Forgiveness for Non-Catholics
Date: February 15, 2022
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Our diocesan newspaper, The Evangelist, has a section titled "Question Box" where a variety of questions are asked and liturgically correct answers are given. Last year a reader asked, “How are non-Catholics forgiven?” and the answer was somewhat lacking in details for most non-Catholic religions. When I read the question, I was curious about the answer since my wife is not a Catholic and does not believe in confession, but believes that her sins are forgiven as part of the Mass. If possible, could you let me and others know the Catholic Church's answer to this question? -- T.K., Porter Corners, New York
A: The question referred to by our reader was answered by Father Kenneth Doyle.
Father Doyle answered correctly and informatively to the specific inquiry received, which seemed to refer to the ritual aspects of forgiveness of sins in other Christian denominations. It could perhaps have also been interpreted to embrace the non-Christian practice, but this was not the obvious object of the query.
Father Doyle replied succinctly to a subject that could have received a book-length reply by presenting an overview of rituals, analogous to the sacrament of reconciliation, practiced by several non-Catholic denominations.
He also reminded Catholics that venial sins can be forgiven by other means, such as prayer and during Mass as well as the possibility of obtaining forgiveness, even of mortal sins, through an act of perfect contrition when confession is not available.
He stuck to the question asked and did not enter into the thorny theological questions behind the different ritual practices requiring subtle doctrinal distinctions beyond the scope of a newspaper column.
For example, liturgical practice among Eastern Orthodox and some Eastern Catholics differs from Latin Catholics insofar as to the manner and place of hearing confessions, but there is practically no essential difference as to the doctrine of the sacrament of reconciliation.
This is not quite the case with Protestants. Even those who practice a rite similar to confession might not include this rite among the sacraments. Even if they accept it among the sacraments, the very concept of sacrament might be different from the Catholic understanding and be essentially reduced to a means of witnessing to the faith and not also an objective means of restoring and growing in grace.
Other Protestants might question the need for any such rite whatsoever as they believe that since Christ has already brought about forgiveness through the Cross it is sufficient to accept this reality through faith. In short, each denomination will have its own nuances.
Our reader’s question, however, is geared toward this theological aspect rather than the liturgical.
To attempt an answer, I think we need to first clarify an essential principle.
All salvation, and hence all forgiveness of sins, comes from Christ and is mediated through the Church. This applies to everybody even to those who never know of Christ or the Church.
Indeed, in some of our Eucharistic Prayers, we specifically pray for those who seek God “with a sincere heart,” and for the dead “whose faith you alone have known.” In this the Church, mediator of grace, acts, in the words of the second-century Epistle to Diognetus, as the “Soul of the World,” giving it life and holding it together.
It is less clear as to how this grace of Christ’s salvation and the mediation of the Church actually reaches those individuals who will be saved. We can be sure that God knows the concrete response of each soul within that person’s real possibilities and limitations.
I speak of God’s actions in individuals rather than in other faiths because, while the Church accepts that those who adhere to non-Christian religions can be saved, these religions are not in themselves means of salvation parallel to Christ and his Church.
Therefore, in answer to the question as to how the sins of non-Christians are forgiven, the honest answer can only be that we are not sure how, but are sure that God’s mercy will not reject those who genuinely repent and ask forgiveness as best they know.
With even more certainty we can be confident that God will act in mercy to sincere non-Catholic Christians who lack the blessing of the sacrament of reconciliation.
The fact that God offers the possibility of salvation and forgiveness to those who do not share our faith does not remove the need for evangelization.
Knowing Christ and his Church is the only way in which human beings can know who they truly are as the objects of God’s boundless and gratuitous love and hence rightly flourish as human beings by responding with a similar love. In this way, we can understand St. Paul’s cry of “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” because a Christian who does not strive to live and spread the Good News would be missing something essential to living the faith.
Analogously, the existence of other means of receiving pardon for sin should not lessen the practice of sacramental confession. Like all sacraments, reconciliation is a means of growth on our spiritual journey and not just a remedy for spiritual death.
For a Christian who is striving to authentically follow Christ in the Church, the practice of confession, to use St. Paul’s analogy of life as a race or marathon, is like dusting off after a stumble and continuing on from where we left off. It is not a false start that continuously sends us back to the starting line.
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