ASK FATHER: Non-Catholic in a confessional… does the Seal apply?

From a reader…


A person enters the confessional and starts with the usual: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned…” She recount a sin, and ask for advice about it: what should she have done, what should she do about that sin now that she has done it – should she tell X, etc. When Father is done giving her advice and is about to start the absolution, she says “Oh no, Father, I am not a Catholic, so you can’t absolve me.” Obviously, she could have done things differently, such as making an appointment with Fr. instead of taking up confession time for others. But my question is this: is the priest still bound to secrecy in the matter? Since it wasn’t a confession, and couldn’t have been, (i.e. it’s not lack of disposition that makes it not confession), it’s not a defective confession such as a sacrilegious one. It just isn’t confession. Does the seal of the confessional cover it anyway, just for the sake of certainty and to avoid the appearance of a failure to keep the seal?

Let’s get a couple things clear.

The confessional is the privileged – even legendary – place of secrets.  A person gets into the confessional with the expectation that what is said in there, stays in there.  Period.

They met in a confessional, not at a bus stop or the corner bar.

A non-Catholic can ask for advice in a confessional, but she should be up front – from the get go – that she isn’t Catholic.  Then the priest can let her know what his parameters are.

Whatever else that meeting was, it was a meeting in the “internal forum” as we call meetings that involve privileged information, as would a doctor’s appointment or a lawyer’s appointment.

The priest is obliged by the Seal even if it was not a sacramental confession.   If a Catholic made a confession and did not show any intention to amend her life of sin and if the priest subsequently denied absolution it would not have been a sacramental confession, but the priest would be equally bound to keep everything he heard under his hat as in the case of every confession in that context.


Confess all mortal sins in kind and number, holding back nothing.

The priest cannot, will not, break the Seal.  What you say in there, stays in there.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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One Comment

  1. TonyO says:

    That’s a very valuable clarification, Father Z. Thanks.

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