Fear and Loathing in the Confessional

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” John 20:21-23

The work of the Church is declaring the good news of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ to those wracked with guilt and desirous of change. Often this gets abbreviated to just telling people about Jesus, but the crucial matter is what you tell them. If you tell them only that Jesus loves them, and never tell them of their sin and need for forgiveness, you haven’t shared the full story. If you only introduce them to the historical figure of Jesus without ever telling them why this historical figure matters to their lives unlike any other historical figure, you haven’t shared the full story. For someone who can see their sinfulness, their need for sin and forgiveness, the most beautiful part of the story is that this is exactly why Jesus is relevant to them. This is what Jesus brings them that nobody else can. And the Church is to be the place marked by both the proclamation of this reality and the actual forgiving of sins.

So when the Church (or a particular parish or priest) refuses to offer forgiveness to those desiring it, there’s a serious problem. An issue in one Roman Catholic parish in New Jersey recently due to the pandemic. Due to complications arising from properly disinfecting surfaces in the confessional – the small cabinet traditionally used in Roman Catholic churches to screen the penitent from the priest and allow them to confess their sins and receive absolution – a priest refused to allow un-vaccinated people to come to Confession, one of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic church.

People are understandably somewhat frightened and weary of COVID. But refusing to absolve repentant sinners is a gross failure of an ordained priest, and one rightly corrected by ecclesiastical supervisors.

The irony here is that the prohibition against any un-vaccinated person coming to Confession was ostensibly for their own “protection”. However to not receive forgiveness is a far greater danger to a person’s well-being than COVID, with potentially eternal ramifications!

Now, I’m not Roman Catholic and I do not necessarily agree with their traditional practice of Confession, or their understanding of the need and role for penance in receiving forgiveness. But if you’re going to tell people their forgiveness is dependent on Confession, and forgiveness is the means of eternal life, and then you refuse to hear their confessions, there’s a dangerous problem at play here!

Thankfully the situation was rectified quickly.

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