Why do Catholics confess their sins to priests?

Well, from the psychological point of view, we know that in a number of disciplines today, self-disclosure is very important. There is a need to talk, the need to talk to other people. When I talk to other people about my problems, then I get a certain relief by the mere fact of talking about them. So, I have to talk to another human being, not merely to God.

But, perhaps a more profound answer to this question is the very nature of sin. What exactly is the nature of sin? So, sin is not merely something theological as they say, that is to say directed against God. It is also something social, it is also something that affects man in a negative way. I think, it is really a wonderful stroke of psychology on the part of the inspired author of Genesis when in chapter 3, he gives us an account of the first sin, the sin against God. So the snake says to the woman, "You will be like God, knowing good and evil." This appeals to the woman and ultimately to the man. They want to be their own God, to be autonomous, to be answerable to nobody except themselves. So, it is really a sin against God, a denial of God, and when the sin is committed, God is at once on the spot and he calls out, "Where are you?" That is a question God is always asking, "Where are you?" Now, in the 4th chapter of Genesis, the second sin is the sin against man, a sin of brother against brother, fratricide. Cain kills Abel. Once again, God is on the spot and once again, God asks a question. And the question he asks this time is, "Where is your brother?" So, you can see that sin here takes on a social dimension. These are the first two sins in human history as we read of them in the Bible. The first is a sin against God and the second is a sin against man. So, built into the reality of sin then, there is a social dimension which we cannot get away from. Now I think this is illustrated in our own times. You take for instance, the atheism of the French Revolution, or the atheism of the Nazi era in Germany, or of Stalin in Russia. All these movements denied the existence of God and in denying the existence of God just look at what they did to their fellow human beings!!! The reign of terror, for instance, in the French Revolution or The Gulags of Stalin, and the awful concentration camps Dachau and Auschwitz and so on of Hitler. Having turned against God, they automatically turned against man also. So you can hardly think of a sin that we are capable of committing that does not have a social dimension. Sin is not merely anti-God, it is also anti-man.

Thus, if I want to get rid of sin, I have to confess sin not merely to God, I have to confess sin also to my fellow men who have been injured by my sin. That is the reason then why we tell our sins not merely directly to God in the Catholic Church but also in confession to a priest who is acting in the name of God and in the name of the Church. Therefore we find that in the formula of absolution, the priest tells us that the Church is giving us remission from our sin. Not merely God, but the church too gives remission of sins because the church has been offended by our sins. When we confess our sins to a priest, the priest is a representative figure. He represents the church. We are not telling our sins merely to a man, any man. We are telling our sins to somebody who has got an official capacity and the official capacity of the priest is that he represents the church. So we don't confess our sins to anybody and everybody. We have to confess our sins to somebody who is socially important and the priest is socially important because primarily he represents the church and in telling my sins then to the priest, I am telling them to the church. I am apologizing to the church for the injury I have done to the church, to society, by my sins and my sinfulness.

by Fr Sean Kelleher

See also:

John 20:21-23