Confession Performed by Laymen

I was reading the Summa Theologica translation on the New Advent website recently, when I came across a very startling declaration. According to III-II, Q. 8, art. 3, a layman may administer the Sacrament of Penance, so long as he absolves only venial sins. I have heard this nowhere else. Furthermore, he backs the statement up with a reference to a quote of Bede’s, which I was not able to locate. Is this consistent with current Church teaching? Thanks for the help.

Summa Theologica, although an important work, is not Canon law. Only a validly ordained priest can hear a confession. Even someone like Alberto Cutie, who renounced the priesthood, can still hear a confession if the penitent is in danger of death. There is no provision that allows the laity to do this.

Please note what Redemptionis Sacramentum says about those who have left the clerical state:

  1. Those Who Have Left the Clerical State
    [168.] “A cleric who loses the clerical state in accordance with the law … is prohibited from exercising the power of order”.274 It is therefore not licit for him to celebrate the sacraments under any pretext whatsoever save in the exceptional case set forth by law,275 nor is it licit for Christ’s faithful to have recourse to him for the celebration, since there is no reason which would permit this according to canon 1335.276 Moreover, these men should neither give the homily277 nor ever undertake any office or duty in the celebration of the sacred Liturgy, lest confusion arise among Christ’s faithful and the truth be obscured.

It notes the exceptional case that I mentioned in my answer.

There was a time in the development of the sacrament that a layperson could hear a person’s confession if it was not for a grave sin and there were no priests available. But, it also should be noted that in the early church and even up until the 12th Century I believe, there were only a limited number of sins that were considered grave. In the ancient Church there were only 3, adultery, apostacy and murder. These grave sins could only be forgiven by the bishop with a canonical penance, which could last years and involved public penances. The Irish monastary system developed a form of reconciliation where a penitient would confess to a monk or even an Abbess and would be assured of God’s forgiveness. This however was not sacramental absolution, which was reserved for the bishop to perform. One of the councils…and I just read it so I should remember which on (but I don’t, might even have been Trent) stated that confession had to be to a priest, so the assumption is that lay people were hearing confessions.

In the Eastern Orthodox/Catholic Churches people could confess there sins before there entire congregation. The justification for doing this would be that it is an act of humility but also on the day of judgement all of your sins could be called before you and you would have to confess them to the whole world. Correct me if I am wrong but, I believe that this is still an optional practive for those in the Eastern Churches.

BTW would it be necessary to confess venial sins to an abbess or laymen at that point when one can confess to God, or was this up to the person and not in canon law?

It looks as if this was still allowed around the turn of the century in the Latin Rite, as well, judging from the Catholic Encyclopedia entry. But of course, I could have misread it. And thanks to all of you for answering my question!

We can confess our sins to anyone. God can forgive us anytime. Only a priest (bishop or presybter) can give absolution.

I think your terminology should be more precise here.
A layman may not administer the Sacrament of Penance.
Note what St. Thomas says:

I answer that, By venial sin man is separated neither from God nor from the sacraments of the Church: wherefore he does not need to receive any further grace for the forgiveness of such a sin, nor does he need to be reconciled to the Church. Consequently a man does not need to confess his venial sins to a priest. And since confession made to a layman is a sacramental, although it is not a perfect sacrament, and since it proceeds from charity, it has a natural aptitude to remit sins, just as the beating of one’s breast, or the sprinkling of holy water (cf. III, 87, 3).

Hearing the confession of venial sins is not administering the sacrament, but rather, offering a sacramental like the sprinkling of holy water.

In the same way, a layman may give a blessing – a father to his children, for example, and that is a sacramental.

St. Thomas says that this sacramental has a natural aptitude – it’s not an expression of the supernatural power of a Sacrament.

What is the difference between forgiveness of sins and absolution of sins?

When Jesus breathed onto his disciples and said “Receive the Holy Spirit. Those sins you forgive will be given in heaven …” John 20:22-23

Did he say forgiveness of sins or absolution of sins?

He said both (read on…)

Forgiveness means that God Himself has “removed” the sin, forgotten it, if you will.

Absolution is a juridic act of the Church whereby the sin and/or the punishment due to sin is removed, and the person is reconciled to the life of the Church. The key difference is that absolution is a “juridic act of the Church.”

In the Sacrament of Confession, we are both forgiven and absolved. We are forgiven by God (through the ministry of the priest) and we are absolved of the sin and reconciled to the Church (through the Church’s minister, the priest in persona Christi).

The difference is that God might forgive our sins at any time–and indeed an infinitely merciful God does this very readily. Absolution is the more outward sign of that forgiveness.

As I posted in another thread, Christ gave the Apostles the authority to both forgive and absolve. In John (which you’ve quoted) the Apostles can forgive (in God’s name always). In Matthew, when He gives Peter the power of the Keys (to “bind and loose”) He gives the Apostles (as an extension of the Petrine ministry) the authority to absolve. The two go together and form the total reconcilliation which we receive in the Sacrament.

Here’s the key point in St. Thomas:

He said that one might confess sins to a layman. But he did not say that a layman can grant absolution*–in fact, he says that such confessions are specifically not a Sacrament. That’s the difference.

  • that’s the crux of the matter. I think (based on your question) that you were under the impression that St Thomas was saying that a layman can grant absolution (your words “so long as he absolved only venial sins”), but he didn’t say that part.
    Does it make more sense now?

Example: a petty thief can “confess” his crime (venial sin) to the store owner. He might be sincerely contrite and might be forgiven by God. The sin might be so minor that it doesn’t rise to the level of requiring Sacramental Confession (ie not a mortal sin). He might be forgiven based on true contrition, an act of ammendment, and non-sacramental “confession” to the store owner–but there is no absolution unless he actually confesses the sin to a priest. Such Sacramental Confession isn’t (in the strictest sense) necessary because it was a minor sin.

I’m glad you brought this up. According to the 1987 Karl Keating vs Peter Ruckman debate on Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Dr. Peter Ruckman argued that Jesus did not give that authority only to the Apostles but to all the disciples in John 20:21-23. He went further by saying, that in the same account according to Luke 24:23 the disciples who gathered when Jesus appeared to them were “…the eleven and those with them…”.

Dr. Ruckman managed to escape from Mr.Keating’s response on this because of the debate setting which did not allow any rebuttal. I want to know what would Mr. Keating’s refutation to this argument or what would be yours or how can we refute to this argument in future circumstances?

Thank you, that makes far more sense now! And thanks to all of you for answering this question of mine!

I’ve given that one some thought, here’s my response (thanks for reading this long post)

Total reconciliation means both forgiveness and absolution. Setting aside, for the moment at least, the issue of forgiveness being imparted by any “follower” of Christ, I’ll stick to the issue of absolution. The power of the Keys was given to Peter and to Peter alone. The authority which priests have to absolve (always remembering that God alone absolves authoritatively, while the priest absolves ministerially) is by way of an extension of the Petrine ministry. Absolution reconciles one to the Church, and here, the priest acts as the Church’s minister as well as God’s minister (a distinction without a difference). One who is outside of the Church cannot act as a minister of the Church*. One who is not himself a part of the visible life of the Church cannot reconcile someone else to the Church (even a priest in a state of most grievous mortal sin can still absolve because he is still the Church’s minister in spite of his own shortcomings, but one who is completely outside of the visible Church cannot reconcile a 3rd party to the Church, excepting the footnote below).

*Even a schismatic priest can still grant the Church’s absolution (in danger of death) because the Church gives him the faculties to do so.

Any person (even a non-Christian) can pray to God an behalf of another and intercede for Him to forgive that person’s sins. In this, Protestants are correct. But only through the ministry of the Church can we be absolved and know that we have been forgiven.

Let’s use the word “reconciliation” to describe the totality of both forgiveness and absolution. We can be forgiven, by itself, through the infinite mercy of God. When we look at biblical examples, we likewise must look at reconciliation in its totality. There are examples given by Christ of forgiveness (Matt & Lk) and examples of absolution (the Keys). Either one without the other is incomplete, indeed true absolution without forgiveness is impossible. We need to look at the life and words of Christ in their totality, rather than take individual quotes out of context; this is a serious problem with Protestantism as a whole. Christ gave us both forgiveness and absolution, and therefore as true Christians, we must embrace both. We cannot on the one hand accept statements about forgiveness, while likewise rejecting those of absolution (again, the Keys). In order to be totally reconciled to God, we must accept the totality of Christ’s teachings. Forgiveness alone, without absolution by the minister of Christ and His Church, is possible, yet incomplete; specifically because it rejects a part-of-the-whole given by God. We cannot accept what we read in the Gospels of Luke and John while at the same time rejecting what we read in Matthew–unfortunately, this is precisely a fundamental tenet of Protestantism. True Christianity embraces the totality of Christ’s teachings.

Hello FrDavid96,
Yes! that was profound. Clear and to the point; you need not go further,God Bless! nannyma

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