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As an Episcopalian, we techincally have the rite of Confession and Reconciliation as one of the things we are supposed to do, but in actual practice, I've never seen it done.

In contrast, I know that most Roman Catholics do regularly incorporate the practice, and it seems like a wonderful thing - tangibly hearing the sacremental words of absolution from man who is understood to speaking in God's steed. As one who deals with abstract things all day long, it would be nice to hear "God with flesh" sometimes.

The question is, would a Roman Catholic priest technically be able to hear the confession of a non-Catholic? I mean, since I'm not a Papist (no perjorative meant there, I promise!), technically I'm a heretic, and possibly even ex-communicate. As such, coud a Roman Catholic priest hear my confession even if he wanted to? More importantly, can he pronounce absolution?

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Within the context of Catholicism or Christianity? The rules for Catholicisim may be "tighter" than Christianity. A is a Letter. B is a Letter as well, but A isn't a B. –  user1054 Oct 1 '12 at 15:07
A. Catholics are Christians, and B. It's really clear in the question that I'm asking if a Catholic priest can hear my confession. –  Affable Geek Oct 1 '12 at 15:08
@DanAndrews: This question would be nonsensical outside of the obvious context of Catholic doctrine. –  Caleb Oct 1 '12 at 15:31
@Caleb My point is, there is no reason from a Christian's perspective that a Catholic priest cannot hear the confession. However there may be Catholic reasons against it. I didn't want to give too much away as I was going to answer the question, however I've changed my mind. –  user1054 Oct 1 '12 at 17:11
Oops, iOS doesn't know abjuration (you may abjure toons on your own time) –  Peter Turner Oct 3 '12 at 3:29
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3 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Perhaps surprisingly, Canon Law appears to allow it.

Can. 959 In the sacrament of penance the faithful who confess their sins to a legitimate minister, are sorry for them, and intend to reform themselves obtain from God through the absolution imparted by the same minister forgiveness for the sins they have committed after baptism and, at the same, time are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by sinning.

So who are "the faithful"? Naturally, that question is answered, too:

Can. 204 §1. The Christian faithful are those who, inasmuch as they have been incorporated in Christ through baptism, have been constituted as the people of God. For this reason, made sharers in their own way in Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and royal function, they are called to exercise the mission which God has entrusted to the Church to fulfill in the world, in accord with the condition proper to each.

The issue, therefore, is whether the penitent regards the priest as competent (in the legal sense of that word) — does he regard the priest as a priest and able to forgive sins? Many in other denominations would not; it may well be that they do not regard such an earthly representative of the heavenly as necessary at all.

Supplementary issue: if the penitent does regard the priest as competent, and presumably does not wish to approach clergy of his own denomination, why is he not a Catholic? That may be a basis for another question.

Disclaimer: Although I know where to find things in Canon Law, I'm not a lawyer. We could do with a Catholic priest in these hallowed halls.

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I'm also not a canon lawyer, but 844.4 says "If the danger of death is present or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer these same sacraments licitly also to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed," which seems to restrict it in practice if not in principle. Am I reading right? –  James T Oct 1 '12 at 20:04
I would posit that 844.4 is not inconsistent with 959 or 204.1 or my answer. One would not approach a Catholic priest for confession without manifesting Catholic faith in respect of the sacrament. –  Andrew Leach Oct 1 '12 at 22:22
OK, thank you for this additional help in interpretation! I was perhaps concentrating too hard on the danger of death part. –  James T Oct 1 '12 at 22:26
@AndrewLeach I fell onto your answer and I was surprised, following the links to your profile, to know that something like your personal ordinariate exists! Sometimes I positively struck by the richness of the church. –  Daniele B Jan 6 '13 at 17:54
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The short answer is, "Yes, he can." At a minimum, the confession of those of us came into the Church, already having been baptized, it is necessary and necessarily efficacious.

My RCIA director (a cannon lawyer) basically explained that for all practical purposes, a priest has the authority to allow confession and communion to anyone, so long as it is pastorally appropriate. I have a couple of friends who went to confession repeatedly and well before they came into the Church (one left RCIA after first confession but before reception, another went to confession inadvertently and only in doing so realized the power in it (he came into the Church with me)).

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Andrew's got the canon law side of things down, but I think a majority of non-Catholic confessions are said by those coming in to the Catholic Church according to the norms of the rite of Christian initiation for adults chapter 5 concerning the reception of baptized Christians (also done for Children in a separate chapter).

Any baptized Christian willing to make a profession can (and probably should) make a general confession of sins to any priest prior to reception into the Catholic Church. The confessor should be told of the intention to be received into the Church and will most likely help out with the confession. If extra time is needed, it's a good idea to schedule these by appointment rather than to make the old ladies wait before Mass (lest they have to confess more impatience than they were previously disposed to confess)

(Note: this answer references the RCIA as approved by the North American Bishops, so compulsory pre-entrance confession may exist elsewhere, as it apparently does for those entering the Church en masse from the Anglican Church to Our Lady of Walshingham Ordinariate)

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"Probably should" would not have been strong enough in my case. I wasn't given the choice: confession is part of the process! [And none the worse for that; it's always cathartic and I'm convinced some major changes in my life happened as a result of that pre-reception sacrament.] However there's an intention to become a Catholic at that point, which may not be the case in the situation the OP asks about. –  Andrew Leach Oct 3 '12 at 7:13
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