Can All Priests Always Hear Confessions?

Q: My late uncle was a Dominican priest. When we were kids he used to tell us stories about being a Dominican. I remember one story involving somebody who asked him to hear his confession, but my uncle told him that he couldn’t. He said he only had permission to hear confessions of people who were dying. Does that make any sense to you? Do you think he was being punished for some reason? Don’t all priests have the obligation to hear somebody’s confession if the person asks them to?  –Stuart

A: Stuart’s question raises an excellent point, about the powers of priests to administer the sacraments. Some sacraments can always be validly administered by every priest, simply by virtue of his priesthood. But others can be administered validly only if a priest also has the necessary permission to do so.

Over the past several years we have discussed in this space various issues pertaining to a priest’s ability, and his obligation, to administer some of the other sacraments. In the September 11, 2008 column we saw, for example, that baptism is the easiest sacrament to administer, as it is encumbered by the fewest restrictions.  True, a parish priest has the right and the duty to defer baptizing a child living in the parish, if he has reason to believe that the child will not be raised in the Catholic faith (as was discussed in the June 21, 2007 column)—but the fact remains that if a priest were to baptize such a child anyway, the baptism would be valid.

Similarly, every priest has, by virtue of his priestly ordination, the power to celebrate a valid Mass, which naturally implies that he can also validly administer the Eucharist to the Catholic faithful.  Strictly speaking, this power can never be taken away from him, even though specific situations may arise (as addressed in both the November 12, 2009 and February 11, 2010 columns) when he is ordered by his superiors not to do so. A suspended priest, for example, may have been ordered by his bishop not to celebrate Mass for the faithful; but if he were to disobey, his Mass would still be valid and he would therefore truly consecrate the Eucharist.

The sacrament of marriage, however, lies at an opposite extreme. The complex details inherent in the valid celebration of the Catholic sacrament of matrimony were touched on briefly back in the August 23, 2007 column, which addressed the issue of the canonical form required for marriage—but in a nutshell, it is not the case that every priest, simply because he is a priest, can validly marry any Catholics who request it.  Rather, the ability of a cleric to validly assist at a Catholic marriage is fundamentally territorial, meaning that a Catholic couple is to be married by a cleric who is responsible for their spiritual care—normally the pastor of their parish (although of course the diocesan bishop can always validly marry Catholics from his diocese too; see cc. 1108-1111). A priest from outside the territory, however, can be delegated to assist at a wedding there; in this case, he is being given the faculty to assist at the celebration. If a visiting priest were to assist at a wedding without the proper faculty, the wedding would be invalid. We can see that when it comes to the sacrament of matrimony, the mere fact that a man has been ordained a Catholic priest is not enough!

So how does the sacrament of penance figure into this equation? Catholics understand that the minister of this sacrament must be a priest (c. 965), but most probably do not realize that under normal circumstances, simply being a priest is not sufficient. He must also possess the faculty to grant absolution to the persons who come to him for confession (c. 966). Without this faculty, he does not have the power to absolve them validly.

There are serious theological and pastoral reasons for this limitation. In the confessional, a priest ordinarily does much more than just utter the words of absolution over a penitent. A significant part of his task involves counselling, which may mean advising a person on how to avoid such sins in the future, or perhaps explaining to the penitent that the actions he has confessed are not necessarily sinful. A priest must often sort through a person’s complicated narrative in order to identify what exactly the sinful action was, separating real acts of the will (which may constitute sinful actions) from mere emotions (which in themselves are not sinful at all). Hearing confessions, in other words, requires a high level of theological knowledge, coupled with strong logical skills and a big dose of common sense!

Since this is the case, it is all too easy to imagine the damage that could be done in the confessional, by a man who is validly ordained a priest, but who nevertheless lacks a sound background in theology and/or an ability to assess accurately the moral implications of the scenario which a penitent may present to him. A confessor who wrongly advises a penitent that his action was not sinful, or who erroneously gives his approval to activity that is morally wrong, is giving the Christian faithful who frequent his confessional misinformation that will put them on a dangerous spiritual path!

This is where the diocesan bishop comes into the picture. The spiritual welfare of the people of his territory has been entrusted to his care, and he is answerable for it (c. 383). More specifically, canon 392.2 notes that he is to guard against abuses in the celebration of the sacraments—which obviously includes the sacrament of penance. It follows that the diocesan bishop needs to be sure that those priests, who are hearing the confessions of the faithful of his diocese, are giving them sound Catholic moral direction. And if he somehow determines that they are not, he has the power, by virtue of his office, to protect the faithful by preventing these priests from administering the sacrament of penance.

So how do priests get the faculty to hear confessions? Well, for starters, all priests have the faculty to hear confessions of Catholics in danger of death, and are in fact obliged to do so (c. 986.2). The urgent need of a dying Catholic trumps all other laws on this matter, because the Church’s primary concern in such a situation is to ensure that the Christian faithful can be absolved of their sins at this critical time. Even a priest who has been laicized (an issue which was discussed in the November 12, 2009 column), or a suspended or excommunicated priest who is forbidden to administer the sacraments, has both the power and the duty to hear the confession of a dying Catholic!

But this emergency situation is hardly the norm. In order to hear the routine confessions of Catholics who seek the sacrament under ordinary circumstances, a diocesan priest is generally given the faculty by his bishop at the time of his ordination. The rules about confessional faculties for religious priests, like Franciscans and Dominicans, can be a little trickier; but the general concept is the same. The diocesan bishop has the ultimate say in which priests can, and cannot, hear confessions of the faithful in his diocese.

According to canon 970, a priest should not be given confessional faculties unless he has been examined, and his suitability for hearing confessions has been determined. Nowadays, the general practice is that when a seminarian successfully completes all his seminary studies, and is established to be sufficiently prepared for priestly ordination, his bishop accepts this as adequate indication that he is knowledgeable enough about moral theology to begin hearing confessions in the diocese. The rationale is that if the seminarian were unqualified to be a confessor, he wouldn’t have made it through his seminary courses in the first place.

But the system did not always typically function in this way, which presumably explains the situation in which Stuart’s late uncle, a Dominican priest, found himself. It seems likely from Stuart’s description that his uncle had been ordained a priest, but had not yet received the normal confessional faculties (which under the old law were referred to as “jurisdiction” rather than “faculties”). He therefore would have had the standard faculty to grant absolution in danger of death, which is granted by law to all priests by virtue of their ordination; but he could not have heard confessions in any other situation—yet. After passing some sort of theology examination, he would have been granted the power to absolve that is typical for priests from a religious institute like the Dominicans.

Once a diocesan priest has received these faculties from his bishop, he can also validly hear confessions in other dioceses as well, unless the bishop of another diocese explicitly refuses to allow it (c.  967.2). Ordinarily this does not happen, but it’s entirely possible: let’s say, for example, that Father John is a priest of diocese X and a well-known theology professor, who has published some books of questionable orthodoxy.  The bishop of diocese Y may object to the idea that Father John visit his diocese and hear confessions there, because the bishop is concerned about the theological advice that Father John might give to the faithful of diocese Y. In such a situation, the bishop of diocese Y can deny Father John the faculty to hear confessions in his diocese. This would mean that Father John could not validly absolve the faithful in the territory of diocese Y, apart from a danger-of-death scenario;  but he would still have the faculty to hear confessions both in his home diocese X, and in all other dioceses where the bishops did not explicitly deny him that faculty.

And if Father John’s own bishop were to revoke the priest’s faculties in his home diocese, canon 974.2 notes that the priest would lose the faculty everywhere. It would not make theological sense for a diocesan priest to be unable to hear confessions in his very own diocese, and yet permitted to do so elsewhere!

There are some other elements which render the system even more complicated, but these are the general rules. We can see that the Catholic Church has developed a means of ensuring that on the one hand, bishops have the right and the duty to ensure that the priests hearing the confessions of Catholics in their dioceses are competent to give them sound spiritual guidance; while on the other hand, in an urgent near-death situation, the Church makes it as easy as possible for a Catholic to receive valid sacramental absolution. At the same time, a priest can, as a general rule, travel to another diocese and know that he can still validly grant absolution to penitents there, without having to get bogged down in seeking permission every time he enters another diocese. But regardless of the situation, the law makes it clear that the spiritual well-being of the Catholic faithful is always paramount.

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