QUAERITUR: Confession to a priest who is a family member

confessionFrom a reader:

I thought I heard somewhere that a priest ought to avoid hearing the confession of a close relative, especially his parents. I presumed this was for practical and not canonical reasons, no? Thanks for your consideration and faithfulness.

There is no law that prohibits a priest from hearing the confessions of family members. That said, I recommend avoiding doing so. A priest can’t prevent anyone from getting into his confessional, but I would try to dissuade someone who is a close family member. The reason for this is, mainly, the Seal of Confession might thereafter make it hard for a priest as a family member to deal with some family matters. This may not be the case for all priests and their families, but it seems to me best to avoid the whole situation.

In a similar way, a priest or bishop shouldn’t hear the confessions of those directly under his authority. The Seal would make it very difficult to deal with any disciplinary matters which were not also public knowledge. If, for example, a bishop consented to hear the confession of one of his priests who, during the confession, revealed to the his bishop that he had done something which would otherwise require the bishop to remove the priest from his position or even from ministry, that bishop’s hands would be in a hard situation because of the Seal.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule of thumb, as in cases of true emergencies or danger of death, but in normal circumstances I would avoid hearing the confessions of close family members and perhaps even close friends.

Again, there is no law which forbids a priest from doing so, but it seems to me to be fraught with complications.

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14 Responses to QUAERITUR: Confession to a priest who is a family member

  1. Scarltherr says:

    My nephew in seminary has already started tell family members he won’t hear our confessions. I agree, it is best.

  2. APX says:

    I know it happens at my parish, but I don’t feel the need to make it my business or make judgements on it.

    It has been something I’ve thought of for myself, as the confession situation isn’t too swell in my domicile diocese, and I know once my friend is ordained he actually plans on making hearing confessions a priority. Then again, he wouldn’t be my regular confessor, and since I don’t do face-to-face confession, and constantly get mistaken for a man both on the phone and in the confessional, anonyminity would be on my side. I would think, however, common sense would kick in with regards to when it would be best to go to someone else.

  3. Paul says:

    I have a friend who is a medical doctor, and I would turn to her for care if it were that or death, but I would never consent to receive routine treatment from her. It would be uncomfortable for both of us and could pose ethical dilemmas. Much the same, I would of course confess to anyone with valid faculties if the need arose, but I would very, very much rather it not be a close friend or family member, in ordinary circumstance.

  4. If one can reasonably confess to a non-family member or non-friend, that is best, and in most cases asking a friend or family member to hear one’s confession probably isn’t fair to the confessor, although another consideration may be what sins are being confessed. If one is confessing to having missed Sunday Mass, and the confessor already knows that the person has been lax, probably no harm will result. A penitent should also be careful about using the Sacrament as a sort of trap to force a confessor into silence; if one misuses the Sacrament, that could be considered sinful in itself.

  5. Father K says:

    Imagine my horror when I once went to a neighbouring parish staffed by religious priests for confession and upon entering the confessional saw my bishop sitting behind the curtain! It was his pastoral visit and he decided to hear confessions.

  6. digdigby says:

    Father K -
    Between bishop and very ‘fresh’, new priest, bishop any day.

  7. mike cliffson says:

    Fr: you write:
    “In a similar way, a priest or bishop shouldn’t hear the confessions of those directly under his authority. The Seal would make it very difficult to deal with any disciplinary matters which were not also public knowledge. If, for example, a bishop consented to hear the confession of one of his priests who, during the confession, revealed to the his bishop that he had done something which would otherwise require the bishop to remove the priest from his position or even from ministry, that bishop’s hands would be in a hard situation because of the Seal.”unqote
    Not everything in the garden was rosy prevatII.
    There was a certain amount of catholic “gamesmanship” (Is that a purelyBrit expression?)
    I was shocked as a teen in the uk to meet the idea of confession with a priest one had any issue with- to gain this very advantage. My shock was met with “oh I forgot you’re not a cradle catholic, you don’t know the tricks”. In Franco’s Spain the idea of a priest demanding his bishop confess him at the first hint of a disciplinary word coming was even in print- godsend it was a legend, but….
    I have heard nothing similar for years and years. Maybe because that sort of person has left the church , or the priesthood, or because dissent, rulebreaking, and misbehaviour are now virtues, or because nobody sins anymore and thus has no need of confession…….
    How is it Stateside?

  8. oakdiocesegirl says:

    Physicians & dentists have a maxim: Never treat/work on family! Goes for friends, too. Becoming that intimate with another person’s body[or head, in case of priests] usually strains the established relationship in an uncomfortable way, for both parties. If even the tiniest thing goes wrong, both hurt feelings & guilt are magnified.

  9. PomeroyonthePalouse says:

    (hopefully not straying too far down the rabbit hole, but…)
    I remember reading in a biography of Bl. Marie-Rose Durocher (foundress of the Holy Names Sisters) that that she wanted to go and become a nun but her priest brother wanted her to remain lay (to either take care of him or one or both of their parents, I don’t remember). He would not give her permission, but she KNEW she had a calling and that God wanted her to. So finally, she went and asked him while in the confessional. She apparently felt that since he forgave sins in the person of Christ, he would also grant permission. She must have been right as it worked.
    John

  10. One of the very most humbling and powerful moments of my priesthood came when I my father asked me to hear his confession.

    He was in his 90s, and I was coming to visit him, and I told my dad that one his privileges in having a priest as his son was I would give him Last Rites as often as I could.

    I don’t know what any other priest might say, but having your own father–who gave you life and everything after–calling you “Father”…well, there really aren’t words for it.

    That said…it is a very good idea to maintain some boundaries, such as…don’t hear your family members’ confessions; and don’t hear your employee’s confessions. A rector doesn’t hear his seminarians’ confessions.

  11. LouiseA says:

    Fr. Martin’s comment made me remember the scene in the 1963 movie The Cardinal where his sister comes into his confessional and calls him by his first name in there… this annoyed him, as he said he is “Father” in there. She confessed to something that clearly made it awkward for him, too, as her brother.

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  13. discipulus says:

    I read in a comment on another post last year that in Eastern rites, priests are forbidden to hear the confessions of their wives and parents, and discouraged from hearing those of close family members.
    I personally wouldn’t feel like it’s a good idea to my brother were he a priest, although I would if I couldn’t find another confessor.

  14. sallyr says:

    Reminds me of a family story from the 1960′s. A bunch of family members were visiting their uncle/cousin/brother/nephew – who was a newly ordained priest. He was the only one in town, so on Saturday afternoon the family members all were debating whether to go to confession to their relative as his was the only church in a small Iowa town. The grandmother of the new priest was horrified at the idea, but the rest all wanted to go so they could receive communion. She couldn’t stand the idea that he would recognize their voices and know who was confessing. They say – well just disguise your voice, and he won’t know. But she was convinced that he’d recognize all the others and figure out that she too was in line.

    The grandma finally agreed after all the other family members said they would disguise their voices and use accents so he would not recognize them. So in they all go, confessing with odd accents and trying to sound like someone else. Women trying to sound like gruff old men, and kids thinking they were using a british accent. Finally it’s the grandma’s turn, and the minute she gets in there she says — Billy, is that you? It’s me, grandma! Everyone outside could hear her delighted exclamation, and there was much groaning and gnashing of teeth that day.