Question: I have heard it said that the Catholic Church introduced the present practice of Confession at the Fourth Lateran Council (A.D. 1215). If so, it would seem that Confession is no more than the present discipline of the Church and not a Sacrament per se. Therefore, the confession of one’s sins directly to God without a priest, such as Protestant’s employ, would seem acceptable. Why should we continue to confess our sins privately to priests in this modern age?
First of all the Fourth Lateran Council did not (as Calvin claimed) institute the practice of Confession as we shall presently see. The Council of Trent made this clear in the following statements: 1.) “The Church did not, through the Lateran Council, ordain that the faithful of Christ shall confess – a thing which it knew to be necessary and instituted of divine right – but that the precept of Confession should be complied with at least once a year” (Sess. xiv., ch.5). 2.) “If anyone denies either that Sacramental Confession was instituted, or is necessary for salvation, by divine right, or says the manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone, which the Church has observed from the beginning and doth observe, is alien from the institution and command of Christ, and is a human invention, let him be anathema.” (Council of Trent, Sess. xiv,. Can 6). Let’s look historically at several statements from the Early Fathers of our Faith that we might justify the above statements made by our Church.
St. Cyprian (A.D. 200-258) in his treatise De Lapsis, 28, 19 states the following: “Let each one of you confess his sins, while his confession may still be received, and his satisfaction and the absolution of the priest are pleasing to the Lord.” St. Pascian of Barcelona(A.D. 390) when answering the objection of the Novatians that God alone can forgive sins, says: “This is true, but that which He does through His priests is also done by His own power. For He said to His Apostles: ‘Whatsoever you shall bind upon earth shall be bound also in heaven.’ Why should He speak thus, if it was not lawful for men to bind and loose?” (Epis. Ad Symp., i. 6.) There are many other writers who could be cited as well but these should suffice to prove our point; that private Confession to a Priest was an early practice of the Church. It is interesting to note that Confession to a Priest has been retained by all of the Eastern Churches that separated from the Roman Church long ago (some as early as the fifth and ninth century) proving that it was common practice at the time of separation.
A final point to consider when speaking of Confession: If the Church all of a sudden instituted such an unpopular practice, as Confession seems to be, don’t you think that an upheaval would have occurred such that the world would be teeming with historical records decrying this practice? No such records are to be found – for it is a fiction to think that Confession is not a Sacrament instituted by Christ from the beginning, protected and preserved by the Church, for our own good and the Salvation of all. It was our Lord’s desire that the Sacrament of Penance should be administered by His Church to bind and loose in heaven what is bound or loosed on earth. How, then, can a priest forgive your sins if he does not know them? Our Lord saw our need for Confession – no man or church founded by men would ever have instituted such a practice on their own. That would be inconceivable!