Someone recently asked me why Catholics go to Confession. Honestly, this is a blog post I’ve been putting off for a while, but it is a question that deserves an answer. As always, when my answers touch on Catholic doctrine, I offer this *Quick Disclaimer.* I answer the following questions according to my current understanding. I cannot claim beyond a shadow of doubt that my answers are totally without error. I reserve the right to edit the answer at anytime. Thanks for your understanding.
As I began to formulate this answer, I realized that it would not be short or simple. Imagine going to a box of Christmas lights and attempting to retrieve only one. Most often, you end up with all the wires in the box coming out as one big ball. In order to retrieve just the one, you have to sit there and focus on the winding path of the one you want, paying attention to all the places where it intersects with the others. The doctrine of the sacrament of Confession is not all that difficult. I could answer it in a few short scriptures and be done with it. But, those scriptures a Catholic uses to support confession are not interpreted the same way by Protestants. And so in order to give an answer for why Catholics confess our sins to a priest, we must first address the nature of sin, the nature of sacrament, and the validity of the priesthood, and all of these concepts hinge on the way Catholics view Scripture.
So, to start this party off, let’s talk about the way Catholics view Scripture.
First off, Catholics do believe that the scriptures are inspired by God, and that they teach truth without error.
God is the author of Sacred Scripture. “The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”
God inspired the human authors of the sacred books. “To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.”
The inspired books teach the truth. “Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”
– Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 105 – 107
Where Catholics differ from some of their Protestant brethren is that we do not believe that the meaning of scripture is always crystal clear to every reader. We are removed from the authors by a couple of millennia. We are removed from the intended readers by just as much time, and quite a bit of culture. Yes, we believe that the scripture is “God Breathed,” but He inspired specific men who wrote to specific audiences, often addressing specific issues. This means, that in order to understand scripture, you need to do more than just pick up the book.
First, you need to understand the cultural context of the author and the audience, and perhaps even the specific issues to which the author was writing. Thus the Catechism continues:
In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.
In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. “For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression.”
– CCC 109 – 110
But all the scholarship in the world will only get you so far, because the scripture is not merely a historical book, it is also the inspired word of God.
But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written.”
– CCC 111
So we see that Scripture is both historical (requiring some historical knowledge to understand the nuance) and inspired (requiring a relational connection to the Holy Spirit to understand the truth).
But it doesn’t end there. You see, during the first few centuries of Christianity, there were many books floating around that claimed to be letters from the apostles, including some books of gnostic or other heretical origin. Many local Bishops created lists that they considered to be scripture for use in their dioceses (regions). It wasn’t until the late fourth century that the 3rd Council of Carthage (397 A.D.) that the Canon of Scripture became fixed. Thus in addition to knowing the historical aspects of the author and primary audience, and having that understanding informed by the Holy Spirit, it is also important to test the interpretation of scripture against the interpretations of the Church throughout the centuries.
The Second Vatican Council indicates three criteria for interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it.
- Be especially attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture.” Different as the books which compose it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God’s plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since his Passover.
- Read the Scripture within “the living Tradition of the whole Church”. According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture (“. . . according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church”).
- Be attentive to the analogy of faith. By “analogy of faith” we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.
– CCC 112 – 114
So, when a Catholic seeks to understand a passage of scripture, we ask:
- What did the Author intend to convey?
- What did the original audience understand the author to say?
- What truth does the Holy Spirit wish to convey?
- How has the Church interpreted this scripture over the last two millennia?
(This is what I like to call the “inertia of history.”)
- How does this fit in to the message of the whole of Sacred Scripture?
So with this basis, we can look at what Scripture says about Confession, but we’ll get there by first examining the validity of the Priesthood, the nature of Sin and the nature of Sacrament.