God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself. Through the ministry of his Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Protestants will object that it is one thing to say Christ forgives our sins, but quite another to say that a priest needs to forgive our sins too. Catholics do not separate confession to a priest from confession to God. Rather, we believe that we can confess our sins to God through a priest, and we believe that God forgives us through the ministry of priests. The fact that it is not the priest alone who forgives us is evident in the way he absolves “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.
Yet, there is sense that the priest always acts in the person of the Church, as well as in the person of Christ. This is because the Church is the Body of Christ, and when we sin, we injure not only the individual whom we wronged, but the whole Body of Christ. Acting as a spokesperson for the whole community, the priest is also declaring us reconciled with the Church. As a fellow sinner, the priests is even interceding for us with God on behalf of the entire community! We see this in the following passage from the letter of James:
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 5:14-16)
Some people resist confession because they are unaware of any sin, or simply do not feel sorrow for their sins and do not believe their sins merit any type of atonement. I’m not a trained psychologist, but I believe that this is the unhealthy attitude of a sociopath.
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. (1 John 1:8-10)
I may be progressive, and I may believe that conservatives sometimes are too narrowly interpreting Scripture and Tradition, too strictly interpreting justice, and too mercilessly treating sin. Yet, I do believe that we can turn away from God and we can do harm to other people.
The only “entrance requirement” to Christianity is admitting we are sinners in need of God’s help. Recovering addicts know that the first step to healing and wholeness is to admit you have a problem. We must confess that we are sinners in need of salvation in order to receive salvation!
But must we confess our sins to a priest? Even if we acknowledge that the practice of confession is somewhat implied in Scripture, and may be healthy in some instances, are we obligated to confess our sins to a priest?
Personally, I think this type of question is about as meaningful as a child asking if she or he is obligated to eat dessert. I do not think of confession necessarily as something I have to do in order to be saved.
It is true that the Church teaches that we have an obligation to confess our sins at least once a year at Easter time. Furthermore, Saint Paul tells us the following:
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Cor 11:27)
The Church has maintained since the time of Trent that mortal sins should be confessed before receiving Eucharist. This lead many people in the pre-Vatican II era to confess their sins weekly.
However, we already alluded to the fact that in the early Church, confession was a rare practice, and the practice of weekly confession may have encouraged the sin of scrupulosity more than helping people experience the mercy of Christ. (Scrupulosity is a nurotic focus on fault tending to the sin of despair). I do not believe that most people are committing so many truly mortal sins that weekly confession should be considered necessary. At the same time, a more regular habit of confession than once a year can be a wonderful spiritual discipline.