Question by Augustine Alirinbey Aninangbil (Christ the King parish, Sandema):

My Lord, is it necessary for a Catholic priest to go to his colleague Catholic priest for the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Penance? Can he not hear his own confession and absolve himself, since he is also a priest? Why can he not go to his superior, the bishop, for the sacrament?

Answer by Bishop Joseph Osei-Bonsu:

In answering these questions, we need first to look at what the Sacrament of Penance or the Sacrament of Reconciliation is. Canon 988 states: “A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and in number all serious sins committed after baptism and not yet directly remitted through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which one is conscious after diligent examination of conscience”.

According to the tradition of the church, individual confession mentioned by the Canon 988 is a specific mentioning of one’s sins to a confessor in a one-on-one situation, which has come to be known as “auricular confession”, i.e. a confession made literally “to the ears” of the priest.

The type of sin and the number of times one has sinned must be mentioned in individual confession after an examination of conscience. By such a confession, the penitent is opening up to the priest in a unique way; one’s heart is laid bare to seek forgiveness of God through the priest and the church. Acting in the person of Christ, the priest makes a spiritual judgment and forgives or retains the sin.

Pope John Paul II gives us further insight into what the Sacrament of Reconciliation is:

The confession of sins cannot be reduced to a mere attempt at psychological self-liberation, even though it corresponds to that legitimate and natural need inherent in the human heart to open oneself to another. It is a liturgical act, solemn in its dramatic nature, yet humble and sober in the grandeur of its meaning. It is the act of the Prodigal Son who returns to his Father and is welcomed by him with the kiss of peace. It is an act of honesty and courage. It is an act of entrusting oneself, beyond sin, to the mercy that forgives.

Confession of sins is an opportunity within the Sacrament of Reconciliation to discuss with the confessor the root causes of sin in one’s life and to change one’s life. One should look for a confessor who is insightful and with whom one is comfortable. Catholics confess their sins to priests because they find to be of great value the advice or counselling that they receive from their encounter with the priest.

We should also take note of what the following canons say. According to Can. 978 §1: “In hearing confessions the priest is to remember that he is equally a judge and a physician and has been established by God as a minister of divine justice and mercy, so that he has regard for the divine honour and the salvation of souls”. According to Can. 981, “The confessor is to impose salutary and suitable penances in accord with the quality and number of sins, taking into account the condition of the penitent. The penitent is obliged to fulfill these personally”.

In the light of the foregoing, it should be clear that a priest cannot go to confession to himself! As we saw above, “In hearing confessions the priest is to remember that he is equally a judge and a physician” (Can. 978 §1). How can the priest be a judge in his own case? How can he make a spiritual judgment on himself? Can he impose salutary and suitable penances on himself? Can he ever in such circumstances refuse to deny himself absolution which another priest can do? The recommendation for one to “look for a confessor who is insightful” is to be taken seriously. Moreover, we saw above that confession of sins is “an opportunity within the rite of penance to discuss with the confessor the root causes of sin in one’s life and to change one’s life”. How will the priest confessing to himself be able to discuss with himself about the root causes of sin in his life and effect a change in his life? How is he going to be able to advise himself? Moreover, as Pope John Paul II says above, confession “is a liturgical act, solemn in its dramatic nature”. A priest confessing to himself will rid the sacrament of this solemn and dramatic nature.

If a priest were to be permitted to go to confession to himself, that would cheapen the sacrament. He could commit any sins and then forgive himself! It takes courage for one to go and kneel before another person to confess one’s sins and that may serve as a better deterrent than the priest’s ability to confess to himself and absolve himself whenever he wanted.

It is for a similar reason that Canon 977 was promulgated: “The absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue is invalid except in danger of death”. In other words, if you are a priest and you have sexual relations with a woman, she cannot come to you for confession; this is only permitted if she is in danger of death!

A priest can go to his colleague priests for confession. He can also go to the bishop or even to a cardinal or to the pope if he gets the opportunity! In like manner, the bishop or the pope can go to confession to a priest or a bishop. In all these cases, it does not matter who goes to whom: all these ministers have the same power of absolution; indeed, the absolution comes from God who uses the priest, the bishop, the cardinal or the pope as his human agent in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

For further explanations or enquiries, you may contact the author, Most Rev. Joseph Osei-Bonsu, Catholic Bishop of Konongo-Mampong, on this number: 0244488904, or on WhatsApp (with the same number).