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Kevin D. wrote:


I am a Christian who was raised as a Protestant. I had never met any Catholics until I entered college. For a long time now, I have been researching Catholic doctrine, out of a desire to understand Catholics and Catholic teachings, and have found myself reexamining my own beliefs in the process.

I would like to applaud the Catholic Church for upholding doctrines that are in accordance with
the Bible, even if they are at odds with popular thought today. e.g. the issue of homosexuality,
for example.

I have a couple of questions for you concerning penance and I would greatly appreciate any help you might give me concerning them. Please bear in mind that I am still in the process of trying to understand the teachings of the Catholic Church. I don't mind correction at all if my questions imply inaccuracies concerning Catholic doctrine. In such cases, I mean no offense at all.

  1. What assurance do penitents have that the priest to whom they make Confessions are not false?
  2. In other words, can they be sure that the priest will not be exposed as a one living in mortal sin?
  3. In the case that a priest has been proven to be false, do the sins that have been confessed to that priest remain unforgiven?
  4. Is it necessary for penitents to go to Confession again and re-confess the same sins to another priest?
  5. On what grounds would a priest choose to retain the sins of a penitent?
  6. What does this entail?

Thank you for your time.


  { Can you answer a few questions from a seeking Christian concerning Penance/Confession? }

Mary Ann replied:

Hi Kevin,

I appreciate your thoughtful questions, and the spirit in which they are asked.

[i and ii.]: The good news is that the priest's moral state has no bearing on his role in Confession. Thank goodness! The Church has always taught that the sacraments do not depend on the virtue or morality of the Confessor or celebrant.

Even a lay person in mortal sin, even one who is not Christian, may validly baptize, for instance. We have no assurance that any of us is not living in serious sin, and our attitude ought to always be one of prayer for each other and mercy toward each other.

[iii and iv.]: No, it is not necessary. Sins confessed to a sinful priest do not have to be re-confessed to another — they have already been forgiven.

[v and vi.]: The priest can retain — or refuse to impart forgiveness
(the forgiveness is Christ's) — if the person does not fulfill the conditions of the sacrament. i.e.:

  • is making an obviously insincere or false Confession
  • is not sorry
  • refuses penance or reparation (for instance, if you stole something, you have to give what you stole back or give an equivalent amount to charity
    if you can't give it back)
  • or refuses to promise to try and change.
Usually the priest gives the benefit of the doubt, where it is possible. Also, a priest cannot impart absolution for one sin if the person is obstinate about another grave sin.

For instance: suppose you seek forgiveness for an abortion, but you are adamant about continuing to live in a homosexual relationship. Or suppose you are a hit man who seeks forgiveness for one murder, but not another, since he had it coming.

Since one either turns their back to God or not, one cannot be forgiven of one sin, while still being impenitent about another grave sin.

God can't fill half of your heart with grace!

I hope these answers help.

Mary Ann

Kevin replied:

Mary Ann,

Thank you for answering my questions regarding penance. It is sometimes difficult to find information regarding concerning Catholic doctrines. I do have a few other questions I would like to ask, if you don't mind.

  1. I have been told that Catholics are not at liberty to disagree with the interpretation of the Scriptures by the priests (more specifically, that the priest dictates the meaning of the Scriptures to a congregation without being questioned).

    • Is this true?

    I do recognize the significance of maintaining traditional interpretations of Scripture and believe that it was historically essential to protecting the Church from heresies such as Gnosticism.

    • Does the Church recognize only one interpretation of each text or does it maintain many traditional interpretations regarding each text?

  2. I know that the Catholic Bible contains books that were originally included in the Greek Septuagint but were subsequently removed by Martin Luther. I have also read that these books were considered controversial centuries before they were officially canonized by the Church.

    • Are all Catholics bound to accept these books?
    • Also are books, such as Tobit, taken as [parables/legends] or are believed to refer to actual historical events?

  3. Does a Protestant who has been baptized need to be rebaptized to become a Catholic?

I was baptized by immersion in a Methodist church as a teenager.

  1. How does a Catholic become a monk or nun?
    Does the Church consider such members as belonging to the clergy or the congregation?

  2. Does the Catholic Church regard Protestants as belonging to the Church?

Thank you again for taking the time to help me with these questions. I have witnessed much prejudice on the part of Protestants toward the Catholic Church, but I feel that one should never allow hearsay to dictate one's standing in a matter of salvation.


Mary Ann replied:

Hi Kevin,

  1. It is true that the Church is the Guardian of Scriptural Interpretation and has spoken out and clarified certain text when they have been incorrectly interpreted. Nevertheless, there are many levels of meaning to the Scriptures, and many ways to interpret it, and Catholics may certainly disagree with the interpretation by a priest. There are good Church documents on this matter.

    The Interpretation Of The Bible In The Church from the Pontifical Biblical Commission
    on March 18, 1994

  2. Yes, all Catholics are bound to accept the officially canonized books. They were considered non-canonical centuries before — by the rabbis at Jamne, many of whom were also followers of bar Kochba, the pseudo-Messiah who excommunicated Christians from the synagogue around 90 A.D., well after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

    Before that time, the Septuagint was the body of Scriptures accepted by Jews all over the world, most of whom, by that time lost the ability to read Hebrew and read Greek. The Septuagint was a Greek translation made long before the Christian era of the accepted books at the time, which included the later controversial books. The Septuagint canon were the books used by the rabbis in Israel at the time of Christ.

    As far as Tobit is concerned, the Church says that all Scripture is true according to its literary form, according to the intention of the author. There is debate about the literary form of Tobit, but one is free to believe it is historical or not, or to see it as folklore with historical roots and a very true religious message. I believe Church fathers routinely treated it allegorically, but do not quote me on that.

  3. A Protestant who has been baptized does not have to be rebaptized upon entry into the Catholic Church — unless the form of baptism was invalid. The Church is aware of the forms used by Protestant groups (some baptize in Jesus' name, for instance). If there is uncertainty as to the form, or uncertainty about the fact, then the person is conditionally baptized.(i.e.: Kevin, if you are not already baptized, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.) The Church teaches that anyone, even a non-believer, can validly baptize!

  4. Monks and nuns are lay people who have taken promises or vows and who generally live in community. Each group has its own rules of entry:

    • be of sound mind
    • of good health maybe
    • having finished high school usually with long periods of trying things out

    These periods of time are called by various names:

    • postulancy
    • novitiate
    • temporary professed, etc.

Religious (a term they are called) are laity, but usually, because of their vowed consecration, are referred to as religious between clergy and laity when groups in the church are listed. One has a vocation to:

  • to the religious life
  • to the priesthood
  • to both: one joins an order of priests
  • to Matrimony, or
  • to the single lay state.
  1. For this one, see this newest letter from the (CDF), Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Let me know if it is confusing.

    Sometimes Vatican-speak can be that way.

Hope this helps,

Mary Ann

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