ASK FATHER: “I went to confession at a SSPX parish for several years.”

penance_confession_stepsFrom a reader…


After I became Catholic, some friends introduced me to tradition and I began to attend a SSPX parish with them. I went to confession at this SSPX parish for several years. I have heard that the validity of SSPX confessions is dubious at best. Do I need to go and reconfess those sins?

First, the SSPX might have a chapel, but they don’t have a parish.  Parishes are officially established by proper authority.  The SSPX doesn’t have authority to establish parishes.

Next, 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 business about “the law itself” giving the faculty to absolve validly pertains, for example, to situations of danger of death.  Consider the situation of a priest who is (for any reason at all) no longer in active ministry and, therefore, no longer has any faculties to function as a priest.  If a person is in danger of dying, that ex-priest would in that circumstance automatically have the faculty to absolve validly, even if there were another, active priest in good standing there present also.

Under normal circumstances, however, if a priest does not have the faculty to receive sacramental confessions, for whatever reason, the absolution is invalid.

So, say you are a penitent who has been going to a priest who does not have faculties (such as all priests of the SSPX).

If you later realize that the priest who heard your confession and gave you absolution did not have the faculty to absolve from sin, yes, I think that – for the sake of ease of mind if nothing else – you should reconfess those sins. If it has been a long time and you don’t have a clear memory of those confessions, explain the situation to the priest confessor and confess those sins in general terms.

You did this in good faith, and in clear ignorance of the fact that the SSPX priest to whom you confessed did not have the authority to absolve. Doing something out of ignorance is not subjectively sinful.

Priests who know they do not have faculty to hear confessions, and yet continue to illicitly and invalidly absolve… that’s a different, serious matter.

Frankly, I long for reconciliation of these good men.  I think they will be good confessors.

By the way… a “confessor” is a priest who has faculties to receive sacramental confessions. It may be that, for some reason, a priest might be given faculties to say Mass but not to preach or hear confessions. Rare… but… it can be done.

What about the “common error” angle?  That is, because of error on the part of the penitent about the priest’s situation, his lack of faculties, then the absolution was valid.


I think that the individual’s sins are probably forgiven, not because of common error or some mysterious faculty that results from the ignorance of the penitent, but rather because of the intent of the penitent.  The penitent, hopefully, makes the equivalent of a perfect act of contrition (sorrow for sins because of the love of God), and so his sins are hopefully forgiven.

Lest SSPX apologists say “See! See!  Even Fr. Z agrees that a confession to an SSPX priest results in the forgiveness of sins, so therefore it’s alright to go to them!”

Ummm… no.  It is not alright.  You don’t know what happens or happened, common error or not.

Your soul is too precious to risk.

One of the reasons why Christ and Holy Church have worked things out the way they are is so that penitents don’t have to doubt that their sins are forgiven.

Let’s treat the Sacrament with reverence.

Anyway, for that reason, namely, the intention of the confessee, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary for him to re-confess the sins specifically, but prudence requires mentioning the matter to a real confessor.


Go to true confessors – priests with faculties.

UPDATE 21 August.

Here is an example of the sort of feedback I get in my email on this topic.

I would like to point out the INCORRECT statement regarding Confessions by SSPX priests. These confessions ARE valid as these priests ARE also validly ordained and ARE given the faculty to forgive sins. I certainly would NOT go to a vatican 2 priest because I believe they have NOT got the proper faculty to forgive sins.

I respond, …

For I say unto thee, thou are Seonag, and on this Seonag I will build my Church, and whatsoever beliefs thou hast, evenso they go against objective reality, I shalt confirm and whomsoever thou shalt dislike for whatever reason, from him I shall withhold faculties, for in fain, I came to announce: I am the way, the subjective feeling, and the light.

We have a real challenge, friends, and so do the priests of the SSPX!

Let’s all work together to get at the truth.  I long for the reconciliation of the SSPX.  Only drilling for and embracing the truth will help us on that path.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. pledbet424 says:

    I had a similar situation to this. I attended an “Independent” Catholic Chapel for 16 years. The priest was one of the infamous 9 that were thrown out of the SSPX for sedavacantist views I believe. I had no idea about any of the requirements for a priest to validly absolve, and confessed to him all those years.
    Later, I became aware of what I was doing, confessed the problem to a FSSP priest, and he just said “Don’t worry about it, the Church will provide”. I worried anyway.

  2. Augustine Thompson O.P. says:

    On the Common Error. There are two forms of the Common Error, one passive, the other active. The passive form happens when a priest is traveling in collar, for example, and in an airport a layperson walks up and asks to have him here the confession, assuming that all priests, as priests, have the faculty to hear confessions. The priest may hear the confession under the Common Error because it is pastorally awkward or even impossible to give the would-be penitent a lesson in canon law and refuse to hear the confession. In such a case, the priest can hear the confession and validly absolve.

    The active form, also know as “inducing the Common Error” happens when a priest with no faculties, sits, for example, in a confessional reading. His action itself implies to people that he has faculties. To “induce the Common Error” in this way is wrong and the priest, under those circumstances, does not have faculties under the “Common Error.” As for those priests who don’t have faculties and offer to hear confessions or hear them regularly, that isn’t even “inducing the Common Error,” that’s simply lying.

    I might add that, if a priest or religious makes the Common Error and asks a priest without faculties to hear his or her confession, the priest is to explain that he does not have faculties. Priests and religious would know that faculties are needed, so there is no need for a “lecture on canon law” and there is no pastoral issue at stake.

  3. DM says:

    Just to clarify, it is not “all priests of the SSPX” that lack faculties. There are cases where diocesan bishops have given local SSPX priests faculties to hear confessions and licitly perform the sacraments, while still remaining members of the SSPX. This has happened in dioceses in Europe and Africa. [So far, no one has been able to back that up with proofs, so far I as know. Are there public statements of bishops who have given faculties to SSPX priests? Anyone?] For obvious reasons, these situations aren’t exactly advertised or made publicly known. [Why? Is it secret?] So we need to be careful painting it all with the same brush. While yes, most SSPX priests probably give invalid absolutions in most cases, there are some who can absolve as validly as any incardinated diocesan priest. [We don’t know that.]

    That being said, of course it would be difficult for someone to know the situation of any particular SSPX priest. So it’s probably best to play it safe and confess to a priest who certainly has faculties.

  4. Auggie says:

    And yet it is not so clear… at least not to me. Should I go to confession with a modernist priest under a modernist bishop (who manifestly eschew traditional Catholic doctrine)?
    I have not gone to confession to an SSPX priest, yet, but I am becoming less and less sure that the simple answer of “faculties” is convincing, considering that the SSPX priests are manifestly Catholic (as stated recently by Bishop Schneider) and the idea of “supplied jurisdiction” makes sense (problematic, but logical in light of God’s justice and mercy). [No, it doesn’t make sense at all! The Church get’s to decide how the sacraments are celebrated.]
    I hope you don’t see this as argumentative, Fr. Z. Please realize that we are literally dying for real Catholicism out here. [First, you don’t seem literally to be dying. Second, if it is a choice between a priest who is a loon but with the faculty to hear confessions, and a doctrinally orthodox priest who is suspended a divinis and who lacks the faculty to absolve validly… guess who I am going to when I want to be absolved validly. Do people not get this? We are not Donatists!]

  5. Gerard Plourde says:

    I, too, hope and pray for the reconciliation of the SSPX with the Universal Church. Sadly, the disobedience to lawful Papal authority that led to the excommunication of Archbishop Lefebvre remains as is evidenced by the distress expressed within their ranks concerning the canonization of St John Paul II. This has created another stumbling block for some of its members, who reject his efforts to heal the wounds of divided Christianity.

  6. Imrahil says:

    For the record…

    the SSPX doesn’t have the authority to set up parishes; which is why they don’t do that. They say “chapels” or “priories” themselves.

  7. FL_Catholic says:

    And that right there is why it is so wrong to frequent the SSPX chapels. These priests know that they do not have faculties and yet continue to officiate invalid marriages (which just leave otherwise faithful Catholic couples living in sin) and invalid confessions (which lead to people receiving Communion when they aren’t in the State of Grace). While their Masses can be beautiful (I’ve been to a few of them), it doesn’t excuse the face that they are harming souls. Just because there is only a low dose of cyanide in the delicious cake doesn’t mean it won’t eventually kill you just the same as one big dose. They are doing grave harm to souls and to the Church, and by frequenting their chapels it continues to give them the appearance of being good for souls when they are spiritual poison. I just don’t understand how any good priest with good intentions could overlook the fact that they are intentionally performing Mass without permission (scandal), performing invalid marriages (scandal), giving invalid absolution (scandal), and most likely, although I’ve never seen it argued one way or the other, invalid Extreme Unction (not to mention they obviously cannot impart the Apostolic Blessing!). They need to either come fully into the Church or finally follow their logic to its final destination and leave completely. This half in/half out insanity has to end.

  8. phlogiston says:

    (Sigh.) This topic again. And again, somehow, in response to this issue, there is more of a call for people to refrain from going to confession to SSPX priests than there is for bishops to simply grant SSPX priests faculties to hear confessions, thereby increasing the number of “good” confessors (and confessions) in a diocese. What’s could possibly be the justification for this?

  9. RichR says:

    As someone who decided to make a General Confession (albeit, for different reasons), I can say that it is not very difficult and most priests are extremely patient and generous with this request. I encourage the OP to consider FrZ’s recommendation to re-confess (in general terms). The peace of mind is something that has consoled me many times in the years since.

  10. Sixupman says:

    Faculties transmitted by ++Kasper, Marx et al? Not to mention a proliferation of diocesan clergy who do not believe in Confession and even Catholicism, as far as I can see? Whay value Confession there.

    I do not hear Mass or go to Confession at SSPX chapels, but consider this ‘faculties’ argument specious. [So… you don’t like Kasper and Marx, so the faculties they granted are somehow questionable. Ridiculous. Priests who don’t “believe” is confession of Catholicism are proliferating? Silly. Think before posting.]

  11. Sixupman says:

    I speak from everyday experience in the UK and utterings of the E&W Bishops’ Conference.
    Am I to take it that you are pro Kasper/Marx, et al. The purist approach will not save souls. [I don’t appreciate that. Perhaps a break is in order.]

  12. harrythepilgrim says:

    Does it not depend on the way in which the bishop enforces canon law?
    In my large archdiocese priests were (and perhaps still are) allowed to live and assist in parishes without being incardinated.

  13. acricketchirps says:

    phlogiston makes a good point. Hear, all diocesan bishops reading this blog: heed phlogiston.

    Everyone else reading: heed to Fr. Zed.

  14. madisoncanonist says:

    Phlogiston, the bishop cannot licitly give these priests the faculty to hear confessions (and they could not licitly exercise it if he did) because they are suspended from the moment of their ordination (c. 1383).

    Augustine Thompson, O.P., that is not exactly how supplied jurisdiction through common error works. It is never based on the community’s actual error/ignorance about the law or about the need for a faculty. The community is presumed to know the law. Rather, it is based on some public fact that does lead (de facto common error) or would normally lead (de iure common error) a reasonable community into error regarding the possession of the faculty in question. So for example, let’s say that a priest is invalidly appointed as the pastor of a parish. The appointment is invalid because due to a mix-up of dates the outgoing pastor’s resignation had not yet been accepted and so the office is not technically vacant. But the bishop comes and installs the new pastor, and that act of the bishop’s is a public fact that leads the reasonable, law-abiding community into error. The priest is not actually the pastor, and so he does not have the faculty to assist at marriages by office. But in a case like this the church supplies the faculty to protect the community.

    If, on the other hand, some visiting priest comes in and tries to assist at a marriage, it would not be enough for the community to be ignorant of the requirement for a faculty. It would not even be enough for them to assume, with no factual basis, that he must have gotten the faculty somehow. In fact, there was a case at the Rota where a visiting bishop assisted at a marriage without delegation. The judges said that not even the fact that he was a bishop would have given rise to common error: the community knows the law, and so they know that even bishops need delegation to assist at a marriage outside of their territory. So the SSPX’s argument for the supply of the faculty to assist at marriages in virtue of common error is completely flimsy: if we’re at an SSPX chapel with an SSPX priest, there is virtually no public fact that would lead a reasonable community into error.

    Confession is a little trickier than marriages, because the community is typically unable to see the confessor, and therefore can be led into error more easily. The fact that a priest is sitting in the confessional OF A PARISH CHURCH and hearing confessions would normally be enough to lead a community into error. Naturally (and the SSPX conveniently ignores this fact), the same is not true at an SSPX chapel, where there would seldom be any reasonable basis for the erroneous conclusion that a certain priest has the faculty.

    Either type of common error (de iure or de facto) can be “induced” by the minister in question. One can debate as to whether this might even be licit in certain circumstances, but there is that pesky eighth commandment to take into account.


    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  15. St Donatus says:

    Okay, well let’s go a bit further on this because it happened to a relative. She went to a priest to get married. She asked if she needed to go to confession because she had been living with her future husband for several years without marriage, had been using contraceptives, and several other mortal sins. I believe she went to ‘reconciliation’ to confess her sins. He told her not to worry about it because of some ignorant reasoning, thus he did not absolve her of her sins. She lives in a remote area and priests at nearby parishes had a similar attitude about these things. She could have gone to an SSPX priest who would recognize the sin and absolved her but instead, trusting in the wisdom of her bishop, she did it right and was never absolved.

    This is where I have my problem. For several years I dealt with these types of priests to the point where, over time my faith was totally destroyed and I left the Church. Now thirty years later and I find a bit more sanity has returned to the Church but in my area most of the priests still won’t absolve you from using contraceptives because they have been taught that there is nothing wrong with it. Yet, I can’t go to an SSPX priest because they don’t have the right to do it according to the Church. Is this a bit crazy or am I the one that is crazy.

  16. robtbrown says:

    Madisoncanonist says,

    The community is presumed to know the law . . .

    Perhaps that could have been presumed in 1955, but not in the last 40 years. And then there is the question of the Orthodox Churches.

  17. Hidden One says:

    St Donatus, if I were in the position of having committed a sin that the available confessors would not consider a sin, I would confess it as part of a list of other sins that they do recognize. After, perhaps, being incorrectly told that my moral theology was wrong, I would hear the words “I absolve you of your sins…” and thus be fine.

    A priest whose intention is to absolve me of my sins does not fail to absolve me of a particular sin I’ve confessed simply because he doesn’t think that it was a sin.

  18. I would like to suggest that in today’s environment, where one can easily obtain the confession schedule for any number of parishes within a two or three-hour drive of one’s home via Internet, and one could ascertain with some reasonable assurance that the priests have faculties, it should not be unreasonable for someone to locate a non-SSPX priest for confession. Given the stakes, I think that a two-hour drive on a Saturday (or maybe Sunday morning) would be worth it. I know that not everyone lives in a major metropolitan area the way I do, but even in a somewhat rural area a two-hour radius should yield at least one adequate, legitimate priest with undisputed faculties, even if it takes a few tries to find that priest.

    As for the original question, one need only get to a priest with faculties and do the best he can. God does not ask the impossible of us. A sincere penitent is forgiven all his sins in the sacrament of confession as long as none are deliberately concealed. It is also important to remember that Satan wants us to think that we cannot be forgiven as one of his temptations to lead us into further sin. The confessional is perhaps the place that outrages Satan the most, because condemned people are snatched right out of his clutches there. If Satan can convince us that confession is ineffective, he has won another victory.

    Of course, I have to add that if Satan can lead people to make truly invalid confessions, that is a victory for him as well. That is what is really dangerous about the SSPX priest who offers to hear confessions– that is a really tempting counterfeit. Satan does not try to lure us with things that obviously look fake– how many of us would take a $3 bill with President Obama’s picture on it? No– he tries to lure us with convincing fakes. What better way to trick someone than with a seemingly orthodox priest with mostly good beliefs and virtues, but lacking faculties– lacking the authority– to hear confessions. As I often tell people, “don’t take any wooden nickels.”

  19. JeffK says:

    Does this mean that Orthodox priests cannot validly give absolution? I often hear about certain “separated brethren” who “possess the sacraments”. Do NONE but Catholics have real confession?

    If the Orthodox DO have valid confession, does that mean that after you get beyond a certain point in schism you suddenly get confession back?

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