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Confession of sins
Confession of sins is an integral part of the Christian faith and practice. The meaning is essentially the same as the criminal one - to admit one's own guilt. Confession of one's sins, or at least of one's sinfulness, is seen by most churches as a pre-requisite for becoming a Christian.
Roman Catholic Church
The Catholic sacrament of confession, lately renamed reconciliation, involves admitting, externally and orally unless there is an impediment (then signs or an interpreter should be used; see Denziger §147), one's sins to God and receiving penance (a task to complete after having achieved absolution or forgiveness from God, and intended to repair one's relationship with God and any others harmed by the sin). 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.
The basic form of confession has not changed for centuries, although at one time confessions were made publicly. Colloquially speaking, the role of the priest is of a judge and jury; in theological terms, he acts in persona Christi and receives from the Church the power of jurisdiction over the penitent. The power of jurisdiction is called the `power of the keys`. The penitent must confess grave matter (called mortal sins) in order not to merit Hell, and may laudably confess venial sins as well as grave sins previously confessed. The intent of this sacrament is to provide healing for the soul as well as to regain lost justice with God. Roman Catholics consider Matthew 9:2-8 and 1 Corinthians 11:27 to be examples of Scriptural bases for this sacrament.
The form of Absolution in the Roman rite is: God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Prior to the Second Vatican Council the priest would absolve the penitent in Latin. Now as before, the penitent must make an act of contrition, which is a prayer the knowledge of which is considered necessary before receiving the sacrament of Confirmation. It typically commences: O my God, I am heartily sorry...
For Roman Catholic priests, the confidentiality of anything that they learn from penitents during the course of confession is absolute. This strict confidentiality is known as the "Seal of the Confessional." According to Roman Catholic Canon Law 983.1, "It is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason." Priests may not reveal what they had learned during confession to anyone, even under the threat of their own death or that of others. (This is unique to the Seal of the Confessional. Many other forms of confidentiality, including in most states lawyer-client privilege, allow ethical breaches of the confidence to save the life of another.) For a priest to break that confidentiality would lead to an automatic excommunication reserved to the Holy See (Code of Canon Law No. 1388.1). In a criminal matter, a priest may encourage or require the penitent to surrender to authorities and may withhold absolution if the penitent refuses to do so. However, this is the extent of the leverage they wield...they may not directly or indirectly disclose the matter to civil authorities themselves.
There are limited cases where portions of a confession may be revealed to others, but always with the penitent's permission and always without actually revealing the penitent's identity. This is the case, for example, with more serious offenses. Some excommunicable offenses are reserved to the bishop or even to the Holy See, and their permission to grant absolution would first have to be obtained.
Civil authorities in the United States are usually respectful of this confidentiality. However, several years ago an ambitious attorney in Oregon secretly recorded a confession without the knowledge of the priest or the penitent involved. This lead to official protests by the local Archbishop and the Vatican. The tape has since been sealed, and the Federal Court has since ruled that the taping was in violation of the 4th Amendment, and ordered an injunction against any further tapings.
The Eastern Orthodox sacrament of confession, or repentance, includes prayer to God and confessing ones sins to God, typically in the presence of an icon of Jesus Christ and also with a priest nearby to bear witness. The priest will typically add his own prayers, may add counsel or assign some form of penance, and will usually announce God's forgiveness of sins. In Orthodox ecclesiology, the priest is not an intermediary between God and the penitent. The confession is to God in the presence of a priest, not to a priest in the presence of God. In addition, the "penance" is not assigned in order to receive absolution--which is granted upon sincere confession--but is a "spiritual calisthenic" to help avoid further sin.
Confession is necessary prior to receiving the Eucharist. Typical forms of penance may include abstaining from the Eucharist for a period of time, or praying certain prayers. When an adult enters the Orthodox Church through the sacraments of baptism and chrismation, a "life confession" will often be made either the same day or a few days prior to their chrismation. In that case, the absolution or declaration of God's forgiveness is typically delayed until it is given during the chrismation. At religious retreats or at any time out of religious devotion a penitent may make a general confession which subsumes all sins committed since Baptism, including sins already pardoned in other confessions. Many theologians recommend an occasional general confession for lay people seeking to deepen a life of prayer; it is generally required on a periodic basis of people who have entered the religious life.
In Protestant churches it is believed that no intermediary is necessary between the Christian and God. The confession of sins is therefore mainly done in private, in prayer before God. However confession is often encouraged when a wrong has been done to a person as well as to God. Confession is then made to the person wronged, and is seen to be as much part of the reconciliation process as it is theological. In churches and cases where sin has resulted in the exclusion of a person from church membership, public confession is often a pre-requisite to readmission. In neither case is there any required format to the confessions.
In the Anglican church a formalised confession to a priest may be used, similar in practice and theology to the Catholic one, but it is not considered essential.
Confession of faith
Confession is also used by many churches in the sense of a statement of faith. The word is used in many Bible translations to mean admit one's faith publicly (e.g. Epistle to the Romans, chapter 10 verse 9).
The Confession of a church may therefore be used to mean its public statement of faith or doctrine. A church or group that belongs to a Confessing Movement strives to adhere to its public confessions strictly.
- The Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on the sacrament of reconciliation
- Several articles about Catholic Penance and Reconciliation
- Traditional Catholic Penance
- Confession - Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation - Penance Novus Ordo
- Augsburg Confession, the central document describing the religious convictions of the Lutheran reformation
- See Confessions for a list of books and albums of that title, most notably Confessions by St. Augustine of Hippo
- A Confession by Leo Tolstoy in which he describes his conversion to Christianity
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