1) Christianity isn't Gnosticism
The early Church struggled with a group of heretics, known as the gnostics, who wanted to bifurcate between spirit (good) and matter (bad). The gnostics (and the Manichees, the Cathars, the Protestants, and most other heretical groups in the Church's history) couldn't get over just how physical Christianity is. Wouldn't a religion of "spirit," a religion neatly contained in one's head and one's heart, a religion of thoughts and ideas and ideals, be preferable to the meaty, physical, material religion of orthodox, historical Christianity (i.e. Catholicism)? So heretics have always been, and still are, tempted to reason. God, however, rather likes matter - He created it after all. Men aren't and (sorry New Agers) never will be angels. We are made to be a psychosomatic unity, a unity of matter and spirit, unlike any other creature. We are, as Dr. Peter Kreeft likes to point out, the stupidest spiritual beings and the most intelligent animals. We're in the middle. God, who made us this way precisely to be able to offer up the praise and worship (like angels can) on behalf of creation (the material world), refuses to treat us as if we were merely another animal (sorry Dawkins and company) or an angel temporarily "trapped" in a body (sorry Cartesians). Thus God, knowing us better than we know ourselves, ministers His grace (for our spiritual nature) through material things (for our corporeal nature). Jesus really wants us to physically eat His Flesh in the Eucharist, the laying on of hands really leaves a mark on the soul of the priest, the water and baptismal formula really takes away original (and all) sin. These aren't mere outward symbols, but the means of grace. Confession is no different. God hasn't established a "spiritual only" way for the forgiveness of post-baptismal sins, but a psychosomatic way. We need to physically confess our sins, aloud, to a minister of the Body of Christ, the Church, and we need even more to physically hear the words of absolution. Spirit-and-matter working together for our salvation, that is how God made us to work. Indeed, it is how Jesus saved us. He didn't descend from on High in a merely spiritual way. He came with a real physical presence, a real fleshly Body, born of a real woman, died a real physical death, and rose again, not in some vague "spiritual way," (sorry modernists) but in the Flesh. The Sacraments simply continue the pattern set by Jesus. We should expect nothing less.
2) Confession to a Priest is Biblical
Jesus, in the Bible, clearly gives His authority and His power to forgive sins to the first ministers of His Church. In John 20:22-23 we read,
He breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgive; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."Note, Jesus doesn't say, "anyone who believes the Gospel is automatically forgiven any sin, so don't worry about sins, only preach the Word." He also doesn't say, "have everyone confess their sins silently in their hearts to me alone and I will forgive them or not." He is quite clear that the person who will decide whether or not a sinner receives the forgiveness He won on the Cross will be the ministers of His Church, the Apostles and their successors.
In case their be any doubt on this point, on whether confessions are to be silent and to Jesus only or whether they ought to be aloud to members of the Church, St. James writes,
Therefore confess your sins to each other... so that you may be healed. (5:16)Again you'll note, the Bible doesn't say "confess your sins silently in your heart to Jesus... so that you may be healed," but to "confess...to each other." But perhaps this means we can confess to any other Christian? Nope, St. James, in the same passage where he speaks of being "healed" tells us,
Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders (the Greek word here translated as "elders" is presbyterous from whence we get the English words "presbyter" and later "priest") of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. (5:14)St. James, then, speaks about Confession and Anointing in the same breath as sacraments of healing to be preformed by a priest of the Church. A point made not just by Jesus and St. James (as if that wasn't enough) but also by St. Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians where we read,
All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and give us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. (18-20, emphasis added)St. Paul is quite clear through whom we are able to receive reconciliation for our sins - through him and the other ministers of the Church, not through ourselves and a silent confession.
3) Confession to a Priest is Historical
If the Biblical case for Confession to a priest isn't overwhelming enough, the historical case is yet stronger. The earliest Christians, much like Catholics today and very much unlike Protestants, confessed to the ministers (priests) of the Church. We find repeated mentions of this in the first Christian centuries and find no mentions of confession "in the heart" only to Jesus. For example (emphasis added),
From the Diache (c. A.D. 50 - within the time when the New Testament was being written),
In the church you acknowledge your transgressions... every Lord's day gather yourself's together and break bread and give thanks after having confessed your transgressions (4, 14)From the Letter of Barnabas (c. A.D. 75 - also with the New Testament era),
You shall not make a schism (something else Protestants aren't very good at)... You shall confess your sins... This is the way of light. (19)From St. Irenaeus of Lyon's Against Heresies (c. A.D. 189),
(The Gnostics) have deluded many women...Some of them, indeed, make public confession of their sins; but others are ashamed to do this, and in a tacit kind of way, despairing of the life of God, have... apostatized altogether (1:13:7)From St. Hippolytus of Rome (c. A.D. 215),
After this, one of the bishops present... laying his hand on him who is ordained a bishop, shall pray this way... And that by the high priestly Spirit he may have the authority "to forgive sins" according to your command. (Apostolic Tradition, 2-3)From Origen of Alexandria (c. A.D. 249),
In addition to these there is also a seventh, but it is hard and laborious: the remission of sins through penance... when he does not shrink from declaring his sins to a priest of the Lord (Homilies on Leviticus, 2:4)And we could go on. St. Ignatius of Antioch, Tertullian of Carthage, St. Basil of Caesarea, St. John Crysostom, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Jerome, St. Augustine of Hippo (every Protestant's favorite saint) and more besides all attest to the widespread, indeed universal, practice of the early Christians of confessing their sins, aloud, to a priest.
4) A Bigger Problem for Protestants
These historical writings can't be so easily dismissed by Protestants either. Not only do they give clear witness to the deep historical roots of the Catholic practice of confessing sins to a priest, but these self-same Christians are the one's responsible for determining the Canon of the Bible (i.e. which books make up the Bible and which don't). As Protestant's already can't turn to an infallibly guided Church to assure only the right books and all the right books made it into the Bible, so too they can't turn to "the early Christians" as they think "the early Christians" were wrong about Confession (and the perpetual virginity of Mary, and the authority of the bishop of Rome, and the centrality of the Eucharist as Jesus' Flesh and Blood to worship, and Purgatory, and contraception, etc. etc. etc.). If "the early Christians" were so wrong about Confession, they might just have been wrong about which books make up the Bible, which undermines our ability to even know which writings are inspired and which aren't. In that case, the whole Protestant-project, predicated on sola scriptura as it is, collapses upon itself.
5) It's Both/ And not Either/ Or
"But isn't it Jesus to whom we ought to confess?" Someone might ask. The answer, of course, is YES! but that is exactly what Catholics are doing in the Sacrament of Confession. We are confessing to Jesus, whose grace and forgiveness we seek, though the agency of the priest. It isn't "either confess to a priest or confess to Jesus" it is "both confess to the priest as a means of confessing to Jesus." Jesus uses the priest to judge whether we are sorry for our sins and to articulate the words of absolution to us. The "either / or" mentality is the seedbed of all heresies. Arius asked whether Christ was God or man. Nestorius whether Mary was the Mother of God or the Mother of Jesus. The Monothelites asked whether Jesus had a Divine Will or a human will. The Reformers asked whether the Bible or the Church had authority. Orthodox, historic Christianity (i.e. Catholicism) has answer all these questions in the same way - BOTH! Jesus is both God and man, Mary is both the Mother of God and the Mother of Jesus, Jesus has both a divine and a human will both the Bible and the Church have authority, and we confess to both Jesus and to His priest who stands in persona Christi as His representative to His people.
6) Get Thee to a Confessional!
For my Catholic readers, please get to Confession. We have been given this great and venerable Sacrament by Christ so that our sins might be washed away. Unfortunately, many (most) of our Catholic brothers and sister have given up on the Confessional. Too many Catholics either confuse themselves with Our Lord, who was like us in all things but sin (cf. Heb 4:15), or confuse Catholicism with New Age or Eastern religions that teach there is no such thing as sin (which, incidentally, is, according to Chesterton, the one doctrine that can be proven - go ahead turn on the news and test his theory). We're all sinners (cf. Rom 3:23) and Christ calls us to the Confessional to receive the mercy and grace He won for us on the Cross. Remember, He is the Lord. He is God. He gets to decide how we may freely receive the grace He has won for us. We can't take His grace on our terms.
For my Protestant readers, please consider why you are outside the Church. Joe Heschmeyer, from Shameless Popery, has a great post up in which he quotes the president of the Evangelical Theology Society who rightly points out that Catholicism is the default position for Christians. You are separated from the Church established by Jesus (cf. Matt 16:18), the Church that is visible, like Christ's Body (cf. 1 Cor 12:27), the Church that is "the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15), do you have a good reason to be? What, exactly, are you protesting? If you can't think of anything, come home to the Church where your sins can be forgiven in the way Jesus intended.
7) In Case You Still Need Some Encouragement: