Roman Catholic churches have a practice where congregational members confess their sins and the like to a priest in a confessional. As I was saying to a friend a couple days ago, the practice doesn't make sense to me as Jesus is our High Priest, and as such, we don't need to go through another man.

Hebrews 4:14-16 (NLT)
14 So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. 15 This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. 16 So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.

Thus, my question is: what is the (Roman) Catholic justification for this practice?

To clarify, I'm talking about confessing to the priest, essentially putting them in the position of being the mediator between the confessor and God, despite Hebrews saying that we need no other mediator than Jesus.

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    In James 5:16 Christians are explicitly commanded to confess their sins to each other - not just to God. The question isn't so much "How do Catholics justify doing this" as "How do Evangelicals justify not doing it"? Commented Apr 2, 2012 at 16:32
  • The key is contained in Peter Turner's answer below: the priest is acting in the person of Christ (in Persona Christi), dispensing Christ's forgiveness. The priest is only incidental to the conversation; he is not the mediator himself. The Scriptural basis for that model is as described in Peter Turner's post.
    – Jason
    Commented Apr 3, 2012 at 3:33
  • @DJClayworth: As a protestant, I've grown up with the understanding that we should confess our sins both to God (for absolution) and to one another (for healing, growth, etc.).
    – jvriesem
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 3:23
  • @DJClayworth: All Christians are called to be evangelistic. I think you mean, "How do Protestants justify not doing it?" For more info, see this link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelical_Catholic.
    – jvriesem
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 3:24

2 Answers 2


Sacred tradition in Catholicism makes the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation the pathway by which life in Christ is possible. In the United States at least, before receiving first communion, children must first go to reconciliation. All Catholics who are conscious of mortal sin, must confess their sins before receiving communion. In fact, the only other way to "have life within you", to a Catholic is to get Baptized, then be hit by a bus (or desire Baptism in some way and be hit by a bus (or to stop someone from being hit by a bus and be hit by a bus *))

In any event, our justification is that Jesus told his disciples to do this:

John 20:21-23 (NIV)

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

He didn't tell Mary Magdalene to do this, he didn't tell His Blessed Mother to do this, he didn't tell Pontius Pilate to do this, he didn't tell the Pharisees to do this, he didn't tell Lazarus to do this, he didn't tell Jarius to do this, he didn't even tell John the Baptist to do this.

In one sense, yeah, he's telling us to do this, but in another sense. The sense that the Pharisees knew in Mark 2:7:

Mark 2:7 (NIV)
7 “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

He's saying, when you forgive sins, they are GONE. That's what a priest tells you in confession. He tells you, that in God's eyes, your sins are no more. You could still be thrown in jail for them, you may still have to pay up in purgatory for them, but whatever you did is forgiven forever. Our sin has eternal significance, so do Christ's words in Matt 16:19

Matthew 16:19 (NIV)
19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

The power that the apostles confer to their successors, the Bishops and their helpers, the priests, has the eternal significance of both bringing down Jesus to be with us in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar and acting In Persona Christi to forgive sins in the confessional.

Also, priests themselves have no inherent right to hear confessions. Priests are given the faculties to do so from the Bishop of the diocese they are stationed in. But there are extraordinary circumstances in case of emergency and also times like World Youth Day when priests from all over the world will congregate when any priest will hear your confession.

But, regardless of the priest, the person making the confession must have Contrition which can come in two forms

  1. Fear of God's punishment (imperfect contrition)
  2. Desire to love God and please him (perfect contrition)

If they don't have these things, then they're not truly forgiven, there's no magic involved here. There is only forgiveness and Jesus. The priest sort of recedes into the background here. He's incredibly helpful because he often gives you great advice anonymously and freely. But the forgiveness part, that's all the Holy Spirit.

*buses are not sacramental in nature and have no ecclesiastical significance, I bring them up solely for the visual.

  • 6
    "buses are not sacramental in nature and have no ecclesiastical significance, I bring them up solely for the visual." +1 Commented Apr 4, 2012 at 0:32
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    Note that buses can be sacramental in nature, as "there is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God." CCC1670 (Though obviously, this excludes using buses to hit people.)
    – Alypius
    Commented Mar 10, 2013 at 18:09
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    I want to hear more about buses.
    – svidgen
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 20:10
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    @RedRackham That's what the in persona Christi part is about. The priest is "another Christ" to the person doing their confession. And because it's a sacrament, it's not a symbol, but something invisible (the spirit of God/God's forgiveness) made present through stuff, the stuff in this case being the priest offering absolution.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 16:29
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    @red yeah, it means that we believe Jesus Himself is doing the absolving.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 16:10

Confession is actually required of all Christians. As 1 John 1 states:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.

Even for Protestants, there are an added benefits of confessing to a person, rather than just "repenting in our heart"

  • Accountability.

    Being forced to repent to another person instills the discipline of shame - By going to an intermediary, it is harder to get "cheap grace."

  • Priestly Absolution.

    When the doctrine of the Priesthood of all Believers was initially promulgated, the idea was that all believers would act as priests for each other. By using each other as priests, we give each other the chance to intercede for and lift up the whole body.

  • High Priests delegate.

    Sometimes its nice not to start at the top of the chain, but rather in humility realize that we are like all men, twisted, torn, and weak. A fleshly intercessor can be a friend who incarnates Jesus' presence mediated by physical presence. Going before the throne takes boldness. Taking along a guy in the chain can make that easier.


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