For Protestantism to make much sense, the Church must have, at some point, abandoned the truth and become apostate. Otherwise, Protestantism has no license to exist. But when was this “Great Apostasy”? Protestants offer varying opinions, but none of them hold up to scrutiny.
Was it right after the deaths of the Apostles?
A view most supported by Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses is that, after the Apostles, the Church quickly fell into apostasy. This would be a massive blow at both God’s promise to guard His Church (Joshua 1:5; Matthew 16:18) and all of the doctrine mentioned hereafter. But if this were true, would not one of the disciples of the Apostles have spoken out? We have writings from many of them, including Pope St. Clement I, St. Barnabas, St. Polycarp, and St. Ignatius of Antioch. None of them mention a “Great Apostasy”. But even if we indulge the other side and admit the possibility that even these men fell away, we still have early documents and creeds (like the Didache) that were probably formulated under the authority of the Apostles. Because Christians continued to be in accord with these extra-Biblical teachings, we know that they must have been in accord with the true Church.
Was it at the time of Constantine?
A semi-popular view is that Constantine corrupted Christianity by encouraging “pagan” elements and demanding a decision from the First Council of Nicaea. This is the view that I come into contact with most often, but it is also the most problematic. If the Church became apostate by 337 (the year of Constantine’s death), then the Biblical canon – which only really started to be compiled by St. Athanasius in 367 – may be wrong: we would have no assurance of its infallibility. Also, on top of that, all later theology would be necessarily nulled.
Was it during the Middle Ages?
The possibility of an apostasy in Medieval times seems far-fetched, too. This theory revolves, primarily, around hatred for some “bad” popes. Rather than focusing on doctrinal issues, proponents of this theory typically resort to character defamation. Many attack the Crusades, which tamed a fanatic Islam, and such. But in this period, literacy rates increased, art flourished, the university system developed, laws were better-codified, and the Bible became more accessible to lay people [1, 2]. The only seemingly objectionable doctrinal development was Pope Boniface VIII’s declaration, “Outside of the Church, there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins”, but even this originates with St. Cyprian! The teaching relates to: 1) the fact that baptism (whether by water, blood, or desire) brings one into the Church (even if done within a Protestant community), because the sacrament was entrusted to Her and She allows anyone with the right intent to perform it, and 2) the importance of conscience and the dangers of apostasy. Nothing worthy of damnation here!
Was it just before the “Reformation”?
The idea of a “restoration” being needed just before the “Reformation” also seems improbable. This common idea is based on the “selling” of indulgences [1, 2, 3] (Martin Luther attacks the practice multiple times in his Ninety-Five Theses), but is mostly due to a misunderstanding. Again, the Protestant understanding usually relies on the assault of characters: people like Johann Tetzel are demonized — perhaps rightfully — for abusing the system. But this abuse was not a doctrinal problem of the Church; rather, it was a disciplinary problem of men. Indulgences simply remove the temporal punishment due for past sin — they are not a “Get out of Hell free” card — and even when they were “sold,” they required some sort of penance. Indulgences only have a salvatory effectiveness (remittance of time in Purgatory) if the recipient is already destined for Heaven. So, it would seem that the fuss is all about nothing.
In conclusion, I see none of these options as likely.
Protestants claim that Confession (aka the Sacrament of Reconciliation) is unnecessary, but that claim totally contradicts the Word of God.
Kevin M. Tierney wrote at Catholic Lane:
When one repents of their sins in the Bible, it is always done to another individual.
The clearest case of this is with David after he commits adultery and arranges the murder of the woman’s husband. David only repents of his sin once God’s representative Nathan confronts him. (2 Samuel 12:1-13) David knew he had sinned grievously in his adultery, otherwise he would not have had Uriah killed to conceal his crime. Even knowing the extent of his guilt, he refused to repent. This speaks to the human psyche’s ability to rationalize away what they do so that it is no longer a sin. This is a skill humanity has nearly perfected in today’s age.
Another thing worth considering is how professing something vocally changes things. It is very easy to say something silently with no witnesses. It is something altogether different when you have to acknowledge your faults before another. One could say it becomes a far more serious endeavor when you are not only willing to renounce your sins, but renounce them forcefully out loud. The first step on the road to repentance requires you to renounce those sins. While it possible to fake such, it becomes far harder to do so. (It goes without saying that such a faked confession would be a sacrilege, and compound sin upon sin!)
Whenever I hear Protestants say that confessing sins to a priest is wrong, I am reminded of Luke 5:21, in which the Pharisees say that only God can forgive sins, and doubt Christ’s ability to do so. They are so blinded by their ideology that they can not recognize that God (Christ is God in human form, both fully human and fully divine) is before them.
Am I brazen enough to compare priests to Christ? In a way, yes, because priests serve in persona Christi (a Latin phrase, meaning “in the person of Christ”).
In John 20, Christ clearly gives the Apostles the power to forgive sins.
“And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.’” – John 20:22-23 (NASB)
From there, the Apostles passed down their “powers” through apostolic succession (a topic I plan on writing about in the future). Those “powers” are possessed by our bishops and priests today.
So, like Devin Rose asked, would you have confessed your sins to an Apostle? If not, you contradict Christ. And, if you would have confessed your sins to an Apostle, it only makes sense that you would confess your sins to a priest.
My first confession was the week before I entered the Church. I was so nervous, but I tried to be prepared: I had done an examination of my conscience and had printed out a version of the standard Act of Contrition. I was ready, or at least, I thought I was. But there was just something unexplainable about that few minutes. I truly felt like I was speaking with God. Like Laban felt with Jacob in Genesis 30:27, I felt that God blessed me, forgave me, and transformed me through His priest.
That is why the Church teaches that Catholics should confess at least once a year (the saintly Cardinal Arinze commented on that here). The Sacrament of Reconciliation is an amazing gift from God, so we should utilize it.