The deep crisis of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession, Penance)

 Pope John Paul II dealt at length with this topic in his encyclical letter  “Reconciliation  and Penance” (1984).He points to a grave loss of the sense of sin in our time, under the influence of many factors. “Modern man – he wrote – is threatened by an eclipse of conscience, by a deformation of conscience. When conscience is weakened , the sense of God is also obscured, and as a result the sense of sin is lost.”

Pope Benedict added more: “We know that the faithful are surrounded by a culture that tends to eliminate the sense of sin and to promote a superficial approach that overlooks the need to be in a state of grace in order to approach sacramental communion worthily” (Sacramentum Caritatis, n.20).

Nowadays, both within and outside the Church, people manifestly and blatantly reject the basic commandments – even the 10 sacred commandments – which means legalizing crimes (i.e. declaring them acceptable, no longer punishable) and any kind of shameful behaviour. Man never stops trying to make himself a God.

Sin remains a tragic, undeniable, painful reality

We do not get rid of sin and transgression, and of all their evil consequences in terms of pain, suffering, oppression, enslavement, by simply ignoring them or by re-writing rules and laws. Man eagerly and ceaselessly seeks freedom and happiness in all his dealings and activities, but if he is not guided by truth and right reason, he is bound to end up enslaved and in despair, drawing after himself many other fellow human beings though they may be unwilling to follow.

It should be plain to every man that God’s laws are not oppressive and enslaving, but on the contrary liberating and leading to the fulfillment of their inner hearts. Unfortunately, in their ignorance and superficiality too many people reject this view and prefer to follow their instinct and their blind nature.

How to come to terms with sin in our life?

Sin is rebellion, disobedience, rejection of God. But God wants to draw man back to himself by sending his Son into the world to die a victim of sin itself. How can sin be conquered, controlled, destroyed, neutralized, transformed into obedience and faithfulness?

We know there are some steps to be taken: we need to “return to the Father’s house” (parable of the prodigal son). This calls for coming to our senses, repentance, making a good resolution, return home, confession (I have sinned), forgiveness, a new life of obedience and faithfulness.

It sounds simple, but of course it is not. Could a different way of being reconciled and forgiven be envisaged? Today millions of Christians do not find the ordinary way of obtaining forgiveness, i.e. having  to disclose your personal sins to a priest, easy or attractive.

In Africa some people wonder if this sacrament could be modified, “inculturated” ; if sacramental Confession  could be adapted and  celebrated somehow like what happens  in some places to heal family or community (tribal) conflict. This involves coming together, listening to one another, accepting responsibility for evil done, begging forgiveness, (possibly) invoking God’s help and power… finally exchanging the sign of peace and praying. This could be called the palaver hut style. I confess I have no direct knowledge nor experience of this. It would be good to hear from those who have such knowledge and experience.

But there are serious difficulties and problems in trying to set this process in motion even on the level of theory. Surely sin and reconciliation have several social aspects in common. Both touch our fellow human beings in many ways. Sin is not only an offence against God; very often sin affects negatively our neighbor, and the Church, too, as the community of salvation. Sin is forgiven through the Church, not directly by God.

The fruits and results of forgiveness are not only reconciliation with God, but also with self, the brethren, the church at large, all creation.This is to prove the social aspect of reconciliation.

But the social aspects of the sacrament of reconciliation do not account for the full, total essence of this sacrament. Sin is essentially a matter of personal conscience  between God and the individual person, not simply between two people or groups (communities). It is an encounter between God and man: a “sacramentum,” something divine and superhuman.

Sin is primarily an offence against God: ‘Tibi soli peccavi’ = Against you alone have I sinned (Ps. 50). Even sin against neighbor is basically breaking God’s law concerning neighbor.

Then, we are not to forget that only God forgives sin (Mark 2,7). It is not a matter that can be settled between two sinful humans. The Confessor acts (forgives) in the name of God: he exercises such power in a liturgical celebration through contact with the power and holiness of God.

Finally, both the confession of sins (acknowledgement of guilt) on the part of the penitent and knowledge of sinner on the part of the confessor are required for the celebration of the sacrament. Why?

Because  the Confessor (priest) is a healer: he must know the conditions (the spiritual situation) of the penitent before absolving;

The Confessor is also a judge, though his is a tribunal of mercy. He must verify that the penitent is ready and willing to receive absolution and forgiveness.


Though there is a certain convergence of situations between the two realities (sacrament of reconciliation and social pacification), it is clear that there is an enormous, unbridgeable gap between them. They exist on two very distant levels of value and contents, though not totally extraneous.