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Confession of sins is an integral part of the Christian faith and practice. The meaning is essentially the same as the criminal one – to admit one's own guilt. Confession of one's sins, or at least of one's sinfulness, is seen by most churches as a pre-requisite for becoming a Christian.


In Catholic teaching, the Catholic sacrament of Penance (commonly called reconciliation) is the method given by Christ to the Catholic Church by which individual men and women may confess sins committed after baptism and have them absolved by a priest. (It is not necessary to confess sins committed before baptism, as baptism itself removes the guilt of sins.) This sacrament is known by many names, including penance, reconciliation, and confession (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Sections 1423-1442). However, because confession is only one aspect of the sacrament, it is no longer officially called "confession." Official Church publications always refer to the sacrament as "Penance and Reconciliation," or shorten it to "penance" or "reconciliation." However, Traditional Catholics, who reject many of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, continue to use the term "confession".

Catholics believe that no priest, as an individual man, however pious or learned, has power to forgive sins. This power belongs to God alone; however, God can and does exercise it through the Catholic priesthood. Catholics believe God exercises the power of forgiveness by means of the sacrament of reconciliation.

The basic form of confession has not changed for centuries, although at one time confessions were made publicly. Colloquially speaking, the role of the priest is of a judge and jury; in theological terms, he acts in persona Christi and receives from the Church the power of jurisdiction over the penitent. The penitent must confess mortal sins in order to restore his/her connection to God's grace and not to merit Hell. The sinner may confess venial sins. The intent of this sacrament is to provide healing for the soul as well as to regain the grace of God, lost by sin. The Council of Trent (Session Fourteen, Chapter I) quoted John 20:22-23 as the primary Scriptural proof for the doctrine concerning this sacrament, but Catholics also consider Matthew 9:2-8 and 1 Corinthians 11:27 to be among the Scriptural bases for the sacrament.

Absolution in the Roman rite takes this form:

God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The essential words, however, are "I absolve you."

Prior to the Second Vatican Council the priest would absolve the penitent in Latin. The penitent must make an act of contrition, a prayer acknowledging his/her faults before God. It typically commences: O my God, I am heartily sorry... Reconciliation is considered necessary before receiving the sacrament of Eucharist for the first time. The Catholic Church teaches that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the only ordinary way in which a person can receive forgiveness for mortal sins committed after baptism. However, perfect contrition (a sorrow motivated by love of God rather than of fear of punishment) is an extraordinary way of removing the guilt of mortal sin before or without confession (if there is no opportunity of confessing to a priest). Such contrition would include the intention of confessing. Examples of mortal sins include murder, blasphemy, fornication, use of artificial contraception, and deliberately failing to attend Mass on a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation. If a person guilty of mortal sin dies without either receiving the sacrament or experiencing perfect contrition with the intention of confessing to a priest, he/she will receive eternal damnation.

In order for the sacrament to be valid the penitent must do more than simply confess his known mortal sins to a priest. He must a) be truly sorry for each of the mortal sins he committed, b) have a firm intention never to commit them again, and c) perform the penance imposed by the priest. Also, in addition to confessing the types of mortal sins committed, the penitent must disclose how many times each sin was committed, to the best of his/her ability.

The Code of Canon Law requires all Catholics to confess mortal sins at least once a year, although frequent reception of the sacrament is recommended. Traditionally many receive the sacrament during the liturgical seasons of lent or advent. In reality many Catholics confess far less or more than is required; of all parts of the faith it is perhaps among the most common to be negated.

For Catholic priests, the confidentiality of all statements made by penitents during the course of confession is absolute. This strict confidentiality is known as the Seal of the Confessional. According to the Code of Canon Law, 983 §1, "The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason." Priests may not reveal what they have learned during confession to anyone, even under the threat of their own death or that of others. (This is unique to the Seal of the Confessional. Many other forms of confidentiality, including in most states attorney-client privilege, allow ethical breaches of the confidence to save the life of another.) For a priest to break that confidentiality would lead to an latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication reserved to the Holy See (Code of Canon Law, 1388 §1). In a criminal matter, a priest may encourage or require the penitent to surrender to authorities and may withhold absolution if the penitent refuses to do so. However, this is the extent of the leverage he wields; he may not directly or indirectly disclose the matter to civil authorities himself.

There are limited cases where portions of a confession may be revealed to others, but always with the penitent's permission and always without actually revealing the penitent's identity. This is the case, for example, with unusually serious offenses, as some excommunicable offenses are reserved to the bishop or even to the Holy See, and their permission to grant absolution would first have to be obtained.

Civil authorities in the United States are usually respectful of this confidentiality. However, several years ago an ambitious attorney in Portland, Oregon secretly recorded a confession without the knowledge of the priest or the penitent involved. This lead to official protests by then local Archbishop Francis George (now Archbishop of Chicago) and the Vatican. The tape has since been sealed, and the Federal Court has since ruled that the taping was in violation of the 4th Amendment, and ordered an injunction against any further tapings.

Manuals of confession in the Middle AgesEdit

In the Middle Ages the manuals of confession constituted a literary genre. These manuals were guidebooks on how to obtain the maximum benefits from the sacrament. There were two kinds of manuals: those addressed to the faithful, so that they could prepare a good confession, and those addressed to the priests, who had to make sure that no sins were left unmentioned and the confession was as thorough as possible. The priest had to ask questions, being careful not to suggest sins that perhaps the faithful had not thought of and give them ideas. Manuals were written in Latin and in the vernacular. See (in French) about manuals of confession in medieval Spain.

Eastern OrthodoxyEdit

Within the Eastern Orthodox Church it is understood that the Mystery of confession and repentance has more to do with the spiritual development of the individual and much less to do with purification. Sin is not seen as a stain on the soul, but rather a mistake that needs correction. In general, the Orthodox Christian chooses an individual to trust as his or her spiritual guide. In most cases this is the parish priest but may, in fact, be any individual, male or female, who has received permission from a bishop to hear confessions. This person is often referred to as ones spiritual father or mother. Once chosen, the individual turns to his spiritual guide for advice on his or her spiritual development, confessing sins, and asking advice. Orthodox Christians tend to confess only to this individual and the intimacy created by this bond makes the spiritual guide the most qualified in dealing with the person, so much so, that no one can override what a spiritual guide tells his or her charges. In general practice, after one confesses to ones spiritual guide the parish priest (Who may or may not have heard the confession) covers the head of the person with his Epitrachilion (Stole) and reads the prayer of repentance, asking God to forgive the transgression of the individual. It is highly possible that the person confesses his sins to his spiritual guide on a regular basis but only seeks out the priest to read the prayer before communing.


In the Anglican church a formalised, private confession to a priest may be used. Its sacramental degree is a matter of controversy within the Anglican Communion. A general confession is part of most services, where all together recite the Confession of Sin and the priest pronouces absolution.

In the Swedish Church, the sacramental confession before a priest is one of the three sacraments, and has a proper place in the Swedish massbook.


In Protestant churches it is believed that no intermediary is necessary between the Christian and God (the same is true for Catholics Christians and Orthodox Christians as well). The confession of sins is therefore mainly done in private, in prayer before God. However confession is often encouraged when a wrong has been done to a person as well as to God. Confession is then made to the person wronged, and is seen to be as much part of the reconciliation process as it is theological. In churches and cases where sin has resulted in the exclusion of a person from church membership, public confession is often a pre-requisite to readmission. In neither case is there any required format to the confessions.

Some Lutheran churches also advocate private confession with a Pastor. However, ever since the 18th century it is very rarely used. A more frequent practice is the corporate confession of sins at the beginning of a worship service. In his 1529 Catechisms, Martin Luther praised private confession (before a pastor or a fellow Christian) for the sake of absolution, that is, for the sake of the forgiveness of sins bestowed in an audible, concrete way. The Lutheran reformers held that a complete enumaration of sins is impossible (see Psalm 19:12) and that one's confidence is not to be based on the sincerity of one's contrition nor on one's compliance with the works of satisfaction imposed by the priest. In fact, works of satisfaction, as taught by the medieval Church, were rejected. Faith, that is, trust in Christ's complete active and passive satisfaction is what receives the forgiveness and salvation won by him and imparted to the confessor by the word of absolution.

Confession of faithEdit

Confession is also used by many churches in the sense of a statement of faith. The word is used in many Bible translations to mean admit one's faith publicly (e.g. Epistle to the Romans, chapter 10 verse 9).

The Confession of a church may therefore be used to mean its public statement of faith or doctrine. A church or group that belongs to a Confessing Movement strives to adhere to its public confessions strictly.

The term confessio (from Latin) is sometimes used to describe a public defense of one's faith or life, e.g. the Confessio of St. Patrick, written around 450AD.

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