What Did the Pope Really Say About Confession During COVID-19?

The rapid advance of COVID-19 has produced angst among the faithful, as with the rest of society. It has also generated a surge of religious innovation. Many of us pastors have suddenly become iPhone evangelists, streaming gospel messages to our people and anyone else who will listen. My own church, for example, has been increasing its use of technology and just shared its third Sunday service on the web.

The Roman Catholic Church, known in recent years for its dynamic development of doctrine and religious modernization, has also been required to pivot in unforeseen ways. Because of the severe impact of COVID-19 on Italy, Pope Francis has canceled his main public appearances to prevent crowds from forming. The pontiff is instead livestreaming various events—much like the growing ranks of innovative pastors here in the US. He has replaced the mandatory Mass with a “virtual parish.” He also offered the possibility of a plenary indulgence, the forgiveness of sins, because of the pandemic.

But some of us Vatican observers are wondering if the changes go beyond form to the very substance of Roman religion. And if they do, how should Protestant believers respond?

Given the inability of most Catholics to leave their homes right now, confessing one’s sins to a priest—mandated by Roman Catholicism for the forgiveness of sins at Fourth Lateran Council (1215)—is out of the question. So what should Roman Catholics do with their unconfessed sin?

Speak Directly to God

A headline in the Catholic-sponsored Our Sunday Visitor answers, “If you can’t go to confession, , pope says.” This sounds startlingly like a sentiment a sin-tormented Martin Luther would agree with.

Here’s what Pope Francis stated last week: “If you cannot find a priest to confess to, speak directly with God, your father, and tell him the truth. Say, ‘Lord, I did this, this, this. Forgive me,’ and ask for pardon with all your heart.” But the pope made this statement flanked by an image of Mary and a crucifix thought to have miraculous powers. He prayed for the world at this crucial juncture in the presence of two relics that have accompanied the people of Rome for centuries: the ancient icon of Mary Salus Populi Romani and the miraculous crucifix of San Marcello. Some, however, have noticed the mixed message. His words implied that direct access to God is available through Christ, but the symbols suggested otherwise.

Even so, the pope’s recommendation for the faithful to pray directly to God was couched in language much like that of the late Billy Graham, exalting God’s tender mercy toward His flock. “Return to your father who is waiting for you,” Francis said. “The God of tenderness will heal us; he will heal us of the many, many wounds of life and the many ugly things we have done. Each of us has our own!”

God stands ready and “welcomes every repentant sinner with open arms,” Our Sunday Visitor also reported Francis as saying, adding his words: “It’s like going home.”

Not a ‘Reformation’ for Rome

Though the requirement to confess to a priest was temporarily removed, the pope didn’t remove every obstacle to direct access with God. He said Catholics must still perform an act of contrition and promise to go to confession later. “And immediately you will return to a state of grace with God.”

“As the catechism teaches,” the pope counseled, “you can draw near to God’s forgiveness without having a priest at hand. Think about it. This is the moment.”

The Catechism (CCC N. 1452) speaks of contrition prompted by “a love by which God is loved above all else. …” Well and good. But this raises Martin Luther’s question of how the faithful are to be sure they love God “above all else” to the extent that they are safe in bypassing priestly mediation. Luther himself tried mightily to love God and obsessively confessed his sins, strictly following this standard, and—as he later confessed—he ended up hating God. The task, without the gift of faith, was beyond him. It is beyond each of us. The oft-vacillating love with which we approach God is insufficient.

And if we somehow can go directly to our tenderhearted and welcoming Father to receive forgiveness at this time, during this pandemic, why can’t the faithful do it all the time? It raises the question of whether God’s welcoming, no-strings-attached embrace of prodigals is always available or an option only during emergencies. Innovations such as this might suggest to some that Catholicism’s regulatory religion is less than practical, maybe even unlivable.

There is, of course, a full-orbed body of theology informing the Catholic practice of confession and prayer, a sacramental system that involves particular understandings of the authority and the ministry of Christ through the Roman Church. Nevertheless, the practical question continues to assert itself of how Christian men and women can enter God’s presence and come “home,” in Pope Francis’ words, to the Father’s compassionate embrace.

Talking with Catholic Friends

Rather than seeing the pope’s innovation as an opportunity to score debating points for the Reformation—which clearly isn’t over—we would do well to talk with our Roman Catholic friends and loved ones about why God accepts us.

Divine acceptance is not grounded in the love or inner righteousness that proceeds from our hearts, but in what Christ has done for us. Our Catholic friends have been taught that we must continually cooperate with Christ’s gracious work on the cross to be forgiven, and when we fail to live up to this standard—as all humans will—we are to seek divine absolution as mediated by a priest. Such a thorough system, though well meaning, gives us no assurance, even when it gets modified during a plague.

During this anxious time of sheltering at home, often with loneliness and isolation, we need to be reminded of how the father of the prodigal son noticed his repentant child returning home from a long distance away and with deep compassion ran to him with outstretched arms. This is our heavenly Father, and it’s the direct, unmediated forgiveness that he offers through the “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” who died and rose so that our forgiveness would be certain and permanent (1 Tim. 2:5). As Paul stated so gloriously, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1–2).

The coronavirus pandemic and the Lenten season provide a wonderful opportunity to embody and explain this grace. And our Catholic friends may be more willing to listen. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Catholic nonprofit affiliated with Georgetown University, only 2 percent of Catholics regularly go to confession—and three-fourths never go or only go less than once a year. Many in the Roman Catholic fold apparently find their religion to be unlivable.

Let’s show them a better, more hopeful way. It won’t take much innovation—just a bit of faith.

Chris Castaldo is lead pastor of New Covenant Church, Naperville, Illinois, and is the author of The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants after 500 Years (co-written with Gregg Allison), Talking with Catholics about the Gospel: A Guide for Evangelicals, and Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic.

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