What the Church Teaches about Confession
This article will give a brief over-view of what the Church teaches about the Sacrament of Confession. There is a vast treasury of teachings, meditations, and opinion about this beautiful sacrament, far beyond the scope of this author to discuss.
But a good place to begin, is always at the beginning, that is with a firm grasp of the basics: what it is, when it began, what it does, who instituted it, who is eligible, when and where it takes place. I have looked to three basic sources, and provided links for further study.
From the Catholic Encyclopedia:
This article, which is exerpted here, is 45 pages long. It goes into exhaustive detail about the history and the Church's teaching about the sacrament of Confession.
'Penance is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ in which forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest's absolution to those who with true sorrow confess their sins and promise to satisfy for the same. It is called a "sacrament" not simply a function or ceremony, because it is an outward sign instituted by Christ to impart grace to the soul... The grace conferred is deliverance from the guilt of sin and, in the case of mortal sin, from its eternal punishment; hence also reconciliation with God, justification. Finally, the confession is made not in the secrecy of the penitent's heart nor to a layman as friend and advocate, nor to a representative of human authority, but to a duly ordained priest with requisite jurisdiction and with the "power of the keys", i.e., the power to forgive sins which Christ granted to His Church. ...'
'Penance is not a mere human invention devised by the Church to secure power over consciences or to relieve the emotional strain of troubled souls; it is the ordinary means appointed by Christ for the remission of sin. Man indeed is free to obey or disobey, but once he has sinned, he must seek pardon not on conditions of his own choosing but on those which God has determined, and these for the Christian are embodied in the Sacrament of Penance.'
'No Catholic believes that a priest simply as an individual man, however pious or learned, has power to forgive sins. This power belongs to God alone; but He can and does exercise it through the ministration of men.'
'Since He has seen fit to exercise it by means of this sacrament, it cannot be said that the Church or the priest interferes between the soul and God; on the contrary, penance is the removal of the one obstacle that keeps the soul away from God.'
'It is not true that for the Catholic the mere "telling of one's sins" suffices to obtain their forgiveness. Without sincere sorrow and purpose of amendment, confession avails nothing, the pronouncement of absolution is of no effect, and the guilt of the sinner is greater than before.'
'While this sacrament as a dispensation of Divine mercy facilitates the pardoning of sin, it by no means renders sin less hateful or its consequences less dreadful to the Christian mind; much less does it imply permission to commit sin in the future. In paying ordinary debts, as e.g., by monthly settlements, the intention of contracting new debts with the same creditor is perfectly legitimate; a similar intention on the part of him who confesses his sins would not only be wrong in itself but would nullify the sacrament and prevent the forgiveness of sins then and there confessed.'
'Strangely enough, the opposite charge is often heard, viz., that the confession of sin is intolerable and hard and therefore alien to the spirit of Christianity and the loving kindness of its Founder. But this view, in the first place, overlooks the fact that Christ, though merciful, is also just and exacting. Furthermore, however painful or humiliating confession may be, it is but a light penalty for the violation of God's law. Finally, those who are in earnest about their salvation count no hardship too great whereby they can win back God's friendship.'
'Both these accusations, of too great leniency and too great severity, proceed as a rule from those who have no experience with the sacrament and only the vaguest ideas of what the Church teaches or of the power to forgive sins which the Church received from Christ.'
Teaching of the Church
The Council of Trent (1551) declares:
'As a means of regaining grace and justice, penance was at all times necessary for those who had defiled their souls with any mortal sin. . . . Before the coming of Christ, penance was not a sacrament, nor is it since His coming a sacrament for those who are not baptized. But the Lord then principally instituted the Sacrament of Penance, when, being raised from the dead, he breathed upon His disciples saying: 'Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained' (John, xx, 22-23). By which action so signal and words so clear the consent of all the Fathers has ever understood that the power of forgiving and retaining sins was communicated to the Apostles and to their lawful successors, for the reconciling of the faithful who have fallen after Baptism. (Sess. XIV, c. i)'
'Farther on the council expressly states that Christ left priests, His own vicars, as judges (praesides et judices), unto whom all the mortal crimes into which the faithful may have fallen should be revealed in order that, in accordance with the power of the keys, they may pronounce the sentence of forgiveness or retention of sins" (Sess. XIV, c. v) ...'
'These pronouncements were directed against the Protestant teaching which held that penance was merely a sort of repeated baptism; and as baptism effected no real forgiveness of sin but only an external covering over of sin through faith alone, the same, it was alleged, must be the case with penance. This, then, as a sacrament is superfluous; absolution is only a declaration that sin is forgiven through faith, and satisfaction is needless because Christ has satisfied once for all men. This was the first sweeping and radical denial of the Sacrament of Penance. Some of the earlier sects had claimed that only priests in the state of grace could validly absolve, but they had not denied the existence of the power to forgive. During all the preceding centuries, Catholic belief in this power had been so clear and strong that in order to set it aside Protestantism was obliged to strike at the very constitution of the Church and reject the whole content of Tradition.'
Exercise of the Power
'The granting by Christ of the power to forgive sins is the first essential of the Sacrament of Penance; in the actual exercise of this power are included the other essentials. The sacrament as such and on its own account has a matter and a form and it produces certain effects; the power of the keys is exercised by a minister (confessor) who must possess the proper qualifications, and the effects are wrought in the soul of the recipient, i.e., the penitent who with the necessary dispositions must perform certain actions (confession, satisfaction).'
'The effect of this sacrament is deliverance from sin" (Council of Florence). The same definition in somewhat different terms is given by the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, c. 3): "So far as pertains to its force and efficacy, the effect (res et effectus) of this sacrament is reconciliation with God, upon which there sometimes follows, in pious and devout recipients, peace and calm of conscience with intense consolation of spirit". This reconciliation implies first of all that the guilt of sin is remitted, and consequently also the eternal punishment due to mortal sin.'
Contrition and Attrition
'Without sorrow for sin there is no forgiveness. Hence the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, c. 4): "Contrition, which holds the first place among the acts of the penitent, is sorrow of heart and detestation for sin committed, with the resolve to sin no more". The Council (ibid.) furthermore distinguishes perfect contrition from imperfect contrition, which is called attrition, and which arises from the consideration of the turpitude of sin or from the fear of hell and punishment.'
'For those who after baptism have fallen into sin, the Sacrament of Penance is as necessary unto salvation as is baptism itself for those who have not yet been regenerated" (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, c. 2). Penance, therefore, is not an institution the use of which was left to the option of each sinner so that he might, if he preferred, hold aloof from the Church and secure forgiveness by some other means, e. g., by acknowledging his sin in the privacy of his own mind. As already stated, the power granted by Christ to the Apostles is twofold, to forgive and to retain, in such a way that what they forgive God forgives and what they retain God retains. But this grant would be nullified if, in case the Church retained the sins of penitent, he could, as it were, take appeal to God's tribunal and obtain pardon. Nor would the power to retain have any meaning if the sinner, passing over the Church, went in the first instance to God, since by the very terms of the grant, God retains sin once committed so long as it is not remitted by the Church. It would indeed have been strangely inconsistent if Christ in conferring this twofold power on the Apostles had intended to provide some other means of forgiveness such as confessing "to God alone". Not only the Apostles, but any one with an elementary knowledge of human nature would have perceived at once that the easier means would be chosen and that the grant of power so formally and solemnly made by Christ had no real significance (Palmieri, op. cit., thesis X)'
Confession (Various Kinds)
'Confession is the avowal of one's own sins made to a duly authorized priest for the purpose of obtaining their forgiveness through the power of the keys. Virtual confession is simply the will to confess even where, owing to circumstances, declaration of sin is impossible; actual confession is any action by which the penitent manifests his sin. It may be made in general terms, e.g., by reciting the "Confiteor", or it may consist in a more or less detailed statement of one's sins; when the statement is complete, the confession is distinct. Public confession, as made in the hearing of a number of people (e.g. a congregation) differs from private, or secret, confession which is made to the priest alone and is often called auricular, i.e., spoken into the ear of the confessor. We are here concerned mainly with actual distinct confession which is the usual practice in the Church and which so far as the validity of the sacrament is concerned, may be either public or private. "As regards the method of confessing secretly to the priest alone, though Christ did not forbid that any one, in punishment of his crimes and for his own humiliation as also to give others an example and to edify the Church, should confess his sins publicly, still, this has not been commanded by Divine precept nor would it be prudent to decree by any human law that sins, especially secret sins, should be publicly confessed. Since, then, secret sacramental confession, which from the beginning has been and even now is the usage of the Church, was always commended with great and unanimous consent by the holiest and most ancient Fathers; thereby is plainly refuted the foolish calumny of those who make bold to teach that it (secret confession) is something foreign to the Divine command, a human invention devised by the Fathers assembled in the Lateran Council" (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, c. 5). It is therefore Catholic doctrine, first, that Christ did not prescribe public confession, salutary as it might be, nor did He forbid it; second, that secret confession, sacramental in character, has been the practice of the Church from the earliest days.'
From the Second Book of the Baltimore Catechism:
A more detailed question and answer lesson about Confession can be found in Baltimore Catechism, Book Three, Lesson Seventeenth.
LESSON NINETEENTH: ON CONFESSION
208. Q What is Confession?
A Confession is the telling of our sins to a duly authorized priest, for the purpose of obtaining forgiveness.
209. Q. What sins are we bound to confess?
A We are bound to confess all our mortal sins. but it is well also to confess our venial sins.
210. Q. Which are the chief qualities of a good Confession?
A The chief qualities of a good Confession are three: it must be humble, sincere, and entire.
211. Q. When is our Confession humble?
A Our Confession is humble, when we accuse our selves of our sins, with a deep sense of shame and sorrow for having offended God.
212. Q. When is our Confession sincere?
A Our Confession is sincere, when we tell our sins honestly and truthfully, neither exaggerating nor excusing them.
213. Q. When is our Confession entire?
A Our Confession is entire, when we tell the number and kinds of our sins and the circumstances which change their nature.
214. Q. What should we do if we cannot remember the number of our sins?
A If we cannot remember the number of our sins, we should tell the number as nearly as possible, and say how often we may have sinned in a day, a week, or a month, and how long the habit or practice has lasted.
215. Q. Is our Confession worthy if, without our fault, we forget to confess a mortal sin?
A If without our fault we forget to confess a mortal sin, Tour Confession is worthy, and the sin is forgiven; but it must be told in Confession if it again comes to our mind.
216. Q. Is it a grievous offense willfully to conceal a mortal sin in Confession?
A It is a grievous offense willfully to conceal a mortal sin in Confession, because we thereby tell a lie to the Holy Ghost, and make our Confession worthless.
217. Q. What must he do who has willfully concealed a mortal sin in Confession?
A He who has willfully concealed a mortal sin in Confession must not only confess it, but must also repeat all the sins he has committed since his last worthy Confession.
218. Q. Why does the priest give us a penance after Confession?
A The priest gives us a penance after Confession, that we may satisfy God for the temporal punishment due to our sins.
219. Q. Does not the Sacrament of Penance remit all punishment duo to sin?
A The Sacrament of Penance remits the eternal punishment due to sin, but it does not always remit the temporal punishment which God requires as satisfaction for our sins.
220. Q. Why does God require a temporal punishment as a satisfaction for sin?
A God requires a temporal punishment as a satisfaction for sin, to teach us the great evil of sin and to prevent us from falling again.
221. Q. Which are the chief means by which we satisfy God for the temporal punishment due to sin?
A The chief means by which we satisfy God for the temporal punishment due to sin are: Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving, all spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and the patient suffering of the ills of life.
222. Q. Which are the chief spiritual works of mercy?
A The chief spiritual works of mercy are seven: To admonish the sinner, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive all injuries, and to pray for the living and the dead.
223. Q. Which are the chief corporal works of mercy?
A The chief corporal works of mercy are seven: To feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to ransom the captive, to harbor the harborless, to visit the sick, and to bury the dead.
From the Catholic Catechism
CHAPTER TWO - THE SACRAMENTS OF HEALING
A complete explanation of confession can be found in the Catholic Catechism # 1420 to #1484
1485. "On the evening of that day, the first day of the week," Jesus showed himself to his apostles. "He breathed on them, and said to them: 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained"' (Jn 20:19, 22-23).
1486. The forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism is conferred by a particular sacrament called the sacrament of conversion, confession, penance, or reconciliation.
1487. The sinner wounds God's honor and love, his own human dignity as a man called to be a son of God, and the spiritual well-being of the Church, of which each Christian ought to be a living stone.
1488. To the eyes of faith no evil is graver than sin and nothing has worse consequences for sinners themselves, for the Church, and for the whole world.
1489. To return to communion with God after having lost it through sin is a process born of the grace of God who is rich in mercy and solicitous for the salvation of men. One must ask for this precious gift for oneself and for others.
1490. The movement of return to God, called conversion and repentance, entails sorrow for and abhorrence of sins committed, and the firm purpose of sinning no more in the future. Conversion touches the past and the future and is nourished by hope in God's mercy.
1491. The sacrament of Penance is a whole consisting in three actions of the penitent and the priest's absolution. The penitent's acts are repentance, confession or disclosure of sins to the priest, and the intention to make reparation and do works of reparation.
1492. Repentance (also called contrition) must be inspired by motives that arise from faith. If repentance arises from love of charity for God, it is called "perfect" contrition; if it is founded on other motives, it is called "imperfect."
1493. One who desires to obtain reconciliation with God and with the Church, must confess to a priest all the unconfessed grave sins he remembers after having carefully examined his conscience. The confession of venial faults, without being necessary in itself, is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church.
1494. The confessor proposes the performance of certain acts of "satisfaction" or "penance" to be performed by the penitent in order to repair the harm caused by sin and to re-establish habits befitting a disciple of Christ.
1495. Only priests who have received the faculty of absolving from the authority of the Church can forgive sins in the name of Christ.
1496. The spiritual effects of the sacrament of Penance are: - reconciliation with God by which the penitent recovers grace; - reconciliation with the Church; - remission of the eternal punishment incurred by mortal sins; - remission, at least in part, of temporal punishments resulting from sin; - peace and serenity of conscience, and spiritual consolation; - an increase of spiritual strength for the Christian battle.
1497. Individual and integral confession of grave sins followed by absolution remains the only ordinary means of reconciliation with God and with the Church.
An Act of Contrition.
0 my God! I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.