Confession Before Baptism

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Confession Before Baptism

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: A young lady of about 13 years came to me for confession at a parish. She said that this was her first confession, and I asked her if she knew what it was all about. She said, "No" and then I asked her if she was baptized. She said, "No" also to this, whereupon I told her that she couldn't receive the sacrament, as of course she had not been baptized. She then said that she had been told that the teacher of the RCIA class had told her to come to me, as she was to be baptized at Easter (after three months of catechumenate). I tried to explain to her what the sacraments were — to her great surprise, as she knew nothing about them! Off she went, and later on I understood that she had gone to the parish priest for confession. I saw him later about this, and he concurred that he had in fact told her to go to confession, even though she had not been baptized. His reason was that "I would not have had the time to hear her confession before the Easter ceremonies, and so I considered it better for her to go to confession now, rather than wait for after the Easter ceremonies." This whole situation was new to me, as I have been a priest for almost 40 years, and I have never had to face such a peculiar state of affairs. Have you anything to say about this? — J.B., Province of Ontario

A: It would appear that the pastor is somewhat misinformed regarding the nature of the sacrament of reconciliation and of baptism.

First, the sacrament of baptism is the door to the other sacraments, and no sacrament can be validly received beforehand. Second, one of the primary effects of baptism is the total forgiveness and wiping out of all sins committed before the reception of the sacrament.

For both of these reasons, confession before baptism is both impossible and unnecessary.

The case is different for a person who has been already baptized in a Protestant denomination and is to be received into the Catholic Church. In this case confession is recommended before formal reception and confirmation.

It is also possible that an adult catechumen with a somewhat checkered history might desire to prepare for baptism by unburdening his conscience in a confessionlike dialogue with a priest. A priest may accept such a dialog as a pastoral measure but should make clear that it is not the sacrament of reconciliation and that absolution will not follow the conversation.

In the light of this question I would like to take up a related earlier theme. The following query arrived about a column on why deacons cannot administer the anointing of the sick (see Feb. 15 follow-up).

One deacon asked: "I have faculties to baptize adults. Does that act not forgive sin? If a layperson baptizes in extremis, does that act not forgive sin? This link of forgiveness to the priesthood is not exclusive."

A common legal principle is: "Distinguish the times and bring the laws into concordance." In other words, each sacrament must be taken in its own context, and what is true for one is not necessarily true for others.

Thus, as we saw above, one of the effects of baptism is total forgiveness of sin. This is in virtue of the sacrament and not the minister. The deacon and priest are ordinary ministers of this sacrament, though in extreme cases even a non-baptized person can validly baptize. In baptism the minister does not forgive sins: The minister baptizes and the sacrament has the effect of forgiving sins.

For post-baptismal mortal sin, however, the only ordinary minister of forgiveness is the priest. Venial sins may also be forgiven by acts of prayer, penance, sacrifice and other good works of Christian charity. It is true, furthermore, that in situations of grave necessity, when a priest is unavailable, God himself will forgive mortal sins to those who are perfectly contrite. This does not change the basic fact that the ordinary course for forgiveness is through the action of the priest.

Since one effect of the anointing the sick is forgiveness of all unconfessed post-baptismal sin, it follows that only the priest is a valid minister of this sacrament.

This doctrine was ratified in a Feb. 11, 2005 "Note on the Minister of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick" from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The note says:

"The Code of Canon Law, in can. 1003 1 (cf. also can. 739 1 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches) exactly reflects the doctrine expressed by the Council of Trent (Session XIV, can. 4: DS 1719; cf. also the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1516), which states that 'only priests (Bishops and presbyters) are ministers of the Anointing of the Sick.'

"This doctrine is definitive tenenda [definitively held]. Neither deacons nor lay persons may exercise the said ministry, and any action in this regard constitutes a simulation of the Sacrament."

A letter accompanying the note explains the theological logic behind the note and broadens some points:

"In these last decades theological tendencies have appeared which cast doubt on the Church's teaching that the minister of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick 'est omnis et solus sacerdos'. The approach to the subject has been mainly pastoral, with special consideration for those regions in which the shortage of priests makes it difficult to administer the Sacrament promptly, whereas the problem could be overcome if permanent deacons and even qualified lay people could be delegated to administer the Sacrament.

"The Note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith intends to call attention to these trends to avert the risk of possible attempts to put them into practice, to the detriment of the faith and with serious spiritual damage to the sick, whom it is desired to help."

There follows a historical overview of the doctrine after which the document concludes:

"The doctrine which holds that the minister of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick 'est omnis et solus sacerdos' enjoys such a degree of theological certainty that it must be described as a doctrine 'definitive tenenda.' The Sacrament is not valid if a deacon or a layman attempts to administer it. Such an action would be a crime of simulation in the administration of a sacrament, to be penalized in accordance with can. 1379, CIC (cf. can. 1443, CCEO).

"To conclude, it would indeed be appropriate to recall that through the sacrament he has received the priest makes present in a quite special way the Lord Jesus Christ, Head of the Church.

"In the administration of the sacraments, he acts in persona Christi Capitis and in persona Ecclesiae. The person who acts in this Sacrament is Jesus Christ; the priest is the living and visible instrument. He represents and makes Christ present in a special way, which is why the Sacrament has special dignity and efficacy in comparison with a sacramental: therefore, as the inspired Word says concerning the Anointing of the Sick, 'the Lord will raise him up' (Jas 5:15).

"The priest also acts in persona Ecclesiae. The 'presbyters of the Church' (Jas 5:14) pray on behalf of the whole Church; as St Thomas Aquinas says on this subject: 'oratio illa non fit a sacerdote in persona sua ..., sed fit in persona totius Ecclesiae' (Summa Theologiae, Supplementum, q. 31, a1, ad 1). Such a prayer is heard."

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