Q&A: Auricular Confession

Auricular Confession

Question

Why do Roman Catholics ask for forgiveness through saints and/or for absolution through the "Fathers" and priests? After all, it is clear that Jesus said anything can be asked through him.

Answer

It's helpful in understanding Roman Catholicism to realize that its dogma is the result of a steady accretion of practices that were implemented to deal with recurring problems, as well as to make the Church central to every part of life. This is why, for example, Roman Catholicism has seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, communion, confession, holy matrimony, extreme unction, and holy orders) each of which, with the exception of holy orders, is intended to address all of life, from birth to death, and in between.

Although we as Protestants disagree with many teachings of Roman Catholicism, it is also true that many of these practices began with the best of intentions. Early in the history of the church, many would forsake the church during times of heavy persecution, only to return later after the ordeal had passed. How were these people to be readmitted, if at all? The practical solution seemed to be to require long periods of contrition and repentance, under careful supervision of church leaders, to demonstrate the genuineness of their belief. Over time, a legitimate concern over believers' sincerity became calcified into a doctrine known as "auricular confession" (confessing sins to a church authority, or priest), to the point where it eventually achieved the status of a sacrament.

Additionally, as the church expanded territorially, there was a tendency in some instances to syncretize, that is, to mix pagan beliefs with Christian teachings. Many Christians came from polytheistic backgrounds that acknowledged pantheons of gods. Over time, as Christianity began to mix these ideas with orthodox beliefs, many of the great historic figures of Christianity began to take on intercessory roles akin to some of the lesser deities, demigods and spiritual beings of these other religions. Jesus himself was seen as increasingly remote, even stern, and it was believed advisable to approach him through his mother (Mary) who was not only more sympathetic, but far more influential over her Son than an ordinary believer could ever hope to be.

You point out that it is "clear" that Jesus said that we could approach him and that "anything can be asked." This is often difficult for us to understand today, but during medieval times this "clear" or "obvious" meaning of the Bible was very much de-emphasized. It was common to interpret Scripture in terms of the "Quadriga," according to which there was a four-fold meaning of the text. There was a plain, or Ordinary Meaning, an Allegorical Meaning, a Tropological Meaning (the moral sense) and an Anagogical Meaning (having to do with the future, or End Times). Of these four, the plain, ordinary meaning was considered almost too trivial for serious study or concern. Other systems of interpretation also existed in which there were even more suggested meanings.

Of course, in this period of time very few individuals were able to read anything at all, much less Latin (the language of the church hierarchy, its theological and philosophical writings), and even fewer were able to read Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, the original languages of the Bible. To make matters worse, in medieval times there was very little understanding of the ancient times in which the Bible was written.

When one takes all these factors into consideration, it is a great deal easier to understand why the "clear" meaning of the Bible was such a mystery to many, even within the hierarchy of the church! And the laity was even worse off, in that the few who could read had no access to Scripture. It's not a coincidence that the Protestant Reformation got underway as the printing press became an important fixture in European culture. Luther's students and other enthusiasts saw to it that Luther's writings were widely disseminated, and Luther, as well as several others, began translating the Scriptures into the common languages of contemporary people.

Finally, you may be wondering at the situation today. Many obstacles that were common to medieval times no longer exist to obscure Scriptural meaning today. So, why does Roman Catholicism still adhere to auricular confession and the intercession of the saints? Simply put, the role of tradition has a different status in Roman Catholicism than in Protestantism.

Many Protestants are surprised to hear that there is a legitimate role for "tradition" in their church, but the distinction (a very important distinction!) is that tradition, while authoritative, is not unquestionably authoritative. Protestants look to the teachings of the early Church Fathers, and to the rulings of church councils (e.g., Chalcedon) for authority, but that authority is subject to the teachings of Scripture.

In Roman Catholicism, Holy Tradition has a co-equal authority with Scripture. Scripture, in turn, is infallibly interpreted by the church hierarchy, culminating in the Pope, who is said to be infallible when speaking ex cathedra (from the Chair of St. Peter) about faith and moral matters. That is why for many serious Catholics it is not a matter of great concern that the Bible says nothing of Mary being taken immediately into heaven without ever having died (the "Assumption" of Mary), or that the New Testament does not detail an intercessory work of a priesthood in the church akin to that practiced in Roman Catholicism (in fact, it teaches the opposite; cf. Heb. 8-10).

As you have no doubt gathered, far more could be said on these matters, but I hope this brief review will provide some help for you, especially in understanding why knowledgeable Catholics affirm such things as confession, and also why they disagree with Protestants regarding what the Bible "clearly" teaches.

Answer by Larry Gwaltney

Larry Gwaltney is Vice President of New Production Initiatives at Third Millennium Ministries.