From the Catholic Enclycopedia (http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia) comes this:
Penance is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ in which forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest’s absolution to those who with true sorrow confess their sins and promise to satisfy for the same. It is called a “sacrament” not simply a function or ceremony, because it is an outward sign instituted by Christ to impart grace to the soul. As an outward sign it comprises the actions of the penitent in presenting himself to the priest and accusing himself of his sins, and the actions of the priest in pronouncing absolution and imposing satisfaction. This whole procedure is usually called, from one of its parts, “confession”, and it is said to take place in the “tribunal of penance”, because it is a judicial process in which the penitent is at once the accuser, the person accused, and the witness, while the priest pronounces judgment and sentence. The grace conferred is deliverance from the guilt of sin and, in the case of mortal sin, from its eternal punishment; hence also reconciliation with God, justification. Finally, the confession is made not in the secrecy of the penitent’s heart nor to a layman as friend and advocate, nor to a representative of human authority, but to a duly ordained priest with requisite jurisdiction and with the “power of the keys”, i.e., the power to forgive sins which Christ granted to His Church. (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11618c.htm)
Notice the first sentence, ‘in which forgiveness of sins…is granted through the priest’s absolution‘. Notice the highlighted sentence in blue. The natural question from this sentence is, ‘What satisfaction, how is it imposed’? Notice the sentence in red. The grace conferred by the priest’s absolution for a mortal sin is deliverance from eternal punishment.
Where does the idea of ‘the priest’ being able to forgive sins come from? Notice what the Council of Trent had to say about it:
The Council of Trent (1551) declares:
As a means of regaining grace and justice, penance was at all times necessary for those who had defiled their souls with any mortal sin. . . . Before the coming of Christ, penance was not a sacrament, nor is it since His coming a sacrament for those who are not baptized. But the Lord then principally instituted the Sacrament of Penance, when, being raised from the dead, he breathed upon 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’ (John 20:22-23). 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 to their lawful successors, for the reconciling of the faithful who have fallen after Baptism. (Sess. XIV, c. i)
The Catholic Church teaches that this power was transmitted to Peter and the other Apostles, by Christ Himself. To Peter He says: “And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Later He says to all the Apostles: “Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven” (Matthew 18:18).
But, you may ask, aren’t we supposed to confess our sins one to another? Yes, James 5:16:
Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much (James 5:16).
But notice the difference. The Catholic Church teaches that one must go to ‘confession’, as a ‘tribunal of penance’ (the priest sits as judge), whereby the priest then pronounces judgment and sentence. It’s called ‘auricular confession’, because it is spoken secretly, literally, into the ear of the priest. While a Catholic is only required to go to ‘confession’ when they are aware they have committed a mortal sin, they are encouraged to go at least once a month whether they’ve committed a mortal sin or not. It is safer to ‘confess’ your venial sins too, since only the priest is able to judge accurately which sins are mortal and which sins are venial.
A Protestant however, knows that when he confesses his sins one to another, he understands from Scripture that only God can forgive sins, not the person he’s confessing to, nor a priest or pastor. The Protestant is not seeking ‘absolution’ from this other person, he realizes this only comes from God on the basis of Christ’s finished work on the cross. And again, that was a one time historical event. In the Protestant’s mind, no one but God is thought worthy to hear confessions or to grant forgiveness. He understands that God demands ‘repentance’ (a turning from sin), not act’s of penance (Hail Mary’s, good works, fastings, abstinence from certain pleasures, etc.).
Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the LORD, and He will have compassion on him; And to our God, for He will abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:7).
Vaya con Dios mis hijas,
Dear ol’ Dad