1. Confession of sins was instituted by Our Lord, and has been the practice of the Church in all centuries.
Confession was practiced under the Old Dispensation, not indeed as a sacrament, but as foreshadowing the sacrament. The first confession was made in paradise; God was the Confessor, Adam and Eve were the penitents. God called upon Cain to make a confession; he refused to do so and was cursed in consequence. David confessed his sin and was forgiven. Under the law of Moses a certain form of confession was customary among the Jews (Numb. v.-vii.). The people who came to John the Baptist to be baptized confessed their sins (Mark i. 5). Christ, Who did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfil it (Matt. v. 17), confirmed and perfected the existing practice of confession, and attached many graces to it.
1. On the day of His resurrection Our Lord gave to the apostles and their successors the power to forgive and to retain sins. It is obvious that in order that this power may be exercised aright, it is necessary for the sinner to reveal the state of his soul.
The words of Our Lord are these: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (John xx. 23).
2. Even in the apostles’ time the Christian converts came to them, “confessing and declaring their deeds.”
Thus they came to St. Paul in Ephesus (Acts xix. 18). St. John also states that by confession of sin pardon may be obtained (1 John i. 9).
3. In the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church in the first centuries Christians are frequently exhorted to confess their sins, many appropriate and beautiful similes being made use of in illustration.
Tertullian, St. Basil, St. Gregory the Great and others compare the sinner to a sick man, who, if he would be cured, must declare his symptoms or exhibit his festering sore to a skilful and experienced physician. So the sinner must apply to the dispenser of the divine mysteries and confess his sins that he may obtain remission. St. Augustine says: “It is not enough that a man acknowledge his sins to God, from Whom nothing is hidden; he must also confess them to the priest, God’s representative.” Pope Leo I. censured the custom of public confession as too rigorous, asserting that secret confession was quite sufficient. It is noteworthy how often the Fathers warn Christians against concealing a sin in confession. Even Protestants cannot contest the fact that confession was practiced both in the first centuries of Christianity and in the Middle Ages; in regard to the latter, history affords abundant evidence, for the very names of the confessors of distinguished Christian rulers are recorded.
4. Confession was also retained by the earlier heretical sects which fell away from the Church.
This fact affords unquestionable proof of the antiquity of confession. But we find the practice in a perverted form among sectaries; for instance, it is said that in the Russian Church the priest is bound to inform against any one who confesses crimes of a Nihilistic character. What a contrast to the rules of the Catholic Church!
5. It is impossible to prove confession to be of human institution.
The name of the inventor or originator is generally attached to every human institution or discovery. But those who deny the divine origin of confession, cannot say in what land and at what epoch this custom than which none other is so difficult and wearisome, and at the same time so unremunerative for the priest was first introduced. Protestants do, it is true, allege that it was introduced at the Lateran Council in 1215, when confession once a year was made obligatory for the faithful; but who would be so foolish as to conclude, because a father bade his son pay him a visit regularly once every year, that until then he had not been in the habit of ever visiting him?
2. The institution of confession affords us proof of the infinite mercy and wisdom of God.
How easy it is for us, who on account of our sins are like criminals condemned to death, to obtain pardon from God! He does not require of us severe sufferings, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or the like; nothing but the confession of our sins to any one of His ministers whom we may select, and who is pledged to strictest secrecy. No earthly monarch was ever so indulgent to transgressors. What exertions a prisoner confined in a subterranean dungeon will make to regain his liberty! For a whole year he will work at filing through a bar or loosening a stone. The spiritual prisoner need take no such pains to recover his freedom; such is the unfathomable bounty and mercy of God. The infinite wisdom of God is also exhibited in the institution of confession. The skill of an experienced physician is shown by the fact that he not only relieves the patient, but by the employment of a remedy opposed to the disease, eliminates its cause. Now we know that all transgressions come from pride; it is, as St. Thomas Aquinas declares, the source of all sin; confession is diametrically opposed to pride, it is a humiliation for the sinner. Thus God manifests His wisdom by appointing a practice easy and simple in itself, and yet most painful to human nature; for confession requires no slight conquest of self.
This article, Confession a Divine Institution is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.