Given from the Catholic Broadcasting Station 2SM Sydney Australia
Choose a topic from Vol 2:
On the promise of Christ, as recorded in Matthew XVI., that He would give the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the power of binding and loosing to His Apostles and the Church. And again, on the fulfillment of that promise, with specific reference to absolution from sin, as recorded in John XX., 23. There we are told that, having breathed upon the Apostles, Christ said to them: "Receive the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins you retain, they are retained." By those words He gave the power to the official representatives of the Church of forgiving or not forgiving sin as they judged fit; and promised to sanction and ratify their decision.
It is an altogether inadequate and erroneous interpretation. Christ did not say, "When you assure people that God has forgiven people because of their repentance and faith, those people have been forgiven." He breathed upon the Apostles and said, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost." The action and the words indicate, not a promise of future guidance, but an actual communication of the Holy Spirit to them, by whose power they would be able to effect what He was telling them to do. We must note also that Christ had just declared that He was giving the Apostles a mission identical with that which He Himself had received from His Father. "As the Father sent Me," He said, "I also send you." Now Christ did not merely assure people that God had forgiven them when they showed signs of faith and repentance. He Himself came into this world to destroy sin, and He directly forgave sin in individual cases at His discretion. We must note, too, that the Greek word used for forgive is active, and signifies a positive and efficacious influence, not a mere declaration of a forgiveness which has already been effected by God. The interpretation given you, therefore, does not agree with the correct sense of Sacred Scripture.
As Christ conferred this power upon the Apostles, they conferred it in turn upon those whom they ordained and consecrated. These, in turn, ordained others; and by an uninterrupted succession of lawfully consecrated Bishops, the power has been retained and transmitted in the Church. Normally the Church comes into contact with individual subjects through her priests, not through her Bishops who preside over large sections of the Church. And the Church exercises her absolving powers through priests. That is why St. Paul wrote to Titus, "For this cause I left thee in Crete that thou shouldst ordain priests in every city, as I also have appointed thee." Titus I., 5. As a matter of fact, the Sacrament of Penance, if it is to be available to all men, as it must be, simply has to be exercised by priests, for no Bishop would be able to deal with all the faithful of a whole diocese. Christ instituted this Sacrament for the necessities of men, and He certainly did so in a way in which it could be applied to them in their necessities. Never in the history of the Church from earliest Apostolic times was it ever questioned that priests as well as Bishops possessed this power in virtue of their ordination.
To that I must say, firstly, that you ask an absolutely impossible condition before you will believe. You would believe only provided all the priests of all succeeding ages could have been present simultaneously when Christ gave the power of forgiving sin. Secondly, you forget that Christ established a Church which He said would last all days even to the end of the world. And that Church had to continue just as He established it, retaining all the powers He intended its pastors to possess. And in John XX., 23, you see Him endowing the pastors of the infant Church with the essential power to forgive sin. The same Church through the ages must retain within herself that same power.
Are you sure of that? How much time do you devote to the examination of your conscience, to the discovery of your sins, and to the realization of their guilt? Do you know what dispositions of soul are required for the forgiveness of sin? And do you understand your obligations of restitution and reparation of harm done to others by your sins? Again, if forgiveness is obtained privately, and without recourse to a priest, why did Christ so solemnly confer upon the Apostles the power to forgive sins, saying, "Receive the Holy Ghost: whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven"? That was quite unnecessary if the power was not to be exercised. And Christ did not confer unnecessary powers upon the Church. As a matter of fact your idea springs from an inadequate notion, not only of Scripture, but also of the Christian character. The Christian who sins is guilty against himself, against the Church and against God. He recovers grace by his own actions, by the action of the Church, and by the action of God. Within himself he repents, to the Church he confesses and is warned of his duties; and, through the priest, God forgives. I might add that a favorite charge against the Catholic Church used to be that it is a great advantage to get rid of all one's sins in a moment by one Confession. But you at least realize that Confession is an uncomfortable penalty. And you wish an easier method still by wanting to get rid of your sins in a moment without Confession. You will never taunt Catholics, therefore, with choosing an easier way out than is available to Protestants.
Correct. But God can do it personally and immediately, or He can exercise His power through chosen human instruments. In either case it remains His own power. The only real question to be solved is as to whether God did ever delegate His power to forgive sin to human beings. I have shown that Christ said to His very human Apostles, "Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven." Will you accept the truth of those words, or will you reject belief in Christ? If you reject belief in Christ, you must cease to be a Protestant. If you accept the fact that He left to His Church the power to forgive sin, then you must become a Catholic. The choice, of course, must be left to yourself, and to the grace of God.
It is no more like snubbing God than it would be like snubbing the King to respect and submit to the authority of an Ambassador fully accredited by the King. In fact, to refuse to acknowledge the spiritual authority of those men who have been commissioned by God to exercise it, is to snub God. That is why Christ said to His Apostles, "He that despisetlh you, despiseth Me, and he that despiseth Me despiseth Him that sent Me." Lk. X., 16.
They have at least the advantage of fulfilling Christ's definite will. But the practice of Confession has immense advantages. It steadies the flood of evil by imposing a real and periodical check. It forces men to recollect themselves, and pay attention to their spiritual state in order to give an account of it. It unmasks sin, robbing it of its charm, and showing up its true malice and hypocrisy. It restores to people the control of their souls, revives their resources, and helps to break their perverse inclinations. At the same time, it is a great consolation. It lightens the soul's worries and anxieties, and gives certainty of pardon. Even though heaven seems mute, it assures the soul that God still loves and offers only encouragement. It guarantees a clean sheet on which one may yet write holiness and virtue. Hundreds of Protestants have regretted the loss of the confessional, and write wistfully and longingly of the boon it must be to Catholics.
On your very hypothesis, such a man would go to Confession if he could. Since he cannot, God forgives him in virtue of his will to go to Confession, giving him the necessary graces to enable him to make an act of perfect contrition.
Since Christ instituted Confession as the normal means of forgiveness, the actual use of this Sacrament is normally necessary. If a Catholic secures forgiveness apart from Confession, it is only insofar as he is unable to confess, and insofar as he has the will to do so, were it possible. If he were in such dispositions that he would not confess, did the opportunity present itself, he would not be forgiven. It is one thing to be forgiven because one has the will to fulfill all that God requires, yet does not do so only because prevented by circumstances beyond one's control. It is quite another to demand forgiveness on one's own terms, deliberately rejecting the normal means instituted by Christ.
Protestants, of course, deny not only the necessity of confessing one's sins, but also the obligation to make personal satisfaction for them by penitential works. For a Catholic, sufficient justification for the imposition of penances is found in the fact that the Catholic Church requires it as part of the Sacrament of Confession. For to that Church our Lord has said, "Whatever you bind upon earth is bound also in heaven." We accept the laws of our religion because they have the authority of Christ latent within them, not because we ourselves happen to approve of their wisdom or of the reasons for them. However, there are reasons for the law that penances must be imposed upon those who seek forgiveness of sin in Confession; and those reasons are based upon the known will of God in relation to the forgiveness of sins in general, and also upon the very nature of the Sacrament of Confession as instituted by Christ.
As I have said, they are based upon God's own procedure in dealing with sin, the teachings of Christ, and the very nature of the Sacrament of Confession. In the Old Testament God Himself couples the forgiving of sin with the imposing of penances. The very sufferings and miseries that came upon the human race because of sin show that sin must be expiated. God forgave David the great sin that king had committed, yet despite the forgiveness, exacted a penalty. "Because thou hast repented," He said, "thy sin is forgiven thee. Nevertheless, because thou hast done this thing, thy own son shall die, and shall not live." II. Kings XII., 13-14. Through the Prophet Joel, God gave the general law, "Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and mourning." Joel II., 13. In addition to sorrow, the people had to inflict the penance of fasting upon themselves. Again God said, "Redeem thy sins by alms-giving." By depriving themselves of their goods in favor of the poor people can compensate the unlawful pleasures they have taken at the expense of God's law. Protestants admit that these principles held good in the Old Law, but say that Christ has expiated our sins on the Cross, and that we are exempt from such expiation. But this is not true. The New Testament does not exempt us from the need of penitential expiation of sin. It insists that we take up our cross as Christ carried His; that we suffer with Christ, and fill up in ourselves what is wanting to the sufferings of Christ.Christ did not suffer so as to free us from the need of expiating our own sins, but that we might be able to expiate them with greater success and merit in union with Him. Finally, Christ instituted the Sacrament of Penance, sanctifying the whole penitential process. He said to the Apostles, "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven." He gave them a truly judicial power, requiring the hearing of the case, a sentence of forgiveness or otherwise, and the imposition of due reparation.
Firstly, I might ask how you could be sure that any particular penitent's contrition is perfect. There are many degrees of sorrow, and many variations of motive. Again, even though the sorrow were perfect, remember that God said, "Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and mourning." You would say that to be converted with all one's heart should be enough! Finally, if one has really perfect contrition he wants to make reparation for his offences against God. He feels that he can never do enough to expiate them. Thus the Saints, who excelled all others in loving contrition and sorrow, excelled others also in their spirit of penance, self-denial, and mortifications. The more deeply men plunge into sin, and the weaker their spirit of contrition, the less they see the need of self-accusation and penitential expiation. Those who fight against sin, emancipate themselves from it, and develop perfect sorrow for their own past infidelities, see how evil sin is, and how it does deserve, not only the sufferings permitted by God, but self-inflicted penances as well.
The priest would violate his Christian obligations did he betray his penitent under any circumstances whatever from knowledge secured in the confessional. Firstly, evidence in civil law courts is given by witnesses in their capacity as citizens. But the criminal did not confess to the priest in his capacity as a citizen of the State, but in his capacity as the agent of God. And as God Himself keeps silent, allowing even mistaken human procedure to take its course, so must the priest keep silent. Secondly, the priest's silence is not the cause of the innocent man's arrest and punishment. That would have occurred whether the real criminal went to Confession or not. Thirdly, if the priest did act as you suggest he should, far greater evils would arise from his conduct than the one you think he could avert. If Catholics are subject to the obligation of confessing their sins in order to secure God's forgiveness, they must know that they can do so with absolute confidence and security. Any betrayal of a penitent who has come to Confession in order to fulfill a conscientious obligation imposed by God would be outrageous. And the Catholic law that the seal of Confession obliges everywhere and always, and permits of no exceptions whatever, is the only just law.
That is because you have little knowledge of comparative moral obligations.
Since God knows, even as the priest shares in the knowledge proper to God, would you hold God as equally guilty for His silence?
If the priest had no other knowledge from external sources independently of the murderer's Confession he would be bound to absolute silence. No sin submitted for absolution in the confessional may be used in any way at all by the priest outside of Confession. This law admits of no exception. If a man confessed to me that he had sinned by resolving to shoot me, I would simply have to commend myself to God's protection. Did I know where the man kept his revolver, I could not even go and remove it; for I would be making external use of knowledge secured in the Sacrament of Confession. There are many grave reasons for this severe legislation. Firstly, every penitent who manifests his sins to a priest in order to obtain absolution, does so only on the understanding that the priest will respect his confidence absolutely. And the moment a priest agrees to hear anyone's Confession, he practically enters into a contract to preserve silence concerning all sins manifested to him. Secondly, besides this contract, Christ intended the Sacrament to be in favor of the penitent. If people thought that, under certain circumstances, the priest could reveal what he hears in the confessional, they would either stay away, or be gravely tempted to conceal their sins; which would turn a Sacrament meant for their good into an occasion of grave spiritual injury. Thirdly, the legislation of the Church demands obedience. And the Fourth Lateran Council manifested clearly how strict is the mind of the Church in this matter. That Council decreed as follows: "Let the priest be most careful not to betray any penitent, by word, or sign, or in any other way. Any priest who presumes to reveal a sin manifested to him in Confession must not only be deposed from his priestly office, but must be sent to an enclosed monastery, there to do penance for the rest of his life." And the law, as I have said, permits of no exception.
No. It would, of course, be a terrible trial for any priest. But he would have to accept the trial, and permit things to take their course. He is not morally guilty of his mother's death, for that death would take place just the same, had the murderer not gone to him for Confession. Therefore, the priest's hearing of the murderer's Confession does not cause his mother's death. Her death is unfortunately due to the mistake of the civil authorities. If you say that at least the priest could save his mother by speaking, I can but reply that he is not morally free to speak, and that he would not therefore be morally guilty of her death. He is not morally free to speak, because he has no information as a human being, and in his capacity as a citizen of this world. St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest of theologians, thus explains the matter. "Whilst hearing Confessions, the priest acts in the name of God, and should behave as God Himself behaves. But God does not reveal, but keeps silent concerning sins manifested in Confession." The priest may use only that knowledge which he acquires in the ordinary way in which other men acquire knowledge. But what he hears in Confession is to be regarded as unknown, since he does not know as a man, but shares in a knowledge proper to God alone. After all, God knows all things. And God is not morally guilty of the poor woman's death owing to the mistakes of men. Nor is God obliged to work a miracle to save her. He has entrusted the administration of justice to men in this world; and He will rectify all errors in His own good time. An innocent person may die through an accident of law, just as other innocent persons die through the accident of a motorist's false judgment, or the geological accident of an earthquake. And the priest, in the case you give, is unable to prevent the accident of his mother's death, and is certainly not morally guilty of that miscarriage of justice. Whatever you think of this reasoning, however, the fact remains that, according to the laws of the Catholic Church, no priest could betray the sin told him in the confessional.
No. She is ever ready to reconcile the repentant sinner to God. But never can the Catholic Church justify sin of any kind. In her eyes sin is the greatest of evils. But it is not an irreparable evil. After sin, all is not finished. All can and should be put right with God. The sinner can be purified and rise as high as before. And Christ has sent His Church precisely to save people from their sins.
Your observations have led you into error. The Catholic Church has a special love for those of her members who make special efforts to live a life of virtue and holiness. At the same time, whilst she has not a special love for sinners, she does extend to them a special mercy and gentleness. They have more need of sympathy than others, and Christ Himself said that He came, not for those who need not the physician, but for the sick.
Society does not see the heart, and scarcely has a heart. Jesus set the example to His Church by making His friends from amongst sinners.
You omit reference to the hosts of Catholics who have gradually grown out of their sins with the help of frequent Confession. Meantime, those who do not make much progress may lack earnest effort, but more often their sins are due, not to malice, but to frailty. By temperament and heredity they may have very strong tendencies to sinful attractions, or they may be subject to the force of habits, habits which may be due to past guilt, yet which may diminish present guilt. When you ask how often they can secure forgiveness, I say as often as they are truly repentant at the moment they seek absolution. God's love is such that even the obstinate infidelity of His children cannot exhaust His mercy. And He is ever ready to pardon even a multitude of sins. Jesus spoke of forgiveness, not seven times, but seventy times seven times. He knows our weakness, and supplies for it. To all sinners He says, "Come to Me, and I will refresh you." And in promising forgiveness, He does not add, "Unless, of course, your sins be your own fault."
Can a Protestant who commits a sin secure forgiveness of that sin? You will have to say yes, or all Protestants are damned, for they all commit sin. Now does the thought that they can get forgiveness lead them to think they can commit further sin with impunity? Again, which is likely to prove the greater deterrent against future sin, the thought that one can get forgiveness without Confession, or the thought that one will be able to get forgiveness only provided one is willing to confess that sin to a priest? Tell me, would you find the thought of having to confess all your own sins to a priest pleasant or repugnant? If repugnant, would not the inducement be not to sin, rather than have to confess it? And cannot Protestants, therefore, get away with sin more easily than Catholics? Furthermore, is Confession an inducement to sin when no priest can forgive any sin unless the penitent is resolved to try to avoid it in the future and is prepared to repair the harm done to others, if any? And are Catholics lulled into the false idea that they can sin with impunity when they are told that, whilst the guilt of their sin is forgiven by sacramental absolution, they will yet have to expiate their sins in purgatory, and that accumulated sins will mean accumulated sufferings there? If there is one thing you cannot say, it is that the Catholic Church encourages the idea that people can sin with impunity.
I don't believe it is right to ask any penitent at Confession any filthy questions. The teaching of St. Alphonsus Liguori does not advise such questions nor does the Church sanction such questions. As you have no experience whatever of this matter, whereas I have heard thousands of Confessions and am quite conversant with the principles of moral theology, including the teaching of St. Alphonsus Liguori, concerning the duties of a confessor towards his penitents, you will excuse my saying that you do not know what you are talking about. Every priest knows how to ask any information necessary for an adequate Confession, or the spiritual advice of a penitent, without trespassing against the requirements of delicacy and propriety, and without offending against the susceptibilities of any who seek his advice and help. If the confessional should be abolished because of the peculiar notions invented concerning it by the diseased imaginations of bigots who know nothing of it, then there is scarcely an institution for the spiritual, mental, or even physical welfare of human beings that should not be blown up with gelignite.
That's just what it must not do. Do you imagine that there are no rules governing the conduct of priests in the confessional? No one is ordained a priest without long training in moral theology, and the principles governing all his duties. If a penitent commences to go into unnecessary details, he forbids further explanation. If he has to interrogate penitents, he is guided by rules of prudence, keeping ever before his eyes the rule given by all theologians that it is better to err by defect in many things than to exceed even by one question in that which is indelicate. But I have said enough to show that your preconceived notions afford no sufficient ground for your opinion.