Why do Catholics confess their sins to a priest?

The sacrament of reconciliation is about mending relationships with both God and community.

If I hurt someone I care about, I should admit what I have done and apologize and usually shouldn’t need anybody else there as a mediator. So why do Catholics have to confess their sins, offenses against God, to a priest? Why not confess directly to God?
No one can forgive on someone else’s behalf. But we can reassure people that they have been forgiven. Because sins are offenses against God, only God can forgive sin. According to Catholic teaching, Jesus, being God, can forgive sins and gave the apostles the power and responsibility to declare God’s forgiveness, too. This is what happens in the sacrament of penance: Bishops and priests declare absolution.

Thomas Aquinas helps us understand the significance of absolution. He proposes that a sinner, hearing the words of absolution, will be open to receiving God’s healing love in such a way that their guilt can be removed. We know from our experience how this works: Even though we might know that someone loves us and is sorry for having hurt us, hearing them say the words is important.

Catholics prepare to be forgiven by recognizing, first, that humans stand in need of forgiveness. Sin frustrates our capacity to recognize this foundational reality. Sin hides the fact that, unlike Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, we have not prioritized God’s will over our own.

When we look past our pride to examine ourselves honestly and recognize our sins, this contrition can motivate us to name our sins aloud, which is part of healing. We know how much easier it is to forgive others when they demonstrate sorrow and contrition, We know, too, how freeing it can be to move past our shame and name the unethical acts we have committed.


In sinning against God, we harm others, too. Sin is lived out “in [our] thoughts and in [our] words, in what [we] have done and in what [we] have failed to do.” Sin affects how we interact with or think about others, and thus influences human relationships. So when we confess to a priest, the priest also represents the community at large.

Establishing a relationship with a confessor can also help mend our relationship with God and community. The sacrament draws upon sixth-century practice where the confessor was a spiritual director; confession was embedded within a process of spiritual guidance. Penances were designed, within a genuine relationship, to help individuals learn how they might be Christ for others. Ultimately, Catholics confess to a priest in order to be better transformed into the body of Christ. 

This article also appears in the February 2024 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 89, No. 2, page 49). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash/Mateus Campos Felipe

About the author

David A. Pitt

David A. Pitt is an associate professor of liturgical and sacramental theology at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.

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