I’m guessing any of my readers who either are, or at one time have been, evangelical Protestants can relate to the issue of “accountability.” Personally, I’ve lost track of the number of times this question came up in the churches I’ve attended throughout my life. The answer that I always heard to this question was that it was important to have an “accountability partner” or an “accountability group” that could help keep me on the straight and narrow. Indeed, this was often given as one of the reasons for why it was important to be part of a “small group” of believers (in addition to going to Sunday services).
First off, let me say that I think that the desire to have “accountability” is a good one, and reflects everyone’s innate sense that it’s not easy to get to heaven, a topic I discussed here. Also, it certainly is not my intention to suggest that we shouldn’t (when necessary and appropriate) point out to our friends the behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, etc., that are hurting them and the people around them. We all should probably be bolder about that, regardless of where we fall on the Protestant/Catholic divide (or on the Christian/non-Christian divide, for that matter). I also absolutely affrim the need for all of us to have close Christian brothers and sisters to help us on our faith journeys.
All that being said, it has been my experience that forming a relationship or a group with the express purpose of “holding each other accountable” doesn’t seem to work very well. (If your experience has been different, of course, what I’m saying may not resonate with you.) I think there’s a few reasons the “accountability group” model tends to have problems. First, there’s always the question of how the accountability group relates to the larger congregation. So many of these groups I’ve known over the years start out with a few good friends wanting to get together for the purpose of keeping tabs on each other and/or Bible study. Nothing wrong with that at all. Almost inevitably, though, the question of whether the group is a “closed” group or an “open” group arises. This, I think, is because it’s unclear how what is done in the accountability group (which normally involves getting together for fellowship and talking about spiritual/Biblical things) differs in kind from what is done in the Sunday church services. Add in some singing to the accountability group meetings, and you’ve pretty much completely erased any distinction between the two. So, if the accountability group is, in essence, a “mini-church,” how can those who are part of it “exclude” anyone who wants to come?
Second, there’s the tendency of accountability groups (again, in my experience) to be used as group therapy, with lots of tears and sharing of ultra-personal details about folks’ lives. I don’t want in any way to discount the need to get stuff off our chests from time to time with close friends or to “confess [our] sins to one another,” but I don’t think doing so in the context of an accountability group is the best way to do this. This is because these accountability groups typically are seen as having some kind of spiritual significance, in and of themselves, which is why they’re formed in churches in the first place. As such, they tend to foster the idea that the person who gets the most explicit with their friends about what a terrible sinner they are is somehow doing something of tremendous spiritual benefit. There’s zero indication that’s what the New Testament means by confession, though.
A third issue that tends to come up in accountability groups is the question of leadership. In my experience, it’s rare that anyone in these groups wants to be seen as the leader. Rather, there’s usually a “facilitator.” Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not blaming anyone who takes this position at all. I think it simply reflects the fact that most lay people intuitively recognize they’re not up to the task of being a spiritual adviser to their fellow laity. As someone who led a Protestant Bible study for a good while, I can testify that it’s intimidating to be in some way seen as responsible for presenting spiritual truth to people. Consequently, I completely understand the desire to disclaim the task. The problem with this, though, is that groups that are simply “facilitated” have no clear spiritual or theological direction and, when spiritual questions come up, all that tends to happen is a pooling of various opinions. And exactly how is that helpful to anyone? If anything, it just leaves people more confused than they were to begin with.
Finally, and this was the biggie for me, very little “accountability” seemed to happen in the accountability groups I was involved in or knew about. The reason for this is that people don’t stop being people just by joining one of these groups. That means that, if I’m the sinner, I probably don’t really want to tell other people about it (especially in a group setting); or, if I’m the one who sees my friend “sinning,” I’m unlikely to want to confront them, either during the group time or otherwise.
Ultimately, I came to the point where I just accepted the fact that I would be accountable exactly to the extent that I wanted to be accountable, whether I was in a formal “accountability group” or not. But I still felt like there was something the church should offer me to help me be accountable. If it wasn’t an accountability group, though, what was it?
In a million years, I never thought that the Catholic Church would have a good answer to this question. It does, though, and that answer is the Confessional. This is because the Confessional satisfies the deep human desire to tell someone about where we’ve gone wrong in our lives–the same desire that fuels all of the accountability groups I’ve known over the years. Unlike the accountability groups, though, the Confessional guarantees that the penitent sinner will receive God’s grace when the priest speaks the words of absolution. The Church’s teaching on Confession also makes clear that God’s grace is poured out on the sinner, so long as he confesses all of his sins to the best of his ability, is truly sorry for them, and truly intends to do better. Being “truly sorry” simply means the presence of actual contrition (see Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”) Nos. 1450-54) –being “super-super” sorry isn’t required, and neither are histrionic displays of emotion. (At the same time, of course, “perfect” contrition is preferable, as the Catechism discusses.)
Please understand that the priest in the Confessional merely represents Christ. It is Christ forgiving the sins. See CCC No. 1441. The priest has absolutely no authority, absent his position as the visible representative of Christ, to do anything, including to speak the words of absolution. Also, I absolutely affirm that God can forgive sins anyway He wants. As I’ve said before, God is not bound by His sacraments (like Confession). That said, if Christ left us with this amazing way to be sure we were forgiven and were receiving grace, why would we turn Him down? If you’re still concerned about the Biblical basis for the Catholic view of Confession, though, I recommend the relatively short discussion in the Catechism on this subject, CCC Nos. 1422-70, as well as the discussions here and here. Also, I encourage just reflecting on what Jesus meant in this passage from the gospel according to St. John, addressed to His Apostles (and not simply all of His followers): “And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”
The Confessional also seems to do a far better job that the typical accountability group of ensuring that we’re sharing the worst about ourselves with someone who has some training in being able to advise us on how to do better. Now, I’m not saying that every priest out there is perfectly trained or is a great spiritual adviser. But I’ll guarantee you that the average Catholic priest is in a better position to provide reliable spiritual advice than the average accountability group facilitator. Plus, the priest has received the sacrament of Holy Orders, imparting on him the grace he’ll need to hear all of the sorry stories he’ll have to listen to over the course of his priesthood.
On this, as on all of the other issues that troubled me as a Protestant, I was simply amazed to find how satisfactory, and comforting, the Catholic answer was. All of my Protestant objections boiled down to one thing: I didn’t really want to be obligated to tell any living person all of the bad things I’d done. I liked the ability in the “accountability group” system to get to pick and choose what I confessed. But, ultimately, that was unsatisfying and it didn’t take care of everything that gnawed at my insides. Now that I’ve accepted the critical role of the Confessional, though, I can understand Chesterton’s answer to the question of why he became a Catholic: “For my sins.”
 The enormity of this undertaking was one of the primary drivers towards Catholicism for me. I was always terrified that all I was presenting to anyone was simply my opinion about the Truth. But, as a Protestant, at the end of the day, that’s all I had to offer.
 On this, I’ve heard priests say that hearing confessions is amazingly boring. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sins folks commit are all pretty similar. Satan isn’t exactly a creative guy.