How are non-Catholics forgiven?



Editor’s note: This column is being repeated by Catholic News Service. Father Doyle is now retired.

Q. Catholics are blessed to have the sacrament of reconciliation. But what about other faiths? How do non-Catholics have their sins forgiven? (Honolulu)

A. The Catholic Church has a long history of the confession of sins. In the earliest centuries, confession was actually done in public, the thinking being that when we sin, we damage not only our own friendship with God but our relationships within the community of faith; but around the sixth century, Irish monks began hearing confessions one on one, and that practice spread to the Church universal.

Though most Catholics may not know this, there are types of individual confession in other religious groups as well. Eastern Orthodox priests, for example, hear confessions not in a confessional but in the main part of the church, before a Gospel book and an icon of Jesus Christ. (This serves as a reminder to the penitent that the confession is really made not to another human being but to God himself.)

Lutherans have a form of confession known as "Holy Absolution," that is done privately to a cleric upon request. After the penitent has confessed his or her sins, the minister declares: "In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

In the Anglican tradition, confession and absolution is usually done by an entire congregation as part of a eucharistic service, but certain Anglicans, particularly Anglo-Catholics, do practice private auricular confession.

The Catholic Church teaches that lesser sins can be forgiven by prayer and acts of charity, but it requires individual confession at least annually for grave (mortal) sins and encourages penitents to confess lesser (venial) sins also, as a way to grow in holiness.

It's noteworthy to mention that during the pandemic, in March 2020 the Apostolic Penitentiary (the Vatican tribunal that deals with maters of conscience) urged Catholic priests to remind the faithful that, when they find themselves with "the painful impossibility of receiving sacramental absolution," they can make an act of contrition directly to God in prayer. If they are sincere and promise to go to confession as soon as possible, said the Vatican tribunal, they "obtain the forgiveness of sins, even mortal sins."