The Catholic sacramental idea, the idea of real divine grace sacramentally conveyed, shows its power of moral renewal not only in Mass and the Holy Eucharist, but also and not least in Confession. The Catholic knows that the priest does not hear confessions in his own right but as the representative of God, and that whatever he binds or looses on earth in the name of Jesus will be bound and loosed in heaven also, and this knowledge gives confession its deep seriousness, its absolute truthfulness and its bracing power. In every good confession the holiest victories are won by the power of conscience, by love for purity and goodness, by desire of God and of peace of soul. Confession has given new courage and new confidence and a fresh start in life to millions of men. No less a person than Goethe praises the profound wisdom of Catholic confession, and laments that he was prevented in his youth from settling his strange religious scruples by recourse to it. (1) Harnack does not hesitate to say that Protestantism was guilty of "culpable folly" in "uprooting the whole tree of confession because some of its fruit had gone bad." (2) Yet the "tree" is no good, if it be not a living tree. And it gets this life from the Catholic doctrine that the absolution imparted in the sacrament of Confession is no mere expression of a hope, but is a consoling actuality.
(The Spirit of Catholicism, translated by Justin McCann, revised edition, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1954 [originally 1924],199-200)
1. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749-1832), Dichtung und Wahrheit, Part 2, Book 7.
2. Harnack, Adolf von, Reden und Aufsatze, (Giessen, 1906), vol. 2, 256.
Is the Catholic who confesses his sins to a priest any better off than the non-Catholic who confesses straight to God? Yes. First, he seeks forgiveness the way Christ intended it to be sought. Second, by confessing to a priest the Catholic learns a lesson in humility, which is conveniently avoided when one confesses only through private prayer - and how we all desire to escape humbling experiences! Third, the Catholic receives sacramental graces the non-Catholic does not get; through the sacrament of penance not only are sins forgiven, but graces are obtained. Fourth, and in some ways the most important, the Catholic is assured that his sins are forgiven; he does not have to rely on a subjective "feeling." Lastly, the Catholic can also obtain sound advice on avoiding sin in the future, while the non-Catholic praying in private remains uninstructed . . .
Christ . . . wanted his followers to have every possible consolation, every possible assurance, every possible help, so he instituted the sacrament through which we are reconciled to God. During his lifetime Christ sent out his followers to do his work. Just before he left this world, he gave the apostles special authority, commissioning them to make God's forgiveness present to all lands, to all people [Matt 16:19, 18:18, Jn 20:23], and the whole Christian world accepted this until just a few centuries ago. If there is an "invention" here, it is not the sacrament of penance, but the notion that the priestly forgiveness of sins is not to be found in the Bible or in early Christian history.
(Catholicism and Fundamentalism, San
Francisco: Ignatius, 1988, 188-189)
When people ask me, or indeed anyone else, "Why did you join the Church of Rome?" the first essential answer, if it is partly an elliptical answer, is, "To get rid of my sins." For there is no other religious system that does really profess to get rid of people's sins. It is confirmed by the logic, which to many seems startling, by which the Church deduces that sin confessed and adequately repented is actually abolished; and that the sinner does really begin again as if he had never sinned . . .
When a Catholic comes from Confession, he does truly, by definition, step out again into that dawn of his own beginning and look with new eyes across the world . . . He believes that in that dim corner, and in that brief ritual, God has really remade him in His own image. He is now a new experiment of the Creator. He is as much a new experiment as he was when he was really only five years old . . .
The Sacrament of Penance gives a new life, and reconciles a man to all living, but it does not do it as the optimists and the hedonists and the heathen preachers of happiness do it. The gift is given at a price, and is conditioned by a confession. In other words, the name of the price is Truth, which may also be called Reality; but it is facing the reality about oneself. When the process is only applied to other people, it is called Realism.
(Autobiography, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1936, 340-342)