Confession for RCIA Candidate

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Confession for RCIA Candidates

ROME, 1 NOV. 2005 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: Recently I received a baptized Christian into the Catholic Church during a Mass in which the person received holy Communion. The RCIA ritual encourages the candidate to go to confession before the Mass and Communion, and this was done. However, since the confession was made before the candidate was actually in the Catholic Church, how could it have been a valid Catholic sacrament? Or does the absolution take effect only when the person is received into the Church? I cannot fit this event into my traditional understanding of Catholic sacraments. — D.J., Buffalo, New York

A: We briefly addressed this question in a follow-up on April 27, 2004, in which we said:

"A catechist from Michigan asked if candidates in the RCIA may receive the sacrament of penance before they have been formally initiated into the Church.

"In this case we are dealing with Christians validly baptized but who have not yet made their solemn entrance into the Catholic Church nor received the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist.

"This case is already foreseen in the appendix to the Introduction to the Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults.

"Norm No. 9 stipulates that if the candidate is to admitted to the Catholic Church during Mass (the usual practice), then beforehand, the candidate, having considered his personal condition, confesses his past sins after having informed the priest of his proximate admission.

"Any priest with faculties for hearing confessions may receive this confession.

"Thus, not only may the future Catholic make his confession before being formally received but in general he or she should do so."

Thus there is no question regarding the canonical legitimacy of the practice described. Yet, this does not answer the theological difficulties experienced by our reader.

Perhaps an answer could be found by making a distinction between impediments to the valid reception of a sacrament stemming from divine law and those stemming from Church law.

From the point of view of divine law, baptism is absolutely necessary before receiving any other sacrament. Once baptism has been received, however, the person has at least the root possibility of receiving some of the other sacraments even though other impediments might exist.

A person baptized as a Protestant (Eastern Christians are in a very different position) is usually impeded from receiving the sacraments of confirmation, Eucharist, penance, anointing and holy orders due to their lack of communion with the Catholic Church.

The Church usually recognizes the sacramental quality of any valid marriage between a baptized man and woman.

Since most of the impediments to valid reception of these sacraments by non-Catholic Christians are rooted in Church law, not divine law, the Church itself may decide under what conditions a person not within her fold may receive the comfort of some of her sacraments and thus lift the impediment to invalidity.

Such conditions are set out, for example, in the Ecumenical Directory, and usually require grave conditions such as danger of death, the spontaneous request of the person desiring the sacrament, and faith in the Catholic understanding of the sacrament by the person requesting it.

In the case of the person who is about to be received into full communion, the Church creates, so to speak, an automatic exception which makes the sacrament of reconciliation both valid and licit for the person involved.

Although this answer may be a trifle speculative, I hope it is sufficient to clear up the difficulties. ZE05110102

* * *

Follow-up: Confession for RCIA Candidates [11-15-2005]

In the Nov. 1 column on confession for Protestant candidates who were about to enter the Catholic Church, I mentioned that "Eastern Christians were treated differently."

A Minneapolis reader asked: "What is this 'very different position' of the Eastern Christians? Should they or should they not receive the sacrament of penance before they are publicly received into the Catholic Church?"

Eastern Christians share the same sacramental practice and faith as Catholics, even though they are not in full communion.

Because of this, the Catholic Church permits them to receive the sacraments of reconciliation, Eucharist and anointing of the sick for any just cause when one of their own priests is unavailable. Likewise, a Catholic may receive these sacraments from an Eastern Christian for a similar cause.

For example, Catholics who work or vacation in a predominately Orthodox country where a Catholic Mass is unavailable, may freely attend and receive Communion at an Orthodox Divine Liturgy although they would not be obliged to do so.

The Church asks Catholics in such situations to respect the requirements of the local Church regarding such things as fasting before Communion.

It is important to note that not all Eastern Churches have the same law as the Catholic Church on this matter. Some do not allow their faithful to receive the sacraments in other Churches, nor do they offer this possibility to others. Once more, we need to be attentive to different sensibilities.

A priest writing from Hong Kong asked: "What about for those Protestant denominations whose baptism is doubtful (because of the form, etc.), and the candidate receives conditional baptism? Should they also go to confession before the conditional baptism?"

If conditional baptism is foreseen, the confession should be postponed until a suitable time after the celebration, since certainty is required in questions regarding the validity of the sacraments.

Of course, confession is not necessary immediately after baptism, as this latter sacrament removes all sins. In the case of a conditional baptism, however, it probably does much good to the spiritual health of the new Catholic to avail of the opportunity of confession as soon as possible.

Finally, a reader from Ontario asked about marriage: "I just read your response to the question about the validity of the sacrament of penance for a baptized non-Catholic person before being received into the Church. Now this has made me wonder about the validity of my marriage as a sacrament. I went through the RCIA program and was baptized. Since I was civilly married to a Catholic, I was required to get married in the Church before my baptism. My question is: Since I was not baptized at the time of the marriage ceremony, is my marriage a sacramental marriage?"

Here the question is rather complex, but I will try to put it into a nutshell.

As our reader was only civilly married to a Catholic, her husband was in an irregular situation with respect to the Church, which does not recognize the validity of such marriages.

Her subsequent marriage to him would have been made with a dispensation, which transformed her relationship into a valid, but not yet sacramental, spousal bond.

The moment she received baptism, her valid marriage was elevated to a sacramental union by the very grace of her new state as a member of Christ's Mystical Body.

This is in conformity with long-standing practice in the Church. For example, when spouses joined in a valid natural marriage are baptized together, they are not usually required to go through another marriage ceremony, as their natural marriage is elevated to a sacramental bond by the very fact of receiving baptism. ZE05111522

Additional Follow-up [11-29-2005]

Since one or two questions arose from our follow-up on confession and Christian initiation (see Nov. 1 and 15) I wish to address the topic one more time.

One reader posed a theological teaser to our statement that "If conditional baptism is foreseen, the confession should be postponed until a suitable time after the celebration, since certainty is required in questions regarding the validity of the sacraments."

He asked: "However, if the conditional baptism is administered at the Easter Vigil [as is often the case], it will immediately be followed by confirmation and first Communion. It would seem that the candidate should receive a conditional absolution before receiving these sacraments."

Our reader has a valid point, but I do not think that such a practice is appropriate. Although hearing confessions is allowed during Mass, there is a general law that the sacrament of penance is never combined with the celebration of Mass in such a way that it forms part of the rite itself.

Cases of conditional baptism are relatively rare, and the doubt regarding the previous "baptism" is usually well founded. There is almost nothing regarding this precise theme in theological manuals. Yet I think that the conditional baptism, either because it is the first true baptism, or in virtue of the Church's intention if the person was already validly baptized, will have the effect of placing the person in the state of grace and able to fruitfully receive the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist.

We could consider it as somewhat analogous to a person who returns to the state of grace though an act of perfect contrition. In normal circumstances this is still insufficient to accede to the sacraments until after receiving sacramental absolution. In certain extraordinary circumstances, however, a person may receive some sacraments before confession if there is no possible alternative and confess later at the earliest opportunity.

A Houston reader requested clarification regarding confessing a member of the Eastern Churches: "With respect to confessions of the Eastern Orthodox, can the priest absolve them for the sin of schism if the priest is not receiving the penitent into the Catholic Church? Does it matter whether the individual was baptized by an Orthodox priest or is a Catholic who has left the Catholic Church for an Orthodox Church? There are many Catholics who leave the Catholic Church for Orthodox Churches, and I am curious to know whether they can receive absolution from a Catholic priest while remaining Orthodox."

We need to consider several points. Sin always involves a personal choice made with full deliberation and knowledge. For this reason it is not reasonable to say that a person who was born and raised in an Eastern Church is personally guilty of the sin of schism.

This is one probable reason why the Church makes no mention of this aspect when granting permission for a Catholic priest to administer the sacraments to them.

The case of a Catholic who has left the Church is in a different position and, except in cases of danger of death, would normally have to be reconciled with the Church before receiving absolution.

For the sake of precision, we would be dealing with a Catholic who has abandoned the Catholic Church, thus breaking communion with the Pope and bishops, and not that of a Latin-rite Catholic who switches rites to one of the Eastern Catholic Churches. ZE05112920

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