Auricular Confession, in the Greek and Roman Catholic churches, the acknowledgment of sins to an authorized priest, made with the view of obtaining absolution. According to the doctrine of the Catholic church, confession is obligatory on all who have committed mortal sin after baptism. The confession of venial sins is recommended as salutary, and generally practised by the more devout. Catholic theology teaches that the requisites to a good confession are, that it should be entire, conjoined with sincere contrition and a firm purpose of amendment, and followed by acts of penance or satisfaction to the justice of God. By a canon of the fourth council of the Lateran (1215), which is a formal reenactment of a general law previously existing, all who are conscious of mortal sin are bound to confess at least once a year. Those who are in danger of death, or about to expose themselves to the danger of death, are similarly bound. Much more frequent confession is recommended, and very generally practised. No priest can hear confessions or give a valid absolution, except to a person in danger of death, unless he has jurisdiction from the ordinary of the diocese, and such jurisdiction is more or less limited by reservations to the bishop or the sovereign pontiff.
A priest is forbidden, under the severest ecclesiastical penalties, to divulge anything disclosed under the seal of confession, even when questioned in a court of justice; and he may not even speak to the penitent of the sins he has confessed, outside of the confessional, without his express permission. According to Catholic theology,auricular or private confession has been practised from the time of the apostles, although there has been a change of discipline since the early ages, adopted by the church on account of a change of circumstances. Public confession was practised in these early times, and very severe and long penances were imposed on those who were guilty of grievous public sins. After the fervor of the first ages had diminished, and sins had become more frequent, these public confessions were an occasion of scandal, and the severe penitential canons were injurious rather than profitable. Nectarius, patriarch of Constantinople, abolished the office of public penitentiary in his cathedral at the close of the 4th century, and from that time public confession fell into disuse in the East. In the West it was disused after the 7th century.
Public confession was never required except when the sins were public, and the public confession of secret sins was only counselled in certain cases, as a penance. Many sins, especially under the severe laws of Christian emperors, could not have been publicly confessed without exposing the criminal to the penalty of death; as for instance, murder, the adultery of a woman, and that of a man with a woman of noble birth. Secret sins were first privately confessed to a priest, and if the penitent desired to confess them publicly, the confessor judged whether this were expedient. Auricular confession is recommended by some divines in the Anglican and Lutheran churches as a salutary practice, and even by the prayer book of the church of England. - For information on private confession in the church of England, see Visitatio Infirmovum, by W. H. Cope and H. Stretton (London, 1850). For the Catholic literature and theology on confession, see Renaudot's Perpetuite de lafoi sur les sacrements.