It may come as a surprise to cradle Catholics, but one of the Protestant objections I heard fairly often to the sacrament of Penance was, “Well, you’ve got to admit there’s no way to ensure people aren’t just going into the Confessional and lying to the priest about their sins. And since you can’t keep people from abusing the ‘system,’ what’s the point of it? You might as well get rid of it.” Sad to say, but I myself used to think this contention carried some weight. Having now been to Confession a number of times, though, I can see how flimsy this argument is.
First, the idea that a person would go to all the trouble to go to Confession only to lie to the priest when he gets there completely misses the psychology of the whole thing. The Church can’t make anyone show up at the Confessional. You have to choose to go there, and the Church doesn’t keep Confessional attendance records so you’re not getting any brownie points simply by going. But the Protestant who makes this argument assumes that the people who go to Confession care enough about their souls to feel compelled to go through the motions of Confession but not enough to avoid the sin of lying to the priest while making their confession. What kind of person would do that? It’s nonsense. The very last thing the penitent wants is to leave the Confessional with a guiltier conscience than when he entered it. That defeats one of the very purposes of Confession.
Second, this Protestant argument against Confession is based upon an utterly cynical view of human beings and rests on the unstated assumption that people—even baptized Christians—are incapable of doing anything good for their souls. This complete lack of faith in the human capacity for good rears its ugly head fairly regularly in Protestant arguments against Catholicism, and I may address it at greater length in the future. For now, though, I’ll just say that, contrary to what seems to be the Protestant assumption, the denigration of man does not equate to the exaltation of God. Man was created in God’s image and, even though that image was marred by the Fall, it was not obliterated. And while it is true, as Chesterton says, that as “a man,” I am the chief of sinners, it is also true that as “Man,” I am the chief of creatures.
Third, and finally, the assertion that a system should be abandoned simply because it can be abused is silly. No one says, for example, that, just because there’s such a thing as election fraud, we shouldn’t have any elections. Rather, any abuse of the Confessional is a reason for those Catholics who care about this sacrament to approach it with even greater sincerity and reverence.
The Confessional is one of God’s greatest gifts to His Church—the means by which an individual sinner can know with complete confidence that his sins have been forgiven and that he’s been given the opportunity for a fresh start. Can it be scorned, misused, and treated with contempt? Sure it can. But if we reject it on the basis that it’s open to mistreatment, it seems to me we’d have to say we must also reject Christ Himself—Who was (and still is) scorned, misused, and treated with contempt.