accepting the totality of this truth that humanity will be sustained in reaching his end, which is eternal union with God Himself.
Fr. Mark Murphy is the Undergraduate Chaplain of the Harvard Catholic Center.