ASK FATHER: Can non-Catholics go to confession?

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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Supertradmum says:

    It would seem to me that if a person has a thirst for the sacraments, it would be a great opportunity for evangelizing that person.

    The need and desire for the sacraments seems to me to be a sign of a particular grace.

  2. anilwang says:

    Were a Lutheran to demonstrates Catholic faith regarding the the Eucharist, for example, it follows that that Lutheran should become a Catholic.

    The problem is, many Anglicans and Lutherans subscribe to some form of the “branch theory” which states that Classical Lutheranism/Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy are different parts of the Church Christ Established and that any branch is as legitimate as any other. So while corporate unity of the branches is required by Christ and it must be something we must work towards, individual inter-conversion isn’t.

    That’s one reason why many Anglo-Papists who profess and teach from the Catholic Catechism and believe that the Pope is their Pope too, don’t join the Ordinariate. They’re comfortable where they are, believe that that they’re already part of the Church, may have valid orders (through ordination via the Orthodox or Catholic splinter group with valid orders), and might have some inconvenience in joining (e.g. they may have to give up the priesthood to join).

  3. MarkJ says:

    Unless I am mistaken (which is very possible!), isn’t it common practice for baptized Christians entering the Catholic Church to go to confession before they are received into the Church (and before their first Holy Communion)? Aren’t they still non-Catholics at the point of their confession? If so, is this possible because the bishops have allowed it? [Yes, baptized adults who about to be received into the Church make a first confession. Their status as catechumens is slightly different than that of any ol’ non-Catholic.]

  4. +JMJ+ says:

    So as a follow-up, I have seen RCIA candidates go to Confession shortly before being fully received into the Church. Is this kosher (so to speak – I assume it is) and where would I find the reference for that?

  5. jameeka says:

    Thank you Father Z–this is very interesting to me. So, bottom line the “good friend” is wrong, unless very exceptional circumstance.

    Dear reader: I shall pray for the conversion of your mother, and ask God to remove any obstacles which may be keeping her from choosing to convert to Catholicism. Also, maybe Grandmother can help ( on earth if she is still living, in heaven if she’s a saint)

  6. Charles E Flynn says:

    Good answer, Father, but not something that can fit on a mug. Have you considered licensing a series of Quaeritur postings for use on natural gas storage tanks, in the tradition of the graphics of Sister Corita Kent?

  7. frjim4321 says:

    Great answer!

    Nothing to add or subtract from these quarters!

  8. Michael_Thoma says:

    If your mom is Orthodox, it’s possible. The non-Catholic Eastern Churches that generally allow their members to confess to Catholic priests outside of danger of death are (Assyrian)Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Churches – however it is best to verify with the Eastern bishop. Also, unless in danger of death, most Eastern Orthodox bishop will not allow it – save maybe, the Antiochian Orthodox sometimes.

  9. Bonomo says:

    “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. ”

    Ah, Fr. Z., you under-estimate the confusedness of many of our Protestant Brethren. Many years ago, a dear friend of mine of many years standing who is a nominal Lutheran, in the course of a conversation, made reference to “the seven sacraments.” I stopped her short at this point, and pointed out that this is not the Lutheran belief. and that Lutherans are supposed to hold to only two. She did not know that. She remembers being taught as a child (in a completely Lutheran environment) that there were seven sacraments. After that I started to refer to her as a “seven sacrament Lutheran.” Some years later, I asked: “… and HOW many sacraments are there? After giving me a dirty look, she replied “seven.” She was also surprised when I showed her that Fr. Martin Luther had removed the theology of Sacrifice from their Sunday liturgy. She also has a close relationship with a particular archangel apparently. Yet, she identifies as Lutheran.

    I suspect that she, and many people who are not canonically Catholic, have a more Catholic faith in the sacraments than many people who are canonically Catholic. The World and Man continue to be confusing…

  10. Giuseppe says:

    I used to work with a Baptist woman who used to go to confession often. I explained that she’d probably have to be Catholic for her sins to be forgiven by the priest, but she was convinced that God could hear how sorry she was and that He had the ability to forgive her. She used to talk a lot about Jesus as her personal savior, and she liked that she could, in the dark of the confessional, speak directly to Jesus through the priest.

  11. Gerard Plourde says:

    This story shows how mysteriously Our Lord can work. The fact that the questioner’s mother is drawn to a sacrament that Luther specifically denied can (in a cautious and gentle manner) provide an opening that will bring her fully into the fold. I will pray that this longing is nurtured into the first step of her journey to full commmunion.

  12. And please help us priests… by telling any relatives to mention this first so that the person isn’t surprised at the end when the priest does not give absolution. If they mention it at the beginning of the “confession” us priests can clearly state the ground rules – and some may choose to leave without confessing (but it’s better they do so then than unburden themselves and feel cheated).

  13. pelerin says:

    Last year I read a book written by a French Catholic convert who was once an ultra orthodox Rabbi. His description of attempting to confess as a fifteen year old is very moving. His heart beating very fast he entered the confessional and said ‘I’m a Jew and I wish to become Christian’ The Priest was of course astounded and the author of the book, Jean-Marie Elie Setbon, described how for a few seconds he felt elated and at peace after years of confusion. However that feeling did not last as the Priest shot out of the confessional, looked at him and then said ‘Don’t move – wait for me – I shall come back.’

    Setbon wonders why the Priest did not understand that what he needed was to accompany him to the sacristy to talk. Did he not realise the superhuman effort he had undergone just to enter the confessional? He never found out if the Priest ever returned as he decided to leave there and then still very confused. Setbon continued to lead what was in effect a double life attending both the synagogue and Mass until he was 18. Surprisingly he even used to receive Holy Communion.

    In spite of feeling drawn to Christianity Setbon became a more and more orthodox Jew and eventually a Rabbi. Finally in 2008 he was baptised into the Catholic Church. He had entered that confessional in 1979 and if the Priest had talked to him at that time perhaps he would have entered the Church far sooner.

    As a convert myself I always enjoy reading about other peoples conversions but this has been the most extraordinary I have ever read. I don’t know whether it is available in English – if not it certainly deserves to be translated. ‘De la Kippa a la Croix’ by Jean-Marie Elie Setbon is published by Salvator.

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