Can a priest withhold absolution during confession?

Last night I got into an argument with my girlfriend about what a priest should do if someone in the confessional confesses to a murder. I said that the priest should withhold absolution unless the murderer repents completely, which includes turning himself in; she felt that the priest was obligated to grant absolution upon an act of sincere repentence in the confessional, and was not allowed to demand contrition in consequences. In other words, the priest is not spiritually in a position to demand that the sinner repair their damage in this world, if their repentence is sincere.

There’s a glaring hole there, which is: how sincere is a sinner if he’s not willing to repair the damage in this world? If I confess to stealing $1,000, and the priest says “say ten Hail Mary’s and give the money back”, if I then say that I won’t repay the money, the priest has good reason to doubt the sincerity of my repentence. “Look, father, I’m sorry I took the money, but I won’t return it” makes my confession seem like a formality.

Morally, I think we all agree that the priest should force some sort of act of contrition in this world in the case of the murderer. What’s church doctrine? Under what circumstances can a priest withhold absolution?

This newspaper article may shed some light on the question:

It concerns a priest hearing a murder confession:


IANA+ but my WAG is that you have to repent for real, which in almost all circumstances includes turning yourself in to the police.

I don’t know if there are circumstances where you don’t have to, btu I’d guess there often might be for some crimes, but rarely for murder.

Presumably it’s technically illegal for the priest not to tell the police, but that’s up to his concience.

Priest-penitent relationships are considered privileged, and I don’t believe that a priest is obligated to reveal knowledge of a crime.

Yes, priests can withhold absolution if they do not believe that the confessing person is truly repentant. Whether the person intends to do the penance is part of it - instructing the person to turn theirself in (in the case of a crime like murder), and having them refuse indicates to me insincere repentance (but that’s the viewpoint from a layperson).

There’s also the instruction to “go and sin no more”, meaning that you don’t intend to commit the same sin again. That means that if, say, I was living with someone, went to confession and confessed to sex outside of marriage and that I was living with someone, the priest could refuse absolution on the grounds that living with someone indicates that I do not actually intend to stop sleeping with them.

I believe that if an RCC priest reveals to someone else what he heard during Confession that he gets a quick ticket to a defrocking.

As an addendum, if the priest is an accomplise to the crime, he cannot grant absolution to his co-conspirator.

Based on 12 years of religious instruction in Catholic school, I can attest also that a priest can insist that a criminal turn themselves in before granting absolution. This is a question that always seemed to come up in Religion class.

Absolution require one of two things:

Perfect sorrow…remorse from committing the sin.
Imperfect sorrow…fear of eternal damnation.

Absolution is conditional on the penitent being truly repentant. According to the official Catechism, Absolution actually requires three things of the penitent:

(a) contrition, which is sorrow/repentance (perfect or imperfect) plus “purpose to amend” i.e. a true resolution to go on the straight path
(b) the actual formal confession of the sin
© penance, which the Catechism frames as “satisfaction” and explicitly says in the case of harm done to another human it involves doing what is possible to make good on that harm

(Source: 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Ss. 1450-1460)

Gotta have ALL three.

If the penitent goes in not intending to fully comply with all requirements, or walks out intending to welch on the penance, the confession is not sincere and then it would not matter a whit what words the priest may parrot by rote. Sacraments are not just “magic words”, it demands the faithful’s hearts be into it.
The Catechism also says this on Perfect vs. Imperfect repentance: “[Perfect repentance] remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible” (S. 1452) – i.e. if you’re truly “perfectly” repentant, and a bus runs you over while on the way to confession, you’re in the clear.
“Contrition of fear” a.k.a. imperfect repentance absolutely requires that you complete the Sacrament.

In GQ, if you don’t know the answer to a question, I would suggest not adding to the misinformation by posting your guess.

Shade: as hansel correctly pointed out, it is not “technically” or otherwise illegal for a priest to withhold information about a murderer’s guilt, assuming he came by this information under the seal of confession. All fifty U.S. states recognize an absolute priest-penitent privilege, which belongs to the penitent and cannot be waived. Even if the priest were to break the seal of the confession and the rules of the church to come forward, he could not testify as to what he heard. Needless to say, no law compels him to do so.


As an addendum, if the priest is an accomplise to the crime, he cannot grant absolution to his co-conspirator.**

That’s not true. There is no such rule.

Well, there is one exception: a priest cannot absolve his partner in a sin against the Sixth Commandment. The Code of Canon Law, Can. 977. forbids this specific instance. But apart from that, there is no general rule forbidding what you describe. Evean that specific rule may be waived in case of imminent danger of death.

Turning attention to the OP, canon law does note one case in which public confession and making good whatever harm was done is a requisite condition for absolution. This involves the Sixth Commandment again - a person who confesses that he or she has falsely accused, to church authorities, a priest of soliciting a sin against the Sixth Commandment must recant that accusation publicly before receiving absolution.

In all other cases, if the priest has the faculty to grant absolution, he must use his own judgement in deciding to do so, remembering that he is at once both judge and healer, and that he is constituted by God as a minister of both divine justice and divine mercy.

JRDelirious - excellent post.

  • Rick

What about the confession of plans for a future crime?


Everything I said above applies in equal measure to a person who reveals, under seal of confession, that he is planning a crime that has yet to happen. The priest is still bound by the privilege, and cannot reveal what has been said, and he may, if it seems prudent, withhold absolution until the person abandons the plan.

  • Rick