A little over a month ago I wrote a little post, Because We Are A Bible Believing Church. Webster’s two recent posts (here and here) and our poll (see sidebar) on the Sacrament of Reconciliation (aka Confession) have generated plenty of comments from readers. In light of the fact that a good number of you may not be Catholic, I think it’s a good idea to let you know how I approached this Sacrament prior to my own conversion. And how my understanding of Scripture led me to accept the Church’s teaching on Confession.
For the record, I’m no expert apologist for the Faith or anything. The first notion I had was that Catholics (and the Orthodox) have it easy. Just sin all you want, hit the confession booth, and viola!—you’re free and clear to go sin again! Ain’t it grand? Just make it back in time to confess before your demise, and all will be well! Those crazy Catholics are on to something here!
But then I wondered to myself, how come if this deal is so good, nobody seems to be taking advantage of it? I never recall my wife going to Confession, that is, until I did. Of course, thinking this through I ran smack into the wall of wondering if maybe I was the one who had it easy. You know, sin all I want, say a quicky prayer for forgiveness and viola!—the all-clear signal.
Back in the days when I was going to prove how wrong Catholicism was, I figured this Sacrament would be an easy one to disprove. And then God stepped in and said, Take a look at what I said. Here is what I found (bold highlights are mine) with the words of Our Lord as a primary source.
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. (Matthew 9: 2-8)
Maybe this is just a wacky translation. But I don’t think so. Or maybe it only means Jesus was able to do this! Of course! He could, but what of that last sentence? Hmmm. What else is there? More from the Gospel of Matthew, and again Our Lord does the talking,
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:18)
What a long and involved process that is. Definitely includes the “church.” And I thought to myself, How many are in the Confessional? Two. And there are prayers for forgiveness. Not to be an intellectual or anything, but if I have any sort of Faith in God whatsoever, then it stands to reason that the standard of “wherever two or more are gathered in my name . . . it shall be granted to them” is being met here. This just makes sense. And notice no extensive disclaimer to the effect that one of the parties must be perfect, sinless, etc, etc. Sounds like a plan with real-world applicability to me.
After Christ was crucified, died, and buried, He rose again and appeared to the disciples. And what was one of the first things He told them? Take a look here in the words that St. John hands down to us about this event,
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 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.” (John 20:22-23)
I started to see the light because God, in the Person of Jesus Christ, said these words. I know this is a weak argument, because using God as a primary source should be sufficient, but I still had to follow this through. Shock will do that to someone who thought this was some man-made impediment. What did the rest of the New Testament say about this subject? First up, St. Paul:
So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. 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. (2 Cor 5:17-20)
Reading this passage closely, I was left thinking that surely this does not mean that only the original Apostles alone were entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. Isn’t it obvious? Paul is writing to the congregation in Corinth and calling them ambassadors for Christ. Throwing on my Anu Garg hat, ambassador is defined as,
1. A diplomatic official of the highest rank appointed and accredited as representative in residence by one government or sovereign to another, usually for a specific length of time.
2. A diplomatic official heading his or her country’s permanent mission to certain international organizations, such as the United Nations.
3. An authorized messenger or representative.
4. An unofficial representative: ambassadors of goodwill.
In which case, this definition works, if doubt about whom the priest represents (Christ, as we believe by tradition) is still a stumbling block. I’m just saying that to me, this again strengthened the argument from the above mentioned primary source. I kept looking and found this in the Letter of James:
Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful. (James 5:13-16)
And this passage also upholds the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick! Sheesh! A double-play! This idea of mine that the Sacrament of Reconciliation would be easy to disprove was only pointing to my own deep ignorance. And will save the sick person and the Lord will raise him up doesn’t just mean the body will get well. Maybe it won’t. But the soul? For the last straw, another of the original Apostles weighs in on this, this time St. John:
I write these things to you so that you may know that you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God. And we have this confidence in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in regard to whatever we ask, we know that what we have asked him for is ours. 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. We know that no one begotten by God sins; but the one begotten by God he protects, and the evil one cannot touch him. We know that we belong to God, and the whole world is under the power of the evil one. We also know that the Son of God has come and has given us discernment to know the one who is true. And we are in the one who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Children, be on your guard against idols. (1 John 5:13-21)
Reading this closely, again and again, I saw the highlighted passage above—right in the thick of statements that may lead you to think you can just pray for forgiveness yourself and that is sufficient. What do we do in that case of deadly sin, John? And what of my much cherished notion that sin=sin? Here, St. John is saying there is sin and there is SIN. Gulp!
Here is what I thought to myself: I don’t need to see the Catechism on this Sacrament for me to understand that it is correct. I decided to take St. John’s advice and be on my guard against idols. Myself, my own pride.