Q. Can a non-Catholic go to Confession?
A. Usually the Sacrament of Reconciliation – what we commonly call Confession – is only available for baptized Catholics in good standing with the Church and not under any ecclesestical penalty. This is because Confession isn’t just about you and God; it is also about our relationship with the rest of the Body of Christ, the Church. When we sin, we wound the Church as well as ourselves. The ordinary way God forgives mortal sins AND heals the wounds we have caused to the Church is through Confession.
In order to receive this sacrament, a person must believe that a Catholic priest has the power to forgive sins, must have confidence that he is validly ordained, and also believe what the Church teaches about Confession. Essentially, they believe what Catholics believe regarding the sacraments.
This being said, the Catechism tells us that in rare circumstances, confessions may be made by non-Catholic Christians: “When, in the Ordinary’s judgment, a grave necessity arises, Catholic ministers may give the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing of the Sick to other Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church, who ask for them of their own will, provided they give evidence of holding the Catholic faith regarding these sacraments and possess the required dispositions.” (CCC 1401)
In other words, while not officially part of the Catholic Church, they express Catholic belief and understanding in the sacraments. An example where this applies is for those non-Catholic Christians living in nursing homes and hospitals who are near death and ask for Confession when a minister of their own church or ecclesial community is not available. They must also maintain a Catholic belief and understanding of what Confession is and be properly disposed to receive the sacrament.
Another exception is for baptized non-Catholics who are in an RCIA program and are about to enter the Church at Easter. In this instance, it’s appropriate that they have the opportunity to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before they receive Confirmation and the Eucharist.