Why Do Catholics Go to Confession Anyway?

Photo Credit: Hernán Piñera.
Photo Credit: Hernán Piñera.

Sin is a dirty word.

As an Evangelical Protestant we rarely spoke about it.

I know that’s not the experience of all evangelicals—maybe not even the majority—but it was certainly my experience in an array of denominations, too.

–Sin was something we knew about, sure.

Sin was something for which we were all culpable.

Sin was even preached about the occasional Sunday morning—or whispered about on at a mid-week Bible study.

But it was always sin in the sense of, “This is what you shouldn’t be doing. You need to ask God for forgiveness, and live a better way.”

We needed to repent; true repentance, which is a turning away from something towards a better way. It was something I needed to do, and no one else needn’t be bothered by.

Sin was compartmentalized: we sinned, pray for forgiveness, tried to feel forgiven, and struggled to live in a different way.

But we never, ever, really talked about our sins.

The Catholic Church takes an entirely different approach to sin: a fulsome, roundly biblical approach to sin that’s not only captivating—and captivated me as an evangelical—but beautiful, and overflowing with the love of God, and grace.

So much grace.

Sin is What Cuts You Off 

Protestant churches on the radical fringes practice excommunication.

The idea, as I understand it, is to cut off the sinner from the rest of the flock and really, it’s entirely biblical, despite its taboo practice in Protestantism.

Paul, in his epistles, writes that if a fellow Christian is in sin then you need to talk to them, if they won’t listen then you need to bring in other Christians to help, and if they still won’t listen you need to bring them to the Church authorities. If they still won’t listen, even with the backing of the whole Church, you need to remove them, place them outside like a leper, lest they infect the rest of the community with their persistent refusal to turn from their sins.

Like the Church of the New Testament, which Paul sheds light on in these writings, Protestant churches on the fringe, for whatever else they get wrong—lots, I would suggest—grasp something of relational nature of sin.

In the Catholic Church sin is understood as being that which not only cuts us off from our relationship with God, but also fractures our relationship with each other. And the Church, taking seriously the words of Christ that we be one body, and the words of Paul outlines above, places a high priority on that relationship.

For that reason, at every Mass the body of faithful Catholics confesses to each other, as a community, that we’ve all sinned. We communally pray, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy,” because we’re all in the same boat. We pray, “I confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned.”

Called to be Christ’s united Bride on earth unity is of the utmost importance to the Catholic Church, and so we confess that we’ve broken ourselves apart.

And we pray to corporately heal.

As an Evangelical I could sit in my pew in church in my own sin with very little accountability. It was particularly private and personal.

As a Catholic, I’m called to repair the greater relationship not only with God but with my community. And the consequences of doing otherwise are spelled out clearly.

So I Once Knew at Satanist

Personal sin not only affects the whole Church because Paul, and Christ, say so. Personal experience is a great teacher, too.

I remember as a younger Evangelical the appearance of a trench-coat wearing, heavily tattooed former Satanist at our Pentecostal church.

Our, himself rather on-the-fringes, Pastor of Outreach had found this particular fellow somewhere in his travels and brought him into our fold.

He lasted a total of four Sundays before being asked to leave. A kind of soft excommunication, I guess, but it was his sins—his tumultuous past which he brought along with him—that saw him all out of favour with the elders of our church. He raised hell by telling us stories of the satanic rituals he used to take part in, how he lost his ritual dagger when he got into a fight with the high priest of his local sect, and how the bizarre and increasingly questionable miracles of Christ had brought him out of Satanism and into a relationship with our Lord.

I remember, as a teen, his stories being both captivating and terrifying.

In the end, its anyone’s guess exactly why this particular fellow was asked to leave but it is clear, in hindsight, that something greater was being considered here. Something to do with sin, and sinners, and how our own personal sins can affect, and infect, a whole church—and a whole Church.

This is, evidently, something my Bible-believing Evangelical church understood at some level.

The Consequences of Sin

The existence of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (i.e. confession) makes very real the existence of sin. It takes it seriously, and it’s biblical too. I’ve written before how, as a younger Evangelical, I was bothered by the fact that my Bible says we should be confessing our sins to each other and nobody I knew was. In Evangelical communities, at least those I’ve belonged to, there is no outlet for the confession of sin. There’s no accountability for confessing the things I’ve done that have separated me from God and from each other.

But that Catholic church is deadly serious about sin. And the mere existence of confession makes that plainly clear: you will sin and this is your outlet. Certainly you could ignore it—and I bet we could all name a dozens Catholics we know that do—but bad faith formation and crappy Christians aside, the devout Catholic ignores it at their own peril, and ignoring it is fairly tricky.

Because the Catholic Church is so serious about sin that if you’re not in a particular state of grace—that is, if you have unconfessed sins of a serious nature—you’re meant not to receive Communion.

So serious does the Church take sin that you’re barred from participating in its most central and sacred celebration until you take steps to repair your broken relationship.

That’s an incredibly serious view of Paul’s words about both taking Communion worthily and the charge to confess our sins. That’s a good view of Paul.

And like a good personal trainer provides a workout regime, the Church is clear on how to grow closer to God (very clear, in fact) and equally clear about what can wrest you from His arms. And maybe, in a world increasingly confused about what’s right and wrong, being told, “This is not good for you,” comes across as arrogant and hateful but since when was stating plainly, “Junk food will make you fat,” considered unacceptable.

Instead, the Church provides a clear path to greater closeness with God—and this is beautiful—but this must, equally, reflect how to avoid fracturing that loving, grace-filled relationship. And that, I take, as a very good thing.

Taking Sin Seriously Means Understanding the Church

Fundamentally, the difference is one of relationship, and this is what intrigued me so greatly about the Catholic Church. The Church professes a theology built solidly around each other, and that’s so profoundly beautiful.

In the same way, as a Catholic, I rely on the community of ordained clergy to celebrate our sacraments we rely on each other to help us get closer to God. We’re doing it together, a whole team pulling as one. And if even one in that body is in sin—is disconnected from relationship—it slows us all down, until we go out, find them, and gently bring them back home.

What story does that remind you of?

Sin is not an awe-inspiring conversation but I’ve been genuinely inspired, and humbled by sin as a Catholic.

No longer can I dismiss my sin without seriousness nor can I utter a half-hearted request for forgiveness and be on my way.

As a Catholic, more than any other time in my life, I have to seriously face down my sins, admit them out loud, and humbly receive reconciliation. And it’s amazing.

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