Confession by Appointment and Face-to-Face

Q1: We just moved, and our new parish doesn’t have set confession times. The bulletin says “confessions by appointment.” My wife doesn’t think that’s a violation of our right to receive the sacrament, since the priest will hear our confessions if we ask him to. But it seems to me that it ought to be easier to go to confession than that. Which of us is right? –Chuck

Q2: Does canon law say anything about face-to-face confessionals? Our new pastor had the grills inside the confessionals removed, because he says he doesn’t like “anonymity” and thinks people should be adult enough to confess face-to-face. But now lots of people, including me, don’t want to go to confession! Is there something wrong with us not wanting to be seen in there? –Neal

It is particularly apt to discuss the sacrament of penance in this the Year of the Priest, for Pope Benedict XVI placed this year under the patronage of Saint John Vianney, the great saint of the confessional and the patron of all priests.  It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of this sacrament, which the Catechism rightly describes as reconciling a sinner with both God Himself and His Church (CCC 1462). A repentant Catholic, who wishes to confess his sins and be restored to life in Christ, cannot do this without a priest; the code states what most Catholics already know, that only a priest is the minister of the sacrament of penance (c. 965).

One needn’t have an advanced degree in pastoral ministry to know that a person who realizes he has committed some grave sin generally feels ashamed of his action(s). While he may very well want to unburden his conscience and be reconciled with God, this does not necessarily imply that he is willing to advertise that fact to the general public. God, Who created our human nature, knows this perfectly well, and consequently guided the Church which He founded in the establishment of private, individual confession. Even if we have sinned in public, God is willing to forgive us in the privacy of a one-on-one encounter with a priest. And as we saw in “Can Priests Ever Reveal What is Said in Confession?” no matter how heinous his sins may be, a penitent should always be 100% certain that the priest hearing his confession will never, ever repeat it to anyone else.

Yet even under such generous conditions, the Church knows that many Catholics who have sinned may still be hesitant to approach the confessional. Thus it has always been the Church’s goal, for pastoral reasons, that receiving the sacrament of penance be as painless as possible. Anything that might discourage a sincere penitent from confessing his sins would be contrary to the nature of this sacrament.

Thus canon law is simply articulating sound pastoral ministry when it dictates the physical requirements of a confessional box or room. For starters, canon 964.3 states that confessions are not to be heard elsewhere than in a confessional, except for a just reason. If a bed-ridden hospital patient, or an elderly, home-bound parishioner wishes to go to confession, such circumstances would of course constitute the “just reason” envisioned by the code as an exception.

Canon 964.2 is even more specific: confessionals are to be fitted with a fixed screen between the penitent and the confessor, and be available in an open place so that the faithful can freely use them. Clearly this canon goes to the heart of Neal’s question. Regardless of his pastor’s personal preferences, removing the grills from the church’s confessionals is a direct violation of the law—and when we consider the natural reaction of Neal and others in his parish to their removal, we can see why the canon exists in the first place! While confessionals may be designed so that a penitent has a choice of confessing face-to-face or through a screen, and many people undoubtedly prefer to confess face-to-face, the fact remains that the confessor has no authority to decide that a penitent may not confess his sins from behind a confessional screen if that is what the penitent wishes.

Ironically, the reverse scenario has officially been determined to be correct. In 1998, 15 years after the promulgation of the current Code of Canon Law, a different sort of question arose about confessionals and personal preference. It was submitted to the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legal Texts, which, as we’ve seen before in “Do Lapsed Catholics Marry Validly Outside the Church?” and many others, is the sole Vatican body to which the Pope has given power to determine the official way the code is to be interpreted.

The question submitted was this: If a confessor wishes to hear a penitent’s confession from behind the confessional grill, can he insist on this means, even if a penitent prefers to confess face-to-face? The Council replied (in a statement that has been published only in Latin) in the affirmative. Thus, once might say that the desire of either party to celebrate the sacrament of penance through a confessional screen trumps the wishes of the other. A priest may, if he prefers, insist that everyone confesses his sins through a confessional grill; a penitent may likewise insist that he receive the sacrament in this way. Thus the law illustrates that, far from there being “something wrong” with Neal and his fellow parishioners who wish to confess in this way, it is an entirely normal preference on both sides, and one which the Church takes very seriously indeed!

So what does the code say with regard to Chuck’s question, about whether confession-by-appointment is a sufficient means for a parish to enable its parishioners to receive the sacrament? Chuck and his wife are correct in regarding this issue as a question of whether or not the faithful are being denied the right to go to confession. As we saw in “When Can a Priest Refuse to Absolve a Penitent in the Confessional?” the Catholic faithful have the right to receive the sacraments when they ask for them at an opportune time, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them (c. 843.1). The question is, should the faithful have to phone and make an appointment in order to receive the sacrament of penance?

A direct, clear-cut answer is not found in the code, presumably because the issue had not arisen in any significant, public way prior to its promulgation in 1983. But one can easily argue that, while the code may not provide sufficient specifics, sacramental theology does. Since private confession constitutes the sole means, under normal circumstances, by which a Catholic who has committed grave sin can be reconciled with God and the Church (c. 960), it’s only logical that the Church should make this sacrament as readily available as humanly possible. And when you couple that with the shame and fear which (as discussed above) naturally fills a penitent who realizes and regrets his sins, the need to make the sacrament easy to obtain is even more obvious.

But since some clerics entrusted with the welfare of souls might not share this view, Pope John Paul II weighed in on this point himself. In 2002 he issued the Apostolic Letter Misericordia Dei, On Certain Aspects of the Celebration of Penance, to clarify a number of popular misconceptions regarding this sacrament. While this Apostolic Letter is not technically law, it does provide an authoritative interpretation of this pastoral issue from the Vicar of Christ himself. Among other things he noted,

“Local Ordinaries, and parish priests and rectors of churches and shrines, should periodically verify that the greatest possible provision is in fact being made for the faithful to confess their sins. It is particularly recommended that in places of worship confessors be visibly present at the advertized times, that these times be adapted to the real circumstances of penitents, and that confessions be especially available before Masses, and even during Mass if there are other priests available, in order to meet the needs of the faithful” (MD 2).

What the Pope describes here is a situation in which the sacrament of penance is available at one’s parish on multiple occasions, when it is normally convenient for parishioners to come to church to receive it. It does not exclude the possibility of a parishioner also making an appointment to go to confession at yet another time; but it is nevertheless a far cry from the “appointment-only” scenario which Chuck describes!

For the record, in rural areas where a single pastor may be assigned to multiple parishes, or where there is otherwise a dire shortage of clergy, making confession available at so many different times during the average week may be physically impossible for one tremendously overworked priest. Nevertheless, the point is that the sacrament of penance should be as readily accessible as possible, so that a guilt-ridden, repentant Catholic need not be required to call particular attention to himself by phoning a rectory in order to get it! Anyone who has ever had to unburden himself of some hefty sins in the confessional could tell us that doing so can be difficult enough as it is, without adding appointment-making to the agenda.  And as we’ve just seen, this is not merely Chuck’s personal opinion, for the same was essentially affirmed by the Pope himself.

By now it should be clear that both the parishes described by our questioners fall short in the matter of hearing confessions. If respectfully pointing this out to the pastor is unsuccessful, they might wish to find a parish where they can receive the sacrament of penance without hindrance. A respectful, constructive notification of the bishop might perhaps be in order as well, as he may very well be entirely unaware of the situation. And where ensuring that wandering sheep may be enabled to return to the fold of the Church is concerned, we Catholics ought all to be in fundamental agreement.

At the same time, however, the difficulties described in these two questions should not be considered “legitimate” excuses to avoid going to confession. Although the circumstances described are less than ideal, they certainly do not justify failing to receive the sacrament altogether. It may not be pleasant to have to phone the parish to make an appointment, or speak to the priest face-to-face in the confessional.  But surely the graces we receive through this sacrament are worth any amount of emotional discomfort.

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