Continuing with a consideration of the Sacrament of Penance, before we look at the actual ritual, maybe I’d better get the most asked question out of the way. Probably you’ve heard it asked, maybe you’ve even posed it yourself. It goes like this: “instead of confessing my sins to a priest, why can’t I just confess my sins to God?”
The fast answer is simple: you can, and you should! As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, in no. 1441, “Only God forgives sins.” In urging confession on us, the Church is not trying to hint that some human action can replace the action of the Almighty. There’s an old saying, “Man is bound to the sacraments, not God,” and we surely do affirm that God can – and does! – forgive sins outside of confession.
But surprisingly enough confessing of sins “directly to God” is not the best way to do it. It’s not the way God wants us to do it. When Jesus Christ Himself gave authority to forgive sins to His Church – the “power to bind and to loose,” it’s usually called – He gave a pretty clear indication that the Church was to be involved in this business of reconciliation! (Keep reading in your Catechism in nos. 1442-1445!)
Why did Christ do this? Well, I think it’s partially because if a person “just confesses to God” there’s a huge temptation not to face our sins squarely. Sin tends to stay deviously hidden in our own memories and hearts; we could delude ourselves into never really admitting our sins. Plus, real reconciliation hasn’t occurred until we are at peace with other people as well as with God. The Lord knew that by insisting on reconciliation also with other human beings as the normal way of achieving His forgiveness – within the “safe” community of the Church – we wouldn’t stop short. In fact, most of our inner “resistance” to confession is just our feeling the temptation to give in to the original sin of selfish conceit!
In short, rather than rely on my own preferences, I’d rather be forgiven the way God wants it done!