Scott Hahn on the Sacrament of Reconciliation

Steubenville Theologian Publishes New Book

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STEUBENVILLE, Ohio, MARCH 23, 2003 ( Theologian Scott Hahn has come out with a new book, this time on the sacrament of confession.

The professor of Scripture and theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville spoke about the work, «Lord, Have Mercy: The Healing Power of Confession,» which was released last Tuesday by Doubleday.

Q: The Church has always recommended frequent confession, but many people find this daunting. How might your book help them to meet the challenge?

Hahn: The most important thing readers will find is a biblical approach to the sacrament. Confession is nothing new. It’s the way God’s people have always gone about repenting, reconciling and healing.

In the Old Testament, the people confessed their sins regularly by offering animal sacrifice. That was harder to do, it was more expensive, and it was bloody. You had to buy your own animal, bring it to the altar, and slaughter it yourself.

Our need for confession didn’t vanish with the coming of Jesus. But now it’s fulfilled in a neater, easier and more powerful way. Jesus fulfilled it perfectly, by establishing a ministry and a sacrament of penance in the New Covenant. This is not a superficial difference. The sacrament perfects what had before been inchoate. I trace this development in some detail in «Lord, Have Mercy.»

Q: How can our understanding of confession as a healing sacrament make confession a less intimidating experience?

Hahn: There are lots of ways of looking at confession, and all of them are valid.

You can look at it as a courtroom with a divine judge. You can look at it as an accounting of debts. But I think it’s most helpful to look at it as healing — as health care. Confession does for our souls what doctors, dietitians, physical therapists and pharmacists do for our bodies.

Think about all we do to keep our bodies in working order. We go for regular checkups with a primary-care physician, a dentist, an eye doctor. And no one has to remind us to brush our teeth, take a shower, and pop the pills for whatever ails us. All this is good for us, and it’s good for everyone around us, too. No one wants to work beside us if we decide to stop showering.

Well, if we spend so much effort on the care of our bodies, shouldn’t we be spending more time on our souls? After all, our bodies will pass away soon enough, but our souls will live on forever.

What’s more, our decisions about our spiritual health and hygiene will have a tremendous effect on the people around us. Nothing serves family life and workplace dynamics so well as a clean soul and the advice of a good confessor.

On the other hand, nothing hurts our relationships and our mental health so much as the burden of sin and guilt. Confession is free health care, and free life insurance as well! Christ is the divine physician, and, unlike human physicians, he can guarantee us a cure every time.

In fact, he can guarantee us immortality. Any doctor who could do all that would have long lines stretching from his office door. The thing that will make confession less intimidating is a stronger faith in Jesus Christ and what he can do for us.

Q: Is confession uniquely Catholic?

Hahn: It’s not! Orthodox Christians recommend it zealously, and their sacrament is valid. Many Protestants, too, have sought to retain or recover certain external elements of confession.

C.S. Lewis was an Anglican, but he confessed regularly. Some evangelical churches even allow for the public confession of sins, before the assembled congregation.

I think confession fulfills a deep need in our souls. We need to make a clean breast of it. We want to start again.

Q: How do these similar practices fulfill the certain and efficacious way God has been guiding his people to make their confessions since the time of Adam?

Hahn: I have no doubt that, when men and women answer an altar call and confess their sins to God, he shows great mercy to them. But there’s only one «certain and efficacious» way God has given for the forgiveness of sins, and that’s sacramental confession to the ministers of the Church that Jesus established. This is clear from Scripture and Tradition, as I show in my book.

Q: Many Catholic parishes are host to communal penance services during Advent and Lent each year. Do you think these cyclical services help or hinder confession, both in terms of the believer’s frequent reception of the sacrament, and in terms of the quality of the confession and experience of the sacrament?

Hahn: The Church approves such services, but clearly states that they should lead the individual believer to an individual confession.

Even if you receive general absolution on the battlefield, you’re supposed to get yourself to a priest as soon as you can when the bullets stop flying. I’ve attended many communal penance services where priests are available all evening for individual confessions. And their lines are long.

Q: Your book explains to the reader the way that confession has changed through the ages. What kinds of future changes do you think might possibly occur regarding this sacrament?

Hahn: Through 2,000 years, the sacrament hasn’t changed in its essence, only in incidentals. In that way, it’s no different from the other sacraments. The customs surrounding baptism and confirmation have changed down through the centuries, but not the Church’s teaching regarding the sacraments.

As for future change, I couldn’t even guess. I’m not a prophet. The only change I can foresee is an increase in the popularity of the sacrament. This is already true in many places. People have burned out on the alternatives, because they don’t provide peace.

Counseling, medications, therapies, diversions — these all have their place. They can dull the pain temporarily, but none of them can heal the wound. Our hearts are restless «and will remain restless» until they rest in God.

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Condensed from an interview by Robin Glennon appearing in Catholic Quarterly, a trade publication of Spring Arbor Distributors.

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