QUAERITUR: Confession to an SSPX priest a sin?

From a reader:

While doing research I came across something that said that one of the faithful who knowingly receives a Sacrament from a priest without faculties commits a sin. I have always attended SSPX chapels and gone to confession there. But after what I read, I haven’t known what to do. I haven’t gone to Confession in months. I’m also afraid of having a disagreement with my parents. My Dad has very strong opinions about anything not connected with the SSPX.

The Church’s law says clearly that if a priest lacks the faculties from proper authority to receive sacramental confessions, and therefore absolve sins, then the absolution is invalid.  The priest must have faculties from the Church to absolve validly.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law says that:

Can. 966 §1 For the valid absolution of sins, it is required that, in addition to the power of order, the minister has the faculty to exercise that power in respect of the faithful to whom he gives absolution.
§2 A priest can be given this faculty either by the law itself, or by a concession issued by the competent authority in accordance with can. 969.

From this we see that priests must have permission of the Church to absolve sins.  The Church, by the way, gets to determine how the sacraments are administered.  The SSPX does not get to decide how sacraments are administered.

Usually it is a diocesan bishop or major superior of a religious order that give these faculties to a priest in a stable way.  In danger of death of a person the Church’s law says that, in that circumstance, even a “laicized” priest has faculties.  This is because the salvation of the soul of the dying person is paramount.

We don’t know what God does for the soul of a person who, in good will and in ignorance, goes to confess to a priest who  lacks faculties.  We can’t judge that.  God will do as it pleases Him to do.

Also, we have to consider culpable and inculpable ignorance.  Catholics ought to inform themselves about their Faith.  To what extent is a matter for debate.  But once you walk through the door of exploring your Faith even to the point of learning about the law and faculties that priests have, I think you are on the hook.  You don’t have to wonder ever about priests at the local parish or official chapel established by the local diocese.  Even Father “Just call me ‘Bob'” has faculties, even though he is a heretic.

That said, if a person has been informed that SSPX priests do not have faculties to receive sacramental confessions, and goes to them anyway, a huge problem is introduced.  Those priests don’t – in normal circumstances – have faculties.  Period.  Some people say they have “emergency powers”.  The Church does not agree.  They don’t have faculties.

It seems to me that if a person knows that the priest does NOT have faculties, and he goes to him anyway, then he knows that he is simulating a sacrament.  That would be a sin.

Simulating a sacrament can bring ecclesiastical penalties, by the way (can. 1379).

If there are doubts, true doubts, that is another matter.  But the prudent person would find an actual confessor, a priest who without doubt has faculties.  Go to the local parish, a real parish of the diocese, and you don’t have to doubt, even if the priest is a complete jerk.

And please understand that in writing this I am not saying that the SSPX priests are bad men.  Those whom I have met have seemed to be prayerful men who want to be good priests.  But they don’t have faculties.  I long for them to be reconciled with the Church so that we can all benefit from their service and example and zeal.

This is serious business, friends.  You never want to doubt that your sins are absolved.  Don’t fool around with this.

The value of a valid absolution that you don’t have to doubt by far outweighs the irritation that some dopey priest inflicts by saying that X isn’t a sin, etc.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Ecclesiae Filius says:

    Does canon Can. 844 §2 apply? Why not?
    §2. Whenever necessity requires it or true spiritual advantage suggests it, and provided that danger of error or of indifferentism is avoided, the Christian faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister are permitted to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid.

    [This does not apply in the case of an SSPX priest – or any other Catholic priest with valid orders but lacking faculties. An SSPX priest is not a “non-Catholic minister”. He is a Catholic minister, but one lacking the faculty to receive sacramental confessions. Only in the case of a danger of death would an SSPX priest be able to validly absolve censures and sins (can. 976).]

  2. Cecily says:

    For converts from the Eastern Orthodox Churches (e.g. Antiochian Orthodox Church, Orthodox Church in America, Greek Orthodox Church, etc.), be assured that your confessions while Orthodox were valid. Bishop Vasa told me that converts from Orthodoxy do not need to confess again anything confessed when they were Orthodox.

  3. Sixupman says:

    “Catch 22” par excellence! That aspect of Canon Law, as also others, was drafted within a pertaining set of conditions within Mother Church – those conditions no longer exist. Swathes of clergy no longer believe in Confession, swathes are hardly Catholic as at one time would be universally understood. The Redemptorists in Ireland are currently under scrutiny and one, apparently, not even believing in Jesus’ existence. A bishop of my acquaintance opined views against the ordained priesthood, in favour of that of the laity. The list could be almost endless. But all such are possessed of ‘Faculties’. Yet a priest authentically ordained and believing in Confession and Transubstantiation, et al, may be deprived of ‘Faculties’ by a bishop or bishops who are patently of a divergent view to The Papacy and The Magisterium. I refrain from further comment upon the matter for reasons of public decency [I generally attend Mass and Confess at an Oratory.]

    [Life isn’t fair. When we were baptized we did not receive an EZ-Pass. We persevere knowing that the Church is for sinners.]

  4. Fr_Sotelo says:

    Canonical legislation about the necessity of faculties for confession is not perfect. But without those objective precepts, where do we stop with the subjective rationalizations for absolving without the Church’s permission? How about the priest who ran off with his girlfriend, and now finds himself deprived because the Church will not revive the ancient discipline of Latin-rite married priests? How about the priest who is deprived because he has advocated women’s ordination? He believes the refusal to discuss this doctrine causes a “state of necessity” to exist against the “call” of women. Then there is the priest who is traditional and orthodox but cannot minister because of credible allegations of sexual abuse of minors. Shall we grant him also a state of necessity, because he says he should hear confessions until positively proven guilty?

    And on the issue of SSPX priests being “deprived” we should remember that they voluntarily chose to receive Holy Orders in an irregular state and this is why no bishop with jurisdiction will grant them faculties. The Church has always granted the diocesan bishop the right to examine and know those priests who are given faculties for confession. A priest who refuses to present himself to the local bishop and be examined on this question is something of a gatecrasher: “AMEN, amen I say to you: He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up another way, the same is a thief and a robber” (John 10:1).

  5. buckeyepastor says:

    Dear Father Z:
    As I read the question, it is from a young person whose father insists on sacraments at the SSPX parish. It may be morally impossible for a young person, especially one with no driver’s license to go to Confession at the local parish in union with the diocesan bishop and the Holy See. While I would agree with you if it were an adult confessing, I don’t think the full rigor of the law would descend on a young person. People under age 14 are not subject to the penal law of the Church, and then there’s the principle of Canon Law: “Nemo ad impossibile tenetur (no one is bound to that which is impossible.)”
    I’m rather taken aback by the harsh judgments that some of your correspondents are making about the confessors in their parishes. Granted that there are some who teach heterodoxy and practice it in the confessional, the vast majority of us are trying to do what the Church wants, while mirroring the forgiving Christ to the people.

    [First, I am not making any assumptions about the age of the questioner. Adults have disputes with their parents too. That said, in the case of a child or young person, unable to go to confession on his own, I doubt there would culpability in confessing to an SSPX priest. However, the FACT is that the SSPX priest still would not have the faculty to absolve validly. Admittedly, it is a difficult situation. The young person would not be at fault for following the directives of his parents, to whom he owes the natural obligation of obedience. But the child’s obligation to obey parents would not grant to the SSPX priest the faculty to absolve.]

  6. Pingback: Can SSPX priests absolve you of sins? | Foolishness to the world

  7. Roguejim says:

    Under normal circumstance, does the SSPX priest lack faculties for all sacraments? Does he perform a valid consecration at Mass? [They baptize validly, of course, and validly consecrate the Eucharist and confirm. They can certainly anoint in danger of death, as even a “laicized” priest could. The bishops validly ordain. They are not authorized by the Church to witness matrimony/weddings, and thus SSPX marriages are problematic because there is lack of proper form, which is needed for validity. They do not have faculties to receive confessions, and the Church’s canon law clearly states that faculties are necessary for validity.]

  8. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Measured. Charitable. And Right (imho).

  9. JohnH says:


    You are correct. The reason the Orthodox and other Oriental Churches have valid confessions without faculties from Rome is because they are not bound by Canon Law. Canon Law only binds Catholics, and therefore Catholic ministers. Thus, the SSPX, being Catholic, are bound by the laws of Holy Mother Church.

  10. CRPodhaj says:

    I cannot help thinking, “souls are at stake”. The risk of loss is real because the separation is so sadly real. I don’t have theological solutions; so many of the arguments are beyond my ability to fully study, understand, and respond. All I do have is personal pastoral experience. Anger we know isn’t right. Hatred isn’t either. Nor can we give up. So I offer this prayer, which makes sense to me; maybe someone else will find it useful too. Sorry if punctuation or grammar isn’t perfect. Sometimes a prayer is what it is.

    God keep us from anger, pride, and rash reactions when broken-hearted sorrow is the only remedy – a sorrow from painful separation which might cause even greater longing toward reunion, like that which caused Peter to run to the empty tomb after his denial or to jump into the waters leaving all behind to swim to the risen Lord (who would still sting him to the heart in the simple thrice-asked question, “Do you love me?”). In all sincerity, God grant the courage to follow the example of St. Peter to authentic, sorrow-filled repentance and full communion no matter how much it may sting us at heart; and if my broken heart willingly offered is the sacrifice needed to make this possible, then, by Your grace, may it also be my eternal joy. Amen.

  11. Vincent Ferrer says:

    You and Fr. Sotelo, in your comments, exemplify the new (heretical) ecclesiology I mentioned in my last post. [ROFL! Noooo. You are right about that “last post” part, however. I’ll delete the rest of your comment now.]

  12. Federico says:

    Fr. Z,

    Above you comment (on a comment) that SSPX priests validly confirm. I’m not aware of any special legislation to provide SSPX presbyters (bishops are another story) the faculty to confirm. [Thanks for adding the distinction.]


  13. Tim Ferguson says:


    Since SSPX presbyters would have the faculty to validly confirm under canon 883, 3 – in respect of those in danger of death. (N.b. As this faculty was granted to parish priests in 1946, it could hardly be seen as a conciliar innovation by them).

  14. Mariana B. says:

    I have a friend who justifies going to an SSPX chapel for mass & confession by quoting the following from Bishop Fellay:

    “Then there are painful cases that concern sins so severe they are penalized by excommunication reserved only to the Pope.”
    SSPX priests who confront these cases in the confessional absolve the penitent from the sin, and from the excommunication. According to Church policy, the priest must then send the case to Rome to be examined, and the excommunication formally lifted. Bishop Fellay says, “Every time – absolutely every time – we have received an answer from Rome that the priest who took care of this confession did well, that it was perfectly in order, and it was both licit and valid.” Rome would then comment on the penance, whether it was sufficient or not enough.
    In other words, Rome does not say the confession was invalid. Rome accepts the validity of the SSPX confession. Bishop Fellay asks, “So why is it said that our confessions are invalid if this is the way Rome deals with us in the case of these most serious matters?”

    The whole text may be seen here: http://www.cfnews.org/fellay-40th.htm

    I’m stumped. Any words of wisdom to advise my friend? Anyone?

  15. thefeds says:

    Fr. Z,
    As Dr. Peters said above, you are being very measured and charitable. The fact that some of the responses have been less so seems to indicate the you struck a nerve there. Thanks again for all you do!

  16. Pingback: Confession To An SSPX Priest? « Mundabor's Blog

  17. george17 says:

    1. I don’t understand why the Mundabor and Father Z bloggers spend so much time arguing about the legitimacy of the sacraments, and particularly confession administered by SSPX. [Given the way you sign this, I have a hard time understanding this question. First, you say “legitimacy”. We are concerned with VALIDITY. VAL-ID-I-TY. Second, even “legitimacy” or “liceity” is an important matter. Unless you are an antinomian. Are you an antinomian?]
    This is akin to arguing about how many angels can sit on the head of a pin. [No. It is nothing like that at all, as anyone who has the slightest background in theology knows.]
    Why can’t we all agree that in fact there is a schism in this church. [Is that a question?] There are those who not only insist that the Eucharist be celebrated in a dead language, [Okay… you are one of those… got it.] but furthermore sincerely believe that the Vatican Council II was not a real Council and that therefore any of its teachings can be ignored with impunity. On the other hand there are those who are following and will continue to follow the 2nd Vatican Council’s teachings. [As if it were a super-dogma. Too bad they don’t know the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.]
    It is time for the adherents of either side to realize that the one that will never convince the other by any means. My old moral theology professor was very big on dialogue. But God rest his soul, he would look at this situation and have to say “impossible a dialoger, absolument
    impossible!” [Would he? Your point is not easily discerned in this mess.]
    George McCartin
    priest/lawyer [Oh? You don’t get a pass on this one. “Priest”… as in… dismissed from the clerical state? “priest/lawyer”? You changed your day job somewhere along the line.]

  18. george17 says:

    Brother [Not on this blog. Father will do…] Z, You tore this apart so well that you’ve convinced me, at age 77 it would be best not to try writing anymore. [Then my work is done here.] But could you at least respond regarding whether or not the church is really in schism? [If you want to know what groups are schismatic, look to the pronouncements of the Holy See.]

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