When Can a Priest Refuse to Absolve a Penitent in the Confessional?

Q. A visiting priest was hearing confessions one weekend at my parish, while the pastor was away.  He refused to grant me absolution, because he said that I hadn’t sinned!  I confessed some venial sins, but he told me that you shouldn’t go to confession unless you’ve committed a serious sin.  I didn’t know what to say.  Was he correct?  If not, what should I have said or done?  –Kris

A. Canon law is grounded in theology.  That’s why applying bad theology can also lead to a violation of canon law, which is what appears to have happened in this case.

Let’s look first at the Church’s theological teaching regarding this sacrament.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church states clearly that Catholics are bound to confess serious sins at least once a year.  But it also notes that “without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church” (1458).   If, therefore, Kris mentioned at least one venial sin in her confession, she provided enough material, from a theological standpoint, to warrant absolution.

Now let’s take a look at what canon law has to say.  Canon 989 states that all Catholics who have reached the age of reason (traditionally understood to mean roughly the age of seven, which is about the time that most Catholic children make their first confessions) are obliged to confess all grave sins at least once a year.  But canon 988.2 notes also that it is recommended—though not required—that Catholics also confess venial sins.  It should be obvious that the canons which address this issue are in perfect accord with Catholic theology.

From both the theological and the canonical points of view, therefore, the priest was not justified in denying Kris absolution simply because she failed to indicate that she had committed any mortal sins.  And in keeping with theology, canon law provides clear guidelines for determining when a Catholic must be allowed to receive not just the sacrament of penance, but all the sacraments.  Canon 843.1 states that no sacrament may be denied to one who (1) opportunely asks for it, (2) is properly disposed, and (3) is not prohibited by law from receiving it.  This canon sets forth the fundamental right of all Catholics to receive the sacraments, and as such it deserves further examination.

Firstly, a Catholic “opportunely asks” to receive a sacrament when he approaches a priest (or a deacon, if appropriate) at the time and place where that sacrament is regularly conferred.  We opportunely ask to receive Holy Communion, for example, when we approach a priest who is distributing Communion during Mass.  Kris herself opportunely asked to receive the sacrament of penance by going into the confessional at the time when confessions are regularly held in her parish.   In contrast, trying to get a priest to hear confessions while in a movie theater, or at 2 AM, is not “opportunely asking,” and a priest may justly refuse such a request—unless the person is dying, in which case the person has the right to the sacraments no matter where he is or what time it is.

Secondly, a Catholic is “properly disposed” to receive a sacrament if he manifests the dispositions appropriate for its reception.  One who reverently approaches to receive Holy Communion, for example, indicates outwardly that he is properly disposed, whereas one who is chatting on a cell-phone while in the Communion-line does not.  To cite another example, engaged couples who seek to marry in a Catholic ceremony must show their pastor that they sincerely accept the Church’s teachings about marriage; if they are open to the notion of divorce whenever a marriage doesn’t work out, they are not manifesting all the dispositions proper for the reception of the sacrament of Catholic matrimony, and a priest may rightly refuse to permit them to marry in the Church.   In Kris’s case, unless she was somehow acting in an inappropriate manner in the confessional, or otherwise indicated that she did not take the sacrament seriously, it is difficult to think of a reason why the priest would have denied her absolution on this ground.

Finally, there are many possible reasons why a Catholic may be “prohibited by law from receiving” a sacrament.  If, for example, he is under excommunication, he is forbidden to receive the sacraments until the excommunication is lifted (c. 1331.1 n. 2).  He may simply be too young to receive a particular sacrament.  If the sacrament may be received only once (as is the case with baptism, confirmation, or holy orders), a Catholic who has already received it once may not receive it again.  Or there may be an impediment barring a person’s reception of a sacrament—a Catholic may not receive the sacrament of matrimony, for example, if he is in holy orders, or is already married to someone else.  The chances are slim-to-none that the priest hearing Kris’s confession could have denied her absolution because he believed that in some way she were prohibited by law from receiving it.

Although I was not, of course, privy to the whole conversation in the confessional between Kris and the confessor, it’s fairly clear to me that this priest wrongly refused her absolution.  So what should she have done?  For one thing, there is no reason why she couldn’t leave his confessional and immediately make her confession to another priest, even if this required her to go to another parish.  Additionally, I would suggest that Kris inform the pastor of her parish of this incident, as he is responsible for the spiritual care of the people of his parish.  Canon 528.2 notes specifically that the pastor is to strive to ensure that his parishioners are nourished by the devout celebration of the sacraments, and in particular that they frequently approach the sacraments of the blessed Eucharist and of penance.   The pastor needs to be made aware that Kris was unjustly prevented from receiving the sacrament of penance in her own parish, so that he can take measures to ensure that it does not happen again, to other parishioners.  Perhaps he can clarify, in the mind of this visiting priest, the required matter for a valid confession; or he may wish simply to avoid asking this particular priest for help in hearing confessions in the future.  In any case, the pastor will appreciate that it is his responsibility to see to it that his parishioners’ rights are not violated when they approach the sacraments—for reasons that are both theological and canonical.

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