Read ~ Chapter 11: The Sacrament of Reconciliation
Father Anthony Nachef, STD (Doctorate in Sacred Theology)
The teachings contained in this chapter are based on Holy Scriptures, the Tradition of the Catholic Church [especially the First and Second Vatican Councils, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the Fathers of the Church (especially St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine)], the Magisterium of the Catholic Church (especially Saint Pope Paul VI, Saint Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis). All Apostolic Encyclicals and Letters are found on the Vatican Website: Vatican
Sin before the New Testament
Sin in pagan times: Before the revelation of God in the Old Testament, people did not think of sin because there was no revelation to indicate right from wrong. There were no rules or commandments and therefore society lived according to the law of the jungle. However, because every human person is in the image of God, there was still the law of conscience working in the heart of those people even back then. When someone attempted to commit evil, their conscience always warned them no matter who they were and what society they lived in. The voice of God in our natural reason is given to us at the moment of creation. It is the natural grace of creation by God that will help us always discern good from evil.
Sin in the Old Testament: With the revelation of God to Israel, we have a new phase of revelation because God not only reveals his identity, but he also reveals a moral code to be followed by his people. The Ten Commandments as well as many other traditions are expressions of the moral actions inspired by God. There is an inseparable connection between the identity of God and following his commandments. The identity of God and living in communion with God become the two essential dimensions of the Hebrews’ spiritual journey.
Mediation to forgive sin in the Old Testament: In the Old Testament, God created a new consciousness of sin in the law of the Jewish religion. When the people did not follow the commandments of God, God always invited them through the prophets, “turn away from your evil ways and I will forgive you.” (2 Chronicles 7:14) However, the forgiveness of God in the Old Testament happens ‘from heaven.’ The transcendental God of Israel ‘spiritually’ intervenes to forgive the transgressions of his people. The ritual, where the high priest once a year would go into the holy of holies to expiate the sin of Israel, is a concrete example of God’s forgiving relationship with Israel.
The Reality of Sin in the New Testament
Sin is an offense against God: Sin is primarily an act against God: “Against you, you only, have I sinned.” (Psalm 50:4) It is a free decision to go against the commandments of God and the moral code of the Gospels established by Jesus Christ. Sin has an evil nature because it contradicts the intrinsic functioning of our being. It is a foreign element to God’s creation and his plan for the state of our being after death. St Augustine rightly teaches: “Man and sinner are, so to speak, two realities: when you hear ‘man’ – this is what God has made; when you hear ‘sinner’ – this is what man himself has made. Destroy what you have made, so that God may save what he has made.” (PL 35, 1491 and CCC, 1468-1470)
Sin is an offense against the Church: Not only God, all people are also offended when we sin. In fact, we are the body of Christ and every member is affected by the illness of the other member. Therefore, reconciling with God has an automatic consequence, that is a reconciliation with the Church too. Vatican II teaches: “The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.” (CCC, 1445 and CCC, 1468-1470)
Sin is an offense against oneself: When Adam and Eve sinned, the harmony between them and God (they became afraid of God), between them and the creation (punishment in hard work), and between them and themselves was destroyed (they realized they were naked). The Catechism teaches that sin “also injures and weakens the sinner himself.” (CCC, 1459 and CCC, 1468-1470)
Forgiveness of Sins on Earth in the New Testament
God came to earth: Only God can forgive sins (see Mark 2:7). With the New Testament we have a totally different scenario because Jesus is claiming to have God’s power to forgive sins. In the Incarnation of Christ, God took on a human nature with a human knowledge, human growth, and a human conscience. The human nature of Christ is totally and completely authentic; it had a human soul with all the constitutive elements of a created human soul. However, the subject that was acting in Christ’s human nature is divine: The Second Person of the Trinity, the Son. Part of the mission of the Incarnate Son is to forgive humanity’s sin but this time here on earth.
Jesus forgives sins on earth: In Matthew 9, The Word of God brings the theology of forgiveness to a higher level. The Jews brought a paralytic to Jesus. They couldn’t enter through the door, so they dug a hole in the ceiling. Jesus saw their faith and said to the paralytic “Your sins are forgiven.” What was the reaction of the Pharisees? They started thinking that Jesus was blaspheming, “Who else can forgive sin except for God from above?” Jesus responded that, “The Son of Man has authority here on earth to forgive sins.” (See also Mark 2:5 and 10; Luke 7:48)
The same exact authority to forgive sins on earth is also expressed in Luke 7:50. Here Jesus forgives the sinful woman who was weeping at his feet and, of course, the reaction of the Pharisees was a total shock: “who is this man, that he even forgives sins.”
Forgiving sins on earth is the ultimate scandal for the Jews: Forgiving sin on earth by Jesus Christ is something totally and completely foreign to the Jewish mindset. They always thought that only God can do that from heaven. With Jesus, the forgiveness of sins is not happening anymore from heaven because heaven is now united to the earth. Forgiveness of sins is not only a spiritual and abstract act anymore. It is a tangible act; it is something that God Himself brought here on Earth when he became man. That was the ultimate scandal for the Jews.
Confirming the sacrament of reconciliation after Christ’s resurrection: Right after his resurrection, and to extend the forgiveness of sins on earth through the Holy Spirit, Jesus established the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Church. Jesus says to the Apostles after his resurrection: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:23) Now why do people today try to have their sins forgiven in a way different than the way established by Jesus Christ Himself? Why do people say “I don’t need to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation from another human being when Jesus Himself confirmed “if you don’t forgive people’s sins, they will not be forgiven?”
Why did Jesus establish the sacrament of reconciliation? Baptism erases original sin but not its consequences. Concupiscence, that is the tendency to evil, is still in us even after baptism. Because of this tendency, Jesus established this sacrament to forgive our sins when we fall. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as “the second plank (of salvation) after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.” (Tertullian, PL 1:1343)
Forgiveness of Sins on Earth in the Catholic Church
Every act of Jesus has an eternal value: Every act of Jesus, because the subject is the eternal God Incarnate, will have an eternal value. Everything he said and did is intended to be lived and repeated by all generations. Therefore, Jesus did establish a visible Catholic Church in which all his actions will be extended in space and time by the Holy Spirit. Since Jesus Christ forgave here on earth, he logically and historically intended the Church to also forgive sins here on earth. St. Paul teaches that Jesus Christ reconciled us to God but at the same time Jesus “gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18) It cannot be clearer then that: Jesus Christ entrusted the power of absolution to the Apostolic ministry of St. Paul and the Apostles as a continuation in the Church of Christ’s reconciliation of humanity with God. God did forgive the world in Christ once and for all but he “entrusted to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:19)
How did Jesus establish the forgiveness of sins on the earth: Since all of Jesus’ actions are intended to be eternal and to be re-enacted by the Catholic Church, Jesus gave the authority to forgive sins not only to the Apostles, but to all their successors as well. How did Jesus extend this command to priests and bishops? He did that by establishing the Sacrament of Priesthood: Jesus shared his one priesthood with priests and bishops all over the world. There is Only One High Priest, Jesus Christ, who is still the only one who forgives sins. Every priest and bishop, in the world, share in the One priesthood of Christ (that is the only reason why they are called priests). Priests and bishops therefore act on behalf of the Person of Christ (in Persona Christi) sharing in His priesthood when they exercise their authority to forgive sins. Ultimately, Jesus gave his power to men to extend the forgiveness of sins in the Church (see John 20:21-23)
Experiencing the forgiveness of sins in a tangible way: Jesus Christ, because of his infinite mercy and love and because we are weak human beings, wanted to share his priesthood so people are capable of experiencing the forgiveness of sins in a tangible way. We see it and hear it straight from the mouth of Christ using the priesthood of the priest. When the priest acts in virtue of the priesthood of Christ, the forgiveness of sins happens ex opere operato: it is a hundred percent guaranteed forgiveness of sins because Christ is still the one forgiving. All of this is possible because of the Incarnation: Jesus truly entered our world once and for all and fulfilled salvation using human instruments.
Those not accepting Confession deny the Incarnation of Christ: We have a God who wanted to come down and establish a secure guaranteed way for our sins to be forgiven and what do some people do? They push him back up to the way he was in the Old Testament. People, who try to go ‘directly’ to Christ and not go through the priest, are taking themselves back to the Old Testament. They are not acknowledging the Incarnation and the way Christ accomplished our salvation. Which is more direct ‘seeing’ Christ in the priest who is sharing Christ’s priesthood or going ‘directly’ to Christ?
Should we approach Confession when we know we will be possibly committing the same sins in the future? Some mistakenly think, “What’s the point of going to confession if we know we will be falling again in the same sins?” Jesus knows that people have addictions and weaknesses that lead them to fall again. It is exactly for that reason that He established the Sacrament of Reconciliation: he knows we are weak and he knows we might do the same thing repeatedly.
Forgiveness of repeated sins is in the Bible: It is unacceptable to believe “What’s the point in going if I’m going to keep repeating the same sin”; when going to confession is exactly because we might be committing the same sins. When Peter went to Jesus asking, “When my brother sins against me, how many times should I forgive him, 7 times”? The answer was 77 times 7 times (the number 7 is the perfect biblical number meaning an unlimited amount of times). If Christ is asking Peter to forgive an unlimited number of times, how much would he, as God, forgive the sins of the sinner? Those who quit approaching the Sacrament of Reconciliation grant much easier access to the Evil One in their lives. Jesus knew what he was doing when he gave the Apostles and their successors the authority to forgive sins here on earth.
Does the Sacrament of Reconciliation forgive all types of sins?
Does God cut us off from communion with him? God does not cut us from being in communion with him; we cut ourselves from communion with God. The only purpose of God’s creation of humanity is to be in communion with him. God delights in us, embraces us, and loves us forever (John 3:16). The letter of St. Paul to Timothy states, “It is the will of God that all men should be saved.” That is the will of God for us, a wonderful and comforting feeling that universal salvation is the will of God, and the will of God does not change.
Venial sins: We have two different types of sin as St. John’s letter clearly reports: There are venial sins and mortal sins. Venial sins don’t break our communion with God. They are mild sins like gossip, white lies, stealing little stuff, etc… These sins are the result of human weaknesses. They just hinder our way to spiritual perfection. People who commit these little sins can still approach Communion. Not approaching Communion because they feel unworthy is not inspired by Christ. Who is worthy to receive Communion anyway?
Mortal sins: The expression “mortal sins“ does not mean that these sins cannot be forgiven by Christ. It means that they are very serious sins that ‘could’ lead to our eternal damnation if we don’t repent. Three of them, generally speaking, are very well known: the sin of apostasy (denying your faith in Christ and the Church publicly, which scandalizes others), murder (in all its forms, whether it is killing someone already born, or preborn, e.g. abortion), adultery and fornication (to have sexual relations with another person outside the context of marriage). If someone commits these sins, they should not receive Communion unless they approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation first, repent for their sins, and amend their life.
Is there a sin that cannot be forgiven? The Second Vatican Council teaches that if a person knows that Jesus Christ is their Savior and that he established the Catholic Church as a Sacrament of Salvation, and that person deliberately decides to deny Jesus and the Church until the end of their lives, that person is in danger of losing their soul. The Church will never confirm that that person is going to hell. That decision is exclusively the decision of God. At the end of the day only God knows the deepest recesses of the heart and the conditions in which that person stayed stubborn until the end of their life, denying Christ and the Church. God will have the ultimate just and merciful judgment. All the Church can confirm is that the person who decides to deny Christ and the Church until the end of his or her lives is “in danger of being cut from the communion with God forever.”
Is it really possible, to deny Christ and the Church, ‘truly’ knowing his love and design of salvation? Is it possible that a human person knows (in the full sense of the word) that Christ is their Savior and the Church is a Sacrament of Salvation, and still willingly decides to reject that until the end of their life? The answer is yes, but someone must be very much an evil person to go that route. They are choosing hell. God doesn’t send anyone to hell. We choose to send ourselves to hell and we cut our communion with God because we have an authentic freedom.
An example: I’m a multimillionaire and I meet John’s family. I find him very intelligent, but his parents don’t have any money to educate him. I tell them that I’m going to fund his education keeping it a secret from him. I sent him to the best medical university in the world because I feel like he is going to be the one doctor to discover a cure for cancer. I give them 10 million dollars and John later becomes the most important doctor in the world and he indeed discovers the cure for cancer and now he is a multimillionaire himself. One day he is driving his Rolls Royce in Rome and I’m driving my BMW behind him. Without paying attention, I hit his car in the back. Not knowing who I am, he gets out of his car and he beats me up, almost killing me. If John knew who I was and that I ‘saved’ his life, would he have done this when I hit his car? Most likely, no. If he knew exactly who I was and still decided to beat me up to the point of almost killing me, how evil of a person would he be if he did that? The question if a person truly knows who Christ is (the Savior from eternal death), would they still deny him? Yes, but to do that they must be pure evil.
Temptation and sin: Every human person is tempted throughout their lives. Temptations are not a sin yet; they become a sin if we act on them. God does not tempt us, the devil does. God allows temptations for two reasons: to keep us humble and to give us an opportunity to grow in holiness. When we are humbled through temptations we rely on God’s grace more (St. Paul said, “it is when I am weak that I am strong because of the grace of Christ working in me” (see 2 Corinthians 12:9-11). When we overcome temptations, we grow in our union with Christ and the holiness of our life, just like Christ did after he triumphed over temptations: “Angels came and ministered to him.” (Mathew 4:11)
Validity of the Sacrament of Reconciliation: For this Sacrament to be valid, few conditions must be present:
- An ordained minister, a bishop or a priest, is the only one who can give a valid absolution of sins in the Catholic Church. Since the beginning of the Church only priests and bishops took on the ministry of this sacrament as St. Paul confirms receiving from Christ “the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18). Such a ministry has already been Christ’s gift to St. Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19) The forgiveness of sins is the ministry of St. Peter, the Apostles and all their successors (CCC, 1461).
Such a ministry does not only reconcile the sinner with God, but also with the community of the Church. The binding or loosing happens in the Church and for the Church. The Catechism teaches: “The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.” (CCC, 1445)
- The ordained minister needs to be aware of what they are doing and intend to give an absolution. A drunk minister, for example cannot give a valid absolution.
- If a minister was removed from public ministry and if he administer this sacrament, the absolution will be valid but not licit. He is not allowed to do it and should not do it, even though the forgiveness of sins will take place if he celebrates this sacrament. His celebration is illicit, but it is still valid because the sacrament of priesthood he received comes from Christ, not the Church.
- A repentant sinner is a necessity for the forgiveness of sins to take place. If a person is not sorry for their sins, a valid reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not possible. For a valid reception of this sacrament, the Council of Trent teaches that the repentant sinner must experience a “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again.” (DS, 1676) A perfect contrition is the first step of forgiveness of mortal sins, as long as the penitent approaches the sacrament of reconciliation as soon as they can. Imperfect contrition, however, “cannot obtain the forgiveness of grave sins, but it disposes one to obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance.” (CCC, 1453)
- A valid absolution requires a disclosure of all the sins committed. The Council of Trent teaches: “When Christ’s faithful strive to confess all the sins that they can remember, they undoubtedly place all of them before the divine mercy for pardon. But those who fail to do so and knowingly withhold some, place nothing before the divine goodness for remission through the mediation of the priest, ‘for if the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know’.” (Council of Trent, DS 1680)
- The resolution not to sin anymore is an essential condition for the forgiveness of sins in this sacrament. Jesus said to the penitent woman who was caught in adultery, “go and sin no more.” The merciful Christ who forgives even the worst of our sins, does not want us to take advantage of his mercy; rather, he invites us to be vigorous and not to sin. A person approaching this sacrament and playing a game to just go with the flow instead of a firm resolution not to sin, is tempting the Lord.
- Fulfilling the penance to amend one’s life is a condition for the forgiveness of sins. When we sin we disturb the moral order. In order to re-establish this order, we need to amend our life by works of penance. Suffering will heal our wounds and accomplish a perfect reconciliation with God. The Council of Trent clearly teaches: “Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused.” (DS 1712) The sinner, therefore, must amend for the sin so they will experience full spiritual recovery. The penance must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed (See CCC, 1460). Suffering is the most efficient penance one could do to amend their life.
- God and the human person work together for a complete remission of sins and a perfect healing. St. Augustine teaches: “Man and sinner are, so to speak, two realities: when you hear ‘man’ – this is what God has made; when you hear ‘sinner’ – this is what man himself has made. Destroy what you have made, so that God may save what he has made.” (PL 35, 1491)
Many talks on reconciling with the Church today can be viewed on Bishop Robert Barron website: Bishop Robert Barron