Tag: Confession

When Can a Non-Catholic Go to Confession?

When Can a Non-Catholic Go to Confession?

When Can a Non-Catholic Go to Confession?

Q: A close friend of mine was baptized in an evangelical church, but he plans to become a Catholic. But he has not yet been officially received into the Catholic Church because his evangelical family disapproves. He’s been through RCIA, and attends daily Mass, though I’ve never seen him receive the Eucharist, and he confirmed to me that he won’t until his official admittance into the Church.

But he goes to confession regularly. He says he believes absolutely all the Church teaches. Is his confession valid? –Ado

A: Many Catholics will likely be surprised that an evangelical would want to receive the Catholic sacrament of Penance. In actual fact, there are many non-Catholics out there who positively relish the thought that they might unburden themselves of their sins, and receive God’s forgiveness in a formal sort of way. We Catholics tend to take the confessional for granted, and in far too many cases we even try to avoid it; but if you weren’t raised in the Catholic faith, you might find refreshing the notion that you can walk out of the confessional feeling spiritually “clean,” and make a fresh start.

For this reason, it’s not unheard-of for non-Catholics to approach a priest who’s sitting in the confessional and ask if they can talk things over. While a parish priest’s main responsibility is obviously the spiritual wellbeing of his parishioners, he should be (and ordinarily is) happy to talk with anyone—even a non-Catholic—about spiritual matters. In many cases a non-Catholic approaches a Catholic priest like this, not only to get a moral issue sorted out, but also because he’s interested in the Catholic faith in general. If a non-Catholic has a positive experience dealing with a Catholic priest, who knows where (spiritually speaking) this may ultimately lead him?

That being said, the general rule is that when a priest is in church hearing confessions during the regularly scheduled time, then that’s what he’s supposed to be doing. If a non-Catholic wants to discuss something with a priest, it’s more appropriate to arrange to see him at some other time. The confessional, in short, is meant for confessions.

But from the sound of things, Ado’s non-Catholic friend doesn’t go to the parish priest at confession-time just to talk—it appears that he enters the confessional, recites the standard words and then confesses his sins, like any Catholic would do. Presumably the priest doesn’t know him, so he doesn’t realize that this person has not yet been received into the Catholic Church. Think about it: if someone approaches a Catholic priest to receive a Catholic sacrament, and clearly knows what he’s doing/saying and how it all works, it’s only reasonable for the priest to assume that he must be a Catholic, right?

Ado’s friend, however, is a baptized non-Catholic, and not a member of the Catholic Church yet. As we saw in “Do Converts Have to be Rebaptized?” he does not need to be baptized again; but he does need to be formally received into the Catholic Church after a period of instruction and preparation (otherwise known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA). Ordinarily, after completing the RCIA program, a non-Catholic who is already baptized will make a profession of faith, and receive the sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Communion—usually at the Easter vigil Mass on Holy Saturday. Once he’s a Catholic, of course, he can and should receive the sacrament of Penance regularly.

But this isn’t what has happened in the case of Ado’s friend. While he says he wants to become a Catholic, he has not done so because “his evangelical family disapproves.” It appears that he went through the entire RCIA program… and then declined to be received into the Catholic Church. This means, of course, that he is still a non-Catholic, although he undoubtedly knows a lot about the Catholic faith, and says he wants to become a Catholic eventually. So in the interim, can he receive any of the Catholic sacraments?

As we saw in “Can a Non-Catholic Receive Communion in a Catholic Church?” the basic rules about who may receive the sacraments are found in canon 844. And the first paragraph of this canon spells out the norm: Catholics are to receive the sacraments from Catholic ministers, and Catholic sacraments are to be conferred on Catholics (c. 844.1). This is how it’s supposed to work, and there is certainly nothing surprising here.

That being said, the paragraphs that follow address some specific and uncommon situations which constitute exceptions. Do they say anything about non-Catholics receiving the Catholic sacrament of Penance?

As a matter of fact, they do. The third paragraph tells us that members of Eastern Churches which are not in full communion with the Catholic Church—in other words, members of the Orthodox Churches—can lawfully receive the sacrament of Penance from a Catholic minister (c. 844.3). This makes theological sense, because as we saw in “Can a Catholic Ever Attend an Orthodox Liturgy Instead of Sunday Mass?” the Catholic Church holds that the Orthodox have a valid priesthood, and thus their sacraments (including Penance) are recognized as valid too. Thus an Orthodox person who approaches a Catholic priest for confession is fundamentally “on the same page” about what he’s doing and what the sacrament means.

But this cannot be said of evangelical Christians, who don’t celebrate the sacrament of Penance in their churches—and even if they did, the Catholic Church would consider it invalid, because evangelicals do not have a valid priesthood as we understand it. Thus canon 844.3 does not apply to Ado’s friend.

The fourth paragraph, however, would at first glance appear to apply to Ado’s friend’s case—but look at the wording carefully: in danger of death, or when (in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or the bishops’ conference) some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer the sacrament of penance lawfully to other non-Catholic Christians who (a) cannot approach their own minister, and (b) manifest Catholic faith in the sacrament (c. 844.4). There are a whole slew of qualifications here that allmust be met. Let’s go through this paragraph piece by piece.

For starters, Ado’s friend obviously isn’t in danger of death. Furthermore, there is no indication that the diocesan bishop has judged that a “grave necessity” exists in his case. While he does manifest Catholic faith in the sacrament, there’s no evidence that Ado’s friend couldn’t approach an evangelical minister at his own church instead. Rather, it appears that he simply wants to go to Catholic confession on a regular basis—without becoming a Catholic first. Unfortunately for Ado’s friend, that’s not how it works!

It’s important to keep in mind that we don’t know the whole story here, but we do know that Ado’s friend hasn’t been received into the Catholic Church yet because he says there is some friction with his family about it. When someone wants to become a Catholic, it’s not at all uncommon to find out that his relatives object. How best to deal with a negative reaction from family members is something that a would-be Catholic will ordinarily try to sort out together with his parish priest.

In this particular case, though, Ado tells us that his friend manages both to attend Mass and to go to confession, apparently without his family knowing about it or protesting. This naturally raises a pivotal question: if Ado’s friend can quietly get to the Catholic parish on a regular basis without causing a family ruckus, why can’t he arrange with the Catholic parish priest to be received into the Catholic Church just as quietly?

Put differently, it seems that Ado’s friend wants to remain a member of his evangelical church to please his family, but regularly receive Catholic sacraments at the same time. In short, Ado’s friend wants to have his cake and eat it too.

But you can’t have it both ways! If you want to receive Catholic sacraments on a regular basis, it’s necessary to become a Catholic. If you don’t want to become a Catholic, you shouldn’t routinely seek to receive Catholic sacraments. It’s as simple as that.

As the abovementioned canon 844.4 indicates, what Ado’s friend is doing is illicit, or illegal. He shouldn’t be going to confession—and if the priest-confessor knew he was dealing with a non-Catholic, he would undoubtedly try to find a tactful way to get him to stop coming. But note that the canon doesn’t actually say that the sacrament is administered invalidly, which would mean that it has no effect. (See “Marriage and Annulment” for more on this concept.) The wording of the canon leaves us to conclude that the administration of the sacrament is technically valid.

But that does not mean this is okay. Ado’s friend has to make an either/or choice: so long as he remains a non-Catholic, he should not be receiving Catholic sacraments. When he becomes a Catholic, he can (and should!) receive Catholic sacraments. Trying to straddle the fence in the way Ado describes is illegal—and every single time Ado’s friend goes to confession as a non-Catholic, he is violating canon law.

Let’s all say a prayer for Ado’s friend, that he will appreciate the importance of respecting and following the teachings and laws of the Catholic Church. When he takes the final step and is formally received into the Church, he will then have the joy of receiving the sacraments validly and licitly.

Can the seal of confession be broken or the secrets ever be revealed by priests

Can the seal of confession be broken or the secrets ever be revealed by priests

The mystery of the Sacrament of Penance causes much intrigue and curiosity. People wonder, “Can the priest ever reveal what is said in confession?” The simple, straight answer is “no.”
The standard of secrecy protecting a confession outweighs any form of professional confidentiality or secrecy. When a person unburdens his soul and confesses his sins to a priest in the Sacrament of Penance, a very sacred trust is formed. While the priest is the minister of the sacrament, Christ is forgiving the sins, and the priest must not reveal to anyone else what has been really confessed to the Lord. Moreover, what sins are forgiven are now in one’s past not to be carried into the present via some communication. Therefore, the priest must maintain absolute secrecy about anything that a person confesses. For this reason, confessionals were developed with screens to protect the anonymity of the penitent and to alleviate the possibility of the priest remembering a “face” with a confession. This secrecy is called “the sacramental seal,” “the seal of the confessional,” or “the seal of confession.”
The sacramental seal is inviolable. Quoting Canon 983.1 of the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism states, “…It is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason” (#2490). A priest, therefore, cannot break the seal to save his own life, to protect his good name, to refute a false accusation, to save the life of another, to aid the course of justice (like reporting a crime), or to avert a public calamity. He cannot be compelled by law to disclose a person’s confession or be bound by any oath he takes, e.g. as a witness in a court trial. A priest cannot reveal the contents of a confession either directly, by repeating the substance of what has been said, or indirectly, by some sign, suggestion, or action. A Decree from the Holy Office (November 18, 1682) mandated that confessors are forbidden, even where there would be no revelation direct or indirect, to make any use of the knowledge obtained in the confession that would “displease” the penitent or reveal his identity.
Therefore, from the time a person makes the sign of the cross and begins “Bless me father for I have sinned” to the last words of absolution, the information exchanged between the priest and the penitent is protected by the sacramental seal. Even if a confession is made in a less formal atmosphere or in a less formal way, if a priest imparts absolution, what he absolves is under the sacramental seal never to be revealed by him.
(Just as an aside, a great movie which deals with this very topic is Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess, which deals with a priest who hears a murder confession and then is framed for the murder. As a priest, I was in agony during much of the movie.)
There are certain circumstances in which the priest would have to discuss the matter of a confession with another but would do so without revealing the identity of the person. For instance, some sins are so grievous that the priest must ask for permission from a superior to grant absolution. For example, if a person desecrates the Holy Eucharist in some sacrilegious act or just “throws away” the Holy Eucharist, he incurs an automatic excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See (Canon 1367); therefore, when this sin is confessed, a priest must inform the penitent that he must contact the Bishop, who would obtain from the Apostolic See the proper permission for the absolution of the sin and the lifting of the ban of excommunication. While keeping the seal of confession, some arrangement would have to be made for the penitent to return to the priest and receive absolution and the appropriate penance.
Or, if a priest needs guidance from a more experienced confessor to deal with a difficult case of conscience brought to him in confession, he first must ask the permission of the penitent to discuss the matter and make arrangements for another meeting. Here again, the priest must keep the identity of the person secret.
Sometimes a penitent wants to discuss the subject matter of a previous confession– a particular sin, fault, temptation, circumstance– in a counseling session or in a conversation with the same priest. Respecting the seal of confession, the priest would have to ask the penitent to refresh his memory, so as to revisit the particulars again outside of confession. For example, especially with the advent of “face-to-face confession,” I have had individuals come up to me and say, “Father, remember that problem I spoke to you about in confession?” I have to say, “Please refresh my memory.”
What happens if a priest violates the seal of confession? The Catechism (#1467) cites the Code of Canon Law (#1388.1) in addressing this issue, which states, “A confessor who directly violates the seal of confession incurs an automatic excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; if he does so only indirectly, he is to be punished in accord with the seriousness of the offense.” From the severity of the punishment, we can clearly see how sacred the sacramental seal of confession is in the eyes of the Church.
Actually, the Church’s position in this matter has long-standing credibility. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) produced one of the first comprehensive teachings concerning the Sacrament of Penance. Addressing various problems ranging from abuses to heretical stands against the sacrament, the council defended the sacrament itself, stipulated the need for the yearly sacramental confession of sins and reception of the Holy Eucharist, and imposed disciplinary measures upon priest confessors. The council decreed, “Let the confessor take absolute care not to betray the sinner through word or sign, or in any other way whatsoever. In case he needs expert advice he may seek it without, however, in any way indicating the person. For we decree that he who presumes to reveal a sin which has been manifested to him in the tribunal of penance is not only to be deposed from the priestly office, but also to be consigned to a closed monastery for perpetual penance.”
A beautiful story (perhaps embellished with time) which captures the reality of this topic is the life of St. John Nepomucene (1340-93), the vicar general to the Archbishop of Prague. King Wenceslaus IV, described as a vicious, young man who easily succumbed to rage and caprice, was highly suspicious of his wife, the Queen. St. John happened to be the Queen’s confessor. Although the king himself was unfaithful, he became increasingly jealous and suspicious of his wife, who was irreproachable in her conduct. Although Wencelaus tortured St. John to force him to reveal the Queen’s confessions, he would not. In the end, St. John was thrown into the River Moldau and drowned on March 20, 1393.
Each priest realizes that he is the ordained mediator of a very sacred and precious sacrament. He knows that in the confessional, the penitent speaks not so much to him, but through him to the Lord. Therefore, humbled by his position, the priest knows that whatever is said in confession must remain secret at all costs.
Another interesting side to this question is the obligation of the laity to uphold the seal of confession: An interpreter needed for someone to make a confession or anyone who gains knowledge of a confession (such as overhearing someone’s confession) is also obligated to preserve secrecy (Code of Canon Law, #983.2). For such a person to violate the secrecy of another person’s confession is a mortal sin and warrants “a just penalty, not excluding excommunication” (#1388.2). Moreover, a person who falsely accuses a priest of breaking the seal of the confession incurs a mortal sin and perhaps other canonical penalties, including excommunication.
Clearly, the Church regards the seal of confession as sacred. Every person– whether priest or laity– must take the obligation to preserve the secrecy of confession absolutely seriously.
Confess My Sins to a Priest? Why Can’t I Just Talk to God?

Confess My Sins to a Priest? Why Can’t I Just Talk to God?

Our Lord gave the power to forgive sins to the Apostles, who in turn passed it along to their successors, the bishops and priests.

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If you’re Catholic, you’ve heard this before, right?

Your Protestant friend says, “Why should I confess my sins to a priest?” Chances are he’s going to offer one of two arguments:

  • I have a personal relationship with Jesus. I can talk to God directly.
  • Jesus is the only mediator between God and man.

Well, that’s easy! Your first counter-argument can be an explanation: We’re simply doing what Jesus told us to do.

Catholics don’t just confess their sins to a priest. The priest is an “alter Christus”; that is, he stands in for Christ. When a Catholic confesses his sins in the presence of a priest, it’s Christ he’s talking to through the priest, and Christ who is offering forgiveness.

Why would I believe such a thing? The Bible tells me so!

In Matthew 16:18-19, Jesus gives the power to forgive sins to Peter and to his successors. “And so I say to you,” says Christ,

“…you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Of course, even if Jesus said something only once, we are obligated to believe it. In this case, though, he chose to really emphasize the importance of the teaching. Again in Matthew 18:18, the Savior says:

“Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

Still not convinced? Read His words in John 20:21-22 with an open mind, and see if you can come up with another explanation. Jesus said:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

As he walked along the roads near Jerusalem, teaching the people, Christ forgave sins. But he was leaving: He would soon suffer death on the cross, would rise and would return to heaven at the Ascension. How would his followers know that they were forgiven, when they couldn’t hear those words from Christ in person?

Christ promised to be with his Church until the end of time; but he wouldn’t be here on earth physically and visibly. He delegated the power to forgive sins to other men, the Apostles who would lead his Church, so that future generations could feel confident that they were forgiven. He gave the power to forgive sins to the Apostles, who in turn passed it along to their successors, the bishops and priests.

So plan this week, as Lent is getting underway, to take advantage of this sacrament of healing, this great gift which Christ left for you.

Do I need to confess venial sins or only mortal sins?

Do I need to confess venial sins or only mortal sins?

Rather than just provide a simple answer, we should begin by briefly reflecting on the mystery of the Holy Mass. At the Last Supper, Jesus instituted the precious gift of the Holy Eucharist. His words and actions were indeed sacrificial: He said not only, “this is my Body,” but also, “which is given for you”; and not only, “this is my Blood,” but also, “which is poured out for you.” Here, our Lord instituted sacramentally the sacrifice for our sins that would be enacted on Good Friday and offered on the cross.

So the Holy Mass represents, in an unbloody, sacramental way Christ’s sacrifice. Blessed Pope John Paul II taught, “the Mass makes present the sacrifice of the Cross; it does not add to the sacrifice nor does it multiply it. What is repeated is its memorial celebration, its ‘commemorative representation,’ which makes Christ’s one, definitive redemptive sacrifice always present in time. The sacrificial nature of the eucharistic mystery cannot therefore be understood as something separate, independent of the Cross or only indirectly referring to the sacrifice of Calvary” (“Ecclesia de Eucharistia,” No. 12).

With this understanding, the Catechism asserts two important points: “Holy Communion augments our union with Christ” (#1391) and “Holy Communion separates us from sin” (No. 1393). Since the Holy Mass represents our Lord’s sacrifice for sin, and the Holy Eucharist unites us with our Lord, receiving the Holy Eucharist must both cleanse us of venial sin and protect us from future sin. The Council of Trent’s, Decree on the Holy Eucharist (Chapter II) taught, “…(The Holy Eucharist) be also a remedy to free us from our daily faults and to preserve us from mortal sin.” (See also No. 231).

The church fathers also taught this belief: For example, St. Ambrose preached, “For as often as we eat this bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the death of the Lord. If we proclaim the Lord’s death, we proclaim the forgiveness of sins. If, as often as His Blood is poured out, it is poured for the forgiveness of sins, I should always receive it, so that it may always forgive my sins. Because I always sin, I should always have a remedy.” Similarly in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the priest prays: “We beseech, implore, and beg you: send your Holy Spirit upon us all and upon these gifts… that those who partake of them may be purified in soul, receive the forgiveness of their sins, and share in the Holy Spirit.”

However, if a person is conscious of mortal sin, he must make a sincere confession and receive sacramental absolution before receiving the Holy Eucharist. Since mortal sin destroys sanctifying grace in a person’s soul, the sacrament of penance is necessary to reconcile the sinner and restore sanctifying grace before receiving holy Communion. If a person receives holy Communion in a state of mortal sin, he commits a sacrilege, which in itself is a mortal sin.

Nevertheless, even if a person is not conscious of a mortal sin, regular reception of the sacrament of penance is a good spiritual practice. Blessed Pope John Paul II taught: “It would, therefore, be foolish, as well as presumptuous, to wish arbitrarily to disregard the means of grace and salvation which the Lord has provided and, in the specific case, to claim to receive forgiveness while doing without the sacrament which was instituted by Christ precisely for forgiveness” (On Reconciliation and Penance, No. 31). Consequently, a faithful Catholic must never discount the spiritual exercise of confession, from beginning to end: to examine one’s conscience, to have contrition (i.e. sorrow for sin), to make a firm amendment not to sin again, to confess one’s sins, and to receive absolution and the graces that heal the soul of sin, restore fully sanctifying grace, and fortify it against future temptation. Regular confession of venial sin helps the individual to form his conscience better, fight against temptation, be aware of the occasions of sin, and progress in the life of the Holy Spirit (cf. catechism 1458).

Regular confession is the recipe for sainthood, and all of the saints of our church not only knew it but advocated it. Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata and Blessed Pope John Paul II both received the sacrament of penance at least weekly. They were so in love with the Lord that they were mindful of the smallest violation of that love and did not want even the least venial sin to impair their relationship with Him. As we draw closer to Easter, who of us would be so proud that we would refrain from receiving the graces of the sacrament of penance?