What Happens if a Catholic Dies Without Confession?

Catholic confession to a priest takes place through a wooden screen, as pictured, or face to face.
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Catholics are taught that going to confession absolves them of punishment in the afterlife and reconciles them with God, and they should confess their serious sins to a priest at least once a year. If a Catholic dies without recently or ever having been to confession, the church teaches that the individual's lifetime choices determine what happens after death.

1 Entering Heaven Immediately

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a Catholic who dies without confession but nevertheless lived a holy life may go directly to heaven. A person who dies "in God's grace" has only minor or venial sins for which to answer and, while living, most likely attended weekly mass, prayed and practiced generosity. In this case, a union with God, deceased loved ones, angels and saints in paradise may immediately follow death. .

2 Spending Time in Purgatory

If a person dies without having answered for a number of minor sins not severe enough to qualify as mortal sins, he may need to spend time in purgatory, an in-between place immediately following death and preceding heaven. The time spent in this state varies by individual and is meant to be punishment for sins that were not forgiven during life. The church teaches that a person in purgatory is eventually assured a place in heaven.

3 Suffering in "Eternal Fire"

The church teaches that those who die in state of mortal sin, having committed grave offenses against God and other people, and without having sought forgiveness for these major sins, will go to hell. The Catechism teaches that hell is an "eternal fire," the chief punishment of which is "separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs."

4 Being Redeemed through Perfect Contrition

According to the Catechism, contrition is "sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again." Perfect contrition is imbued with a love of God above all other things. A dying person who does not have enough time to seek confession from a priest but has perfect contrition will be forgiven and saved from damnation, even if the sins committed were very grave.

Based in Kansas City, Andrea Adams has been been writing for the non-profit sector since 2006. Her areas of interest include higher education, social issues and cultural phenomena. She has a Bachelor of Science in social policy from Northwestern University.