ASK FATHER: Do the faithful have the right to make a confession anonymously?

From a priest:

Do the faithful have the right to anonymous confession? If anonymous confession is not available, are they excused from confession until they can get to an anonymous confession? Do priests have a right to anonymous confession?

Can 964 § 2 of the 1983 CIC states:

Ad sedem confessionalem quod attinet, normae ab Episcoporum conferentia statuantur, cauto tamen ut semper habeantur in loco patenti sedes confessionales crate fixa inter paenitentem et confessarium instructae, quibus libere uti possint fideles, qui id desiderent.

Insofar as the confessional is concerned, norms are to be laid down by the conferences of bishops, though with the caveat that they,  furnished with a fixed grate between penitent and confessor, which the faithful who desire it can use according to his own will (libere), always be located in an open place.

This canon doesn’t use the language of “rights” – which rings oddly when speaking of the Church and the sacraments, even though this sort of language crops up here and there.

Nevertheless, the canon clearly states that a confessional with a fixed grate is to be available so that the faithful, the fideles (fideles includes deacons, priests and bishops, by the way) who desire to may use them.

That said, were parish priest and local bishop not adhering to the universal law and not providing a confessional with a grate for the faithful, the faithful would not be dispensed from the obligation to make a confession annually.  Moreover, the lack of obedience on the part of the parish priest or bishop in this matter would not dispense the faithful from the requirement to confess all mortal sins in kind and number before the reception of the Blessed Sacrament.

Bottom line: the lack of a fixed grille or grate does not let anyone off the hook.

“But Father! But Father!”, some of you non-clerical fideles are saying by now, “What’s a sinner to do?  What if we want to preserve our anonymity but the arrangement the priest provides doesn’t allow it?”

First, notify your local bishop with a brief, firm and polite letter and send a copy of same to the Apostolic Nuncio.

Also, perhaps the faithful who are denied the option of confessing behind a grate, after writing to the bishop, could borrow a Muslim neighbor’s burqa, or use a large hand fan.

In addition, the pastor is adamant about not installing a fixed grate, perhaps a note might be added to one’s weekly offering,

“Dear Father, I am sorry that our offering has gone down from $100 per week to $50 per week, but we’ve had to made budgetary provisions for gas for our weekly visit to the Shrine of St. Winwaloe in order to go to confession anonymously behind a fixed grate. We’re also making a large annual donation to the good monks there for their kindness in allowing us to confess anonymously.”

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35 Responses to ASK FATHER: Do the faithful have the right to make a confession anonymously?

  1. jbosco88 says:

    If there is no grille, one isn’t obliged to look the Priest in the eye!

    Indeed, I have been privileged to have a Priest hear my confession urgently kneeling beside him looking at the floor behind him.

    The seal still applies even if the Priest knows who you are for those short few moments. The humiliation is good for the soul. As is confession. But we already know that, right?

  2. mamajen says:

    Unless one is very famous (or infamous), it seems that anonymity could also be achieved by going to a different priest, even if a screen isn’t available. I can understand the apprehension, though. It would be very difficult for me to do face-to-face. But if the situation were dire, I would prefer confession under any circumstances to the alternative.

  3. Phil_NL says:

    Moreover, a grate does not necessarily provide anonimity. If both priest and penitent are facing the grate (rather than sitting/kneeling parallel to it) you probably can recognize eachother. The norm of providing a grate is not the same as guaranteeing anonomity.

    On the other hand, the priest in the next town will generally not know you anyway, so that would be a much more effective option, if you can. Rotating churches/confessors so they see you once a year or thereabouts should do the the trick very well indeed. Finally, some monasteries will have chapels where they offer confession as well. It may make you feel safer if you know that your confessor rarely sets foot outside the enclosure.

  4. mamajen says:

    True, Phil. My husband’s the only Brit in our area, so he has no hope of anonymity (at our parish, at least), screen or no. Fortunately it doesn’t bother him in the least. He does prefer a screen, though. I think there’s something more than recognition that bothers people…perhaps the thought of seeing reaction from the priest?

  5. frjim4321 says:

    Thanks for this important annual reminder.

    A former pastor of mine could always be heard through the wall asking a child, “What’s your name? And what’s your LAST name?” That would drive me crazy! It was an older gentleman who was kindly but well past being able to pastor effectively.

    I think a lot of priests, both older and younger, can be very sloppy about both anonymity and confidentiality. I can think of two occasions when I figured out someone’s confession because the priest confessor let out a little piece of the story thinking it was “safe.” I, however, knew the other pieces of the story and was thus able to determine the content of the “confidential” confession.

    Dishonorable mention as well to priest confessors who make public statements such as “four out of five of the confessions I hear include internet pornography.” So what are we to think when we look upon Father’s confession line? Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy!

  6. letchitsa1 says:

    Seeing as how I have one from my time spent in the Middle East, I found the burqa option amusing. If nothing else, the reaction of the priest when he sees that thing would make it well worth the wearing, lol.

  7. Nicholas Shaler says:

    When I went to Confession at World Youth Day, I was in a church that did not have enough confessionals for all the confessors, so the priest and I had to sit next to each other on the pew.

    I also prefer kneeling at a grate, but considering a Californian such as myself rarely goes to the east coast where the priest is from I did not mind in the least.

  8. frjim4321 says:

    letchitsa1, the interpretation that I generally hear and which make the most sense is for large group confessions there should be SOME stations available with a screen.

    For our communal penance service in Lent we have 18 priests and only 6 of them lack a screen. (And they have plenty of business.)

  9. APX says:

    Our priest brought something up recently regarding anonymous confession with a fixed screen as opposed to face-to-face confession… It’s actually a more personal and close encounter than face-to-face because the fixed screen allows you to kneel much closer to the priest than without.

    Personally, aside for extraordinary purposes (ie: confessing with the use of sign language), I never really understood the real benefit to having face-to-face confession. It makes confession a natural experience rather than one that is supernatural and people become more concerned with the priest than with God and what is really going on in Confession.

    As for anonymous confessions, for me personally, it isn’t so much that confession is “anonymous” but rather that I just don’t want to see the priest and all his facial expressions and body language. I have a strong habit of focusing and interpreting people’s body language, and it becomes an issue with me.

  10. Wiktor says:

    I can’t imagine confessing without a real confessional (assuming normal circumstances). The closed ones (with separate door for the penitent) are the best. With a light in confessor’s section, and darkness in penitent’s, and a grate between – I’m confident that he is barely seeing me, if at all.

  11. Vox Laudis says:

    APX–absolutely; thank you for that description. And I am one who is put off by seeing the priest’s reaction, regardless of whether or not I know him or he me.

    Slightly off-topic: on the Feast of the Circumcision, right before Mass began I heard the confessional door close (it’s directly below the choir loft). I thought, it’s kind of Father to hear a last-minute Confession today. But then Father came out from the sacristy and announced that one of his brother priests had come to hear confessions during Mass up until the Consecration, and for those in need of the sacrament, wouldn’t this be the way to start the year off right? (The brother priest drove an hour to get there, as well; Father didn’t have to say that as we know that.) It gladdened our hearts to have the sacrament offered in that way. And we are talking about two priests who regularly echo Fr. Z’s GO TO CONFESSION!

  12. frjim4321 says:

    I agree with the idea that the screen and make the sacrament of penance more personal. I know exactly what he’s talking about.

  13. pontiacprince says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but doesn’t canon law (989?) advise that one must go to confession at least once a year to confess any serious (mortal) sins but if there are no mortal sins one is not obligated to confess once a year but it is advised to confess venial sins, etc?..CCC1457 also names ‘serious sins’ that must be confessed once a year.

  14. robtbrown says:

    I’ve done both, behind a screen and with no screen. With the latter I kneel while the priest sits in a chair. Obviously, sometimes neither are possible. Once I was in an airport with a close friend, a really good priest (then ordained about 25 years, now almost 50), and a young man approached and began talking with him. After a few minutes the experience kicked in and the priest asked him whether he wanted to go to Confession. The answer was yes, and they moved to a more private area of the airport. Very impressive.

    BTW, at Pilsen, Ks, in the rectory was a portable screen with a kneeler used by Fr Kapaun. Very clever design that folded up and could be very easily carried.

  15. frjim4321 says:

    pontiacprince, traditionally the Easter Duty referred to the reception of communion once each year during the Easter Season and that implied participating in the sacrament of penance if in serious sin. There are some who interpret the CCC as upping the requirement to confession for everyone once a year but I would not see the CCC as a legislative document.

  16. Lepidus says:

    Recently took my mom to a Rite II at here parish and neither of the two priests used the “reconciliation room” (or the abandon confessional). Both sat in chairs at the front of the church. The lines formed far enough back so that with the music being played you could not hear what was going on, but you could see it. Between the giggling and the hand gestures, I was wondering if this was a sacrament or coffee and cake time. Since I tend toward the obnoxious, I did not make use of the chair, but knelt in front of the priest with my head bowed. In any case, at least it kept the priest from turning it into a discussion session. I might have thrown him off his game a bit, though. After absolution, he will normally say something like “your sins are forgiven, go in peace”. I got “the Mass is ended….” before he corrected himself!

  17. Nicholas Shaler says:

    Lepidus,

    What is a “Rite II”? I have never heard that term before.

    Thanks

  18. LadyMarchmain says:

    What a great idea. My letter is all drafted. It’s not just the “Reconciliation Room” but the very spare time allocated for confession locally.

    Vox Laudis, how wonderful! Being able to go to confession during mass is such a blessing.

  19. jc464 says:

    I agree that the faithful should be provided with the opportunity to make an anonymous confession. Canon law agrees. However, I have become somewhat bemused with what appears to be an obsession on the part of some individuals about making confession anonymously. First of all, there are situations where such anonymity is clearly not practicable. For example, large gatherings of the faithful, sometimes occurring out of doors. I myself witnessed this in Poland. No one seemed to mind. They just queued up, knelt next to the priest and made their confession. And there is a harsh reality which many are avoiding: there is no such thing as an anonymous sin. The devil sees your sins. God sees your sins. The angels see your sins. Pretending that hiding behind a screen accomplishes anything but catering to one’s precious sensitivities is delusional. By all means use the grating if it makes you feel better, but why not practice for the Judgment when all will be revealed and made manifest? Man up, sit down in front of the priest and come clean. And stop mewling about anonymity.

  20. When one understands the tremendous gift that a priest imparts when he hears a valid confession and grants absolution, especially to one who has confessed even one mortal sin, the matter of screen or no screen is but a tiny speck by comparison. We have to keep things in perspective. Yes, complain about disobedient priests (who will have much explaining to do at St. Peter’s desk), but be repentent and get absolution.

  21. Allan S. says:

    Perhaps I am missing something.

    Is not the purpose of a grate to protect the priest? At least as much as the faithful?

    Scandal can result from untruthful allegations against confessors alone with penitents with no physical separation, and the grate prevents spurious allegations which would be immediately set aside on the basis of physical impossibility. It also protects priests forced by the state to testify as to the content of a confession or identity of a penitent: “There is a grate and dim light, and I can’t identify anyone” keeps him out of jail as opposed to “I refuse to answer” which won’t in many jurisdictions of the world.

    A priest who won’t ever use a grate is foolish. In the extreme. Sorry.

  22. Lepidus says:

    @Nicholas Shaler – Maybe that’s not the official name, but I believe that there are three approved rites of confession. Rite I is the standard individual confession. Everything takes place individually between the penitent and priest. Rite II is what is sometimes called a Reconciliation Service. As part of a service, the initial prayers are said including a sermon / homily, Act of Contrition, etc. Then the penitents go individually to the priest to confess and receive absolution. The idea is to make the time “in the box” shorter where there are a lot of penitents, such as before Christmas or Easter. Rite III is general confession and general absolution with no individual confession. It is an approved version of Confession, but can only be used in extreme circumstances – like your sitting on the deck of the Titanic as the last life boat pulls away.

  23. APX says:

    Andrew Saucci,

    While in an ideal world, having a screen wouldn’t matter, but for someone such as myself, it isn’t physically possible for me to not have a screen. I had no choice once because we weren’t allowed access to our confessionals, and I ended up having a full blown anxiety attack because I have an irrational fear of being judged. I have a phobia of social interactions, and while I’m getting to the point that I’m fine usually around people I know and being out in public, confession is still the rack for me.

  24. The Cobbler says:

    @Lepidus, re. “The Mass has ended,” sounds like that priest associates kneeling and reverence with Mass more than Confession? (Of course, that’s a relative measure, and they ought to be associated with both, but I wonder a little what particular trigger was pulled, so to speak.)

  25. frjim4321 says:

    Lepidus, SC makes it pretty clear that the communal form is the preferred form for any sacrament for which a communal variant is offered. I don’t have time to look it up right now but it’s in there.

  26. Nicholas Shaler says:

    Lepidus, thanks for the clarification.

    I was aware of the distinction but had never heard the terminology used as Rite I, Rite II, or Rite III.

  27. Nicholas Shaler says:

    Lepidus, thank you for the clarification.

    I was aware of the distinction but had never heard the terminology used as Rite I, Rite II, or Rite III.

  28. frjim4321 says:

    I don’t think they are different rites. I think they are different forms of the same rite.

  29. babochka69 says:

    Having grown up in the Byzantine rite, I just don’t get this desire for “anonymous” confession. This concept doesn’t exist in Byzantine churches. Confession is done facing an icon of Christ, with the priest as witness. This allows the focus to be on Christ. Confessions are heard “out in the open”, usually in front of the icon screen, so by necessity the priest and penitent are very close together (inches apart). I have been to confession many times in the Latin Rite, both face-to-face and behind the screen, and neither experience quite compares to the personal, close encounter between priest and penitent in the Byzantine rite. This is meant to be a personal experience and a personal encounter with another human being. I understand the desire to be anonymous, but true anonymity really isn’t possible and isn’t really the purpose of the screen, anyway. If the priest knows you, it is likely he knows who you are, even behind the screen.

  30. frjim4321 says:

    babochka69:

    I hear you on this.

    Byzantines get a lot of things right, such as their non-approach to “adoration.”

    With respect to penance, we have a Byzantine priest who assists, and he sits behind a gratis. Often his parishioners come and they will go to both he and the Romans.

  31. babochka69 says:

    frjim4321: I sometimes confess to my Byzantine priest when he’s helping out at a local Latin parish. I go face-to-face then, but it just isn’t quite the same experience.

  32. robtbrown says:

    This is a good opportunity to recommend the Hitchcock movie I Confess

  33. robtbrown says:

    FrJim4321,

    Byzantines get a lot of things right, such as their non-approach to “adoration.”

    Is this an endorsement of erecting in Latin churches Iconostases to separate the celebrant from the people?

  34. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Anonymity in Confession was invented by Irish monks, who understood what it was to live in a small community instead of a big city, and to be dealing with shy sinners. It also protected the lives of many of their flock of new Christians. (There were many notorious cases of kings threatening priests to try to get them to reveal the contents of confessions by their queens or daughters.)

    That said, there were of course many famous Irish saints who (if both priests) confessed to each other, or (if not both priests) were spiritual advisers to each other, in the relationship known as “anama chara,” or literally, “soul friend” (from the Latin “anima”). In this case, intimate knowledge of both persons’ strengths and weaknesses was helpful.

    There’s a great deal to be said for both approaches; and that’s why both approaches are legal, and the confess-ee has a right to choose.

  35. TC says:

    One thing the detracts from anonymity is the “confession by appointment only” which means an office appointment — I suppose one could push it by saying, “No, Fr, please meet me in the confessional at — o’clock.”

    Likewise, some churches (like the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception here in Albany) have no confessionals at all. One has the choice of kneeling at a prie-dieu behind a screen or sit facing the priest — but people are going back and forth to the sacristy in preparation for Mass.

    Too bad there isn’t a canon that all churches have real confessionals and regularly scheduled confession.