Sunday, July 31, 2011

Defending the Sanctity of Confession

Guest post by Ben Carmack

Check out this great post from Martha of Ireland over at

Martha is defending the right of Catholic priests to not reveal to governing authorities anything (which also means everything) they hear during Confessional. Apparently some in Ireland, in light of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, are pushing to remove the privileged status the Confessional has in Irish law and require priests to come clean to authority if someone confesses to abusing a child.

While some may be shocked by Rome's insistence, ancient as it is, that priests refuse to blab anything they hear in Confession upon pain of death, it is perfectly reasonable to me.

Confession and Absolution, also called the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation, is for me one of Catholicism's most attractive features. It is something that I think we evangelicals need to think on. It is something we should try to add, as is appropriate, into our tradition.

Roman Catholics get a bum rap from evangelical Protestants for "works-righteousness," "legalism," lack of assurance of salvation, lack of grace and lack of Christ. 

Surprisingly, in my own experience, among devout Catholics I have known personally, none of the foregoing applies. They have been kind, even-keel, hospitable people, fitting none of their stereotypes. I have met many of my fellow evangelical Protestants who are obsessed with works-righteousness, legalism, lack assurance of salvation, lack grace and lack Christ. Perhaps the name-calling of Catholics springs from insecurity. Perhaps it is a case of "projection"?

Anyway, the Sacrament of Reconciliation puts Catholics in a much better position to deal with the reality of sin among Christians. Rather than causing people to doubt salvation, I think it is obvious that the intent of the Sacrament is to provide assurance.

Evangelicals' response to the reality of sin among Christians is to either ignore it, to shout it from the rooftops, to supress it or to make excuses for it. We deal with sin awkwardly. Our awkwardness has manifested itself in my own life many times: group confessions among men to the viewing of pornography, theatrical scandals and confessions, hypocrisy, weakness and weirdness. 

I have found that the open confession of sin of one Christian and the response of total forgiveness from a fellow Christian is a powerful thing. 

The trouble is often one of human weakness. One can never be sure, in many congregations, if one's secrets will not be gossiped about the whole church. So we hide from one another. In theory, our theology tells us that we are totally forgiven and on our way to heaven, because, through some legal fiction, Christ's goodness has been "imputed" to us. In reality, we don't feel this way. 

In mathematics and in the sciences, theory is supposed to help explain reality. If a theory, by experiment and analysis, does not match reality, scientists discount it and seek to reform it so that it does conform to reality.

A similar rule should exist in theology, which is the science of the holy: if theological theories don't match the real experience of Christians, those theories should be reexamined. Those theories that do match reality should be embraced.

In this case, the Catholic Church has done a better job of acknowledging the reality of human weakness.

After we receive the grace of Jesus in our baptism, which is the "washing of regeneration," we continue to sin. We continue to carry with us deep flaws, some of which are so ingrained we will never be victorious over them in this life. 

If we are told that we don't have to worry about our sinfulness because Christ's perfect righteousness is imputed to us, thereby, through legal gymnastics, letting us off the hook, this does nothing to solve the problems of our sin. If you are like me, it makes you feel even worse: how could God completely overlook my sins simply because I intellectually assented to the Protestant theory of salvation and yet send others to hell because of theirs? Isn't that unfair? unjust? 

If salvation is nothing more than a Protestant legal contract in which God is obligated to save me automatically no matter what merely because at one point "I believed," the logic is that my sin does not matter at all. It also "obligates" God to do something; how can God be "obligated" to save sinners?

The logic, in many conservative Protestant circles, is that, because they don't hold to the Protestant legal understanding of salvation, good people like Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II will roast in hell for eternity, whilst the lousy bunch of "once saved, always saved" Christians who populate First Baptist have a guaranteed inside track to the Pearly Gates. Excuse me?

This is contrary to common sense and common decency. It is also contrary to the Scriptures and to the Church universal understanding of them through the ages.

Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation him that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is acceptable to Him.  (It's in the Bible. Look it up.)

The Early Church believed in confession and absolution, not in legal fictions. This is evident very early on, in documents like the Didache

When Christians who have sinned come forward to confess to a priest or confessor, the priest or confessor ceremonially absolves them with the sign of the cross (representing both the crucifixion, where sin was dealt with once and for all, and the blessed Trinity). The penitent is then given a penance, perhaps a prescriptive prayer or spiritual practice, along with helpful advice. 

The sin then passes into the sea of forgetfulness, for it is Christ who absolves: the human who makes the sign of the cross acts merely as a conduit.

It is essential, therefore, for valid and genuine confessions to be completely secret and confidential. Take that away and confession loses its fundamental character. Those priests have every right to refuse to reveal to authority what they know. Authority represents the Prince of the World. Authority represents the old Law. The Church is not to be burdened with the mandates of the State. It is the business of the Church to forgive sins. The Church is a picture of the future, the New Heavens and New Earth; the State, with its system of rewards and punishments, with its obsession with legal fictions, is a picture of Satan's failed order, which will soon pass away.

Those priests don't owe the State nuthin'. And given the generous amount of sexual abuse, murder and theft that has gone on with State support through the ages, the State has no standing whatsoever to tell the Church anything about anything. 

As a Protestant and as someone who tries to obey Scripture, I cannot agree with the particular view of the priesthood held by the Roman Church and other such ancient Churches. If the book of Hebrews and the letters of Saint Peter mean anything, it is that the Levitical priesthood is no more, Christ alone is our High Priest and all Christians are now priests.

However, I do believe that the example given us by Catholic priests is often a good one. All Christians should be about the business of forgiving, absolving and forgetting sins. All Christians should hold what they are told in absolute confidence, refusing to tell anyone on pain of death. We are commanded by Christ in at least two different instances in the Gospel to forgive sins: let's do it.

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Comments are always most welcome.


  1. Thanks for including the link to Martha of Ireland's post. Hers, like yours, is exceptionally good, and provides lots of insight. I hope everyone who reads your post also reads hers.

  2. The following comment was accidentally filed under another post. I have reproduced it here.

    derek said,

    So I’ve been trying to think of how this idea would be interpreted by a non Christian because it intrigues me. As a protestant myself even if I agree with you about the fact that things confessed should be allowed to be kept a secret, I have to wonder how this would look to a non believer. It would seem that the law is made for everyone, we are all subject to it and although the church may be open to everyone the fact that you don’t follow it’s teachings can’t get you put in jail or numerous other things that can happen if you disobey they law unless it so happens that those doctrines align with the law. So then if I understand this right then we are talking about 2 things the Church law and then the Government law. If the Government law is to say that this Church law has no authority, (that is to say that no matter if a church law says that the priest should never tell something from a confession or not) not telling is still punishable by law with whatever penalties that includes. So as a good priest that abides by church law you perhaps should be willing to be put in jail or even die to abide by this church law. This might lead one (and I can’t tell if this is what you’re saying or not) to think that the Government shouldn’t pass a law that would force the Priest to go against Church law. This is where I feel it gets tricky. To say that any particular religion or religious law is above the government law is scary. This makes me think of all the possibilities of terrible things people could do and say “well that’s my religion and we have a religious law that permits it and you made an exception in your governmental law for them how come you won’t do it for my religious views”? So you can follow that thought on through to the distrust in law and so on. So It leaves me curious how much thought governmental law should be giving to religious teachings and things that laws they are making may contradict. Thoughts welcome.

  3. Derek,

    Good points you bring up.

    Martha addressed this same question in her post which I reference at the beginning. Forgiveness in Christianity is a "scandal" that keeps a lot of people, non believers, from accepting it. It's even difficult for many Christians.

    But it's still there.

    According to Christian theology, anyone who confesses Christ will be saved--even Hitler, even Stalin, even Pol Pot can get to Heaven. Scandalous? You bet. But it is what it is.

    There are even Christian theologians who have suggested that God's love will eventually save everybody--they are called Universalists. Name any other major world religion that contains such a school of thought. The thought is scandalous.

    Personally, I am not a Universalist, but still, I believe in the power of forgiveness.

    Should priests be willing to face death in order to guard the secrets of the Confessional? Of course. Roman Church law requires them to do so. So should all Christians, I believe.

    However, given the choice between a governmental law that will persecute Christians and one that will not, I will opt for the non-persecuting law myself. Am I a wimp? Maybe, but I'd like to think that I ain't stupid either.

    Priests can suggest that people tell the police about what they've done. They can urge them to do so. The key is that the person has to do that, not the priest. The priests has to keep the secret. But if the penitent wants to come clean to the authorities, no problem.

    I have to leave it at that.