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placeholder March 21, 2011   •   VOL. 49, NO. 6   •   Oakland, CA
Letters from Readers Why should we go to a priest for Confession?

After my column on the new and somewhat controversial Catholic Confession iPhone app (Forum, Feb. 21), I received a number of letters and e-mail communications about the practice of Confession, challenging the idea of confessing one’s sins to a priest.

These are very old objections, going back at least as far as the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, studying the opening of Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome, was struck by the line: “The just man shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). Luther was convinced that justice or salvation came, not from any external work of ours, but only from God’s grace accepted in faith, an act that took place in the believer’s deepest interior. 

A function of the inner man


Luther sharply distinguished between what he called “the inner man” and “the outer man;” and he asserted that what is really vital in the spiritual order — the acceptance in faith of the offer of grace — is a function of the inner man, while the works and efforts of the outer man remain relatively derivative and secondary.

A major implication of this distinction is that the “external” features of religion — liturgy, vestments, rituals, pilgrimages, sacramentals and sacraments — become marginal. Luther reduced the seven sacraments to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He directed his particular ire against the sacrament of Confession, which, in his judgment, the Lord had never commanded and which had become simply a means by which Roman authorities could exercise their power over the people.

How thoroughly our modern secular culture has been influenced by this typically Protestant bifurcation between the inner and the outer. Most of us assume what is really important is going on “deep down inside;” and most of us relegate the body, behavior and action to the realm of “externals.” We are deeply suspicious of a person or institution that would impose upon us any sort of behavioral conformity.

The Catholic Church opposed Luther because of the abiding Catholic sense of the Incarnation. In Jesus Christ, the absolutely transcendent God came close to us, spoke to us in a human voice, reached out to us with human hands, looked upon us with human eyes and saved us with his crucified human body. Per St. John, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Accordingly, from St. Irenaeus onward, orthodox Christian theologians and spiritual masters have consistently resisted the temptation to drive a wedge between spirit and matter; for they knew that the pure Spirit of God addressed us precisely through the body of Jesus.

Externals matter


The Church is the extension of the Incarnation through time and space, the vehicle by which Christ continues to touch and address the world. And this is why, for Catholic theology, externals matter very much indeed. Color, texture, voice, liturgical gesture, light, sound, bread, wine, oil, the touch of a hand are the material elements by which the Incarnation continues to find expression. To say that such things are secondary or peripheral is to say that the body of Jesus is secondary or peripheral.

One of the most powerful moves Jesus made was to offer the forgiveness of sins. To the paralyzed man, he said, “my son, your sins are forgiven;” and to the woman caught in adultery, he said, “neither do I condemn you;” and to the good thief, he said, “Today, I assure you, will be with me in Paradise.”

Communication of forgiveness


But in none of these cases did the Divine Spirit immediately commune with the human spirit; rather, the communication of forgiveness came through the voice, eyes, gesture and embodied presence of the Word made flesh. As he administers the sacraments, the priest is operating, not in his own person, but in persona Christi (in the person of Christ).

Could God forgive outside of the rituals of the Catholic Church? Of course. But Catholics believe He conveys his forgiveness through the body of the Church. And that’s why we go to a priest, an embodied alter Christus, for Confession.

(Father Robert Barron is the director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, www.wordonfire.org.)


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