QUESTION 6: OF CONFESSION, AS REGARDS ITS NECESSITY
We must now consider confession, about which there are six points for
our consideration: (1) The necessity of confession; (2) Its nature; (3)
Its minister; (4) Its quality; (5) Its effect; (6) The seal of confession.
Under the first head there are six points of inquiry:
(1) Whether confession is necessary for salvation?
(2) Whether confession is according to the natural law?
(3) Whether all are bound to confession?
(4) Whether it is lawful to confess a sin of which one is not guilty?
(5) Whether one is bound to confess at once?
(6) Whether one can be dispensed from confessing to another man?
Article 1: Whether confession is necessary for salvation?
Objection 1: It would seem that confession is not necessary for salvation. For
the sacrament of Penance is ordained for the sake of the remission of
sin. But sin is sufficiently remitted by the infusion of grace. Therefore
confession is not necessary in order to do penance for one's sins.
Objection 2: Further, we read of some being forgiven their sins without
confession, e.g. Peter, Magdalen and Paul. But the grace that remits sins
is not less efficacious now than it was then. Therefore neither is it
necessary for salvation now that man should confess.
Objection 3: Further, a sin which is contracted from another, should receive
its remedy from another. Therefore actual sin, which a man has committed
through his own act, must take its remedy from the man himself. Now
Penance is ordained against such sins. Therefore confession is not
necessary for salvation.
Objection 4: Further, confession is necessary for a judicial sentence, in
order that punishment may be inflicted in proportion to the offense. Now
a man is able to inflict on himself a greater punishment than even that
which might be inflicted on him by another. Therefore it seems that
confession is not necessary for salvation.
On the contrary, Boethius says (De Consol. i): "If you want the
physician to be of assistance to you, you must make your disease known to
him." But it is necessary for salvation that man should take medicine for
his sins. Therefore it is necessary for salvation that man should make
his disease known by means of confession.
Further, in a civil court the judge is distinct from the accused.
Therefore the sinner who is the accused ought not to be his own judge,
but should be judged by another and consequently ought to confess to him.
I answer that, Christ's Passion, without whose power, neither original
nor actual sin is remitted, produces its effect in us through the
reception of the sacraments which derive their efficacy from it.
Wherefore for the remission of both actual and original sin, a sacrament
of the Church is necessary, received either actually, or at least in
desire, when a man fails to receive the sacrament actually, through an
unavoidable obstacle, and not through contempt. Consequently those
sacraments which are ordained as remedies for sin which is incompatible
with salvation, are necessary for salvation: and so just as Baptism,
whereby original sin is blotted out, is necessary for salvation, so also
is the sacrament of Penance. And just as a man through asking to be
baptized, submits to the ministers of the Church, to whom the
dispensation of that sacrament belongs, even so, by confessing his sin, a
man submits to a minister of the Church, that, through the sacrament of
Penance dispensed by him, he may receive the pardon of his sins: nor can
the minister apply a fitting remedy, unless he be acquainted with the
sin, which knowledge he acquires through the penitent's confession.
Wherefore confession is necessary for the salvation of a man who has
fallen into a mortal actual sin.
Reply to Objection 1: The infusion of grace suffices for the remission of sin;
but after the sin has been forgiven, the sinner still owes a debt of
temporal punishment. Moreover, the sacraments of grace are ordained in
order that man may receive the infusion of grace, and before he receives
them, either actually or in his intention, he does not receive grace.
This is evident in the case of Baptism, and applies to Penance likewise.
Again, the penitent expiates his temporal punishment by undergoing the
shame of confession, by the power of the keys to which he submits, and by
the enjoined satisfaction which the priest moderates according to the
kind of sins made known to him in confession. Nevertheless the fact that
confession is necessary for salvation is not due to its conducing to the
satisfaction for sins, because this punishment to which one remains bound
after the remission of sin, is temporal, wherefore the way of salvation
remains open, without such punishment being expiated in this life: but it
is due to its conducing to the remission of sin, as explained above.
Reply to Objection 2: Although we do not read that they confessed, it may be that
they did; for many things were done which were not recorded in writing.
Moreover Christ has the power of excellence in the sacraments; so that He
could bestow the reality of the sacrament without using the things which
belong to the sacrament.
Reply to Objection 3: The sin that is contracted from another, viz. original sin,
can be remedied by an entirely extrinsic cause, as in the case of
infants: whereas actual sin, which a man commits of himself, cannot be
expiated, without some operation on the part of the sinner. Nevertheless
man is not sufficient to expiate his sin by himself, though he was
sufficient to sin by himself, because sin is finite on the part of the
thing to which it turns, in which respect the sinner returns to self;
while, on the part of the aversion, sin derives infinity, in which
respect the remission of sin must needs begin from someone else, because
"that which is last in order of generation is first in the order of
intention" (Ethic. iii). Consequently actual sin also must needs take its
remedy from another.
Reply to Objection 4: Satisfaction would not suffice for the expiation of sin's
punishment, by reason of the severity of the punishment which is enjoined
in satisfaction, but it does suffice as being a part of the sacrament
having the sacramental power; wherefore it ought to be imposed by the
dispensers of the sacraments, and consequently confession is necessary.
Article 2: Whether confession is according to the natural law?
Objection 1: It would seem that confession is according to the natural law.
For Adam and Cain were bound to none but the precepts of the natural
law, and yet they are reproached for not confessing their sin. Therefore
confession of sin is according to the natural law.
Objection 2: Further, those precepts which are common to the Old and New Law
are according to the natural law. But confession was prescribed in the
Old Law, as may be gathered from Is. 43:26: "Tell, if thou hast anything
to justify thyself." Therefore it is according to the natural law.
Objection 3: Further, Job was subject only to the natural law. But he
confessed his sins, as appears from his words (Job 31:33) "If, as a man,
I have hid my sin." Therefore confession is according to the natural law.
On the contrary, Isidore says (Etym. v.) that the natural law is the
same in all. But confession is not in all in the same way. Therefore it
is not according to the natural law. Further, confession is made to one
who has the keys. But the keys of the Church are not an institution of
the natural law; neither, therefore, is confession.
I answer that, The sacraments are professions of faith, wherefore they
ought to be proportionate to faith. Now faith surpasses the knowledge of
natural reason, whose dictate is therefore surpassed by the sacraments.
And since "the natural law is not begotten of opinion, but a product of a
certain innate power," as Tully states (De Inv. Rhet. ii), consequently
the sacraments are not part of the natural law, but of the Divine law
which is above nature. This latter, however, is sometimes called natural,
in so far as whatever a thing derives from its Creator is natural to it,
although, properly speaking, those things are said to be natural which
are caused by the principles of nature. But such things are above nature
as God reserves to Himself; and these are wrought either through the
agency of nature, or in the working of miracles, or in the revelation of
mysteries, or in the institution of the sacraments. Hence confession,
which is of sacramental necessity, is according to Divine, but not
according to natural law.
Reply to Objection 1: Adam is reproached for not confessing his sin before God:
because the confession which is made to God by the acknowledgment of
one's sin, is according to the natural law. whereas here we are speaking
of confession made to a man. We may also reply that in such a case
confession of one's sin is according to the natural law, namely when one
is called upon by the judge to confess in a court of law, for then the
sinner should not lie by excusing or denying his sin, as Adam and Cain
are blamed for doing. But confession made voluntarily to a man in order
to receive from God the forgiveness of one's sins, is not according to
the natural law.
Reply to Objection 2: The precepts of the natural law avail in the same way in
the law of Moses and in the New Law. But although there was a kind of
confession in the law of Moses, yet it was not after the same manner as
in the New Law, nor as in the law of nature; for in the law of nature it
was sufficient to acknowledge one's sin inwardly before God; while in the
law of Moses it was necessary for a man to declare his sin by some
external sign, as by making a sin-offering, whereby the fact of his
having sinned became known to another man; but it was not necessary for
him to make known what particular sin he had committed, or what were its
circumstances, as in the New Law.
Reply to Objection 3: Job is speaking of the man who hides his sin by denying it
or excusing himself when he is accused thereof, as we may gather from a
gloss [*Cf. Gregory, Moral. xxii, 9] on the passage.
Article 3: Whether all are bound to confession?
Objection 1: It would seem that not all are bound to confession, for Jerome
says on Is. 3:9 ("They have proclaimed abroad"), "their sin," etc.:
"Penance is the second plank after shipwreck." But some have not suffered
shipwreck after Baptism. Therefore Penance is not befitting them, and
consequently neither is confession which is a part of Penance.
Objection 2: Further, it is to the judge that confession should be made in any
court. But some have no judge over them. Therefore they are not bound to
Objection 3: Further, some have none but venial sins. Now a man is not bound
to confess such sins. Therefore not everyone is bound to confession.
On the contrary, Confession is condivided with satisfaction and
contrition. Now all are bound to contrition and satisfaction. Therefore
all are bound to confession also.
Further, this appears from the Decretals (De Poenit. et Remiss. xii),
where it is stated that "all of either sex are bound to confess their
sins as soon as they shall come to the age of discretion."
I answer that, We are bound to confession on two counts: first, by the
Divine law, from the very fact that confession is a remedy, and in this
way not all are bound to confession, but those only who fall into mortal
sin after Baptism; secondly, by a precept of positive law, and in this
way all are bound by the precept of the Church laid down in the general
council (Lateran iv, Can. 21) under Innocent III, both in order that
everyone may acknowledge himself to be a sinner, because "all have sinned
and need the grace of God" (Rm. 3:23); and that the Eucharist may be
approached with greater reverence; and lastly, that parish priests may
know their flock, lest a wolf may hide therein.
Reply to Objection 1: Although it is possible for a man, in this mortal life, to
avoid shipwreck, i.e. mortal sin, after Baptism, yet he cannot avoid
venial sins, which dispose him to shipwreck, and against which also
Penance is ordained; wherefore there is still room for Penance, and
consequently for confession, even in those who do not commit mortal sins.
Reply to Objection 2: All must acknowledge Christ as their judge, to Whom they
must confess in the person of His vicar; and although the latter may be
the inferior if the penitent be a prelate, yet he is the superior, in so
far as the penitent is a sinner, while the confessor is the minister of
Reply to Objection 3: A man is bound to confess his venial sins, not in virtue of
the sacrament, but by the institution of the Church, and that, when he
has no other sins to confess. We may also, with others, answer that the
Decretal quoted above does not bind others than those who have mortal
sins to confess. This is evident from the fact that it orders all sins to
be confessed, which cannot apply to venial sins, because no one can
confess all his venial sins. Accordingly, a man who has no mortal sins to
confess, is not bound to confess his venial sins, but it suffices for the
fulfillment of the commandment of the Church that he present himself
before the priest, and declare himself to be unconscious of any mortal
sin: and this will count for his confession.
Article 4: Whether it is lawful for a man to confess a sin which he has not committed?
Objection 1: It would seem that it is lawful for a man to confess a sin which
he has not committed. For, as Gregory says (Regist. xii), "it is the mark
of a good conscience to acknowledge a fault where there is none."
Therefore it is the mark of a good conscience to accuse oneself of those
sins which one has not committed.
Objection 2: Further, by humility a man deems himself worse than another, who
is known to be a sinner, and in this he is to be praised. But it is
lawful for a man to confess himself to be what he thinks he is. Therefore
it is lawful to confess having committed a more grievous sin than one has.
Objection 3: Further, sometimes one doubts about a sin, whether it be mortal
or venial, in which case, seemingly, one ought to confess it as mortal.
Therefore a person must sometimes confess a sin which he has not
Objection 4: Further, satisfaction originates from confession. But a man can
do satisfaction for a sin which he has not committed. Therefore he can
also confess a sin which he has not done.
On the contrary, Whosoever says he has done what he did not, tells an
untruth. But no one ought to tell an untruth in confession, since every
untruth is a sin. Therefore no one should confess a sin which he has not
Further, in the public court of justice, no one should be accused of a
crime which cannot be proved by means of proper witnesses. Now the
witness, in the tribunal of Penance, is the conscience. Therefore a man
ought not to accuse himself of a sin which is not on his conscience.
I answer that, The penitent should, by his confession, make his state
known to his confessor. Now he who tells the priest something other than
what he has on his conscience, whether it be good or evil, does not make
his state known to the priest, but hides it; wherefore his confession is
unavailing: and in order for it to be effective his words must agree with
his thoughts, so that his words accuse him only of what is on his
Reply to Objection 1: To acknowledge a fault where there is none, may be
understood in two ways: first, as referring to the substance of the act,
and then it is untrue; for it is a mark, not of a good, but of an
erroneous conscience, to acknowledge having done what one has not done.
Secondly, as referring to the circumstances of the act, and thus the
saying of Gregory is true, because a just man fears lest, in any act
which is good in itself, there should be any defect on his part. thus it
is written (Job 9:28): "I feared all my works." Wherefore it is also the
mark of a good conscience that a man should accuse himself in words of
this fear which he holds in his thoughts.
From this may be gathered the Reply to the Second Objection, since a
just man, who is truly humble, deems himself worse not as though he had
committed an act generically worse, but because he fears lest in those
things which he seems to do well, he may by pride sin more grievously.
Reply to Objection 3: When a man doubts whether a certain sin be mortal, he is
bound to confess it, so long as he remains in doubt, because he sins
mortally by committing or omitting anything, while doubting of its being
a mortal sin, and thus leaving the matter to chance; and, moreover, he
courts danger, if he neglect to confess that which he doubts may be a
mortal sin. He should not, however, affirm that it was a mortal sin, but
speak doubtfully, leaving the verdict to the priest, whose business it is
to discern between what is leprosy and what is not.
Reply to Objection 4: A man does not commit a falsehood by making satisfaction
for a sin which he did not commit, as when anyone confesses a sin which
he thinks he has not committed. And if he mentions a sin that he has not
committed, believing that he has, he does not lie; wherefore he does not
sin, provided his confession thereof tally with his conscience.
Article 5: Whether one is bound to confess at once?
Objection 1: It would seem that one is bound to confess at once. For Hugh of
St. Victor says (De Sacram. ii): "The contempt of confession is
inexcusable, unless there be an urgent reason for delay." But everyone is
bound to avoid contempt. Therefore everyone is bound to confess as soon
Objection 2: Further, everyone is bound to do more to avoid spiritual disease
than to avoid bodily disease. Now if a man who is sick in body were to
delay sending for the physician, it would be detrimental to his health.
Therefore it seems that it must needs be detrimental to a man's health if
he omits to confess immediately to a priest if there be one at hand.
Objection 3: Further, that which is due always, is due at once. But man owes
confession to God always. Therefore he is bound to confess at once.
On the contrary, A fixed time both for confession and for receiving the
Eucharist is determined by the Decretals (Cap. Omnis utriusque sexus: De
Poenit. et Remiss.). Now a man does not sin by failing to receive the
Eucharist before the fixed time. Therefore he does not sin if he does not
confess before that time.
Further, it is a mortal sin to omit doing what a commandment bids us to
do. If therefore a man is bound to confess at once, and omits to do so,
with a priest at hand, he would commit a mortal sin; and in like manner
at any other time, and so on, so that he would fall into many mortal sins
for the delay in confessing one, which seems unreasonable.
I answer that, As the purpose of confessing is united to contrition, a
man is bound to have this purpose when he is bound to have contrition,
viz. when he calls his sins to mind, and chiefly when he is in danger of
death, or when he is so circumstanced that unless his sin be forgiven, he
must fall into another sin: for instance, if a priest be bound to say
Mass, and a confessor is at hand, he is bound to confess or, if there be
no confessor, he is bound at least to contrition and to have the purpose
But to actual confession a man is bound in two ways. First,
accidentally, viz. when he is bound to do something which he cannot do
without committing a mortal sin, unless he go to confession first: for
then he is bound to confess; for instance, if he has to receive the
Eucharist, to which no one can approach, after committing a mortal sin,
without confessing first, if a priest be at hand, and there be no urgent
necessity. Hence it is that the Church obliges all to confess once a
year; because she commands all to receive Holy Communion once a year,
viz. at Easter, wherefore all must go to confession before that time.
Secondly, a man is bound absolutely to go to confession; and here the
same reason applies to delay of confession as to delay of Baptism,
because both are necessary sacraments. Now a man is not bound to receive
Baptism as soon as he makes up his mind to be baptized; and so he would
not sin mortally, if he were not baptized at once: nor is there any fixed
time beyond which, if he defer Baptism, he would incur a mortal sin.
Nevertheless the delay of Baptism may amount to a mortal sin, or it may
not, and this depends on the cause of the delay, since, as the
Philosopher says (Phys. viii, text. 15), the will does not defer doing
what it wills to do, except for a reasonable cause. Wherefore if the
cause of the delay of Baptism has a mortal sin connected with it, e.g. if
a man put off being baptized through contempt, or some like motive, the
delay will be a mortal sin, but otherwise not: and the same seems to
apply to confession which is not more necessary than Baptism. Moreover,
since man is bound to fulfill in this life those things that are
necessary for salvation, therefore, if he be in danger of death, he is
bound, even absolutely, then and there to make his confession or to
receive Baptism. For this reason too, James proclaimed at the same time
the commandment about making confession and that about receiving Extreme
Unction (James 5:14,16). Therefore the opinion seems probable of those
who say that a man is not bound to confess at once, though it is
dangerous to delay.
Others, however, say that a contrite man is bound to confess at once, as
soon as he has a reasonable and proper opportunity. Nor does it matter
that the Decretal fixes the time limit to an annual confession, because
the Church does not favor delay, but forbids the neglect involved in a
further delay. Wherefore by this Decretal the man who delays is excused,
not from sin in the tribunal of conscience; but from punishment in the
tribunal of the Church; so that such a person would not be deprived of
proper burial if he were to die before that time. But this seems too
severe, because affirmative precepts bind, not at once, but at a fixed
time; and this, not because it is most convenient to fulfill them then
(for in that case if a man were not to give alms of his superfluous
goods, whenever he met with a man in need, he would commit a mortal sin,
which is false), but because the time involves urgency. Consequently, if
he does not confess at the very first opportunity, it does not follow
that he commits a mortal sin, even though he does not await a better
opportunity. unless it becomes urgent for him to confess through being in
danger of death. Nor is it on account of the Church's indulgence that he
is not bound to confess at once, but on account of the nature of an
affirmative precept, so that before the commandment was made, there was
still less obligation.
Others again say that secular persons are not bound to confess before
Lent, which is the time of penance for them; but that religious are bound
to confess at once, because, for them, all time is a time for penance.
But this is not to the point; for religious have no obligations besides
those of other men, with the exception of such as they are bound to by
Reply to Objection 1: Hugh is speaking of those who die without this sacrament.
Reply to Objection 2: It is not necessary for bodily health that the physician
be sent for at once, except when there is necessity for being healed: and
the same applies to spiritual disease.
Reply to Objection 3: The retaining of another's property against the owner's
will is contrary to a negative precept, which binds always and for
always, and therefore one is always bound to make immediate restitution.
It is not the same with the fulfillment of an affirmative precept, which
binds always, but not for always, wherefore one is not bound to fulfill
it at once.
Article 6: Whether one can be dispensed from confession?
Objection 1: It would seem that one can be dispensed from confessing his sins
to a man. For precepts of positive law are subject to dispensation by the
prelates of the Church. Now such is confession, as appears from what was
said above (Article ). Therefore one may be dispensed from confession.
Objection 2: Further, a man can grant a dispensation in that which was
instituted by a man. But we read of confession being instituted, not by
God, but by a man (James 5:16): "Confess your sins, one to another." Now
the Pope has the power of dispensation in things instituted by the
apostles, as appears in the matter of bigamists. Therefore he can also
dispense a man from confessing.
On the contrary, Penance, whereof confession is a part, is a necessary
sacrament, even as Baptism is. Since therefore no one can be dispensed
from Baptism, neither can one be dispensed from confession.
I answer that, The ministers of the Church are appointed in the Church
which is founded by God. Wherefore they need to be appointed by the
Church before exercising their ministry, just as the work of creation is
presupposed to the work of nature. And since the Church is founded on
faith and the sacraments, the ministers of the Church have no power to
publish new articles of faith, or to do away with those which are already
published, or to institute new sacraments, or to abolish those that are
instituted, for this belongs to the power of excellence, which belongs to
Christ alone, Who is the foundation of the Church. Consequently, the Pope
can neither dispense a man so that he may be saved without Baptism, nor
that he be saved without confession, in so far as it is obligatory in
virtue of the sacrament. He can, however, dispense from confession, in so
far as it is obligatory in virtue of the commandment of the Church; so
that a man may delay confession longer than the limit prescribed by the
Reply to Objection 1: The precepts of the Divine law do not bind less than those
of the natural law: wherefore, just as no dispensation is possible from
the natural law, so neither can there be from positive Divine law.
Reply to Objection 2: The precept about confession was not instituted by a man
first of all, though it was promulgated by James: it was instituted by
God, and although we do not read it explicitly, yet it was somewhat
foreshadowed in the fact that those who were being prepared by John's
Baptism for the grace of Christ, confessed their sins to him, and that
the Lord sent the lepers to the priests, and though they were not priests
of the New Testament, yet the priesthood of the New Testament was
foreshadowed in them.