Our Protestant friends and even some fellow Catholics who have become disenchanted with the clergy say they confess their sins directly to God because He alone can offer forgiveness.
They mistakenly assume that Catholics confess to a priest and not directly to God.
Yes, Catholics need to go to a priest for confession because, at that moment, the priest acts in the person of Christ.
He is a “servant of God’s forgiveness” and a conduit for the grace of forgiveness between God and man (Catechism of the Catholic Church CCC: 1466). In that sense, Catholics do still confess their sins directly to God.
Where in the Bible Does it Say Confess to a Priest?
Confession happens through a priest and not to him. In Matthew 16:19, Jesus tells Peter “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Then, in John 20: 22-23, Jesus tells His Apostles, “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”
As written in these two different Gospels, Jesus delegated the responsibility of forgiving sins to His Apostles, who were the first priests. They were given the grace and authority to “bind” or retain sins and “loose” or forgive them. They did not do this by their own power, but rather by the power God had given them. Indeed “Only God forgives sins” (CCC: 1441).
These original Apostles consecrated bishops and priests to succeed them, who in turn consecrated others. As a result, today’s priests and bishops are descendants of that priestly line and have inherited the grace to forgive sins that Christ gave the original Apostles.
So when a Catholic enters the confessional, he is opening his heart to God. The priest, working on behalf of God, is the dispenser of forgiveness in Christ’s name.
Why Should Catholics Confess to a Priest?
Besides being a scripturally-based requirement of the Catholic Church, confessing one’s sins through a priest offers other benefits:
- Through confession, an individual is not only reconciled with God, but with the whole Church. The Church “prays for the sinner and does penance with him. Thus the [penitent] sinner is healed and re-established in ecclesial communion” (CCC: 1448). This is important because the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, and we must remain part of it to achieve salvation.
- The priest, as the “sign and the instrument of God’s merciful love for the sinner,” can shepherd the penitent toward spiritual healing (CCC: 1465). He can provide spiritual advice that would otherwise be impossible.
- By confessing through a priest, the penitent is assured forgiveness if he confessed with a contrite heart and did his penance. Without confessing to a priest, there would always be doubt as to whether one’s sins were forgiven.
- The more one confesses, the more God-given grace that person receives, the more resistant he or she will be to committing sins in the future.
Ultimately, it can be hard or embarrassing to tell another person your sins, but it’s a small price to pay to be reconciled with God. Indeed, the humbling experience you patiently endure is part of being contrite.
Furthermore, most priests will say that they “have heard it all” and will be unphased by whatever you tell them. Some priests even claim to forget people’s sins immediately after the confession.
In all cases, priests are bound to keep people’s sins a secret in what is called the “sacramental seal.” When in the confessional, imagine that, instead of a priest, Jesus is listening on the other side. Because that’s effectively what’s happening.