Confession and Mercy in an Age of Justice



A few months ago here in Waco, Texas, where I live, a man was given 50 years in prison without parole for stealing a rack of pork ribs.

He was a repeat offender, and he had threatened to pull a knife on the grocers who caught him with the rack of ribs tucked up his shirt. He was lying about having a knife. Like many, I read this story in disbelief. How is it that a man who is poor, likely mentally ill, and on the face of things – a rather sad figure, going to spend five decades in prison? Harsh sentences for repeat offenders have been in vogue for some time now, but there is mixed evidence as to whether or not they actually reduce recidivism. Is it not rather an over-inflated sense of justice which drives judges and juries to such sentences?


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The prosecutor said of the case: ““This verdict shows that the citizens of this county will not tolerate a continued disrespect and disregard for other people and their property.” Note the way he said it. The verdict was not about justice for a criminal. It was about the sensibilities of the public, zero-tolerance, whatever that means. I’m always skeptical of that idiom. It seems to me that we human beings have an innate tolerance for all kinds of disrespects and disregards, that for the sake of goodness and mercy, we let all kinds of things slide. Should this man have been sentenced? Definitely. But, for fifty years? That’s far beyond the laws of lex talionis. It’s a man’s life for a rack of ribs, far more than a pound of flesh. The words of Jesus stand out: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:38-40, ESV)

Justice is not the same as vengeance

As a pastor, and one who aspires to the vocation of a public theologian, I must say two things: first, that justice, when it is thrown out of balance, is no longer justice. If I break your nose for tapping me on the shoulder, I have shown that I am not a just man, but a vengeful one. If a nation deploys troops to war because another nation slandered them, they are not after justice. They are warmongers. Proportionality is at the heart of justice.

God’s justice and mercy are the same thing.

Second, at the core of the Gospel, Jesus Christ accepts justice he does not deserve, on behalf of sinners. Forgiveness means precisely this, dropping just debt of transgression committed against us for the sake of mercy. So magnificent is the forgiveness and mercy of God that we can even say that there is no conflict between His justice and His mercy – they are one and the same.

Confession of Our Sins

I’ve been thinking lately about this central understanding when it comes to the priestly ministry of confession, absolution, and reconciliation.

On the day of His Resurrection, the Lord gave His apostles the authority to forgive sins. In the ancient Church, notorious sinners were not only evangelized and baptized, but even when Christians lapsed, they could be restored through a combination of penance (often very harsh) and the declaration of bishops of the remission of sins. The required practice of penance had a downside, however. That was that all too often, sinners kept their sins to themselves, fearing the backlash which would ensue in public confession and the difficulty of penance. Many canons of the first several centuries only allow for penance to be completed once, after which sinners were put out of the Church forever. Worse, those who would have readily embraced the Christian faith and life delayed baptism, often to their deathbeds.

The Fathers are replete with examples of encouraging catechumens to no longer delay baptism. This was a major crisis, and it was not averted by preaching or teaching. It was averted by an enthusiastic revolution in pastoral practice. Some say it was Saint Patrick who introduced it among the Irish. That practice was private, auricular (heard privately) confession. This revolutionized what was a rather rare social practice of penance into a personal experience of grace and reconciliation. It included:

  • Disclosure and Absolution: The ability for those convicted of their own sin to disclose such sins to a priest and receive absolution.
  • Confidentiality: The ability to be assured of absolute confidentiality under the “seal.”
  • Relief, Direction, and Encouragement: The great relief of grace, spiritual direction, and pastoral encouragement in the battle against sin.

This practice was such an encouragement to sinners and a relief to those seeking to be baptized, that it caught on like wildfire, becoming canonically required of all in the Western Church in the 4th Lateran Council (1215) once per year. No longer did Christians need to fear backlash or judgment from their fellow Christians, but they could rest in the canonical “seal.” No longer did catechumens delay baptism or parents delay the baptism of their children.

The Pastoral Approach

The canonical “seal” placed around such confessions has meant that the content of a sacramental confession is under absolute confidence. This seal protects both those who turn to the confessional and the confessional itself. In the Roman Catholic Church, for a priest to disclose the content of a confession is not only a cause for automatic removal from the clerical state, but a mortal sin. We Anglicans have revived the practice of auricular confession in the last 150 years, following the patterns of the Tractarians who sought to restore beneficial parts of the tradition lost in the Reformation. But well before any of this recent history, in the Exhortation of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the faithful are exhorted:

if there be any of you, who by this means cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God’s Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God’s holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.

As well in the Ordinal, preserved in today’s ACNA Ordinal, the ordinand is told at the laying on of hands: “Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained.”

Where Catholic practice has tended toward the juridical, Anglican practice in the confessional has tended to be pastoral – aimed at spiritual direction and care of the soul. Pastoral practice tells me and others that if you offer the opportunity to the people of a congregation regularly and encouragingly, they will respond! Whole families make their confessions, and many see it as an integral part of their spiritual lives. In my own life, regular confession has not only been the greatest help in overcoming the most besetting of my sins, but I have seen it do the same for those under my care.

Common Misconceptions

Sacramental confession is often derided as an “easy out” from the consequences of sin. Let me tell you, it is almost never the case that those coming to confession do so without a great deal of sorrow and tears. These are people who deeply desire the love of Jesus to overshadow their sin and reign in their lives. Those who turn to confession do not do so to avoid justice for their actions. Most of the time, they have received more than enough in consequences both natural and relational.

Priests are never given leave to “look down” upon those who make their confessions. In fact, we struggle with the opposite temptation, to think too highly of those who do! In the first ten months that I was ordained, I heard every one of the Ten Commandments confessed, including murder, and in every case, I was left with nothing but deep love and indeed admiration for those who had emptied their burdens upon the Lord in my presence. I am always deeply humbled and challenged in saying: “Go in peace, and pray for me a sinner.”

Next, it is important to note that the priest is merely a witness to the exchange of the confession and a counselor and spiritual director. At no point does the priest act as judge. He does not hand down ecclesial discipline.

Lastly, the seal, being absolute, means that if a person confesses to a crime – even if they tell you where they buried the body – the priest has no ability to act upon what he has heard in any way. He cannot make an anonymous report to the authorities. He cannot demand a confession to the police. And, as shocking as this may be, if one speaks of being abused – emotionally or sexually – he cannot fulfil a state-required duty to report. He can encourage such a report on the part of the penitent, but cannot require it. At times in my life, protecting the seal has been the cause of great anguish to me, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But, I would still gladly offer my hands to the handcuffs and go to prison than reveal anything that a sinner has revealed to me in confession.

Sacramental Seal

In recent months, two dioceses of the Anglican Church in North America (Pittsburgh and San Joaquin) have called for canonical protections for the seal of the confessional, suggesting language from Roman Catholic canons. (Might I say, good for them!) Currently, the College of Bishops has asked for a recommendation from the Governance Task Force on the matter. For reference, the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law of 1983, from which the parties in Pittsburgh and San Joaquin pull their language proposed for our canons, states:

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.


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.

Why this concern about the seal?

Well, first, many Anglicans deny the place of the seal. While they accept the role of Anglican clergy in hearing such admissions of sin and offering absolution on behalf of Christ and His Church, they believe in a duty to report and a duty to be held to the law of their state. They would likely stop short of calling Confession a sacrament, and might very well say that it is a different thing altogether. Reading between the lines, it would seem that their consciences are troubled by the implications of knowing of a crime, especially the crime of child abuse or rape, for example, and keeping it under the seal.

It is these I wish to exhort for the sake of the truth and the sake of the Church. For it is the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ for which I offer my life as a priest. I am to lay down my life for the sheep and not seek any kind of civil justice for them. For I am convinced that nothing is more important in ministry than the restoration of sinners to the grace of Our Lord and the fellowship of His Church.

To break the seal, even with the best of intentions and in the worst of scenarios, is to elevate justice above mercy and grace, an action inimical to the Gospel itself. In so doing, the priest becomes an agent of the state in the investigation of a crime and not an agent of the Church, tasked with the ministry of reconciliation. Even worse, he becomes a judge. I might say at this point that it is very rare thing that any priest is ever compelled by a court or prosecutor to break the seal. For one thing, the compelling of testimony concerning such a confession is almost never admissable, nor is it necessary to establishing a case. It may be threatened but, the risk of public outrage is so high that it almost never happens.

Why is this? From experience, I can tell you that it is not mere revulsion of the populace against intrusion upon the prerogatives of the Church. It is rather that when push comes to shove, people are protective of the trust that they place in their pastors. To compel any to break this trust would not only be scandalous, but worse – would discourage repentant sinners from seeking the grace and reconciliation of Jesus in His Church. We have a sacred duty, far above any duty of citizenship or law, to do as the Lord commands, to bind and loose, to forgive sins, and to restore sinners to health by the power of the Gospel, not turn them over to the authorities.

To do otherwise, to allow any priest to break the seal for any reason, would be an abdication of the very ministry to which we have been set. That is a difficult calling, a cross to bear, and it may be that the hammer of the law may come down harder on us in years to come, but it is still our duty and it is still our sacred trust. And if that means handcuffs and a prison cell, then so be it. What a witness to the Gospel that would be! What a testimony to our Lord, who himself “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” (1 Pet. 3:18-19)


The ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness of sins, first given to the apostles, and passed down to us, has been faithfully preserved in our day. The Lord has seen fit to guard and defend this gift by His Holy Spirit. Let us do the same, not merely canonically, but pastorally and personally, to the relief of sinners and to the glory of God in our own day! Let us not bow to pressure from within or without to put justice for sinners before mercy and grace by preserving the seal and laboring for the welfare of the Church in putting this great gift to use!

Photo via GNU Public License

Published on

August 6, 2015


Lee Nelson

The Rev. Lee Nelson, S.S.C., is a priest, church planter, and catechist. He has planted churches in Waco and College Station, Texas.

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