What should Protestants think about the Catholic sacrament of penance (confession)?


“The Confession,” by Giuseppe Molteni (19th c.)

Despite my attempts to clarify (what I understand of) Roman Catholic doctrine and practice in my lectures, I always get papers and exam essays from students at my Baptist seminary showing that they are impervious to correction of Protestant stereotypes.

In a paper on the sacrament of reconciliation (penance), a student wrote, “Being founded on a works-based righteousness . . .”

My response:

You haven’t demonstrated this. It is the typical Protestant stereotype. RC theology is officially Augustinian (grace-based), with the allowance that humans participate with God’s grace in that dimension of salvation that we call sanctification. Protestants agree with this point (except for some Lutherans). What we disagree on is the inclusion of sanctification in our understanding of salvation. In other words, RC theology is certainly not “works-based.” In practice, it sometimes leans that way, granted. But we need to be careful that we are dealing with a real (and I agree, flawed) theological stance, not a straw man.

The student wrote, “The Scriptures explicitly declare Christ the mediator of our confession, reconciling us to God (I Tim. 2:5-6, ESV), not the power or authority of the priest.”

I responded:

Again you misunderstand. The priest declares the reconciliation that Christ attains for us. It is not the priest’s attainment, not his power, that secures reconciliation for us. Augustine explicitly taught against this stance when he fought the Donatists. While it is true that the sacrament may be performed only by a duly ordained priest, the sacrament and its power do not belong to the priest. This is another fundamental Protestant misunderstanding (caricature) of RC theology and practice. While it is certainly up for debate whether we require a duly ordained person to hear our confession (perhaps not, though it has benefits in the realm of church order, and C S Lewis recognized this, practicing confession to a priest for the last few decades of his life), and I am inclined to side with Luther on this, nonetheless in Catholic theology the priest is “necessary” to the sacrament only as officiant, not as the person with the power, in and of himself, to forgive or absolve. That power is recognized as being Christ’s only.

The student, drawing directly from Luther, insists on a Protestant model of Confession based in an understanding of sola gratia, sola fides: “There is no need for individuals to work for their salvation, but rather there is an outpouring of the Spirit that compels good works through the fruits of the Spirit and the imputed righteousness of God.”

I responded to that naive position of Luther’s, that sanctification happens in a sort of automatic way, pointing out that many Protestants through history have disagreed with this stance. Then continued:

Important note: the “works” involved in the Catholic theology of penance are two: (1) confession (which you are recommending for Protestants! And make no mistake, it is a work) and (2) works of satisfaction, which are a sort of “spiritual discipline” intended to move the individual forward in their sanctification. This, too, many Protestants affirm. Think of Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson . . . and John Calvin, who spent the whole third chapter of his Institutes of the Christian Religion talking about sanctification as including human participation to both “mortify” sin in the body and “vivify” the spirit.

Continued the student,

“Luther’s experience of penance was not an experience that gave him hope or left him feeling relieved, but rather brought up the unending list of sins that he had committed and continued to add to by the minute”

My response:

His problem, as has been clearly demonstrated by Protestant as well as Catholic historians of theology, was with a corrupted, non-Augustinian stream in late medieval humanist-influenced Catholic theology, called the “theologia moderna.” This sub-tradition insisted that once you “did your best,” God would honor that and bring you salvation. This was not the historic teaching of the Catholic Church.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not a Roman Catholic, nor do I wish for my Protestant students to cross the Tiber. But if we are going to argue with Catholics over things, we should argue with their real positions, not caricatures based on the worst abuses of theology within their confession. It is only fair, since that is what we would wish from our own theological opponents. And it is the only way to gain useful knowledge in dialogue with “the other.”

That said, I expect I’ll see some heated responses to this post. Perhaps even some light, correcting any mis-emphases I may have committed here.

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13 responses to “What should Protestants think about the Catholic sacrament of penance (confession)?

  1. With respect to the possibility of a priest revealing a penitents sins, I can honestly say, as a practicing RC, that this is one thing that I have absolutely NO fear of. Revealing sins made know in confession is about as close to being the “unforgivable sin” as anything can be. And no, I don’t mean that in the biblical/theological sense so please don’t misunderstand me. What I mean is simply that there is practically nothing else a priest can do that would bring swifter and surer consequences from the hierarchy than the revelation of a sin heard in confession – excommunication, loss of faculties and other censures. But even without these penalties, priests take the “seal of confession”, as it is known, with utmost seriousness. I completely trust every priests I have ever confessed to in this regard. They simply will not reveal my sins to another person for any reasons whatsoever, not even “when it was in the best interests of the Church, and then only to those who needed to be influenced accordingly”. They will not reveal my sins – not to another priest, not to a bishop, not to the pope, not to my family, not to my employer, not to a police officer and not to a judge. So seriously is the seal of confession taken that, if anything, it raises concerns in the opposite direction. It is very possible that priests can become aware of sins that should be made known, for the sake of protecting innocent victims and their hands are pretty much tied. They cannot reveal what the know.

    Consider the following from http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0059.html

    “The sacramental seal is inviolable. Quoting Canon 983.1 of the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism states, “…It is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason” (No. 2490). A priest, therefore, cannot break the seal to save his own life, to protect his good name, to refute a false accusation, to save the life of another, to aid the course of justice (like reporting a crime), or to avert a public calamity. He cannot be compelled by law to disclose a person’s confession or be bound by any oath he takes, e.g. as a witness in a court trial. A priest cannot reveal the contents of a confession either directly, by repeating the substance of what has been said, or indirectly, by some sign, suggestion, or action. A Decree from the Holy Office (Nov. 18, 1682) mandated that confessors are forbidden, even where there would be no revelation direct or indirect, to make any use of the knowledge obtained in the confession that would “displease” the penitent or reveal his identity.”

    The most a priest could perhaps do is withhold absolution and advise the penitent to “come clean” concerning their crimes to legitimate authorities – although I admit I am not completely sure of this last point. I would welcome any clarification on this from any priests out there.

    And it should be remembered that there is always the option to confess anonymously and to a priest who has never met you simply by going to a parish where you are unknown.

  2. Frank Z said: “Just think: one priest knows all the innermost secrets of the people in his congregation. Should any of those people fail to go along with the decisions of the church, then all his secret sins could be exposed, and his career ruined.”

    A priest who reveals *anything* he hears in the confessional is subject to automatic excommunication.

    • Thanks Anne. It’s interesting how much of the American Protestant reaction to Catholicism has stemmed from this single root: fear of abuse of authority. On the other hand, I happen to think that there is one primary reason the Reformation had to happen, and that’s not a theological reason (the medieval Catholic Church knew all about salvation by grace through faith–Augustine was still their theologian sine qua non). Rather, it was the terrible abuse of authority that everybody in the last centuries of the Middle Ages recognized, at pretty much every level of the church. So while I agree that Frank’s suggested scenario is far-fetched (along an American continuum that includes the scurrilous 19th-century Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk and the burnings, in that era, of convents and churches), I won’t dismiss the underlying concern.

    • I don’t think for a moment that the priest would openly reveal the sins of his confessors in front of just anybody. It would only be done when it was in the best interests of the Church, and then only to those who needed to be influenced accordingly. The Church has not hesitated to use whatever means in it’s power, when it’s own advancement and glory were at stake.

      When the Inquisition was in force, good Catholics (which included priests) were expected to, and even rewarded, for reporting anyone suspected of heresy. Do you suppose that a priest would risk being himself put before the Inquisition by not reporting that one of his confessors had contact with “heresy” (because he heard it in the confessional)?

      Any church or group that adopts the principle that “the end justifies the means” is capable of breaking/changing/twisting/modifying any rule or law of decency, respect, or honor, if it serves the so-called “greater cause.” You don’t need to see evidence of every sin imaginable to know that it will be performed. All you need to do is understand what are the principles of a certain system, and then you know what they are capable of doing under pressure.

      In any case, the confessional itself has led to abuse in other areas, when young celibate priests, whose passions were in full bloom, had to listen to confessions from weak females and their lustful adventures. This did lead to problems, and that is why the confessional (which was originally open) had to have a wall put between the priest and confessor. This is well-documented history.

  3. I was raised a Catholic, and now consider myself a Protestant. The Catholic system is not clumsy, it is a masterpiece, but it does not originate from God.

    As far as the so-called “sacrament of penance” is concerned, it puts a priest in the place of God (“I confess my sins to you father, who takes the place of God”). The priest is not merely a helper to strengthen someone’s faith so they can go to Christ directly, but he is one that you must go to instead of Christ. In the Catholic system, you cannot get to Christ in confession, except by the priest.

    As a comparison, look at John the Baptist. His whole mission was to lead people to Christ, and when they found Christ, what did he say? Did he say, “wait, you can’t go to Christ directly! you have to go through me!” Not at all. He said, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” That’s what a true apostle and a true minister is like.

    Catholicism is a subtle blending of some parts of the Old Covenant priesthood (which could not forgive sin), with the “mystery of iniquity”: a man standing in the place of Christ, pretending to do the work of Christ. Satan designed this kind of system to control people.

    The Catholic system puts priests, bishops, and popes in control of people. This can, and has, led to abuse. For example, before the Reformation, if a king would not obey the pope, then all church services were suspended. The superstitious people then thought they were “cut off” from God! If the king did not change his mind and obey the pope, then the whole nation would rise against him. This is only one way the system leads to abuse.

    The confessional also opens up a door to control and abuse. Just think: one priest knows all the innermost secrets of the people in his congregation. Should any of those people fail to go along with the decisions of the church, then all his secret sins could be exposed, and his career ruined.

    Now we don’t hear much of this kind of thing today, but only because the Catholic church does not have the same influence over governments as she once had. But the deadly wound will heal, and it will come again.

    This kind of system, with it’s grasping for power and control, could never have originated with Christ, who came as the servant of man’s needs. It reminds me much of the monopolizing tendencies of big corporations today who are grasping to control the earth’s resources.

    The system begins by making a difference or “gap” between Christ and humanity. This you see very clearly in their teaching of the incarnation: that Jesus was very different from us on his human side. Once this gap has been made, human priests, saints, etc, can be inserted to “fill the gap.” And then you are dependent upon them, and can no longer go to Christ directly. This is exactly what is illustrated in Catholic confession.

  4. That’s a lot of feedback for one paper! Maybe I should put the comments I make on student papers in a blog as well–that way they’ll actually have a chance of being read. :)

    I appreciate your attempt to promote understanding between different strands of Christianity (as an evangelical who frequently moves in Catholic circles, I often find the RC attacks on my theology/practice equally off-base)! I was wondering if you could clarify why you don’t agree with the sacrament of confession/penance. Thanks!

  5. Oh my goodness! What a great and refreshing article. There can come a point in a yielding person’s Christian journey that we no longer need the caricatures mentioned that divide and tune us out to each other. Especially when we are on the same team. Blessings to you.

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