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Questions & Answers About Confession

Who can forgive sins?

Only God can forgive sins, and those to whom he has given the power to do so.

To whom did God give such a power?

The Scriptures reveal that Jesus gave this power to his apostles. We read in John 20:22-23: “And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” Our Lord says that all power in heaven and on earth has been given to him, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21). Jesus was sent into the world to forgive sins, and so he similarly sent the apostles.

Instead of confession, maybe this meant that priests could forgive sins in baptism?

The Bible makes a clear distinction between the sins forgiven by baptism and those remitted afterwards. Regarding the former, we are told, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness [remission] of sins” (Acts 2:38); as for the latter, there is the charge, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23).

Maybe Christ forgives sins, but not priests?

Jesus Christ does forgive our sins, provided that we confess them to a priest (particularly if we have the opportunity to do so).

The Scriptures assert that the forgiveness of sins shall be preached to all nations; if mercy is granted in preaching, why is confession necessary?

The proclamation of forgiveness points to the remission of sins through baptism, confession, or any other means instituted by the Lord.

Does not the biblical notion of forgiving sins apply to the excommunication of sinners or their restoration?

The apostles are given a two-fold power. First, they can forgive sins as our Lord makes clear. Second, they are given the authority to excommunicate. Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18).

If Mary Magdalene can have her sins forgiven because she “loved much” then perhaps all sins are similarly forgiven (see Luke 7:47)?

Mary Magdalene’s outward display of great sorrow in her confession of Jesus brings about the forgiveness of her sins by Christ (who knew her sins). It is not the sentiment of love that is sufficient, but a practical love which results in sorrow, confession if possible, satisfaction and a firm resolve not to sin again. Few priests are given the supernatural power to read souls; thus, unlike Jesus, the priest cannot know what your sins are unless you tell him. This allows the priest to apply an appropriate penance and to give adequate counsel.

If confession is legitimate, why does the Bible remain silent about it?

It is not silent. We have already read Christ’s stipulation in its favor. The historical fact that the early Christians, indeed Catholics during the last two thousand years, have confessed their sins is proof that Christ taught the apostles that sins should be confessed.

But St. Paul said as proof of ourselves, “Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). He did not say “Go to confession.” Is there not a real clash?

St. Paul meant that we should be proved according to the teaching of Christ. In other words, we are to prove and to examine our conscience. If we discover any sins, then we should confess them before “eating of this bread.” Certainly, St. Paul would not contradict Jesus who commanded the apostles to forgive sins.

As we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” are we not forgiven by forgiving others?

It means that if we want our heavenly Father to forgive our sins, then we must forgive our neighbor. This is more than a precondition connected to human activity. God is not crudely bargaining with us. This line has everything to do with conversion or transformation into a new Christ. We are to imitate and to manifest the loving mercy of God in our very selves. By forgiving others, we become precisely the types of persons who are open to the graces of mercy. God can use us in ushering in his kingdom. We grow in holiness because we become revelatory to the face and presence of God. Ultimately, the Father will look upon us and see his Son living in us. He will give us a share in the eternal life that Christ merits on our behalf.

If sins can readily be forgiven, will it not entice people to easily relapse into sin?

No, because a good confession demands true sorrow for sin and a firm intention to avoid sin in the future. The more a sinner experiences and expresses his sorrow in confession, the less likely will he return to his sin. This sorrow is more than just “feeling” sorry. It reflects a real remorse over what our sins have accomplished. Our sins inhibit our transformation in Christ, deprive us of grace, and threaten us with the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. While fear of punishment illustrates imperfect contrition; we are all to strive for perfect contrition. This requires that we be conscious of the dishonor our sins bring upon God for whom we are created. They strike down our Savior upon Calvary (often imaged in the Sacred Heart devotion).

Can it be said that the apostles went to confession?

We certainly know that our Lord told his apostles to forgive sins; no doubt, if they committed any, they forgave each other’s sins.

Can a priest charge money for forgiving sins?

No, this would be a great crime called simony. Severe punishments would be inflicted upon any priest who would dare do something so offensive.

Can a priest forgive a thief who has no intention to return stolen goods?

No, the stolen property, if possible, must be restored to the lawful owner or at least a promise must be given that restoration will be made. Only then is the priest at liberty to absolve the sin.

Does the Bible distinguish any sins as mortal?

It most certainly does. The Bible tells us that some sins deserve death and that they exclude sinners from the kingdom of heaven. St. Paul states in Galatians 5:19-21: “Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” St. Paul enumerates a number of serious or mortal sins in 1 Corinthians. Exclusion from the kingdom of God literally means damnation.

Does the Bible mention any sins as venial (more easily forgiven)?

Again, the answer is yes. “For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again” (Proverbs 24:16). Evidently it is possible for a righteous or just man to commit certain sins and not forfeit his good status. However, if a person commits a mortal sin, he can no longer be considered righteous or just. [Also see James 3:2.]

Is there a clear biblical teaching that God punishes mortal sins with temporal and eternal punishments?

This is the case. David was guilty of murder, which merited the pains of hell (2 Samuel 12:9). Nathan warned him of his mortal peril. David repents: “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13). Nathan responds as the voice of God: “The Lord has put away your sin,” (2 Samuel 12:13) that is, the eternal punishment of hell. Nathan continues: “You shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die” (2 Samuel 12:13-14). This was clearly temporal punishment.

How is the Sacrament of Penance administered?

It is very simple. The ritual usually begins with the sign of the cross. The penitent will often ask for a blessing from the priest at the beginning. Next, he confesses his sins. The priest might offer some fatherly advice, a penance is imposed, and absolution is given.

What are the essential words of absolution?

“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. Amen.”

For more such material, contact me about getting my book, CATHOLIC QUESTIONS & ANSWERS.

9 Responses

  1. I feel like I suffer scruples. I went to confession and told the priest as best as I could what the sin was, meaning that I described the sin and didn’t just say the type. I didn’t hold back.

    I know that he knew what I was talking about.

    He didn’t ask any questions. Just told me that kids can get confused at that age.

    I at times feel like the priest has to 100% understand everything that I’m saying.

    Am I correct that all I have to do is tell it the best and as honest as I can and that it’s up to the priest to ask any questions?



    One should list serious sins but you really do not have to go into great detail. The priest does not have to absolutely understand everything to give absolution. It is your obligation to list and identify the sins in your confession. You are only obliged to confess mortal sins but you are urged to mention venial sins, especially if there could be an escalation. If the priest needs more information for appropriate counsel and/or penance then he will ask them. Questions usually focus on the following:

    (1) Is the sin mortal or venial?
    (2) Have you taken Holy Communion while in mortal sin?
    (3) How often is the sin committed?
    (4) Are there any mitigating factors (like immaturity, force or habit)?
    (5) Are you truly sorrow for your offenses?
    (6) Is there a firm resolution to amend life?

  2. Hello Father Joe, I dealt with masturbation in the past, but have overcome the urges. I love working out, but I find that when doing leg raises and leg tucks as an abdominal exercise, I become aroused and have even reached orgasm. Is it a sin if I continue to do them, I don’t want to masturbate, but I want to do the exercise? What are your thoughts?

    FATHER JOE: There is nothing wrong with doing exercises; however, it does seem odd that such minimal movement should cause you sexual excitement. Is it due to what you are wearing? What are you thinking about? You may want to speak to a discrete counselor about it.

  3. Dear father I had a heart felt confession and said an act of contrition like the priest told me to do. Then the priest said I will ask God to forgive your sins so that you can have peace. Then am I forgiven by God. He did not use the word absolved. I am very anxious about this.


    Was there some reason for why absolution was withheld? This might happen in a case of an irregular union or cohabitation. Maybe you just did not hear it? The priest’s words of absolution:

    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 penitent answers: Amen.

  4. How can i confess my sins to a priest if i know that the priest that im making confessed is the one who made my sins?

    FATHER JOE: What you are trying to say? If the priest were an accomplice in sin with you, it is forbidden by Church law for him to give you absolution. Whether this is an issue or simple embarrassment, the answer is to see another priest for the sacrament.

  5. Greeting Father,
    In 2008 when my mum passed away from cancer I was devastated because I considered I had ‘murdered’ her by refusing to send her to private hospital for better treatment and worst of all, treated her with unkindness and coldness during her period of treatment as I considered her a burden to me financially and many times wished she could pass away soon. Then when she passed away in front of me in the hospital, I was devastated and cried like a mad person. Immediately after this incident I received psychiatrist treatment for a year and at the same time, I went for confession (several times). In 2010, my condition slowly improved and during one treatment I told the doctor I wished to stop the medicine (as it was so expensive) as I was receiving healing from God. Doctor disagreed and reminded me of my mum and how her death had affected me. That moment I was stirred up and told him in the face that I did not care that my mum has died. I just wanted to tell him “I did not care for her death anymore” so that he can agree with my request to stop treatment. If you asked me now, I had no idea why I reacted like this – or I could not remember as that was six years ago. But after I stopped medicine, though my condition improved a lot, I often recalled about my mum and felt very very sad till this day.
    In the last few weeks, as I was examining my conscience in God’s presence, I suddenly thought of this incident six years ago where I said “I did not care that my mum died” or something to this effect. In the last six years I did not think about it but now I felt remorseful. It seems to contradict the remorse that I expressed in the confession immediately after my mum passed away like I was no longer feeling sorry but I don’t think so that this was the case.
    Due to this, do I need to make confession about the incident in 2010, or do I confess the whole things all over again regarding my sins toward my mum till the day she passed away, in case the incident in 2010 may have negated the sacramental effect of the forgiveness that I had received in 2009.

    Thank you

    FATHER JOE: Emotional and psychiatric disorders can seriously abrogate responsibility. It sounds to me that you were not well and it may be that the trauma of her loss either amplified or facilitated the issue. I would suspect that the sacrament did as it was supposed to do. I would suggest remembering your mother in prayer, knowing that God forgives you and that all good mothers love and forgive their children. Peace!

  6. I was told I could not receive the sacrament of absolution because I was not married in the church . In this year of mercy I decided to seek forgiveness . I am in disbelief that the priest refused to hear my confession.

    FATHER JOE: I cannot speak for other priests, and my own archbishop argues about a distinction between doctrine and praxis, but I can understand why your confessor did what he did. Here is the conundrum he faced. The priest very much wanted to absolve you sin. Conditions for absolution include sorrow or contrition as well a firm amendment of life. If you are not married in the Church then the absolution and God’s mercy would be forfeit as soon as you went home and engaged in conjugal acts. You are still living in a sinful situation. What you want to do is see the priest about preparation toward con-validation. He would absolve you in Confession and then receive your vows as a couple in church. The Church would then recognize the marriage and you would return to a right relationship with God and his Community of Faith.

  7. When I went to Confession I admitted that I sinned greatly in the past. The priest did not have me explain the nature of the sins or if they were mortal or venial, but did say to forget about my past and that I was forgiven? Was this a good confession?

    FATHER JOE: I do not like discussing what a priest says or does in the confessional as he is under the seal and cannot tell his side of the story. However, since you were the penitent, a few quick points can be made in your regard. (1) You are obliged to confess any remembered mortal sins. This issue of “species” is important because you are not obliged to confess all venial sins. (2) There is also the matter of “number” as it might reveal to the confessor that there is a dire spiritual addiction. (3) Did you deliberately seek to conceal any mortal sins? If the answer is YES, then you made a bad confession and need to return to the sacrament. (4) It is generally correct that penitents should put their sins behind them. If God has forgiven us then who are we to hold on to the guilt associated with these sins? Such an act would impugn God’s power and question his mercy.

  8. Dear Father Joseph, this might not be the right place to ask my question, but i don’t really know where else.
    I hear that if you want to go to Confession, it is necessary that you actually regret your sins and likewise have the sincere intention to do better in the future, right? Well, what if someone’s conscience is blurred because of psychological issues (such as depression or anxiety for example)? If you feel sorry about things that are not yours to feel sorry about and don’t/can’t regret things that you know you should feel sorry about. I don’t know if my question is clear. I haven’t been able to find an answer to this question, so I hope you can help me. Thank you in advance. Juliette


    The person who seeks absolution in Confession is supposed to make a good act of contrition and come with a firm purpose of amendment.

    Contrition or sorrow for sin is of two types, perfect and imperfect. Both are sufficient but perfect is best as it reflects love. We should hate sin and want to change because we know that our sins offend God whom we are to love above all things. I often think about how my sins placed Christ upon his Cross. Imperfect contrition is more about fear. Again, it satisfies the basic demands of the sacrament and is not wrong. We fear God’s judgment, the loss of heaven and the fires of hell.

    While it may be extremely likely that we will sin again, we should not be capricious about the sacrament or treat it as magic. On some level we should want to be weaned away from our bad habits and know transformation in Christ, changing our ways so that we might offer a more saintly discipleship. The person coming to Confession must have hope and not despair. We might not become saints overnight but God’s grace is acting upon us. We need a desire to change. This comes to the basic motivation of the sacrament.

    Mental disease is not absolutely weighed against us in the eyes of God. God knows our hearts. However, it is not an excuse for a deliberate turning away from the two-fold commandment to love God and our neighbor.

  9. Dear Father Joseph

    I am reading the post of Question & Answers about Confession and I noticed at the end it says that “For more such material, contact me about geetting my book, CATHOLIC QUESTIONS & ANSWERS.”

    Father, I am very interested to know and to learn more, please let me know how to get that book?

    Thank you


    FATHER JOE: Everything is available online, but I will email you when the printed book is available.

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