Can a Priest Refuse to Hear My Confession?

Q: My teenager wanted to go to confession after Mass, so he went to the sacristy to ask the priest.  Inside, Father was just hanging around, laughing and joking with the altar servers.  When my son asked for confession, he was told to come back at the time when confessions are heard, and that he should check the schedule if he doesn’t know when that is!

Don’t we Catholics have the right to receive the sacraments from our priests?  How could the priest violate my son’s rights like this?  What should we do? –Francesca

A:   In “When Can a Priest Refuse to Absolve a Penitent in the Confessional?” we looked at a case in which a person went into the confessional and confessed his sins, but the priest wouldn’t grant absolution.  The situation described by Francesca is certainly related, but it’s not identical: in her son’s case, the priest wouldn’t even hear the confession to begin with.  Can a priest do that?

Francesca is correct that as a general rule, Catholics have a right to the sacraments.  As was discussed in the above-mentioned column, canon 843.1 provides a broad statement about the need to provide the Catholic faithful with the sacraments: it asserts that sacred ministers may not deny the sacraments to those who opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed to receive them, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.  But the flip-side of the equation, of course, is that a priest can refuse to administer a sacrament to a person who asks for it at an inappropriate time, or whose demeanor does not suggest that he/she is properly disposed for its reception, or whom canon law bars from receiving it.

In the specific case of the sacrament of Penance, canon 986.1  reaffirms this: it states that all to whom the care of souls is entrusted [including of course parish priests] are obliged to provide for the hearing of confessions of the faithful entrusted to them, when they reasonably request the sacrament.  It adds that these clergy are to provide the faithful under their care with the opportunity to confess on days and at times arranged to accommodate them.  We can see that once again, the code specifies that a request for confession must be “reasonable.”

It would appear from Francesca’s account that in her son’s case, the priest judged that he was not reasonably seeking the sacrament of Penance at an appropriate time—because he was instructed to come back later, when confessions are normally heard.  The question therefore is, was Francesca’s son unreasonably seeking the sacrament at an inopportune time, when he asked to make his confession after Mass?

It’s fairly easy to think of clear-cut situations where a Catholic might be refused a sacrament because he asked for it at an inappropriate time.  An American priest once told me of a parishioner who occasionally used to phone the rectory in the middle of the night, because she wanted to go to confession!  Since there was nothing particularly urgent about her request, the parish priests acted reasonably in refusing it.

If a person is in danger of death, however, the situation is completely different.  A person who is dying—or at least looks like he may be dying—always asks for the sacraments “opportunely,” regardless of what time of day or night it is.  That’s because theologically, the Church’s #1 concern for a dying person is to provide all that is spiritually necessary for him as soon as possible!  As we saw in “Can All Priests Always Hear Confessions?” even a priest who has been laicized, or who is under excommunication, has not only the right, but the duty to hear the confession of a person who is dying if asked to do so (c. 986.2).  A priest who receives a phone call about a dying person ordinarily will drop whatever he is doing and try to get to the person immediately.

But even in this urgent situation, there may be circumstances which lead a priest to conclude that he must finish what he is currently doing first.  To take an obvious example, if a priest is in the dentist’s office undergoing a root-canal, canon law certainly does not require him instantly to jump up and run out the door!  Other, more subtle situations can involve particularly difficult judgment-calls: what is a priest to do, if he receives word that a parishioner is dying, two minutes before he is scheduled to begin celebrating Sunday Mass, and no other priest is around?  It sometimes happens that a priest has to make an on-the-spot decision that is not an easy one, calculating which of his important responsibilities must take a back-seat to the other.  And sometimes this means that a person dies without the sacraments, because the priest doesn’t get to him in time.  This unfortunate occurrence should not automatically be construed as a violation of anybody’s rights; it rather demonstrates the obvious fact that a priest cannot be in two places at the same time.

But in a non-deathbed situation, what is a priest required to do when someone seeks the sacrament of Penance outside of regularly scheduled hours?  Well, as was mentioned in “Confession by Appointment and Face-to-Face,” the Church’s general aim, for theological reasons, is to make this sacrament as readily available to the faithful as possible.  The Code of Canon Law can’t possibly make rules for every conceivable situation, but on a more pastoral level, priests normally will lean toward a more generous interpretation of the basic rule—and will stop what they’re doing (if they can) in order to hear a confession.  They know that they are dealing with warm-blooded human beings, and sometimes citing a cold, impersonal law in response to a person’s request simply doesn’t fit the bill!

Therefore, based on the little we know of Francesca’s son’s situation, it does appear at least superficially that the priest could have responded differently to his request for confession.  If this priest has a reputation for refusing to deal with any parishioner who hasn’t come for help during officially scheduled hours, or at least made an appointment first, there may be a pastoral problem here.

But before we criticize him outright, it would be helpful to know Father’s side of the story.  For starters, it may have looked like he was “just hanging around, laughing and joking with the altar servers” in the sacristy; but perhaps they were actually having an intense conversation about something serious which had happened during Mass—and maybe they happened to laugh by chance at the very moment when Francesca’s son entered the room.  If the priest was in the middle of discussing a major problem with his altar servers, he may have made one of those on-the-spot, split-second judgment-calls discussed above, and decided that it was more critical to wrap up the discussion—and that the confession could wait.

There are plenty of other possible reasons for the priest’s refusal.  Perhaps parishioners have developed a chronic tendency to request sacraments at unnecessarily random times, instead of coming to receive them when they are normally administered.  Maybe young people, of the general age of Francesca’s son, are particularly prone to do this—and so Father was trying to reinforce a message which he has already given the parish on numerous occasions.

Alternately, it could be that the priest got the impression—rightly or wrongly—that Francesca’s son was somehow being flip about receiving the sacrament, and lacked the reverence and respect that his request otherwise would presume.  He may thus have concluded that the young man was not “properly disposed” to receive the sacrament of Penance at that moment—and his refusal would then be in complete accord with the requirements of canon 843.1, discussed above.

In short, this might be a classic case of a gray area!  There are two sides to the story, and it’s important to hear both of them before finding fault with anyone.  We Catholics do have a general right to receive the sacrament of Penance when we ask for it, but it has to be balanced by the other factors addressed above.  And priests are generally required to administer the sacraments when we Catholics request them—but since they are ordinary mortals, subject to human limitations of their own, there are logical, understandable limitations on their obligation too.

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