Did the authority to absolve sins expire at Jesus' death?
Q: A Protestant minister (formerly a Catholic) said that the church's authority to grant absolution in confession expired upon Christ's death. What authority does the Catholic Church rely on that requires confession to a priest?
A: God is all-powerful and can extend his grace even beyond what he has promised. But when we confess our sins to a priest in the sacrament of penance, we can know with confidence that our sins are forgiven, because of Jesus' own words.
In the Gospels, Jesus tells us that he intends to share his authority to forgive sins with the Twelve Apostles. This is perhaps stated most directly toward the end of John's Gospel, when Jesus tells the Apostles: "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." (Jn 20:23) With respect to the minister's assertion, one interesting thing about this passage is that the promise comes from Jesus "after" he had already died.
John 20 recounts some of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances, one of which was his sudden apparition to many of the Apostles (notably minus Thomas, whose absence sets the stage for his later confession) as they were gathered in hiding behind locked doors. This is the first instance when the risen Jesus sends the Apostles on mission, telling them: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." (Jn 20:21) Clearly, part of this mission was the forgiveness of sins.
Catholics believe in "apostolic succession," meaning that the power and authority Jesus gave to his original apostles -- including the sacramental power and authority to forgive sins -- were in turn handed down by the apostles to their successors though the centuries, right up to our modern-day bishops and the priests who assist them in their ministry. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, alluding to the above-mentioned passages from the Gospel of John, describes the succession like this: "Thus the risen Christ, by giving the Holy Spirit to the apostles, entrusted to them his power of sanctifying: they became sacramental signs of Christ. By the power of the same Holy Spirit they entrusted this power to their successors. This 'apostolic succession' structures the whole liturgical life of the church and is itself sacramental, handed on by the sacrament of Holy Orders." (ccc 1087)
So far from this authority expiring with Jesus' death, it might be more accurate to say that the church's authority to forgive sins only "began" after Jesus died and rose from the dead.
This might prompt the question of when exactly the church first came into being. Jesus does refer to his church -- albeit in a future tense -- during his time of active ministry, when says to the Apostle Simon Peter: ". . . You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it." He follows by mentioning again the authority to loosen or to bind when he notes the role Peter would hold as the earthly leader of the church: "I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Mt 16:18-19)
Traditionally, we call the feast of Pentecost "the birthday of the church." But there is also a beautiful theme running throughout the theological writings of an early Father of how the church was born from Christ's wounded side. As the catechism puts it, referencing St. Ambrose: "As Eve was formed from the sleeping Adam's side, so the church was born from the pierced heart of Christ hanging dead on the cross." (ccc 766)
- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.