Recently, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a letter to all seminarians, and in that letter, he discussed many things, including the sacrament of confession. I have received some questions about confession, both in my summary of the Holy Father's letter, and in a brief explanation about confession that I gave later, for the sake of people unfamiliar with that sacrament/sacraments in general.
In particular, people seem to wonder if it is necessary to have a priest for confession.
I haven't taken any sacramental theology courses yet, but I hope I understand why a priest is necessary for confession. Otherwise, I will certainly do a poor job of hearing confessions, if, by the grace of God, I become a priest. Therefore, I pray for the guidance of the Holy Virgin Mary, Queen of Confessors, as I try to determine...
Are Priests Necessary for Confession?
Argument 1: It would seem that priests are not necessary for confession, because a person can repent of his or her sins and pray to God, without the aid of a priest. This is sufficient enough to attain God's grace.
Argument 2: Further, the Catholics claim that in the sacrament of confession, a person's sins are forgiven by the priest. But we know that only God can remove sins. A priest is not God, therefore, a priest cannot remove sins. So a priest is not needed for the forgiveness of sins.
Argument 3: In his first letter, Saint John says that, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). He speaks of the necessity of confession, but he does not mention priests. Therefore, priests are unnecessary for confession.
To these arguments, I respond...
On the contrary, Saint Augustine says, "Let no one say to himself, 'I do penance to God in private. I do it before God.' Is it then in vain that Christ has said: 'Whatever you loosen on earth shall be loosened in heaven'? Is it in vain that the keys have been given to the Church? Do we make void the Gospel? Void the words of Christ?"
That the priest is necessary for confession can be reasonably shown from various sources, such as the testimony of the past several thousand years. Primarily, though, we can see it flows directly from the nature of the priest. For we understand that it is only the priest, by virtue of his ordination, who is able to validate the sacraments. Confession is a sacrament; therefore, it must be administered by a priest in order to be valid.
The Lord Jesus himself appointed priests to administer confession, when he commissioned his apostles to go forth and to forgive people's sins in his name. For it is written: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. Whoever's sins you forgive shall be forgiven, and whoever's sins you retain shall be retained." (John 20:23). And again, Jesus says, "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven" (Matt. 18:18). This power to forgive sins is given to none but the church and its priests. Therefore, it would be folly to think that the forgiveness of sins takes place outside the church, without the aid of priests.
Response, Argument 1: Repentance for sins and the forgiveness of sins are two entirely different things. While true repentance can and does occur without a priest, true forgiveness cannot.
Response, Argument 2: The priest does not forgive sins by his own power, but by God's power working in him. "The confessor is not the master of God's forgiveness, but its servant" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1466)
Response, Argument 3: In this passage, Saint John argues for the necessity of confession, but he does not explicitly state what form this confession must take, whether it be private prayer, public recitation, or the sacrament of reconciliation. Therefore, his statements cannot be taken as a means to discount or approve any particular form of confession.