When Pope Francis granted priests the power to absolve the sin of abortion in September 2015, it triggered a debate on the social media. Protestants pointed at the ridiculous idea of men having the power to forgive people’s sins, while Catholics responded by citing Bible verses and nostrums from their echo chambers. The Council of Trent declares that this confession to priest (sacrament of penance) is “necessary unto salvation” and places a curse on those who say otherwise. This is why this doctrine should be scrutinized.
In Catholic theology, there are two types of sin – the mortal and venial. A mortal sin is a serious offence against God’s law which kills the grace in the soul and leads to hell. A venial sin is a less serious sin against God’s law which partially kills grace but can be removed by penance. A sin is mortal when “the thought, desire, word, action or omission must be seriously wrong or considered seriously wrong; second, the sinner must know it is seriously wrong; third, the sinner must fully consent to it.”
A sin is venial “when the evil done is not seriously wrong; second, when the evil done is seriously wrong but the sinner sincerely believes it is only slightly wrong or does not give full consent to it” (The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism, 32, 33).
When a Catholic (the penitent) enters the confessional – a dark booth with a kneeling place and a window – he is to reflect on his sins until the priest (the confessor) slides open the window to listen to him. He must separate out the mortal from the venial sins. To hold back a mortal sin from the priest is a deadly act that will send him to hell. Three things are thus required: the penitent must show contrition for his sins, confess them and do works of expiation (penance) that the priest levies on him.
But the Bible doesn’t distinguish between “mortal” and “venial” sins, rather it declares that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). All sins are transgressions of God’s law and they are all mortal. The Bible is replete with examples of people who did not see their sin as “seriously wrong” yet were severely judged by God (Lev. 10:1-2, Num. 12:1-10, 2Sam. 6:20-23, Acts 5:3-5). In God’s standard of holiness, there is no such thing as “venial sins.”
Granted, as time changes, what qualifies as mortal sin too changes. Many years ago, eating meat on Friday was a mortal sin, now it’s no more. Abortion used to a serious sin that qualified a Catholic for excommunication, but as the world now has a liberal view towards it, the Pope, with a stroke of his sacerdotal pen has removed the pain of eternal punishment attached to it. This tells a lot about the man-centered system of Catholicism and its grossly unbiblical view of sin. Priests can even encourage some sins:
If I [a priest] know that someone has made up his mind to commit sin and there is no other way of preventing him, I may lawfully induce him to be satisfied with some less offence of God than he was bent on committing. And so, if a man was determined to commit adultery, I do nothing morally wrong, but rather the contrary, by persuading him to commit fornication instead” (Manual of Moral Theology I:201-202).
So your priest decides how serious your sin is. And when you insist on committing one, he bargains with you to commit the “lesser sin”. So in most cases, these priests “strengthen the hands of evildoers so that no one turns from his wickedness” (Jer. 23:14). Even with all the razzle-dazzle, Catholics never confess the sins of idolatry and necromancy – which are clearly condemned in Scripture – because Catholicism endorses them. This is why Jesus’ denounced religious leaders who do not enter God’s kingdom and still prevent others from trying to enter (Matt. 23:13).
The Canon law (#989) states that all Catholics above the age of discretion must confess their serious sins at least once a year. “All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret” (Catechism, 1456). This is a tool used by most cults: to break down the self-respect of their members by persuading them to share their most innermost secrets. This way, they exert a control over them.
Priests are in fact, mandated to resort to different tactics to draw out confessions of secret sins from the penitents:
“It is necessary that the confessor should know everything on which he has to exercise his judgement. Let him then, with wisdom and subtlety, interrogate the sinners on the sins which they may ignore, or conceal through shame” (St. John of Capistrano, The Mirror of the Clergy, 351).
In a case where a lady goes to confess a sexual sin, she must fully recount the act to the priest (who is supposed to be celibate). He probes her mind with questions to hear all the details. It’s a two way thing. Through these questions, the lady’s mind is polluted with sexual ideas she might not have imagined before, while the priest’s mind becomes a reservoir for the filthy stories and images such acts bring. He is titillated by the sexually graphic details he hears – unless he is dead below the belt. I wonder how a lady will bring herself to share sexual details she can’t share with her friends with a priest. And even if she does, one can only imagine the intense shame it evokes.
After confession and absolution, the priest gives the penitent “work of satisfaction” for his sins. This could be to recite “Hail Mary” or “Our Father” a given number of times, or to visit the “blessed sacrament” or even a graveyard. The absolution granted doesn’t take effect until when the penance is done. Interestingly, even priests trapped in mortal sins can still remove the sins of the laity:
“The Church asks that a priest who absolves a penitent be in the state of grace. This does not mean however that a priest in the state of mortal sin would not possess the power to forgive sins or that when exercised it would not be effective for the penitent” (Bishop Fulton Sheen, Peace of Soul, 1949, 136).
“St” Thomas Aquinas put it more bluntly that “a priest might happen to share in a sin committed by his subject, e.g by [carnal] knowledge of a woman who is his subject… If however, he were to absolve her, it would be valid” (Summa Theologica, 3:4:274-76).
In other words, a confessor may be a pedophile, homosexual, adulterer or indulges in porn, yet he still has “the power” to absolve Catholics of their sins – after his own perverse fantasies have been fueled by their confession. Little wonder there have been reports of boys sodomised by priests in the confession booth. They went to a man to be cleansed from their sins, but they ended up more defiled because what the priest himself needs is just a “spark” for his perverted lust to explode.
Auricular confession is mainly based on the belief that “all the bishops and priests of the Catholic Church have the power to forgive sins”- a power they claim was given to them by Jesus (Outlines of the Catholic Faith, 1979, 34). But there are some things to be noted:
1. It is God – not man – who blots out sins. “I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.” (Is. 43:25). He is the One “who forgiveth all thine iniquities” (Ps. 103:3). It is irrational to suggest God would stop the power to forgive sin in Himself and restrict it only to a select group of people. If He did that, it would diminish His omnipotence.
2. Some Catholics appeal to the Old Testament, but even Trent affirms that the sacrament of penance is not in the OT. The OT priests only made atonement on behalf of sins, they neither listened to confessions nor granted absolutions. Ezra the priest said “Now therefore make confession unto the LORD God of your fathers, and do his pleasure…” (Ez. 10:11).
David said “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid, I said will confess my transgressions unto the LORD and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (Ps. 32:5). Even the Jews listening to Jesus quizzed “who can forgive sins but God?” (Mk. 2:7).
3. When the Bible speaks of “the ministry of reconciliation” (2Cor. 5:18), it is based on what God has done through Christ on the cross. A believer is reconciled with God by faith in Christ’s sacrifice not by following the penance prescribed by a religion. Sin, which caused enmity was dealt with at the cross and the veil of the temple was torn, so there is no need to go through priests to relate with God.
A Bible scholar explains: “The words katalasso and katalage signify ‘to reconcile’ and ‘reconciliation.’ They point to an action by which enmity is changed to friendship … In connection with the work of Christ the words under consideration certainly denote the effecting of the change in the judicial relation between God and the sinner by removing the judicial claim. According to II Cor. 5:19 the fact that God reconciled the world to Himself is evident from this that He does not reckon unto them their sins. This does not point to any moral change in man, but to the fact that the demands of the law are met, and that God is satisfied” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 1949, 375).
To gain a right standing before God, one must receive the righteousness of Christ by faith in His perfect sacrifice. “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).
4. Catholics point at some Bible verses for support.
I. John 20:23 “Whoseover sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whoseoever sins ye retain, they are retained.”
Jesus gave all the apostles and disciples power and authority to act in His name. But this was a declaratory power (Mt. 16:18, 18:18). He sent them as the Father sent Him to “preach the gospel to the meek” (Lk. 4:18). They were commanded to proclaim the gospel by which all who believe will receive forgiveness of sin (Matt. 28:18, Mk. 16:15, Lk. 24:44). Jesus was the one saving men from their sins; the apostles were only His emissaries. They were not “little gods” given power to forgive and retain men’s sins. According to a commentator:
“In this Gospel’s discourse sin is primarily failing to acknowledge the revelation of God in Jesus (cf. 8:24; 9:39-41; 15:22-24). Jesus’ words and works have been depicted as bringing about a judgement which the recipients make on themselves, as they either respond in belief or expose their sinful state of unbelief” (A. Lincoln, The Gospel According to St. John, 2005, 499).
Acts 2:38 “Peter replied, 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.”
Acts 10:43 “To him [Jesus] give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins.”
Acts 26:18 “To open their eyes, and to turn them from the darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.”
The forgiveness of sins is received by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. If the apostles had understood the words of Jesus in John 20:23 to mean listening to confessions, granting absolutions as Catholicism practices, there would have been several places in the NT where they did such, but there are none. Catholics desperately latch on to this verse and refuse to consider its proper context.
II. James 5:16 “Confess your faults one to another, and pray for another, that ye may be healed…”
If Catholics must use this verse then as people confess to the priests, the priests must also confess to the people, since the term “one another” is used there. Obviously, the priest-laity distinction is refuted here as with the rest of the NT. When Simon the sorcerer’s sin was pointed out to him, Peter told him to “Repent” and “pray [to] God” (Acts 8:22). He didn’t take him into a booth to hear his sins and grant absolution, rather he directed him to God who forgives sins.
The Greek word for fault (paraptoma) is different from that of sin (hamartia), though Christians do confess their sins to other believers and get prayed for. But it’s not “necessary for salvation” as Catholicism teaches. And to say that God will not forgive a person unless he confesses to a priest and does work of expiation is totally false.
III. 2 Cor. 2:10 “If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven- if there was anything to forgive- I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake.”
The import of this chapter is about forgiveness between brethren and how this is to be handled has been addressed by Scripture (Mt. 5:23-24, 18:15). Nothing here supports confession to priests.
4. As Christians, when we sin, the Bible says we have “an advocate with the Father Jesus Christ the Righteous” (1Jn. 2:1). We are to confess our sins directly to Christ because He is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn. 1:9). Why go to a man – pretending to be Christ – when you can go directly to Christ to cleanse you? A Catholic will keep entering the booth as a sinner and leaving it the same because only “the blood of the lamb” can take away the sins (Jn. 1:29). This is the summary of Biblical Christianity.
5. The word “penance” does not occur even once in the Bible. What the Bible teaches is repentance and it’s folly for anyone to equate confession with repentance. A person can confess a sin many times and still not repent from it. When Judas sinned, he confessed his sin to the priests and he hanged himself (Mt. 27:4-5). His confession didn’t remove his guilt.
The idea of “doing works of satisfaction” is a denial of the sufficiency of Christ’s work and a rejection of Biblical justification. Since Jesus is the propitiation (satisfaction) for our sins, there is no amount of “work” prescribed by man can cleanse us from sin or guilt. Forgiveness of sins is a gift from God, all we have to do is receive it by faith. God inputs the merits of Christ to as many as have faith in Christ’s perfect sacrifice and declares them righteous (Rom. 4, Rom. 5:1, Tit. 3:7).
The historical development of auricular confession has been examined here.