Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
Like we have five pillars of Islam, including Shahada, Salat or Prayer, Fasting, Zakat or Charity and Pilgrimage, the Catholics have seven sacraments. Confession used to be one of the seven Catholic sacraments, but, not anymore! I use the past tense as Catholics, at least in the Western world, by their lack of practice, have voted this counter intuitive and coercive idea into non-existence. Confession to a priest seems to be a Christian invention as we do not find it in Judaism or Islam. Interestingly, Christianity is gradually metamorphosing into Islam, without acknowledging.
In Islam, the act of seeking forgiveness for sins from God is called Istighfar or repentance and seeking forgiveness. As in Judaism, confession of sins is made directly to God and not through man (except in asking for forgiveness of the victim of the sin). It is taught sins are to be kept to oneself to seek individual forgiveness from God. Allah Almighty forgives those who seek His forgiveness and commit to themselves not to repeat the sin, they are seeking forgiveness for.
Wikipedia has the following to say about Confession in Judaism:
Judaism, confession (Hebrew וִדּוּי Widduy; Viddui) is a step in the process of atonement during which a Jew admits to committing a sin before God. In sins between a Jew and God, the confession must be done without others present (The Talmud calls confession in front of another a show of disrespect). On the other hand, confession pertaining to sins done to another person are permitted to be done publicly, and in fact Maimonides calls such confession “immensely praiseworthy”.
The confession of a sin in itself does not bring immediate forgiveness, but rather it marks a point in time after which a person’s demonstration of the recognition and avoidance of similar future transgressions show whether he or she has truly recovered from the sin and therefore whether he or she deserves forgiveness for it.
Confession is a sacrament, which is against human nature and over time de-facto position in Christianity has become the same as in Islam and Judaism. Time magazine captured the decline in confession statistics for us:
One of the first things Roman Catholics do when they enter the confessional is utter how long it has been since their last confession. But Franca Gargiulo can’t remember the last time. Gargiulo is a spiritually thoughtful woman who went to Catholic school as a girl and at 44 still attends Mass at St. Dominic Catholic Church in San Francisco. Confession–telling your sins to a priest and receiving absolution–is one of her faith’s seven sacraments, but for Gargiulo it now seems as anachronistic as prayer veils and meatless Fridays. “It lost its efficacy for me,” says Gargiulo. “It was too much a perfunctory exercise about church rules instead of Christ’s teachings.”
Increasingly, it seems the only thing U.S. Catholics confess these days is that they rarely if ever confess. In a 2005 survey by the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University, 42% said they never go to confession. Only 14% said they go once a year, and just 2% said they go regularly. The fading away of one of Catholicism’s best-known traditions has finally gotten alarming enough that bishops have begun turning to modern marketing tools to reverse it. “Confession isn’t about rationalizing or explaining away the wrongs we do,” says Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who has used radio commercials and billboard ads to promote the sacrament in his archdiocese. “It’s about having the courage to admit them and experience the healing forgiveness that’s waiting.”
Any revival effort has a long way to go. Confession has been in steady decline for decades. Reasons range from long-standing doubts about church teachings to the current obsession with public mea culpas that have largely supplanted the confessional booth. One oft mentioned cause is Vatican II, the 1960s church council whose reforms stressed what Pope John XXIII called “the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.” Since confession, with its accompanying penances, is all too often associated with the latter, many Catholics use Vatican II as a cue to scratch the sacrament from their to-do list. Some also cite Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), which reaffirmed the church’s ban on contraception. Because few U.S. Catholics consider birth control immoral, Humanae Vitae has led to a wider re-evaluation of what constitutes sin–and whether confession is really necessary. Read further in Time magazine.
The official website of the Catholic Church is still married to the past and has the following to say about confession in Catholicism:
Penance is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ in which forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest’sabsolution 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. As an outward sign it comprises the actions of the penitent in presenting himself to the priest and accusing himself of his sins, and the actions of the priest in pronouncing absolution and imposing satisfaction. This whole procedure is usually called, from one of its parts, “confession”, and it is said to take place in the “tribunal of penance”, because it is a judicial process in which the penitent is at once the accuser, the person accused, and the witness, while the priest pronounces judgment and sentence. 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 ordainedpriest with requisite jurisdiction and with the “power of the keys”, i.e., the power to forgive sins which Christ granted to His Church.
By way of further explanation it is needful to correct certain erroneous views regarding this sacrament which not only misrepresent the actual practice of the Church but also lead to a false interpretation of theological statement and historical evidence. From what has been said it should be clear:
- that 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 Catholicbelieves that a priest, simply as an individualman, 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 Christianmind; 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.
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 20:22-23). 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)
Even when the Church will evolve its stance on the issue of confession, in decades to come, we will always have the records of the Council of Trent to remind us of the past history, how priesthood had enslaved all the Christian masses, for almost 19 centuries, in the shackles of man made doctrines. The fact of the matter is that this sacrament was not instituted by Jesus, himself. The Encyclopedia Britannica has the following to say about this as it stresses the gradual development of this alleged sacrament in the medieval Church:
In the New Testament the public ministry of Jesus was prepared for by John the Baptist, who baptized the people; the baptism was accompanied by a public confession of sins (Matt. 3:6). The necessity of confession is discussed in many places in the New Testament, although there is no direct evidence that confession had to be specific or detailed or that it had to be made to a priest.
A detailed confession to a bishop or priest, however, appeared early in the church’s history. In the 5th-century discipline of the Roman Church, the practice was to hear confessions at the beginning of Lent and to reconcile the penitents on Holy Thursday. Gradually, however, the practice of reconciling, or absolving, sinners immediately after confession and before fulfillment of penance was introduced. By the end of the 11th century, only notorious sinners were reconciled on Holy Thursday. Often, those guilty of serious sins put off penance until death approached. To correct this abuse, the fourth Lateran Council (1215) established the rule that every Christian should confess to a priest at least once a year.
In modern times the Roman Catholic Church teaches that penance is a sacrament, instituted by Christ, in which a confession of all serious sins committed after Baptism is necessary. The doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox churches concerning confession agrees with that of the Roman Catholic Church.
It is useful to present the contrast of the Protestant teachings:
During the Reformation the Church of England resisted attempts to have all references to private confession and absolution removed from the prayer book. In the 19th century, the Oxford Movement encouraged a revival of private confession, and it was accepted by some Anglo-Catholics. Many Anglicans, however, favour the general confession and absolution of the Communion service.
Most Protestants regard the general confession and absolution of the Communion service as sufficient preparation for the Lord’s Supper. Among Lutherans, private confession and absolution survived the Reformation for a time but were eventually given up by most members. John Calvin also recognized the value of private confession and absolution for those troubled in conscience, but he denied that such confession was a sacrament or that it was necessary for the forgiveness of sins. In some Pentecostal and Fundamentalist churches, confession of sins is an important part of the worship service.
Most Protestants consider auricular or private confession to be unbiblical and consider confession viewed as a sacrament to be equally unbiblical. These Protestants stress that God alone can forgive sins.