by Taylor Marsal
Why do we Catholics confess our sins to priests who are mere men?
This is a question that Protestants repeatedly raise. I raised it as a Protestant almost every time I spoke to a Catholic about matters of religion. Even Catholics are puzzled by it.
Even one of my sons asked me, “Dad, it’s difficult. Why must we confess our sins to a priest when it is God that forgives us? Why not go straight to Jesus?”
This is a great question and it deserves more than a well-packaged apologist’s answer. We all know the quick and easy answer:
- Jesus Christ gave the Apostles authority to forgive sins in John 20:21-23.
- The Apostles are the first priests and they are mere humans.
- Priests (with historical succession from the Apostles) can only declare the forgiveness of sins if they are told the sins by those who committed the sins.
- Therefore, we must reveal the sins to the priests so that these sins will then be forgiven through a means defined by Christ who is God.
That’s tight. It’s logical. It works.
But there’s a harder question beneath all of this: “But why did Jesus set it up like this? Could not have Christ arranged things so that we merely voiced each and ever sin to Him? Why did Christ introduce an intermediary stage?”
Here we move away from easy apologetics. We move to the heart of it. Why must I reveal deep, dark, and embarrassing things to a man wearing a purple stole. Christ already knows. Why bring in a middle man? Laymen, monks, nuns, priests, bishops, cardinals, even Popes – everyone has to do it. Why?
I cannot presume to know the mind of God. However, I have an idea…
Christ knows that we would cheat ourselves.That’s right. We wouldn’t take the sin seriously. Nor would we take the grace received seriously.
I have confessed my sins straight to God. I have confessed my sins to God in the presence of a priest who heard every word. There is a qualitative difference between the two ways. By myself, I am repentant about “my sins.” It’s general and less precise. However, when I confess my sins in the presence of the priest, it is specific. Moreover, there is a sense of dread followed by a wave of mercy crashing upon my soul.
I think the difference is like eating at Taco Bell vs eating at an elegant French restaurant. They both advertise food. But the French restaurant provides an experience. The French restaurant experience includes a gentleman wearing black and white. (Sound familiar?)Regardless of the food, the experience is better and more connected at the French restaurant because it is mediated by a human server who has a real human experience with you.The French waiter cares for you during the experience, carries and presents the entrees to us, elegantly clears the table, scrapes the bread crumbs off the linen with that little device, and then makes sure that we are comfortable and happy. The post-production of the desserts and digestifs are also a big part of the experience.
Nobody does that at Taco Bell and that’s why it’s Taco Bell.
My suggestion is that Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance because He passionately desires for us to experience His Divine Mercy in a tangible way. Forgiveness requires a human experience – not just words.
It would be more difficult for a woman to feel healing in her bedroom as she confesses an abortion from 25 years ago. However, in the presence of a fellow sinner (the priest), she hears words of comfort and then an audible and divinely ratified proclamation that her sins are officially forgiven and cast into the sea.
That’s the difference between a Burrito Supreme at the drive through and enjoying Blanquette de Veau or Beef Bourguignon under the care of a French waiter with the help of his sommelier.
Of course, the Blanquette de Veau or Beef Bourguignon experience costs you a lot more than the quick Burrito Supreme in a wrapper: But which would you prefer?
Yes, confession to a priest has more “emotional cost”? But would you have it any other way?
Time to open the comments: Would you agree that Christ set up the forgiveness of sins in the best possible way?
Is the “emotional cost” worth it?