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This article is about the practice of confession in the Christian faith. In criminal proceedings, a confession is a document in which a suspect admits having committed a crime.

See also: testimony, right to silence


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 Catholicism

The Catholic sacrament of penance and reconciliation is the method given by Christ to the Catholic Church by which individual men may confess sins committed after baptism and have them absolved by a priest. (It is not necessary to confess sins committed before baptism, as baptism itself removes the guilt of sins.) This sacrament is known by many names, including penance, reconciliation, and confession (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Sections 1423-1442). However, because confession is only one aspect of the sacrament, it is no longer officially called "confession." Official Church publications always refer to the sacrament as "Penance and Reconciliation," or shorten it to "penance" or "reconciliation."

Catholics believe that no priest, as an individual man, however pious or learned, has power to forgive sins. This power belongs to God alone; however, God can and does exercise it through the Catholic priesthood. Catholics believe God exercises the power of forgiveness by means of the sacrament of reconciliation.

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 penitent must confess mortal sins in order to restore his/her connection to God's grace and not to merit Hell. The sinner may confess venial sins as well as mortal sins not previously confessed. The intent of this sacrament is to provide healing for the soul as well as to regain the grace of God, lost by sin. The Council of Trent (Session Fourteen, Chapter I) quoted John 20:22-23 as the primary Scriptural proof for the doctrine concerning this sacrament, but Roman Catholics also consider Matthew 9:2-8 and 1 Corinthians 11:27 to be among the Scriptural bases for the sacrament.

Absolution in the Roman rite takes this form:

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.

The essential words, however, are "I absolve you."

Prior to the Second Vatican Council the priest would absolve the penitent in Latin. The penitent must make an act of contrition, a prayer acknowledging his/her faults before God. It typically commences: O my God, I am heartily sorry... Reconciliation is considered necessary before receiving the sacrament of Confirmation.

The Catholic Church teaches that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the only ordinary way in which a person can receive forgiveness for mortal sins committed after baptism. However, perfect contrition (a sorrow motivated by love of God rather than of fear of punishment) is an extraordinary way of removing the guilt of mortal sin before or without confession (if there is no opportunity of confessing to a priest). Such contrition would include the intention of confessing. Examples of mortal sins include murder, blasphemy, fornication, use of artificial contraception, and deliberately failing to attend Mass on a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation. If a person guilty of mortal sin dies without either receiving the sacrament or experiencing perfect contrition with the intention of confessing to a priest, he/she will receive eternal damnation.

In order for the sacrament to be valid the penitent must do more than simply confess his known mortal sins to a priest. He must a) be truly sorry for each of the mortal sins he committed, b) have a firm intention never to commit them again, and c) perform the penance imposed by the priest. Also, in addition to confessing the types of mortal sins committed, the penitent must disclose how many times each sin was committed, to the best of his/her ability.

The Code of Canon Law requires all Catholics to confess mortal sins at least once a year, although frequent reception of the sacrament is recommended.

For Roman Catholic priests, the confidentiality of all statements made by penitents during the course of confession is absolute. This strict confidentiality is known as the "Seal of the Confessional." According to the Code of Canon Law, 983 §1, "The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason." Priests may not reveal what they have 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 attorney-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 latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication reserved to the Holy See (Code of Canon Law, 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 he wields; he may not directly or indirectly disclose the matter to civil authorities himself.

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, as 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.

Manuals of confession in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages the manuals of confession constituted a literary genre. These manuals were guidebooks on how to obtain the maximum benefits from the sacrament. There were two kinds of manuals: those addressed to the faithful, so that they could prepare a good confession, and those addressed to the priests, who had to make sure that no sins were left unmentioned and the confession was as thorough as possible. The priest had to ask questions, being careful not to suggest sins that perhaps the faithful had not thought of and give them ideas. Manuals were written in Latin and in the vernacular. See (in French) about manuals of confession in medieval Spain.

Eastern Orthodoxy

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, except for young children. 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, private confession to a priest may be used which, while similar in practice and theology to the Catholic one, is not considered essential. A general confession is part of most services, where all together recite the Confession of Sin and the priest pronouces absolution.

Some Lutheran churches also advocate private confession with a Pastor. However, ever since the 18th century it is very rarely used. A more frequent practice is the corporate confession of sins at the beginning of a worship service. In his 1529 Catechisms, Martin Luther praised private confession (before a pastor or a fellow Christian) for the sake of absolution, that is, for the sake of the forgiveness of sins bestowed in an audible, concrete way. The Lutheran reformers held that a complete enumaration of sins is impossible (see Psalm 19:12) and that one's confidence is not to be based on the sincerity of one's contrition nor on one's compliance with the works of satisfaction imposed by the priest. In fact, works of satisfaction, as taught by the medieval Church, were rejected. Faith, that is, trust in Christ's complete active and passive satisfaction is what receives the forgiveness and salvation won by him and imparted to the confessor by the word of absolution.

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 term confessio (from Latin) is sometimes used to describe a public defense of one's faith or life, e.g. the Confessio of St. Patrick, written around 450AD.

External link

Anonymously in the web

See also

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