The Roman Catholic Church is notorious for its claim that its priests can forgive sins as if they were God.  The repenting person confesses to the priest and rather than the priest asking God to forgive the sins the priest forgives in God's name - that is to say as if it were God himself sitting there instead of the priest.  Though God alone can forgive sins he can hand the responsibility to forgive to priests.  Can he?  That is a bigger wonder than the resurrection for forgiving is a personal matter and nobody can be given the responsibility to forgive for you.  It is as bad as saying God does not love you but gave the priest the prerogative and responsibility to love you for him.

Early tradition seems to support the notion of priests forgiving sins.   Top saint and theologian St Athanasius (who died in 373): "As the man whom the priest baptises is enlightened by the grace of the Holy Ghost, so does he who in penance confesses his sins, receive through the priest forgiveness in virtue of the grace of Christ" (Frag. contra Novat. in P.G., XXVI, 1315).  The Church reacted against the Novatianists who denied priests could forgive sin except in baptism - their point was that if you sin after baptism there is no forgiveness.

To clarify, Catholics have to confess their sins to the priest. We read in The Faith of Our Fathers page 398 that this is a power. Priests have the power to forgive sins. They forgive sins in the same way I have to raise up my power to forgive wrongs done to me. It is not a case of God just agreeing to forgive sins when the priest forgives.

The priest forgives as God.

The Roman Catholic Church claims to be infallible and in the decrees in which it exercised this alleged charism it said that the sacrament of penance was authorised and empowered by God.

The quotes come from Salvation, The Bible and Roman Catholicism.

Chapter One of the Fourteenth Session of the Council of Trent declared that since we do not remain faithful after baptism we need another sacrament, the sacrament of penance. It said, “The Lord…principally instituted the sacrament of penance, when, being raised from the dead, he breathed on his disciples, saying: Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. By which action so signal, and words so clear, the consent of all the Fathers has ever understood that the power of forgiving and retaining sins was communicated to the apostles and their lawful successors for the reconciling of the faithful who had fallen after baptism” (page 148).

Chapter Five says, “From the institution of the sacrament of Penance, as already explained, the universal Church has always understood that the entire confession of sins was also instituted by the Lord, and is of divine right necessary for all who have fallen after baptism; because that our Lord Jesus Christ, when about to ascend from earth to Heaven, left priests his own vicars, as presidents and judges, unto whom all the mortal crimes, into which the faithful of Christ may have fallen, should be carried, in order that, in accordance with the power of the keys, they may pronounce the sentence of forgiveness or retention of sins. For it is manifest that the priests could not have exercised this judgment without knowledge of the case” (page 149).
So the power of the keys comes from the Bible where Jesus tells Peter he will give him the keys of the kingdom of Heaven which power to open up Heaven by forgiving sins which Peter or the Pope gives to the bishops and priests. But Jesus said the Jewish leaders had these keys and they didn’t absolve sins so the keys do not refer to the power to pardon that the Pope has and gives to the Church. He told them they shut the kingdom of Heaven against their followers (Matthew 23:13) so he has the image of Heaven having a door or gate in his mind and a door or gate can only be shut properly with a key. Jesus told his hearers to enter through the narrow gate of Heaven and not to look for somebody with a key (Matthew 7:13). Most of these people would stay Jews so he was telling them they had to try and enter and not look for the man with the key. The keys then are just what Protestants take them to mean, the power to open Heaven by preaching the gospel of divine mercy. The key of the Catholic Church is literally a key to Heaven while the key Jesus means is just a metaphor. Absolution is not the key.
The Council of Trent decreed, “Whosoever shall affirm that the priest’s sacramental absolution is not a judicial act but only a ministry to declare that the sins of the party confessing are forgiven let him be anathema”.  The priest is a judge and has the power to pass sentence and to decide if the person should be granted pardon. Obviously, the priest then is to be respected and obeyed by the laity and treated like Christ himself. The man that has the right to judge you and hear your sins should be obeyed like he was a king.
The magistrate can forgive your crime against the law because he has judicial authority and can make judicial acts. The magistrate in this way is on a par with the law. He treats the law as if it was his personal creation so that anybody breaking the law is offending him and needs his mercy. He decides that other people who have been hurt by this person should forgive them too for he has taken the offence away. Trent then put priests on a par with God in the same way. It implies that the priest should have supreme authority over lives. This kind of authoritarianism was reprehensible to the prophets and in his better moods Jesus himself said that the one that wants to be Lord must be the slave of all.

The priest can forgive sins even if he is bad himself, “Even priests, who are in mortal sin, exercise, through the virtue of the Holy Ghost which was bestowed in ordination, the office of forgiving sins, as the ministers of Christ; and that their sentiment is erroneous who contend that this power exists not in bad priests” (page 150).

Canon 6 said that those who denied that priests could forgive sins in the sacrament of penance were accursed. Canon 7 said, “If anyone saith, that, in the sacrament of Penance, it is not necessary, of divine right, for the remission of sins, to confess all and singular mortal sins which after due and diligent previous meditation are remembered, even those [mortal sins] which are secret, and those that are apposed to the two last commandments of the Decalogue, as also the circumstances which change the species of a sin; Let him be anathema” (page 152).

Canon 12 condemns anybody who says that “God always remits the whole punishment together with the guilt” (page 152) because they want you to believe that you can be punished after being pardoned by God for the pardoned sins.  


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