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

In contrast, I know that most Roman Catholics do regularly incorporate the practice, and it seems like a wonderful thing—tangibly hearing the sacramental words of absolution from a man who is understood to speaking in God's stead. 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 (I don't mean that pejoratively, I promise!), technically I'm a heretic. As such, could a Roman Catholic priest hear my confession even if he wanted to? More importantly, can he pronounce absolution?

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From RCIA study book #479 one who was born and baptized outside the visible communion of the Catholic Church is not required to make an abjure toon of heresy, but simply a profession of faith. I don't know if that means technically you're not a heretic, but it seems to imply it doesn't much matter. –  Peter Turner Oct 3 '12 at 2:59
Oops, iOS doesn't know abjuration (you may abjure toons on your own time) –  Peter Turner Oct 3 '12 at 3:29
@AffableGeek You can only be an excommunicate if you were a member of the communion to begin with (and as excommunication is actually a canonical penalty, it is highly unlikely that you have incurred that). –  Ignatius Theophorus Oct 3 '12 at 4:59
I am not Catholic but a Catholic priest has heard my confession and pronounced absolution. He knew I wasn't Catholic but he said it was fine. –  Bobby Alexander Jun 24 '14 at 8:35

5 Answers 5

up vote 13 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

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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No, a priest cannot give Communion to anyone. –  Geremia Jun 23 '14 at 6:21

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

I am a priest who deals mostly with children. At schools, camps, and youth events we have penance services or just plain opportunities for confession. Quite a few non-catholics often come to confession. First, it is unlikely that any of the young people who come have done anything serious. It is mostly the usual childhood faults. If it becomes obvious that they are not Catholics, I ask them if they are Baptized. If they are, they are capable of receiving the sacrament, have asked for it, so I give it. If they say they aren't, I give them a blessing and assure them that God forgives all their sins. If they don't know, I might get enough information from them to indicate that they are or are not baptized and give them absolution or a blessing according to my best judgement, realizing that I don't want to withold sacramental absolution, if it is valid, but that God always forgives when a person says "I'm sorry."

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My Catholic friend answers this question thus:

A non Catholic can enter the confessional to talk to the priest in private. However, to infer in any way that it is a "confession" is sacriliege to the sacrament.

Basic theology, matter form and intention. Being a believing Catholic is a requirement for the sacrament, nothing wrong with having a chat with a potential convert.

The priest could make an appointment with the non-Catholic to chat in private with him about any concerns he might have. The point is for the priest not to drive him away, but make the non-Catholic understand that this sacrament is instituted by Christ for those who have the faith already and are baptized Catholics.

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