Our consideration of the sacrament of penance has shown that the power to forgive sins by the Church comes from Jesus, who directly bestowed this power upon the apostles and their successors. Accordingly, the power to forgive sins resides within those who are ordained as bishops and priests by virtue of their being ordained. Yet, among the frequently asked questions perhaps the most common question is “why do we need to confess our sins to a priest?” This straight forward question has multiple facets – regarding priests themselves (sinners that they are) as well as God’s omnipotence and that He can forgive sins directly without need for anything/anyone in between. So “why” is it necessary?
One facet of the question of “why do we need to go to a priest?” is the truth that we can indeed “go straight to God.” Each and every one of us can directly confess our sins to God – and we are honestly encouraged to do so every day. In fact, it is good practice to examine our conscience every evening, calling to mind both the good that has taken place in order to thank God and also the ways in which we have sinned in order to seek God’s mercy (St. Ignatius of Loyola gives us an actual method to do this called the “Daily Examen”). By doing such, we are able to identify our sins more honestly and readily, opening ourselves to greater graces to live true to our calling and helping us to seek to be freed from sins.
The Daily Examen being a powerful way to grow in awareness of sins in our life and to ask God to forgive us, this follow up question on going directly to God needs to be answered: what from God directly assures us of having been forgiven? If we are honest, we recognize that subjectively we can tell ourselves that we are forgiven because we believe God has forgiven us. However, objectively there is nothing that indicates to us the actual forgiveness of our sins has been granted after this private act of confessing sins. To illustrate direct forgiveness, consider the passage of Jesus healing the paralytic (Matthew 9:1-8 or Mark 2:1-12). In this story, Jesus’ words are clear and direct: “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Since the onlookers do not immediately accept this, Jesus goes on to say “That you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive,” he says to the paralytic “Rise, pick up your mat and go home” expressing that what he has said in forgiving is also effective. Our confessing straight to God in private, however, has no such direct or objective indication of forgiveness.
On the other hand, in confession to a priest the “outward” act of hearing one who has been entrusted with the power to forgive (the ordained priest) declaring the words of absolution directly expresses that one’s sins are forgiven in an objective way.
A further common objection is that “the priest himself is a sinner,” and the follow up question: who hears his confession? Priests must go to confession in the same way as any of the faithful: to one who is a priest (and not to himself). There is no difference in how a priest is called to go to confession from the laity. In fact, as priests acknowledge their own sinfulness and need for forgiveness, they are able to identify with every person who will ever seek them out for confession. In fact, priests will testify how inspiring it is to hear confessions – as people who come to them with a humble desire for holiness and to grow in love of God and neighbor truly does inspire us.
In conclusion, “why” confess to a priest? The priest has been given the power to objectively forgive – and by receiving the priest’s absolution, one can be assured that their sins have been forgiven through the power of the sacrament as given by Jesus.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paragraphs 1461-1467 review the minister of the sacrament – and how priests are servants of forgiveness.