When Can a Non-Catholic Go to Confession?

Q: A close friend of mine was baptized in an evangelical church, but he plans to become a Catholic.  But he has not yet been officially received into the Catholic Church because his evangelical family disapproves.  He’s been through RCIA, and attends daily Mass, though I’ve never seen him receive the Eucharist, and he confirmed to me that he won’t until his official admittance into the Church.

But he goes to confession regularly. He says he believes absolutely all the Church teaches. Is his confession valid? –Ado

A: Many Catholics will likely be surprised that an evangelical would want to receive the Catholic sacrament of Penance.  In actual fact, there are many non-Catholics out there who positively relish the thought that they might unburden themselves of their sins, and receive God’s forgiveness in a formal sort of way.  We Catholics tend to take the confessional for granted, and in far too many cases we even try to avoid it; but if you weren’t raised in the Catholic faith, you might find refreshing  the notion that you can walk out of the confessional feeling spiritually “clean,” and make a fresh start.

For this reason, it’s not unheard-of for non-Catholics to approach a priest who’s sitting in the confessional and ask if they can talk things over. While a parish priest’s main responsibility is obviously the spiritual wellbeing of his parishioners, he should be (and ordinarily is) happy to talk with anyone—even a non-Catholic—about spiritual matters.  In many cases a non-Catholic approaches a Catholic priest like this, not only to get a moral issue sorted out, but also because he’s interested in the Catholic faith in general.  If a non-Catholic has a positive experience dealing with a Catholic priest, who knows where (spiritually speaking) this may ultimately lead him?

That being said, the general rule is that when a priest is in church hearing confessions during the regularly scheduled time, then that’s what he’s supposed to be doing. If a non-Catholic wants to discuss something with a priest, it’s more appropriate to arrange to see him at some other time.  The confessional, in short, is meant for confessions.

But from the sound of things, Ado’s non-Catholic friend doesn’t go to the parish priest at confession-time just to talk—it appears that he enters the confessional, recites the standard words and then confesses his sins, like any Catholic would do. Presumably the priest doesn’t know him, so he doesn’t realize that this person has not yet been received into the Catholic Church.  Think about it: if someone approaches a Catholic priest to receive a Catholic sacrament, and clearly knows what he’s doing/saying and how it all works, it’s only reasonable for the priest to assume that he must be a Catholic, right?

Ado’s friend, however, is a baptized non-Catholic, and not a member of the Catholic Church yet. As we saw in “Do Converts Have to be Rebaptized?” he does not need to be baptized again; but he does need to be formally received into the Catholic Church after a period of instruction and preparation (otherwise known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA).  Ordinarily, after completing the RCIA program, a non-Catholic who is already baptized will make a profession of faith, and receive the sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Communion—usually at the Easter vigil Mass on Holy Saturday.  Once he’s a Catholic, of course, he can and should receive the sacrament of Penance regularly.

But this isn’t what has happened in the case of Ado’s friend. While he says he wants to become a Catholic, he has not done so because “his evangelical family disapproves.”  It appears that he went through the entire RCIA program… and then declined to be received into the Catholic Church.  This means, of course, that he is still a non-Catholic, although he undoubtedly knows a lot about the Catholic faith, and says he wants to become a Catholic eventually.  So in the interim, can he receive any of the Catholic sacraments?

As we saw in “Can a Non-Catholic Receive Communion in a Catholic Church?” the basic rules about who may receive the sacraments are found in canon 844.  And the first paragraph of this canon spells out the norm: Catholics are to receive the sacraments from Catholic ministers, and Catholic sacraments are to be conferred on Catholics (c. 844.1).  This is how it’s supposed to work, and there is certainly nothing surprising here.

That being said, the paragraphs that follow address some specific and uncommon situations which constitute exceptions. Do they say anything about non-Catholics receiving the Catholic sacrament of Penance?

As a matter of fact, they do. The third paragraph tells us that members of Eastern Churches which are not in full communion with the Catholic Church—in other words, members of the Orthodox Churches—can lawfully receive the sacrament of Penance from a Catholic minister (c. 844.3).  This makes theological sense, because as we saw in “Can a Catholic Ever Attend an Orthodox Liturgy Instead of Sunday Mass?” the Catholic Church holds that the Orthodox have a valid priesthood, and thus their sacraments (including Penance) are recognized as valid too.  Thus an Orthodox person who approaches a Catholic priest for confession is fundamentally “on the same page” about what he’s doing and what the sacrament means.

But this cannot be said of evangelical Christians, who don’t celebrate the sacrament of Penance in their churches—and even if they did, the Catholic Church would consider it invalid, because evangelicals do not have a valid priesthood as we understand it. Thus canon 844.3 does not apply to Ado’s friend.

The fourth paragraph, however, would at first glance appear to apply to Ado’s friend’s case—but look at the wording carefully: in danger of death, or when (in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or the bishops’ conference) some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer the sacrament of penance lawfully to other non-Catholic Christians who (a) cannot approach their own minister, and (b) manifest Catholic faith in the sacrament (c. 844.4).  There are a whole slew of qualifications here that all must be met.  Let’s go through this paragraph piece by piece.

For starters, Ado’s friend obviously isn’t in danger of death. Furthermore, there is no indication that the diocesan bishop has judged that a “grave necessity” exists in his case.  While he does manifest Catholic faith in the sacrament, there’s no evidence that Ado’s friend couldn’t approach an evangelical minister at his own church instead.  Rather, it appears that he simply wants to go to Catholic confession on a regular basis—without becoming a Catholic first.  Unfortunately for Ado’s friend, that’s not how it works!

It’s important to keep in mind that we don’t know the whole story here, but we do know that Ado’s friend hasn’t been received into the Catholic Church yet because he says there is some friction with his family about it. When someone wants to become a Catholic, it’s not at all uncommon to find out that his relatives object.  How best to deal with a negative reaction from family members is something that a would-be Catholic will ordinarily try to sort out together with his parish priest.

In this particular case, though, Ado tells us that his friend manages both to attend Mass and to go to confession, apparently without his family knowing about it or protesting. This naturally raises a pivotal question: if Ado’s friend can quietly get to the Catholic parish on a regular basis without causing a family ruckus, why can’t he arrange with the Catholic parish priest to be received into the Catholic Church just as quietly?

Put differently, it seems that Ado’s friend wants to remain a member of his evangelical church to please his family, but regularly receive Catholic sacraments at the same time.  In short, Ado’s friend wants to have his cake and eat it too.

But you can’t have it both ways! If you want to receive Catholic sacraments on a regular basis, it’s necessary to become a Catholic.  If you don’t want to become a Catholic, you shouldn’t routinely seek to receive Catholic sacraments.  It’s as simple as that.

As the abovementioned canon 844.4 indicates, what Ado’s friend is doing is illicit, or illegal.  He shouldn’t be going to confession—and if the priest-confessor knew he was dealing with a non-Catholic, he would undoubtedly try to find a tactful way to get him to stop coming.  But note that the canon doesn’t actually say that the sacrament is administered invalidly, which would mean that it has no effect.  (See “Marriage and Annulment” for more on this concept.)  The wording of the canon leaves us to conclude that the administration of the sacrament is technically valid.

But that does not mean this is okay.  Ado’s friend has to make an either/or choice: so long as he remains a non-Catholic, he should not be receiving Catholic sacraments.  When he becomes a Catholic, he can (and should!) receive Catholic sacraments.  Trying to straddle the fence in the way Ado describes is illegal—and every single time Ado’s friend goes to confession as a non-Catholic, he is violating canon law.

Let’s all say a prayer for Ado’s friend, that he will appreciate the importance of respecting and following the teachings and laws of the Catholic Church. When he takes the final step and is formally received into the Church, he will then have the joy of receiving the sacraments validly and licitly.

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