“Ask a Priest: Can Sins Be Forgiven in the Absence of Confession?”

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Q: Can absolution be granted in the absence of a priest and confession? In other words, under what circumstances would a person receive absolution directly from God? Is this possible in the Catholic faith? I know only God can grant absolution, but under what circumstances would the Church say he would do that without a confession to a priest? I am a graduate student, and there was a bit of a debate during my last class about this topic. After researching online, I am no closer to having an answer to the question. Thank you for any knowledge you can lend me on this topic. -M.P.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: There are ordinary means for receiving forgiveness of venial sins outside of confession. These include: attending Mass and worthily receiving Communion; doing acts of charity; fasting; and almsgiving.

It is also possible to receive forgiveness of mortal sins outside of confession. In this case a person is required to have perfect contrition – sorrow for sin which springs from perfect love, that is, for having offended God. But there is a condition attached.

The Catechism in No. 1452 says, “When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called ‘perfect’ (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.”

Thus, for example, a person on an airplane that is ready to crash could be forgiven for his mortal sins by a perfect act of contrition.

Likewise, canon law (Church law) foresees the efficacy of perfect contrition in the absence of a priest.

Canon No. 916 says, “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.”

Again, notice that the person has to resolve to go to confession as soon as possible. This emphasizes that the sacrament of confession remains the ordinary means for God to grant absolution. A big advantage is that a penitent can be assured of absolution within the sacrament, even with only imperfect contrition.

In any case, the norm remains that people in mortal sin should seek absolution within the sacrament. In the meantime they are encouraged to make an act of perfect contrition, with an eye toward still seeking confession to a priest.

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