Fr. Raphael M. Moss, O.P.
When we speak about the "supernatural life of grace," we mean an earnest persevering effort to attain our last end by a loyal obedience to God's commandments, and any deliberate and willful failure on our part we unhesitatingly characterize as sinful. This is practically the definition of sin given by St. Thomas, and so clear is our conviction of its truth that proof seems quite superfluous. Similarly, when the Angelic Doctor tells us that this moral failure, which we call sin, leaves a stain upon the soul, our conscience once again bears witness to the truth of his assertion. The very fact that we are reasonable beings, and that the essence of sin lies in its deviation from the law of right reason, obliges us to feel the moral humiliation which is its consequence and to acknowledge the stain it leaves upon the soul. Hence this question of sin and its consequences, and the remedies against it prepared by our Creator, must necessarily come before us when we begin seriously to consider the supernatural life. We could not pass it over even if we would.
Supposing there were no such thing as sin, it would be different. Our worship of Almighty God might then indeed be limited to fervent prayers of praise and adoration, but the sad knowledge of good and evil is the fatal inheritance of our fallen race. Hence, at all times and in all places, we find men bearing witness to this fact, and in various ways, according to the best of their ability, endeavoring to undo the work of sin and blot out its dishonoring stains by rites of expiation. Our minds are therefore quite prepared to admit that in the one and only true religion, which is meant to lead our souls to God, there must be some such means provided for us. Our reason tells us that it must be so, our faith declares it is so, and bids us see and wonder at the power and wisdom and mercy of our God in the priceless sacrament of Penance.
The sacrament of Penance! It is a world of theology in itself, embracing as it does the teaching of our faith on sin and grace and the sacraments; it is perhaps the commonest of God's supernatural dealings with our souls, and yet by no means the least wonderful; it is the most beneficent of all His condescensions, and yet the very one that is the most traduced and hated. To us, on whom God has bestowed the light of faith, the need of such a sacrament seems so manifest, that we feel we could almost prove its existence to any reasonable mind by a priori arguments. For once we grant the possibility of sin in those who have received the grace of baptism, we are compelled to grant that another sacrament for the remission of such sins would only be what we might expect from God's great goodness, especially since it is His way to treat us in accordance with our nature, and make material things the channels of His grace. It is quite true that He died to make atonement for our sins, and that His sufferings are the superabounding cause of all grace and all satisfaction. But belief in His atonement does not mean that we are henceforth free to please ourselves and indulge in every sin without fear or remorse. He laid down His life for us, but, as He Himself declared, it was of His own free will, for no one could take it from Him, and dying for us freely, He could and did determine how the abundant fruits of all His sufferings were to be applied to the souls whom He had so generously redeemed. He instituted the sacraments. We believe that He blotted out the hand-writing that was against us, and opened the closed gates of heaven to the human race; but we also believe that He laid down a clear condition:
Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter the king dom of God. (John 3:5)
Hence we teach that baptism, either actually or by desire, is an essential condition of salvation. But when we grow up, and our reason and free will assert themselves, it often happens that we soon forget how much we have been favored. Freely and deliberately we turn our backs upon our Maker, and declare our independence, and even as a beautiful flower, just opening its white leaves to the bright sunshine, loses all its frail loveliness, and is sullied and destroyed when it is trampled in the dust, so also is the soul of man sullied and defiled when he consents to sin. What then can he do? He may repent, and indeed his reason tells him that repentance is essential; but is his repentance real enough to merit God's acceptance, and will He accept it ? Hope says He will, but have we no visible assurance, such as God gives us in baptism? Must we be like the King of Nineveh, who hearkened to the preaching of God's prophet, and proclaimed a solemn fast, for "Who can tell," he said, "if God will turn and forgive, and turn away from His fierce anger?" (Jonas 3:9) Who can tell? There is the difficulty. So faith steps in, and tells us that there is another sacrament, a second plank after shipwreck, a visible outward sign of the cleansing work of grace: the sacrament of Penance.
But there is another way of looking at this dogma of our faith. A sacrament is defined to be an outward sign of inward grace ordained by Jesus Christ. All its powers must come from Him, for nobody could make a sacrament, and bind the supernatural power of grace to visible things, but the Author of grace Himself; and so we venture to say that any candid mind looking at this institution as an existing fact in the world, and seriously considering it, must see in it the handiwork of God, and confess it to be a sacrament, or means of grace, and a most efficient factor in the spiritual life.
In the sacrament of Penance, or "Confession" as it is commonly called amongst Catholics, we have to acknowledge two most wonderful creations utterly beyond the power of man, or any natural agency whatever; for since this marvelous institution implies the confession of one's sins to a fellow-creature, it necessarily supposes the one who confesses his sins, and the one who receives the confession; the self-accused transgressor of the law and the judge who is its representative; the penitent and the confessor. Analyse these two ideas, and try to see what they imply.
Who is the penitent? He is a human being, humbly avowing his sins at the feet of a fellow-man. According to St Thomas, pride may be looked at as a special sin in itself, or as the fountain-head of all sin. He shows us, moreover, how it is the worst of all sins, because it is the furthest point of sin, and yet, though we may admit the reasoning of the Angelic Doctor and accept his conclusions, we cannot help feeling somehow or other that pride is the most excusable of all sins, probably because so natural to our fallen and perverted will.
Miserable and poor and blind and naked as are the very best of us from a supernatural point of view, we are all, nevertheless, infected with this vice of pride. It hides itself under many forms. It often wears the robe of virtue, and the proudest man will often urge that he is only overstocked with self-respect. Yet, proud as man is by nature, stubborn and sensitive and reserved in every way, he is, by this sacrament, laid under a law which at first sight seems an outrage on human nature. For it is a law which obliges him to come and kneel at the feet of one of his fellow-men - one perhaps who, in the social scale, may be in every way inferior and of less account, one who may be less clever, less learned, less refined and there reveal the sins of his life. Neither age, position nor experience may avail as an excuse. All must obey. The pope himself, who claims to be the vicar of Christ on earth, is as much under the law as the youngest cleric in the Church. Kings and queens are bound equally with the poorest of their subjects. Old men bowed down by the weight of years, young men in the fierce strife of passions that make up the battle of life, children who have but begun to taste of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, all are under the same law. And they must confess all. It might not seem so hard to be obliged to confess the public crimes that outrage every law of public morals, the sins against society and its ordinances, the offences that are committed in the light of day and under the eyes of our neighbor; but the law of confession goes further than that. All sinful acts, all moral failures and humiliations in thought, word and deed, all are to be avowed. This is the inexorable law, and the world cries out against it as a sheer impossibility.
But it is only half the wonder! Difficult as this may seem to human reason, impossible as it may appear to the world, it is surely still more difficult, still more impossible to the confessor. For a confessor in the sacrament of Penance has not merely to listen to the self-accusation of his neighbor, and be the recipient of his confidence. His task is something far more wonderful than that: it is nothing less than super-human! The burden laid upon him, in the exercise of this office, is beyond the strength of angels, yet in himself he is but a man as other men; like to them in body and soul and mind and heart. And what is the heart of man, the will of man? A power with high ideals, lofty aspirations, capable of heroic sacrifice, yet at the same time capable of yielding to most selfish cravings and weak enough for any fall! Manifestly, therefore, before it can undertake a work like this it must be changed, and cleansed, and strengthened until it hardly seems the same. So when Jesus Christ bestowed upon His Apostles the power of forgiving sin, Holy Scripture tells us that He breathed upon them, to signify that He gave to them a new spirit, a better and more perfect heart. He showed them by that mysterious sign that He would have them work by His Spirit and His Heart; or, in the words of Holy Writ, He gave to them "wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart even as the sand that is on the sea-shore." (John 20:22)
The work of a confessor demands no less. For it implies a heart full of an unwearying love, a love that can bear up against the sins, the faults, the weaknesses and follies of humanity, coupled with a sense of duty that will enable him to sacrifice home and kindred and friends and pleasant occupations; or, if needful, willingly brave suffering and danger and death, often to meet with no other reward, as far as this world is concerned, than the misunderstandings, criticisms and revilings of those whom he has tried to serve.
Moreover, real and true and deep as is to be this love of souls, it may not be confined to any narrow circle. It must be ready to embrace all; the poorest of the poor as well as the rich and nobly born, the old and feeble as well as the young and lighthearted; the innocent and pure side by side with the sin-stained and the fallen. But because love is a fire which may burn and consume, it must be tempered by a purity like unto that of the angels of God, and guarded by a prudence and discretion not of this earth. Then again, these extraordinary gifts, so wonderful and so supernatural, were not to be conferred on one or two more perfect souls; but all over the world, in all nations and in all peoples, these representatives of Christ were to be found, so that everywhere, until the end of time, wherever sin existed, there also must be found the confessor to break asunder its chains. This is the miracle of the sacrament of Penance, and for nineteen centuries it has been before the world. Only one conclusion is possible. "This is the finger of God." (Exodus 8:19) "It is the Lord's doing, and it is wonderful in our eyes." (Psalm 117:23)
It seems hardly worth our while to insist upon a further argument; though we may pause to point it out, for it is not without its special value, and it is to be found in an appeal to history and its evidences. It has a negative as well as a positive side, and the former may be summed up in the pertinent question: Who is the author of the practice of confession, if it be not our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ?
The Catholic Church is not unmindful of the great names in her history, the many holy pontiffs, kings and warriors, martyrs and confessors, who have deserved well of her. Their names and their achievements are ever being handed down to posterity with their fitting meed of praise; but nowhere is there mention of the one who placed within her hands this means of boundless influence. Her enemies, on the other hand, are equally silent. "Free-thought" is not the exclusive product of the nineteenth century, it has its votaries in every age, and what were they doing when this outrage on their theories was first introduced? Those others, too, whose boast it is to steer a middle course between the license of free-thought and the authority of the Church, have they no words to say, no plea of novelties to urge until the middle of the sixteenth century? Full five or six hundred years before the so-called "Reformation", the Greeks had broken away, but the Greeks uphold confession. If we go back another six hundred years we find Nestorius, Eutyches, and others cutting themselves adrift, but never because of the dogma of confession. Surely all this silence, the silence of the centuries, speaks as eloquently as any argument, and were we now to turn to Catholic writers for the positive proofs of history, and in each succeeding age bow down before the clear, unfaltering teaching of its greatest sons, it would not be because we needed more convincing evidence, but only that we loved to hear the voice of truth triumphing over error, and proclaiming aloud to the whole world that Penance is really and truly a sacrament ordained by Jesus Christ.
Passing over, therefore, the testimonies of these Saints and Fathers of the Church, let us turn to the book of God's word, and see when our Savior bestowed upon us this fresh proof of His love for our souls, and His anxiety for their salvation. Just as in the case of the Holy Eucharist, the Son of God seems to prepare the minds of His apostles for so great a gift by foretelling its bestowal, for in the eighteenth chapter of St Matthew's Gospel, after speaking of the power of the Church, He uses these solemn words:
Amen, I say unto you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose up on earth shall be loosed also in heaven.
And then when the fitting time had come, He fulfilled His promise by conferring upon them the awful powers necessary for so great a work. The beloved disciple describes the wonderful scene:
Now when it was late that same day, the first of the week, and the doors were shut, when the disciples were gathered together for fear of the Jews, Jesus came, and stood in the midst, and said to them: 'Peace be to you.' And when He had said this, He shewed them His hands and His side. Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord. And again He said to them: 'Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent Me, I also send you.' And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them: 'Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain they are retained.' (John 20:19-23)
Every word seems to ring with a power and authority all divine. "As the Father hath sent Me, I also send you. Receive ye the Holy Ghost." In these words of her divine Founder, the Catholic Church has always recognized the institution of the sacrament of Penance, for they most certainly and most explicitly confer the power of forgiving and retaining sin; and hence they imply the duty of confession, for how is the divinely appointed representative of Christ to exercise His power of forgiving and retaining sins, unless the sinner himself reveal them to him?
Now let us look into this teaching of our faith more closely, and see for ourselves how perfectly it corresponds to the natural wants of man; and how, therefore, far from being a burden, it is in reality a very great help and consolation. For if God is our last end, it follows naturally that every single law laid upon us by Him is meant to be the echo of His voice, the beckoning of His hand, now calling us onward, now warning us backwards, but ever showing us the way to Him. Hence every duty we owe to Him, every obligation under which we lie, is really meant to be a help to us.
It is in absolute accordance with right reason and with our nature, and necessarily tends to perfect it by uniting it with its last end; and we assert that confession is no exception to this universal law, although we often hear it attacked by non-Catholics as unnatural and unreasonable and therefore most certainly not of God. But it is easy to prove our contention.
The heart of man has been well compared to a vessel filled to overflowing, and this overflow cannot fall back upon itself, but by its very nature seeks another resting place, or, in other words, seeks and craves for sympathy. This sympathy implies confidence, and what is confession but confidence carried to its utmost limit, and made wholly supernatural by the grace of God? It also implies a fellow creature, for if we could confess to God, we should require that God should manifest Himself and His acceptance of our confidence, and in our present state of probation, this could not be. We feel that we must lay the burden of our miseries at the feet of one like unto ourselves, and yet one who can speak to us in the name and with the authority of God Himself.
Moreover, quite apart from any supernatural motive, confession is the natural instinct of a remorseful conscience. It is the soul's spontaneous and voluntary rejection of evil. But when we pass into the supernatural order, and consider it as the remedy for sin, the violation of God's law, then is its fitness even yet more clearly manifest. For in every serious sin we can discern two elements, a turning away from God, who is our last end, and a turning to the creature; in other words the rejection of the Creator for the creature.
The turning away from God is the outcome of pride. Our fallen nature tends to worship itself, and craves to be its own master that it may please itself and its own inclinations at whatever cost. It was this love of self which the devil aroused in our first parents when he asked: "Why hath God commanded you that you should not eat of every tree of paradise," and then in answer to the reason given: "No, you shall not die, but in whatsoever day you shall eat thereof your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." Then came the second element of sin, the act of preference. "When the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and fair to the eyes, and delightful to behold, she took of the fruit thereof and did eat," (Genesis 3) and so God's law was broken; for when the sinner, turning away from God and preferring some created good, finds his moral freedom barred by the divine command, he spurns it with contempt, and so these two elements combine in one foolish act of revolt.
Now look at confession. In it you will find precisely the contrary elements to those which constitute the act of sin. In opposition to pride, self-indulgence and rebellion, it imposes on us an act of true humility and self-sacrifice, and an act of child-like obedience to God's law in the submission of the will and the sorrowful avowal of our fault. How wonderful are the ways of God! Had our divine Savior not vouchsafed to bestow it upon us, no one would have dared to dream of such a remedy; but now that He has given it, we have but to look upon it to see in it His handiwork, at once a marvelous token of His power, His wisdom and His love. Moreover, it is a special privilege, for which we cannot show ourselves too grateful. St Thomas tells us that the word "privilege" implies a sort of private law, or favor, granted only to a few, and though all the sacraments might justly claim the title, yet in some way it seems especially to describe the sacrament of Penance.
The very beautiful chapter in the Old Testament which gives us the story of Naaman the Syrian (4 Kings 5) serves as a good illustration. Naaman was the general of the Syrian army; valiant, rich and powerful, but a leper. Amongst his many slaves, there happened to be a little Hebrew girl, who understood her master's trouble, and spoke about the great prophet in her own country, and told how God had blessed him with miraculous powers, so that he was able to cure all diseases, even leprosy. So Naaman set out for the laud of Israel, and having found out who this prophet was, and where he dwelt, he came to him with all his grand retinue, and made his prayer. But the prophet did not trouble to see him; he merely sent his servant with a message, directing him to bathe a certain number of times in the river Jordan, and promising, if he did so, that he would be healed. Now mark the sequel. Naaman's pride was hurt. He wanted to be healed, but he also wanted to dictate the manner of his healing. He wanted more attention and more ceremony, and he was actually returning in anger to his own country, when his servants ventured to appeal to his common sense:
If the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, surely thou wouldst have done it; how much rather what he now hath said to thee, 'Wash, and thou shalt be clean.'
So he obeyed God's prophet, and he was healed. The lesson is most evident: "If the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, surely thou wouldst have done it." Sin is a moral leprosy. Did we but realize this, no sacrifice would be too great to get rid of it, and to recover that rectitude of soul, that cleanness of heart which we have lost; and it is our wonderful privilege to be able to win it back at what is comparatively no cost at all. Moreover, the sacrifice, such as it is, not only cleanses us from the stain of sin and heals us of our disease, but over and above this, it rewards the effort we have made, by filling the soul with a new happiness, born of a superabundance of comfort and light and the perfect consciousness of forgiveness. It gives us comfort. All sorrow comes from sin, for sin is the only real sorrow, the only real misery. With our spiritual sense so unrefined it may perhaps be hard for us to see this, but reason teaches it, and faith asserts it.
St Thomas was wont to declare that he could not understand how a person living in sin could ever smile. How can there be real peace in the heart that has knowingly turned away from its last end? But by casting out sin we recover peace, for that act of self-humiliation and self-sacrifice, by restoring grace, opens the door of the soul to its true Friend, who reveals Himself to us under the gracious name of "Paraclete" or Comforter. And with consolation comes light.
By the sin of our first parents, our minds have been grievously darkened, and every sin that we commit deepens this intellectual darkness; so that, like poor, blind men, we stumble along, running the risk of a fall or taking the wrong turn at every moment. Our divine Master is the Light of the world, and His word is a "lamp unto our feet" and a "light upon our path." "He that followeth Me," He has declared, "walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life." (John 8:12) There is the public light of His authoritative teaching, and the special light of grace bestowed upon each soul in proportion to its need, enabling it to see its own littleness and narrowness and poverty; and the light of this self-knowledge does not dishearten, but, on the contrary, helps us on by making us more kind and patient with ourselves and with others.
Lastly, there is the sense of forgiveness, the crowning joy of all. The world never forgives. Even when the poor unfortunate who has defied its laws has paid the penalty of his rashness, he is not forgiven. The stain remains, a blot upon his life and the lives of his children. Our own conscience never forgives. "I can never forgive myself," says a man, when he realizes some irreparable mistake, and he speaks the literal truth. Our conscience never speaks of sin, but it speaks to reproach and condemn; and though we may refuse to listen, and even do our best to stifle it by pretending to believe that it is "but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe," yet will a day come when it repays such wrongs with interest and seems to have "a thousand several tongues, and every tongue brings in a several tale" to condemn us. But God forgives, and His forgiveness is complete and perfect. It matters not how low the fall, how far the wandering: "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven" - a truly royal pardon, begetting in the repentant soul that peace which the world cannot give, since it comes from Him who alone has the right to say: "Go in peace, thy sins are forgiven thee."
We have every right, therefore, to point to the sacrament of Penance as a special privilege of our holy faith, and one of the chief glories of the Catholic Church. To the priest who wields this wondrous power of binding and loosing the members of Jesus Christ, it is a royal unction, consecrating him a king amongst souls, at the same time filling his heart with wonder and amazement and pity and zeal, and a readiness to spend himself and be spent in the service of his brethren. But, in addition to this spiritual royalty, it gives him a spiritual fatherhood, for when he sees at his feet the souls for whom His Master died, laying bare before his eyes the troubles of their souls, the human spirit dies within him to give place to something more divine, so that he may justly say with St Paul: "I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me." (Galatians 2:20) No wonder that Luther, in the hour of his fall, hesitated to uncrown himself of this bright diadem. "Confessio miro modo placet," he wrote, "et utilis imo necessaria est, nec vellem eam non esse in Ecclesia Christi." But his apostasy had sown the storm, and he lived to reap the whirlwind.
We have surely said enough to prove what we advanced, and to show the special place occupied by the sacrament of Penance in that supernatural life of grace to which we have been called. We may conclude with the words of the beloved disciple:
These things we write to you that you may rejoice, and your joy may be full. [...] If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity. (1 John 1:4,8-9)