The State has set up courts of justice, the Church courts of mercy. The State in the name of justice punishes, the Church in the name of mercy forgives. The whole apparatus of the civil law is intended to track down the criminal, to follow the traces of his work, and discover his identity. It gives him, indeed, every possible means of escape in the sense that it affords him opportunity for proving his innocence, or establishing such an explanation of his action as should procure his release. He has an impartial judge who probably has not heard his name ever before mentioned. His jury is presupposed to be altogether uninfluenced by personal motives, so that he can actually challenge and reject every member of it whom he may consider to have a personal antagonism to himself; and his counsel may be offered him at the expense of the State. The whole boast of the law is that it is utterly impartial, the unfaltering judge, the deliberating jury, the legal accuser of the advocates. But parallel with this, and intended as the result of the whole organization, is the action of justice, a strict rendering to each one of what is his due punishment to the guilty, acquittal to the innocent. The confession of the criminal would not ordinarily affect his penalty at all, so that the plea of "not guilty" is almost always put forward so as to throw the whole burden of proof on the shoulders of the law.
But the Church has no such ideas, does not at all contemplate the action of justice. To trace the criminal, to confront him with witnesses, to twist his evidence from improbability to sober fact, is to violate the seal of secrecy and to commit a crime so rare that the annals of Church History have to be ransacked to find even a doubtful occurrence of it. There is never any attempt at any such thing. It is a principle laid down for the guidance of priests that the penitents must be believed when they accuse or excuse themselves. Hence the very personality of the culprit is shrouded in the hushed whisper, the free choice of the confessor, the rigorous suppression of all details of place and name that would be likely to lead to the confessor's knowledge of the people implicated. The penitent may desire to unburden himself to the priest, but the priest himself cannot force him to do so. Even if he does happen to recognize him, he will not remember outside what he has learnt within. This shows the different methods pursued by Church and State, the different purposes of mercy and justice. Perhaps some will declare that confession does really achieve more justice than do the courts of law; but such is not the intention of the Church. She seeks only after mercy, waiting for the penitent to come that she may listen and by God's power forgive.
Confession, then, is the tribunal of mercy. I go to it, perhaps shrinking from the avowal of my misdeeds, not because I have done anything particularly shameful (though this would almost necessarily add to the effort required), but from the very disinclination of telling another of my hidden faults. It offends my humanity; really it offends my pride, for it is difficult for man to beg for mercy, even from God. It is really that which makes confession so hard to me; to ask for mercy seems contrary to all the self-respect that makes man rise to the heights of his nature. Had he to stand and receive a punish ment in some sort adequate to his failure, it might be easier because more heroic; but to have to beg for forgiveness is an achievement which only Christianity has been able to produce in the nobler souls of her children. To recount my tiresome and petty delinquencies is harder to flesh and blood in some ways than to make avowal of a deliberate act of passion. Yet it is the mercy of God which alone can bring me to my knees and make me ask for my forgiveness; and this mercy I must regard as a high privilege, something which adds to and in no way lessens the value of human dignity. On Him must my eyes be fixed so that even my sins are remembered, not for my own humiliation, but for His tender love. I go to seek His mercy, not simply because I love Him, but far more because He loves me; not because to err is human, but because to forgive is Divine.
- text taken from by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.