The Bible identifies many sinners by name and their crimes. The disobedience of Adam and Eve, King David’s adultery and cover-up murder, Herod’s lust and murder of John the Baptist, Pilate’s cowardly execution of Jesus, and so on. Even the manifest grave sins of Peter, the exemplar pope, are documented in the Gospels. Nevertheless, the restraint of the Evangelists ensures that the Gospels never read like a Hollywood scandal sheet.
When Peter witnesses to His Divinity, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16), Jesus gives credit where credit is due: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 16:17) God’s grace precedes all human insight, understanding, and wisdom. Then the honor: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mt. 16:18)
Jesus confides to them His mission of redemption — His Passion and Cross. But Peter, disregarding the primacy of the Father’s grace, objects. Claiming an authority exceeding his rank, he takes Jesus aside and rebukes (sic!) Him: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” (Mt. 16:22) Presuming God needs a spiritual director – a variation of the “ye shall be as gods” diabolical sin of Adam and Eve — has been a common clerical problem since the time of Jesus. As a warning to every priest, bishop, and pope, Peter suffers the harshest rebuke in the Gospels: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mt. 16:23)
Revealing the public sins of Peter in the Gospels helps us to place into context the role of the Catholic clergy. They are the guardians of the faith, not the masters. Call popes, bishops, and priests to accountability for grave sins and bad behavior as we must. But never criticize holy Mother Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, the spotless Bride of Christ – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
But elsewhere in the Gospels, the evangelists are reluctant to reveal sins and sinners. Saint John refuses to disclose the name of the woman caught in adultery. But her identity must have been known by many. The sins of the paralytic are unknown. The adulterous Samaritan woman at the well remains anonymous despite her exuberant conversion.
The Church’s traditional moral theology teaches that we have a right to a good reputation even when we sin. We squander that right with egregious sins and criminal acts. But unless society needs protection from our sins and crimes, we should exercise great care with our knowledge. It’s a good rule of life to honor personal reputations by avoiding needless revelations unless silence risks injustice.
Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Penance and transmitted the power to forgive sins to Peter and, later, to the other Apostles. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 16:19) It took centuries for the Sacrament of Penance to take its present form. The sacramental encounter now usually takes place in the privacy of a confessional.
The Seal of Confession protects the integrity of the Sacrament. The Seal of Confession keeps the doors to forgiveness open by eliminating the risk of disclosure. The Seal requires absolute secrecy under every circumstance. “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason” (Can 983).
“A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded” (Can. 984 §1). “A person who has been placed in authority cannot use in any manner for external governance the knowledge about sins which he has received in confession at any time” (Can. 984 §2). Breaking the Seal of Confession is a betrayal of the penitent, undermines the integrity of the Sacrament, and betrays Jesus. The consequences are severe: excommunication (cf. Can. 1388).
We know the prominence the Sacrament of Penance has in Catholic life. But we never hear Peter or anyone go to Confession to Jesus with particular sins (although the Good Thief comes close). Jesus knows “…all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man.” (Jn. 2:25) After the Resurrection, Peter promises reparation in his threefold response to Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Jn. 21:15) Love covers a multitude of sins, but his response falls short of a specific confession, and we do not hear the words of absolution from Jesus (in contrast to His tender dialog with the Good Thief).
Confession of transgressions and forgiveness are cornerstones to love and friendship: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:16) “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph. 4:32) So considering the significance of the Sacrament of Confession, why are there no clear examples of Jesus hearing Confessions and granting absolution in the Gospels? We don’t know. But with pious conjecture, it is lovely to imagine the Apostles sincerely confessing their sins and Jesus granting His forgiveness in love.
Did the Evangelists deliberately cloak those intensely private scenes? If so, the silence of the Evangelists is perfect. For even Jesus honors the Seal of Confession: “I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” (Is. 43:25)
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