The book of Sirach says:
Do not say, ‘I sinned, yet what has happened to me?’
for the Lord is slow to anger.
Do not be so confident of forgiveness
that you add sin to sin.
Do not say, ‘His mercy is great,
he will forgive the multitude of my sins’,
for both mercy and wrath are with him,
and his anger will rest on sinners.
Do not delay to turn back to the Lord,
and do not postpone it from day to day;
for suddenly the wrath of the Lord will come upon you,
and at the time of punishment you will perish.
Confession remains one of the two most central and oft celebrated sacraments in the day to day life of practicing Catholics, or at least certainly in my personal day to day life. Although constantly bringing myself to confession can be discouraging and sometimes a trial in itself, I wanted to, here, turn my attention to the things which make me excited about the sacrament of penance. Since becoming a Catholic I have found, to my surprise, that the depth of theology which one can mine out of this sacrament is practically endless. I think that it is with a view to the beauty of the Catholic faith, the goodness of this sacrament, and the truth of the sacramental world view (in that order) that one can come to understand why Catholics love the sacrament of confession. They love the sacrament of confession because they love Jesus Christ.
I take it to be my task at present to tease out from this sacrament two key themes for meditation, each revealing a fundamental characteristic of the Catholic faith; first, the very nature of the Catholic Church (ecclesiology), second the person and ministry of Jesus Christ (Christology).
1. The Nature of the Catholic Church (Ecclesiology)
To begin with, we might immediately turn to the most common objection to confession, raised regularly by Protestants and poorly Catechized Catholics; why, if we can pray directly to God and ask him for forgiveness, should we go to a priest? A more sophisticated form of the objection might be that since Jesus is the only mediator between God and man, and since man can approach Jesus without intermediaries, Catholics should not put all these intermediaries between us and Christ. So then, why does the Catholic Church insist on having people confess to a priest?
The first step on the way to seeing the sense this makes from a Catholic perspective is to recognize that the Church is the body of Christ. That title is often interpreted in some ethereal, vague and metaphorical sense, but the Catholic understanding of it is anything but vague, ethereal or metaphorical. First, Catholics get this image of the Church as the ‘body of Christ’ from St. Paul, so it may be wise to begin by asking the question where St. Paul got this idea, and how it figures into his thinking. Scott Hahn has pointed out that Paul can be read in such a way that his ecclesiology was the natural conclusion given his sacramental theology of the Eucharist; since we are the partakers of the body of Christ, we are now one and the same body with Christ. Here, we can turn to Christ’s ‘theology of the body’, so to speak, and recall that for Christ, the words “and the two will become one flesh” (Mark 10:8) were not meant to be taken as some poetic statement about how sweet it is that people love each other. Jesus, speaking the language of his day, was saying something at once anti-platonic (no pun intended), and deeply incarnational (and Aristotelian).
To begin with, we need to clarify our concept of a body. What exactly is a body? At least one way we can make sense of calling this or that thing a body, is to understand by ‘body’ some system of parts which are organized by nature to work together, according to some design. They form a system of parts which naturally aims to achieve a common purpose or telos. This definition clarifies how the organs of my body act to constitute my ‘body’ in the sense which the language in scripture intends to speak about bodies. The organs of my body are together recognized as part of my body precisely because they belong to the same system of parts which work together as a unit. Similarly when two persons are engaged in the marital act their organs together literally form one body; one system of parts which work together as a unit for some end (telos).
It is in exactly this same sense that the people of God become one body with Christ in the Eucharist. The Eucharistic communion is thus the foundation of Paul’s theology of the Church. Read St. Paul over again bearing this in mind and it becomes much less mysterious how Paul moves from speaking about the Lords supper in 1st Corinthians 11, to speaking about the Church as the body of Christ in 1st Corinthians 12. The seminal point is that what Paul means by calling the Church the body of Christ, far from being some vague notion of universal and invisible communion, is actually meant in the same sense that your body is called ‘your body’. At this point there is an issue to which attention must be drawn in order to divest ourselves of some early modern ideas we moderns (or post-moderns, or hopefully post-post-moderns) have inherited not shared by the mind of St. Paul, nor the mind of the Church. We often make the mistake of distinguishing the ‘self’ from the body so sharply that we disassociate the one from the other; thus we sometimes conceive of the relation of body and soul as the relation of prison to prisoner, making the soul out to be some Cartesian ghost trapped in a shell and longing for our escape. This thinking is evident even in how many Catholics and other Christians imagine heaven to be where we go once we die, without our bodies. In reality though, we are embodied creatures, whose bodies are part of our very identities (that’s the whole point about the doctrine of our personal resurrection at the end of time). I think people tacitly recognize this on a less abstract level. Consider, for instance, how you would react if somebody were to hit your arm – you would surely not say “why did you hit my arm” but rather “why did you hit me?” Similarly Jesus said to Saul on the road to Damascus ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ Jesus did not say ‘why are you persecuting my followers’ or ‘why are you persecuting my kingdom’, but rather he identified himself as the one who was being immediately (non-mediately) attacked. There is a properly basic identification of each person with their body, and this is recognized by the Catholic Church. It is even reflected in practical matters of canon law – for example, it’s part of the reason Catholics cannot confess over the phone or via a webcam – they must do it ‘in person’.
Fulton J. Sheen once made the point that it would seem absurd if two people who were in love with each other said to one another “I don’t want your body coming between you and I.” In the same way Catholics cannot even conceive of the Catholic Church coming between them and Jesus Christ – the Catholic Church is Jesus Christ. Joan of Arc gave a very brilliant, and stunningly simple confession of this at her trial when she said:
“About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.”
~Acts of the Trial of Joan of Arc (Catechism 795)
Your body, therefore, is neither a prison cell nor a temporary home for your soul. Your body is you; it isn’t all of you, but it is an essential part of your identity. Jesus’ body, which the Bible calls ‘the Church’, then, is Jesus; it is an essential part of his very identity in this world. Just as your body is not an intermediary between you and the world, but that by reason of which you are in communion with the whole world, so also the Catholic Church, in the eyes of faithful Catholics, is the symbol of Christ’s dwelling among us in this world. Once this vision of the Church is fully absorbed it becomes second-nature to recognize that it seems confused to ask “why do you confess your sins to the Church instead of going straight to Jesus?” If we believe in the incarnation, and if we believe that Jesus gave us a visible Church which is literally his body, through the Eucharist, then there is no straighter path to Jesus than his Church.
The next legitimate question might be – even if the Church really is the body of Jesus in this mystical sense, isn’t it rather presumptuous of priests to think that they alone can hear confessions and forgive sins? This question leads into the second meditation.
2. The person and ministry of Jesus Christ (Christology)
In the opening scene of Acts, when Jesus leaves this world, the advocate comes down upon the Church gracing her with the sacramental power to proclaim the Gospel – a grace which is participated in and realized anew in the sacrament of confirmation (Baptism of the Holy Spirit). In that episode we find the Apostles realizing the miracle of Pentecost which turns the tower of Babel on it’s head – it reverses the effects of the fall and calls all men from all nations into the Church, Jacob’s ladder, to share in the common language of faith.
“one Lord, one faith, one baptism”
From that scene onwards the narrative stage is set for the story of the Church’s beginnings. What we find throughout the book of Acts, however, looks rather similar to what we find in the Gospels; healings, miracle working, exorcisms, and the like. In fact, it seems to all appearances that the Church simply carries on the earth shattering ministry that Jesus himself began, and it is this theme which stands at the foundation of the Catholic conviction of the sacrament of confession. The Catholic conviction is that the Church, in the new advent, becomes the Locus of God’s salvific ministry. The Church is the incarnational extension of Jesus’ person, presence and ministry on earth; it is the place where Jesus Christ’s ministry continues to touch and transform the world to realize justice ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. In order to get a sense of what significance this bears on our exploration of the logic of the sacrament of reconciliation, it is necessary to turn now to the actual person and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, with a view to picking up insights into our portrait of Christ on the way.
Jesus of Nazareth as we encounter him in the Gospels is a surprising and challenging person, whose ministry was notorious for being subversive to the authorities that be, while doing so with a very peculiar presumption of authority. One gets the sense that Jesus of Nazareth thought of himself as making present the judgement and deliverance of the God of Israel. N.T. Wright has spoken at length on what Jesus of Nazareth’s sense of vocation and identity must have been for him to carry out the ministry he did. His ministry included, among other things, forgiving people their sins. The oddity of this dimension of his ministry is often lost on those who take it for granted that Jesus came to ‘forgive sins’. C.S. Lewis makes the point well in Mere Christianity where he says:
“One part of the claim tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to. I mean the claim to forgive sins: any sins. Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself. You tread on my toe and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned; the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.”
Christ’s claim to forgive sins, then, represents an implicit identification of himself with God. This is what gave him the license to forgive sins, and this is precisely what the Pharisees took issue with, since it seemed blasphemous to them to propose that a man could forgive sins, and equally blasphemous for a man to claim to forgive sins in God’s place. In one sense, the typical Protestant objection to the sacrament of confession is, at bottom, a parody of this objection. However, it is clear from the example of Jesus that no true Christian can say dogmatically that ‘no man can forgive sins’, since that would amount to a denial that Jesus forgives us our sins, or else a denial that he is truly man. The Protestant may say “yes, but Jesus is God, and the priest is not,” but the Catholic is bound to respond “yes, but the Church is Jesus – the priest only acts in persona Christi as an organ in Christ’s body in order that Christ himself may forgive us in person“. At least, this is how the Catholic understands the sacrament of confession – it is the ordinary means which Christ established for his people to be reconciled to him.
It remains to be asked what reason Catholics have for thinking that this particular dimension of Jesus’ ministry was intended by him to be continued by the Church? First, it would be odd if Jesus imparted to the Church all the means to continue his ministry in every other dimension, from miracle working to preaching with authority, and yet not continue the ministry of reconciling people to God through the forgiving of sins. However, more to the point, Catholics believe Jesus did impart it to the Church because he said so:
Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
~ John 20:21-23
This explains why from the beginning the Church has encouraged the practice of confessing one’s sins to the Church. Though obviously the celebration of this sacrament in the life of the Church has undergone some radical changes, such as being private instead of public, yet the sacrament itself has been part of the Christian faith from the very first. We know that it was given to the Apostles, and we also know that the only people who ever dared carry on that vocation in the Church were the people the Apostles left in charge to shepherd the Church in their place (namely, the episcopoi and presbyters, or what Catholics call the Bishops and Priests). That is why Catholics do not presume to forgive anyone else their sins, but rather seek Jesus’ forgiveness by going to the channels he created in the Church for just that purpose.
In sum, Jesus’ vocation has been imparted to the Church. The Church’s raison d’etre is to continue in the footsteps of Christ, and to continue making real his person, presence and ministry, and that entails continuing his ministry of actively forgiving sins, a charism which he has given to the Apostles and their successors. For the Catholic, then, the sacrament of confession says about the Church that it is Christ’s body, and his incarnational extension into this world, and it also says of Christ that he is divine. Both simultaneously are implicit in the doctrine that the forgiveness of sins is available in the sacrament of reconciliation. The sacrament of confession points us to these further insights, and these two mysteries of the Christian faith also establish the firm foundation for the logic of the sacrament.