ASK FATHER: Can priests refuse to hear confessions face to face?

From a reader…


A bishop made a comment about saying that a priest doesn’t have the power to deny a penitent face to face confession. In other words, a bishop basically said “ a priest can’t override a penitent who is asking for face to face…

When I was studying in Rome in late 90s – we came across a Vatican document July 7, 1998 approved by John Paul II that mentioned it’s the prerogative or right of the priest to “override” a face to face request. Anyway the current Vatican website doesn’t seem to have this document on its website in its entirety… its only quoted in other documents and for other reasons…

Would you happen to have this document? or access to it? Or some other post Vatican decree in favor of the “priest overidding….“

Let’s get a few things straight right off the bat.

A priest CAN decline to receive a sacramental confession “face to face”.

Firstly, can. 964 §3 says that confessions are not to be heard outside a confessional except for a good reason.  A good reason could include a patient being in a hospital room, or someone asks in an airport because you are dressed as a priest.   Priests are pretty flexible about this and rightly so.

Priests can, of course, decline to hear a confession if the time and place is not appropriate for such.  For example, 5 minutes before Mass is to begin or in the middle of a restaurant during a meal or waiting for an appointment in a dentist’s office.

I, for one, will NEVER use a confessional that is like a room, with door that closes and there is no window or barrier between me and penitents.  To my mind, “reconciliation rooms” are “lawsuit rooms”.

Can. 964 §2 says that confessionals should have fixed grates or screens or grilles between the confessor and the penitent.   NOT having a grille in a confessional is a violation of law and of the confessor’s right to have that grille in place.  This was affirmed in 1998.

This is the document you are searching for:

Can. 964, § 2 (cf. AAS, XC, 1998, p. 711)

Patres Pontificii Consilii de Legum Textibus Interpretandis, in ordinario coetu diei 16 iunii 1998, dubio, quod sequitur, respondendum esse censuerunt ut infra:

D. Utrum attento praescripto can. 964, § 2, sacramenti minister, iusta de causa et excluso casu necessitatis, legitime decernere valeat, etiamsi poenitens forte aliud postulet ut confessio sacramentalis excipiatur in sede confessionali crate fixa instructa.
R. Affirmative.

Summus Pontifex Ioannes Paulus II in Audientia die 7 iulii 1998 infrascripto Praesidi impertita, de supradicta decisione certior factus, eam confirmavit et promulgari iussit.

+ Iulianus Herranz,
Archiepiscopus titularis Vertarensis, Praeses

Bruno Bertagna,
Episcopus titularis Drivastensis, a Secretis

“Whether, regarding can. 964 § 2, the minister of the sacrament, for a just cause and cases of necessity excluded, can legitimately decide, even if the penitent perhaps  asks otherwise, that sacramental confession be received in a confessional with a fixed grille.”


Hence, a priest can refuse to hear a confession if there is no confessional with a fixed grate. Even if the person insists that it be face-to-face, the priest can decline.

Penitents do not have the right to face-to-face confession.  The bishop was wrong.

Say some priest or other, just for the heck of it call him “Fr. Z”, wants to use a confessional that only has the grate and does not have a way to make a confession face-to-face.  That’s fine.  He is within his rights.  At the same time, penitents are also not obliged to go to Fr. Z for confession.  If, perchance, penitents insist on face-to-face and Fr. Z insists on a fixed grate, they will be at loggerheads.  But Fr. Z would be, as usual, right.

The response from the Holy See underscores that a) confessionals are important and that b) there should be a grille or grate.   The priest has the right to protect himself and his reputation from harm and false accusations.



And don’t insist on face to face.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    This is a VERY important post.

    And I do NOT diminish that importance by offering the corollary.

    The penitent has the canonical right to the grille and total anonymity (and I write was one who normally confesses to a close friend). The priest has NO RIGHT to ask you to come into a face-to-face situation, nor to tell you to sit not kneel. Nor indeed, as I have seen in a noble traditional Roman church, should he lean out of the box between penitents and kindly beckon the next, thereby seeing their faces.

    One would like to say, in such circumstances, just walk away. But of course dear Friend Penitent, perhaps you have something grave on your conscience and simply cannot. So this idiot has you by the short-and-curlies.

    So, to paraphrase our Host – Dear Priests, just obey the Law, do what it says, (STB&DTR) and don’t try to be an A-H. It’s not clever, and no one appreciates it. God won’t, either.

  2. On a side note, it seems like the only time the wishes of the laity have a chance of controlling is when they are asking for something that runs counter to law or tradition.

  3. Jana Parma says:

    Since the outbreak of Covid19, all the confessionals at my parish are closed and we now use open spaces in the nave and library. There is no screen or grill to give the option for kneeling and confidentiality. Also, while people cannot hear the confessions, everyone is able to see who is confessing to which priest. Is the lack of a proper grill a violation? Thank you

  4. APX says:

    I miss the confessional. Since covid started we haven’t been allowed to use the traditional confessionals because they don’t allow for appropriate social distancing and the virus can get through the screen. Our priest suggested making a special mask for it like we’re required to wear, but no dice. Make-shift reconciliation room for us. Some parishes now even require pre-registering for a time slot and providing name and contact information for contact tracing purposes. So much for anonymity in confession.

  5. Cafea Fruor says:

    I’ve heard this before from my old pastor. He explained the same idea, that not having a grille is like asking for a lawsuit to happen. He said it’s also for the priest’s moral protection. The example he used was was that sitting there hearing the non-screen confession of some immodestly dressed young lady confessing, say, escapades with her boyfriend, or something similar, can be a massive temptation for the priest. So he can choose to shut the grille even if the pentitent wanted it open.

  6. JillMary says:

    What about the hearing impaired who read lips?

  7. Fr_Andrew says:


    A penitent is fully within his rights to expect , under normal circumstances, to make an anonymous confession, so that the priest is not able to see who is confessing. He may also legitimately change or mask his voice, provided he can be understood correctly.

    In my own personal experience, it is actually very useful for regular faithful to make the priest aware of who they are, because it allows continuity of direction and an understanding of what is helping the individual. Even when I recognize the voice, though, I will not let on that I know who this is. It will help tailor the advice, however. They are never obliged to do this, though.

    However, while what is said in the confessional must stay in the confessional, the fact that one came into the confessional is actually considered in most traditional moral theology manuals to be a public fact. That means, what a man says in confession is protected, but not that he confessed.

    A priest should not parade around this fact or share this with others for fear of making confession even more difficult than it already is, but for a serious reason could make this fact known. There is also nothing inordinate about wanting to conceal that one has confessed to Fr X, but were Fr X to be called to testify about such a man, he would have to truthfully answer if asked if Mr Smith came to confession on April 32, 3018, that he did so, but when asked what he said, he would truthfully and correctly answer only, “I don’t remember.” As a man he is aware of the fact of his confession, but not the content, which he only knows as the minister of God, and cannot reveal as a man.

  8. monstrance says:

    And please Fathers…
    Be on time for scheduled confessions.
    I realize stuff happens which could alter your day, but it seems to happen quite often for the priest to show up 10 -15 minutes late.
    Usually, this is for the once a week only Saturday afternoon one hour or less confession time.
    One hour a week is pathetic to begin with – but I digress.

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  10. JonPatrick says:

    Maybe another silver lining to the current Wuhan COVID virus situation is the lack of face to face confession. Our “home away from home” parish came up with an imaginative solution last year of a drive-up confessional at a rectory window, with a thin cloth screen that both provided anonymity as well as screening out those nasty virus containing aerosols. For the latter reason face to face was not available.

  11. JustaSinner says:

    Just a sinner’s thoughts here…
    Psychologically are not humans better at confessing sins when they are not face to face with Fr Great Friend at my Parrish?
    Does not the dark, solemn mood of the confessional set a better tone then a bright cheery let’s-hold-hands-and-sing-kumbia-and-have-milk-toast?

  12. Andrew says:

    On a lighter side: it’s OK I hope to laugh at ourselves a bit:
    Propter luem Covidianam
    nequeunt ministri audire
    peccatorum confessiones
    confessionali in sede
    crate fixa instructa.

    In ecclesiarum medio
    confitentur sua matronae
    peccata, palam manifesto.
    Cuius maritus, quanta mala
    facit, nunc omnes scimus.

  13. JGavin says:

    I loathe face to face confessions. The prospect of that makes me want to rent an Afghani Birka, the ones with netting/ or lacing to cover even the women’s eyes.

  14. Prayerful says:

    Before Mass needn’t matter if it is usual to have a priest hearing them during Mass up to roughly the consecration, and that priest will assist his brother priests until the end of Mass. That was usual in the parish church, and I’ll see what happens now that public Mass is permitted again.

    The big problem with confession there is no proof against noise of any sort. Some are so loud, the priest has to tell them to be quite. It might make a person wary of saying anything too personal, even if it might be relevant.

    The Passionist run church and retreat has a pentitential room, but it has a grill. Honestly some of the priests day must’ve been ordained under Pius XII. May God preserve them. However, they seem the opposite of traditional and severe.

  15. pedantic_prof says:

    A few years ago, I went into the “reconciliation room” at Saint-Sulpice in Paris and asked the very elderly priest if I could confess with a grill. Since there isn’t a confessional within the glass-enclosed room (as there is in many other churches in the capital), we had to go to a confessional in a side chapel. No big deal, as there’s around a dozen. On the way there, the priest was chuckling to himself and muttering “A confessional, eh? Whatever next?!”. When we got there, I made my confession but when it came to the absolution, he could not remember the formula. Bearing in mind, he was about 90 years old and must have had a card in front of him in the reconciliation room. Thinking that he might have the old formula engraved in his mind from his early priestly years, I gently suggested “Ego te absolvo…”? At this, everything changed. He barked at me, loud enough for passers-by to hear: “Where do you hear Mass in Paris?”. “Saint-Eugène-Sainte-Cécile usually, though occasionally at Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet”, I answered honestly. “YOU ARE SCHISMATIC! GET AWAY! YOU ARE REFUSED ABSOLUTION”. I tried to reason with him but he was not to be moved. It was one of the most humiliating experiences I’ve ever had. I was honest, was not trying to incite him, and had the right sentiments. He denied me absolution because I was attached to the Old Mass.

    Another experience was also in Paris at my local church, Saint-Gervais. It’s served by Benedictines and usually quite reverent. I went to confession in the sacristy and the monk asked me my name. I said “a sinner” but he kept on insisting that he needed my first name, I think to make it more personal. It made me uncomfortable and I didn’t want to lie, so I left but e-mailed him afterward. He said that the experience had shaken him and he did it to be pastoral but that he would no longer insist on asking penitents’ first names from then on. I suppose his intentions were well-meaning but he should have noticed that I was quite shocked (but remained polite).

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