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Catholic Apologetics

Chapter 16 -- Penance/Confession/Reconciliation

CCC 1423-1424 - It is called the sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner's personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction.

It is called the sacrament of confession, since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament. In a profound sense it is also a "confession" - acknowledgment and praise - of the holiness of God and of his mercy toward sinful man.

It is called the sacrament of Reconciliation, because it imparts to the sinner the love of God who reconciles: "Be reconciled to God." He who lives by God's merciful love is ready to respond to the Lord's call: "Go; first be reconciled to your brother."

Repent and Be Reconciled to God

Mark 1:15 - "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel."

Jesus spoke these words as He began His mission in Galilee after spending forty days in the desert fasting. His command was to repent.

Rev 2:5 - Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

This message was to the angel of the church in Ephesus. God was pleased with this community, yet there was this one thing-they had fallen and needed to repent again. It applies to all of us who earnestly seek God, but find ourselves backsliding.

Mt 5:20, 23-24 - I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Jesus tells us to reconcile with each other (restore our relationships) before we try to reconcile ourselves with God. That is the way of righteousness.

Joel 2:12-13 - Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.

The Lord is calling you to restore your relationship with Him, to be reconciled with Him.

For confession to be viable, the penitent must have the correct mindset, a contrite heart. There must be a sincere sorrow for hurting God and a desire to restore one's relationship with God. This is called the "Virtue of Penance", and can be found throughout the Old and New Testaments. (See Ezek 18:30, 33:11; Jer 18:11, 25:5; Matt 3:2, 4:17; Acts 2:38)

Isa 1:16-18 - Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan's plea, defend the widow. Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.

This is not just a suggestion from Isaiah; it is written in the imperative tense. It is a call to cleanse yourself of your sins. And, it suggests there is a way to cleanse yourself of your sins. What does the Bible say about how to cleanse yourself of your sins?

Sins are Forgiven at Baptism

Acts 2:38 - Peter (said) to them, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit.

We saw in another chapter that Baptism incurs the forgiveness of sins. Does Baptism incur the forgiveness of past/present/future sins? Why is the forgiveness of sins necessary after Baptism?

1 Jn 1:8-10 - If we say, "We are without sin," we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, "We have not sinned," we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

John is writing to fellow Christians, who were already baptized. He seems to think it was not only possible to sin after baptism, but it was inevitable.

Luke 11:2-4 - "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test."

Mt 6:9-13 - "This is how you are to pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and do not subject us to the final test, but deliver us from the evil one.

Jesus taught us to pray and ask for forgiveness of sin. Jesus was not teaching the un-baptized only, He taught everyone. Jesus seemed to think we were subject to sin after baptism also.

CCC 1425-1426 - "You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God." One must appreciate the magnitude of the gift God has given us in the sacraments of Christian initiation in order to grasp the degree to which sin is excluded for him who has "put on Christ." But the apostle John also says: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." And the Lord himself taught us to pray: "Forgive us our trespasses," linking our forgiveness of one another's offenses to the forgiveness of our sins that God will grant us.

Conversion to Christ, the new birth of Baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Body and Blood of Christ received as food have made us "holy and without blemish," just as the Church herself, the Bride of Christ, is "holy and without blemish." Nevertheless the new life received in Christian initiation has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence, which remains in the baptized such that with the help of the grace of Christ they may prove themselves in the struggle of Christian life. This is the struggle of conversion directed toward holiness and eternal life to which the Lord never ceases to call us.

The Church recognizes although our sins are forgiven at Baptism, we can still succumb to temptation and sin again afterward. So, how does the Bible provide for forgiveness of the sins we commit after we are baptized?

Confessing to a Priest

Mt 9:1-8 - He entered a boat, made the crossing, and came into his own town. And there people brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Courage, child, your sins are forgiven." At that, some of the scribes said to themselves, "This man is blaspheming."

Jesus knew what they were thinking, and said, "Why do you harbor evil thoughts? Which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"--he then said to the paralytic, "Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home." He rose and went home.

When the crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such authority to human beings."

God sent Jesus for our salvation. He sent His only son with the power to forgive sins. (See also Mk 2:5-12; Luke 5:20, 7:47) When the crowds saw what Jesus did, they acknowledged that God gave this authority to human beings.

John 20:21-23 - Jesus said to them again, "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."

God sent Jesus with the power to forgive sins. Jesus said "As the Father has sent me, so I send you Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained". Jesus passed on the power to forgive and retain sins to His disciples. See also Mt 16:19, 18:18.

Why give the original disciples the power to forgive sins? Can't sinners simply petition God directly? Why go through a disciple? This seems to be a useless power. And note, they were given the power to forgive and retain sins. This goes beyond merely granting absolution to everyone who came along; they had to decide if there was some reason a person's sins should not be forgiven.

Indeed, even though Jesus was the second person of the Blessed Trinity, why present Him with the power to forgive sins? Jesus could also instruct the masses to petition directly to God.

Some think the power was given the original disciples to kick-start the new faith. Perhaps if the disciples granted forgiveness to enough people, the number of the faithful would increase to the point the faith would be self-sustaining, even after the disciples died. Striking fear in the masses by retaining sins would further the cause. But, Paul, Timothy, Titus, Luke, Mark, Barnabas and others were not original disciples. Did they have the power to forgive sins? If not, why was that power not needed to kick-start conversions where they preached? Was it only needed for the original disciples? The kick-start theory is a gratuitous reading and appears to stretch the plausibility of these verses.

Others think the power was granted the original disciples due to their historical position. After all, they were among the chosen, and it is fitting and proper for them to receive special graces. But the same questions abound regarding Paul et al above, and the question remains as to the benefit of this power if no one needs it and no one will use it.

God gave men the power to forgive sins because He wants us to confess our sins to one another. He knows our human nature; He made us. He knows what a burden we bear by keeping sins secret from others and what a relief we experience by confessing.

Sin hurts the Body of Christ as well as God. Any act you do profoundly influences the Body of Christ-both good and bad acts. When you sin, you need to seek forgiveness from God, but you also need to seek forgiveness from the Church. You will suffer the consequences for your sin, but the entire Body of Christ will benefit, including you.

Suppose your sin is theft. Say you needed medicine for your sick child and you didn't have the money, so you stole the drugs. Your kid recovers. In the privacy of your own thoughts, you ask God for forgiveness, and you have an assurance you are forgiven. But the owner of the Drug Store realizes he was robbed. He is angered at the thought someone would violate him in that way. He is insecure since he is subject to theft. He begins to distrust those around him-even though they are trustworthy. The Body of Christ is suffering from your sin. You need to repent. You need to restore the balance by confessing your sin and making reparations as best you can. You may not know who was directly affected by your sin (the store owner, those he now mistrusts, future customers of the store, etc.), but you can confess your sin to a priest.

Now the priest knows you are a thief. You know he knows you are a thief. Every time you see him, you are reminded that he knows you are a thief. You do not want to confess this same sin to him again. Furthermore, you run the risk your sin may be retained by the priest, i.e. you would not be forgiven (If you ask God for forgiveness, He will grant it, but this priest may spoil the whole thing by retaining your sin). It profoundly affects your attitude toward sin. It is no longer something private between you and God only. Other human beings now know what a scoundrel you are, and you feel just awful because of it.

In reality, priests are bound by the strictest code of conduct know to man. They must answer to a higher power if they violate the priest/penitent privilege. They can't even violate that privilege talking to you in private later. They must, as best as possible, put their knowledge of your sin out of their minds, and they must treat you as if they had no idea you ever committed that sin.

Also, in reality, you do not feel just awful because of it-you actually feel elated. Most penitents have a deep sense of relief, as if a great weight is lifted off their shoulders. You have made good with God and you have made good with the Body of Christ.

In the Old Testament, confessing one's sins was public. See Leviticus Chapter 5. There were prescribed animal sacrifices for the different sins. You had to travel through the city to the temple with your animal over your shoulder, or you had to purchase an animal from the merchants who set up tables outside the temple for that very purpose. You would give it to the priest, who would make atonement for your sins. Everyone who saw you knew exactly what you were doing, and what category of sin you committed just by looking at your sacrifice. But, the necessity of forgiveness compelled sinners to confess in this manner, and with the public awareness, it was less likely they would sin as much again.

Note, one could not simply confess directly to God. One had to go through the priest. God wanted it that way.

The Old Testament style of confession would not be tolerated in today's I'm-OK-you're-OK mentality of life in the civilized West. It is too easy to rationalize that private confession in your prayer to God is sufficient. No one would subject themselves to public criticism as in days of old. This is all the more reason it is essential to confess publicly.

James 5:16 - Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.

James says, the Holy Spirit says, the Word of God says we are to confess our sins to one another. As explained above, there is a reason for this. Our human natures demand it. But, what advantage in confessing your sins to anyone you meet in the street? Would it not make more sense to confess to someone who has the power to forgive the sins? Indeed, is it not likely that was God's plan, just as in the Old Testament?

Isn't it probable God knew all this when He granted the power to the original Apostles? And isn't it probable God intended the power to be passed on to successors of the Apostles?

In the passage from Mark's gospel above, the paralytic did not ask for his sins to be forgiven; he did not confess his sins to Jesus first. Seeing the man's plight, and recognizing the opportunity to introduce His position on the issue, Jesus simply forgave him.

We note that "Jesus immediately knew in His mind what they were thinking to themselves". Thus, Jesus could read minds, or at least know what others were thinking. Nothing in the Bible suggests the disciples enjoyed the power to read minds at any time in their ministries. If the disciples were given the power to forgive sins, and if they could not read minds, God must have wanted people to confess their sins to the disciples, similar to the method God chose in the Old Testament.

2 Cor 5:18-21 - And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

We know from verses 11-13 of this same chapter that "we" means Paul and his disciples. Paul says Christ gave him the ministry of reconciliation. God was reconciling the world to Himself, forgiving their trespasses against them. God was appealing through Paul. This fits perfectly with the concept of confession to a priest.

You can seek forgiveness directly from God, and your sins will be forgiven. The Church requires you to confess mortal sins to a priest, in addition to petitioning God directly, before you receive communion. You are encouraged to confess all your sins to a priest, but it is not required.

Mortal and Venial Sins

1 Jn 5:16-17 - If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.

John says there is such a thing as deadly sin and sin that is not deadly. The Church gives the name 'mortal' to deadly sins, and 'venial' to sins that are not deadly. All sin is abhorrent to God, but there is a distinction in the levels of sin.

An illustration that might help put the idea in perspective is if a mortal wound kills the body, a venial wound maims it. A venial wound might cut off an arm or a leg, or paralyze the body for life, but the body lives. Mortal sin kills the soul; it kills the relationship between the soul and God. Venial sin maims the soul. The soul is wounded and scarred in some way, but salvation is not necessarily lost.

Note that John suggests if a witness sees another sin, the witness should pray to God on behalf of the sinner. John says this is only for those whose sin is not deadly. John says one is not to pray for another's deadly sins. John doesn't say what to do for deadly sins, but confessing to someone who has the power to forgive sins can be implied. This, too, fits perfectly with the concept of confession to a priest.

Penance and Punishment

Although the common use of penance includes suffering, the Church considers Penance to be simply something you do as an outward sign you are sorry for your sins. Penance may be to say a few prayers, or perhaps to do an act of kindness-hardly punishment. You will always suffer the consequences for your sins; that is your punishment. You need no further punishment from the Church

Parting Comment

We see that we need to repent and be reconciled to God. We see why we should confess our sins to a priest, although the Church requires us to confess only our mortal sins if we wish to receive communion. We see that sin affects God as well as the Body of Christ.

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