One of the most common complaints waged against Catholics (and Orthodox) by Protestants is the sacrament of confession: “Why do you need to go to a priest for confession? Why can’t you go straight to Jesus?” While seemingly an easy question to dismiss (just Protestants ignoring tradition, right?) there is actually an interesting theological question at work here, not unlike the question of baptism: Is it really required? When we use that word, we’re not simply saying required for the standards of the Church, but signifying that it is the only way that it is possible for something to happen.
Surely this is not what we mean when we say that one must confess their sins to a priest.
For starters, we accept that the Eucharist is a sacrament of reconciliation, meaning that all who receive it are freed of their venial sins. So, right there, we see an exception. You don’t HAVE to confess to a priest to have your sins forgiven.
But even beyond that, as I outline in this video, the idea that confession is the only way that God can forgive a sinner is ridiculous. OF COURSE God can forgive whomever God wants whenever and however God wants. The sacraments do not bind God or limit what God can do!
Instead, it is much better to say that the sacraments are the clearest forms of God’s grace, and, the crux of the matter, the only form that offers assurance of that grace. While God can show mercy and forgiveness in an infinite number of ways, it is only through the sacraments that we can be sure that we have received it, for they are visible signs of invisible graces. You can’t miss them!
So, does someone have to go to confession to have their sins forgiven? Obviously not. And the Church doesn’t teach that. What it does teach is that, if someone wants the surety of absolution and wants to be a part of the community once more (because the community wants that assurance as well!) then there is only one ordinary means: the sacrament that Christ instituted.