One of the things Catholics are often asked to defend is the purpose or practical value of confession. Why/what’s the worth in confessing your sins and failings and struggles to a priest—to another person—rather than simply making a sort of mental accounting of them to yourself and confessing to God through thoughts or prayer?
It’s something I’ve thought about on and off for a while. I’m not competent to speak theologically (and certainly not in any way authoritatively) on its worth as a sacrament, I’ve developed a sort of mental framework or working theory for thinking about Confession and explaining it to others.
I think of confession as something like a basic act of courteousness that consists of three parts, and that includes a very tangible personal benefit even outside of its theological value.
1. Absolution in the Eyes of the Creator: First, from the theological standpoint confession isn’t simply a way to mentally or emotionally apologize for sins and failings, or to address continuing struggles, but it’s the fundamental means of reconciliation and forgiveness from God through the person of the priest as his representative. This is the high level claim, to which I add:
2. Authority of the Church: As an action, confession to a priest is you demonstrating that whether you agree/understand, you’re humble enough to respect an authority outside of your own ego. That is, you have enough humility to respect the authority of the Christian community through time. And in terms of the “very tangible personal benefit,” let’s admit that confessing your deepest failings to another real person is incredibly difficult; genuinely humbling. And there’s worth to putting yourself in that situation and coming away realizing you won’t be scolded or put down, but encouraged to become an even better person.
3. Priest Knowing the Community: A related aspect is that if people largely avoid confession, the priest’s knowledge of the specific strengths/weaknesses of his community becomes very thin. The job of a priest is to minister to his community, and without knowing what their specific challenges are, his preaching, his missionary focus, and basically everything he does has to be based on guesswork. In effect weakening the purpose and impact of his presence in the community, because he can only offer very general spiritual advice.
What connects these three prongs of my “working theory” of confession is courteousness. In other words, I think of confession as a way to demonstrate the basic courtesy of honesty to the Creator, courtesy in respecting the Christian community, and courtesy of the gift of knowledge to your priest. This helps me think about confession less as a personal-egotistical challenge and more as a personal-social responsibility.