From a reader…
My mother is a non-Catholic who sometimes attends mass with me (a convert). She has considered entering the Church (her mother–as a side note–became a Catholic in her late 80’s, with me as her sponsor.) A good friend of mine, who regularly interviews priests for television spots, told me that she can go to Confession, as a baptized Christian, as long as she believes in the efficacy of it. Is this true?
We are touching on the sacraments, something we take very seriously and treat with the utmost of respect.
Also, let’s be clear about something. Any non-Catholic can make their confession to a Catholic priest, that is, unburden herself, talk about her sins, etc. Father would treat her well and with compassion. However, it would not be a sacramental confession, in that Father wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t give sacramental absolution to her, a non-Catholic, except under a quite narrow range set of circumstances.
We must refer to canon 844 of the Code of Canon Law. Everyone… please reach for your handy dog-eared reference copy of the Code….
Can. 844 covers exceptional circumstances when Catholics can receive the sacraments of Penance, Eucharist, and Anointing of the Sick from non-Catholic (but validly ordained) priests, as well as those exceptional circumstances when non-Catholics can receive those three sacraments in the Catholic Church.
Note well the important word “exceptional”.
Can. 844, states in paragraph 4:
“If there is a danger of death or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or of the Bishops’ Conference, there is some other grave and pressing need, Catholic ministers may lawfully administer these same sacraments to other Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who spontaneously ask for them, provided that they demonstrate the Catholic faith in respect of these sacraments and are properly disposed.”
First situation: danger of death. Here the priest makes the determination. If a priest approaches a car accident where a man is dying and the priest asks if he can be of any assistance, and the man says, “Father, I’m a Lutheran, but I know I’m dying and I want to meet my Lord with a clear conscience. Could you hear my confession?” The priest could determine that, yes, the conditions warrant him hearing the confession of this Lutheran.
Next: outside the danger of death. Notice who makes the determination: not the priest, but either the diocesan bishop, or the whole Bishops’ Conference. If there were a general persecution of Norwegian Lutherans in my native Minnesota, and all their ministers were being rounded up and sent to the state pen in Stillwater or St. Cloud, the diocesan bishops could determine that this exceptional situation warrants exceptional action. He could permit his priests to absolve, communicate, and anoint Norwegian Lutherans who come to them, provided these Lutherans “demonstrate the Catholic faith in respect of these sacraments.”
Granted, who knows if this theoretical situation is even possible. Were a Lutheran to demonstrates Catholic faith regarding the the Eucharist, for example, it follows that that Lutheran should become a Catholic. I did. Also, Lutherans believe in only two “sacraments”, Baptism and their eucharist. (Their Baptism is valid, their eucharist is not.) Even though they have penance rites, one of which can involve individual confession of sins, they don’t believe that what takes places is a sacrament. So… this former Lutheran, now Catholic priest, observes that it would be special Lutheran who wanted sacramental confession from a Catholic priest.
I suppose however, that lots of Lutherans today are as confused about what Lutherans believe as Catholics are about what Catholics believe.
Bottom line: in situations where there is not danger of death, it is not up to us – even to the priest – to determine if the conditions are met for these exceptional cases. The bishop decides! If there is time to consult the bishop, consult the bishop!
Keep praying for your mother-in-law. Tell her that if she really wants to go to confession, good for her! Help her start the process of being received into the Catholic Church. Then she can go to confession all the time!
Except in the middle of the night, please? Let Father get some sleep.