St. Augustine and Confession

Bishop Robert Vasa's picture
August 28, 2014
by Bishop Robert F. Vasa

 As a priest I have frequently seen the beauty and effectiveness of the sacrament of reconciliation, or, if you prefer, confession. So convinced am I of its efficacy, indeed its necessity for saving souls that I frequently speak about it as a regular topic of catechesis when I travel throughout the diocese.

While it is perhaps possible to say, in the most legalistic and narrowly scripted fashion that confession may not be absolutely, categorically, definitively, and unequivocally “necessary” for salvation, I would, again, still maintain we need it, it is good for us, it was given to us by Jesus for our spiritual growth and advancement, and we should strive to appreciate and use this great gift of the Church as an integral part of our spiritual journey.

However not everyone agrees. I remember perusing a 1999 book on spirituality that addressed the question of confession’s the necessity. The popular spirituality book I received does not necessarily go so far as to deny this but it introduces a different teaching.

The author maintains that even serious, deliberate sin is forgiven by the fact that one enters “a church with some sincerity and contrition” in his heart.

He further maintains St. Augustine held this same belief. He states St. Augustine, “would tell Christians that when they stood around an altar, as a community, and prayed the Lord’s Prayer, any sins they had ever committed would be forgiven.”

This sounded a little inconsistent with St. Augustine’s thinking, and since the author was kind enough to provide a citation, I replicate it here.

“Next, the Lord’s Prayer is said which you have already received and recited. Why is it said before receiving the Body and Blood of Christ? Because of our human frailty perhaps our minds imagined something which is not becoming, our eyes saw something which was not decent, our ears heard something exaggeratedly which was not fitting. If perhaps such things have been kept in because of temptation and the fragility of human life, they are washed away by the Lord’s Prayer at the moment we say, ‘Forgive us our trespasses’ so that we can safely approach the sacrament” (Sermo 272, In die Pentecostes Postremus (b)—Ad Infantes, de Sacramento, vol. 38).

I do not know how to put this gently, so I will not even try.

The claim that St. Augustine says that “any sins anyone has ever committed are forgiven by the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer” is quite simply a lie.

St. Augustine does say—as is the teaching of the Catholic Church—that venial sins are readily forgiven without sacramental confession. But he clearly does not include in this category “any sins they had ever committed.”

The context of St. Augustine’s statement is likewise very telling. He is talking to new converts. These souls are apparently very sensitive about the depth of worthiness required to receive Our Most Blessed and Sacred Lord in Holy Communion. As advice to them—since he evidently wished to prevent an undue tendency to scrupulosity on their part—he points out we are cleansed by the Lord. He implies that perhaps sometimes, through inadvertence and not through malice or forethought, someone might imagine something not decent or hear something and give undue attention to it and feel a deep remorse about these shortcomings and conclude that such things by themselves exclude from the community.

The kind and compassionate Augustine assures his charges that such is not the mind of the Church and consoles them with the teaching that God’s mercy is offered and received by an attentive praying of the Lord’s Prayer.

This is a far cry from the conclusion of the work I had perused.

Interestingly, while rejecting the need for confession, the author then goes immediately to the section of the Gospel of John where Jesus gives the power to forgive sins to the apostles: “Whose sins you forgive they are forgiven; whose sins you retain, they are retained” (John 20:23). This is interpreted as applying to every member of the Body of Christ. According to the author, “When you forgive someone, he or she is forgiven; if you hold someone in love, he or she is held to the Body of Christ.”

As a consequence, “Hell is possible only when one has put oneself totally out of the range of love and forgiveness, human love and forgiveness, when one has rendered oneself incapable of being loved and forgiven in that he or she has actively rejected not so much explicit religious and moral teaching and practice as the love of sincere humanity.”

This is most interesting. It places the responsibility for the possible salvation of one of our loved ones, not on their own freely chosen moral or immoral actions but on the community which, as long as it continues to accept them, assures their salvation.

I do not know where such a theory comes from or the nature of its foundation but it does not sound right. If this is the case, then Jesus should have said so very plainly. Instead, He gave the apostles the power to forgive the sins of those who were genuinely repentant.

The theory presented in the book is very attractive. It precludes any need for repentance, metanoia, conversion, or reconciliation, and only requires that someone be loved by someone else. Since Jesus undoubtedly loves each of us with a complete, perfect, personal, intimate love then in this idyllic scenario, everyone is saved. Ergo there is no longer need or reason for confession. There is no longer any need or reason to strive for holiness or to strive to do good or avoid evil. We must simply avoid alienating Jesus from us to the point where He says He can no longer love us.

Obviously this would never happen. The fact that such things are written by Catholic authors does not automatically assure that they reflect Catholic teaching.

Jesus certainly suffered, died, was buried, and rose again for the forgiveness of our sins and for our salvation. This salvation, however, is not forced on anyone. It is freely offered and must be freely received and accepted. Our desire and willingness to receive this salvation is manifested in our striving to live a Christ-like life and in our fervent and sincere repentance when we fail to do so.

Our growth in our commitment to live this life and to advance in holiness is certainly facilitated by Mass, prayer, Communion, and fellowship in the Catholic community.

However it is also aided and enhanced by our frequent and needful utilization of the sacrament, won for us by the very blood of Jesus on the cross, the wonderful sacrament of reconciliation.