Did the authority to absolve sins expire at Jesus’ death?

By Jenna Marie Cooper

Question Corner

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: As explained by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1455), “Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance…” and “Individual, integral confession and absolution remain the only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile themselves with God and the Church, unless physical or moral impossibility excuses from this kind of confession….”  While God is all-powerful and can extend his grace even beyond what he has promised, 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" (John 20:23). With respect to the minister's assertion, one interesting thing about this passage is that the promise comes from Jesus after he died.  The Catechism (1441) makes clear the authority to forgive sins, “Only God forgives sins.  Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, ‘The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ and exercises this divine power:  ‘Your sins are forgiven.’  Further, by virtue of his divine authority he gives this power to men to exercise in his name.” and in (1443), “During his public life Jesus not only forgave sins, but also made plain the effect of this forgiveness:  he reintegrated forgiven sinners into the community of the People of God from which sin had alienated or even excluded them.”

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." (John 20:21) Clearly, part of this mission was the forgiveness of sins.

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: “Since Christ entrusted to his apostles the ministry of reconciliation, bishops who are their successors, and priests, the bishops’ collaborators, continue to exercise this ministry.  Indeed bishops and priests, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, have the power to forgive all sins ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’.” (CCC 1461)

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 raise the question of exactly when the Church first came into existence. 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)

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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].