​A Brief History of the Sacrament of Confession


For as long as I can remember, the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church have been constantly attacked, criticized, and even watered down (or attempted to do so) by those that should know better. Although, it doesn't surprise me to see these things, it is still a source of anguish to see Christ attacked in such ways. One common objection to an Apostolic teaching of the Church would be that of the Sacrament of Penance or better known as Confession; the most common objection to Confession is that it was 'created' by the Catholic Church and has no basis in the roots of historical/biblical Christianity. Ironically, this objection is primarily held by those who are often ignorant (usually willfully ignorant) of both historical and biblical Christianity! Let's help set the record straight by taking a look into the Catholic Encyclopedia:


According to the Council of Trent, the consensus of all the Fathers always understood that by the words of Christ just cited, the power of forgiving and retaining sins was communicated to the Apostles and their lawful successors (Sess. XIV, c. i). It is therefore Catholic doctrine that the Church from the earliest times believed in the power to forgive sins as granted by Christ to the Apostles. Such a belief in fact was clearly inculcated by the words with which Christ granted the power, and it would have been inexplicable to the early Christians if any one who professed faith in Christ had questioned the existence of that power in the Church. But if, contrariwise, we suppose that no such belief existed from the beginning, we encounter a still greater difficulty: the first mention of that power would have been regarded as an innovation both needless and intolerable; it would have shown little practical wisdom on the part of those who were endeavoring to draw men to Christ; and it would have raised a protest or led to a schism which would certainly have gone on record as plainly at least as did early divisions on matters of less importance. But no such record is found; even those who sought to limit the power itself presupposed its existence, and their very attempt at limitation put them in opposition to the prevalent Catholic belief. Turning now to evidence of a positive sort, we have to note that the statements of any Father or orthodox ecclesiastical writer regarding penance present not merely his own personal view, but the commonly accepted belief; and furthermore that the belief which they record was no novelty at the time, but was the traditional doctrine handed down by the regular teaching of the Church and embodied in her practice. In other words, each witness speaks for a past that reaches back to the beginning, even when he does not expressly appeal to tradition.


St. Augustine (d. 430) warns the faithful: "Let us not listen to those who deny that the Church of God has power to forgive all sins" (De agon. Christ., iii).

  • St. Ambrose (d. 397) rebukes the Novatianists who "professed to show reverence for the Lord by reserving to Him alone the power of forgiving sins. Greater wrong could not be done than what they do in seeking to rescind His commands and fling back the office He bestowed. . . . The Church obeys Him in both respects, by binding sin and by loosing it; for the Lord willed that for both the power should be equal" (On Penance I.2.6).
  • Again he teaches that this power was to be a function of the priesthood. "It seemed impossible that sins should be forgiven through penance; Christ granted this (power) to the Apostles and from the Apostles it has been transmitted to the office of priests" (On Penance II.2.12).
  • The power to forgive extends to all sins: "God makes no distinction; He promised mercy to all and to His priests He granted the authority to pardon without any exception" (On Penance I.3.10).
  • Against the same heretics St. Pacian, Bishop of Barcelona (d. 390), wrote to Sympronianus, one of their leaders: "This (forgiving sins), you say, only God can do. Quite true: but what He does through His priests is the doing of His own power" (Ep. I ad Sympron., 6 in P.L., XIII, 1057).
  • In the East during the same period we have the testimony of St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 447): "Men filled with the spirit of God (i.e. priests) forgive sins in two ways, either by admitting to baptism those who are worthy or by pardoning the penitent children of the Church" (In Joan., 1, 12 in P.G., LXXIV, 722).
  • St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) after declaring that neither angels nor archangels have received such power, and after showing that earthly rulers can bind only the bodies of men, declares that the priest's power of forgiving sins "penetrates to the soul and reaches up to heaven". Wherefore, he concludes, "it were manifest folly to condemn so great a power without which we can neither obtain heaven nor come to the fulfillment of the promises. . . . Not only when they (the priests) regenerate us (baptism), but also after our new birth, they can forgive us our sins" (On the Priesthood III.5 sq.).
  • St. Athanasius (d. 373): "As the man whom the priest baptizes is enlightened by the grace of the Holy Ghost, so does he who in penance confesses his sins, receive through the priest forgiveness in virtue of the grace of Christ" (Frag. contra Novat. in P.G., XXVI, 1315).


These extracts show that the Fathers recognized in penance a power and a utility quite distinct from that of baptism. Repeatedly they compare in figurative language the two means of obtaining pardon; or regarding baptism as spiritual birth, they describe penance as the remedy for the ills of the soul contracted after that birth. But a more important fact is that both in the West and in the East, the Fathers constantly appeal to the words of Christ and given them the same interpretation that was given eleven centuries later by the Council of Trent. In this respect they simply echoed the teachings of the earlier Fathers who had defended Catholic doctrine against the heretics of the third and second centuries. Thus St. Cyprian in his "De lapsis" (A.D. 251) rebukes those who had fallen away in time of persecution, but he also exhorts them to penance: "Let each confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession can be received, while satisfaction and the forgiveness granted by the priests is acceptable to God" (c. xxix).