Q. If a dying person cannot find a priest for confession, could he or she possibly confess to a lay person? I seem to recall reading that such a solution was once accepted practice. I even remember a scene in a significant movie about this. At any rate, what is the answer?
A. The motion picture referred to in the above question could have been the cult Western film, The Ox-Bow Incident, which I recall seeing for the first time during the early 1940s. Nominated for an Oscar, and based on a novel, it featured Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Harry Morgan, among others. The plot focuses on a mob determined to hang two alleged rustlers. One, prior to the lynching, asks for a priest, but none is available. He then makes his confession to one of the bystanders.
Somehow, such a practice was allegedly rooted in customs followed in various European countries. That such a confession is non-sacramental should be obvious.
In the extreme situation outlined in the question above, believers are taught that an Act of Perfect Contrition should be made. Contrition includes three realities: genuine sorrow for sin, hatred for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again. This definition, as well as the truth that contrition occupies the first place among a penitents acts for divine pardon, is established perennial Catholic doctrine, set forth in the Ecumenical Council of Trent, and reiterated in the current Catechism (No. 1451). Perfect Contrition is essentially an act of love; it expresses contrition primarily from a motive of love of God, who is all good and deserving of all [our] love. (Cf. Act of Contrition)
Implicit in an authentic act of contrition is the willingness, if and when possible, to approach the Sacrament of Penance, and contritely confess ones sin.
No one, however, is bound to confess ones sins to a lay person, as depicted in the film, The Ox-Bow Incident. On the contrary, such a confession can be misunderstood and cause confusion. Hence a custom of this kind has never been recommended by the Church, nor has its possibility ever been seriously discussed in Church doctrine.
(Similar parallels to the custom of lay confessions can be seen today in the misleading use of blessed oil for non-sacramental anointings a practice which some bishops have had to caution against publicly because of abuses in their own dioceses.)
Interestingly, the latest (Spring) issue of the scholarly U.S. Catholic Historian includes a paper about ritual practices in the Colony of Maryland from 1634-1776. Therein the author notes that it was an accepted practice in Europe at this time for a lay person to hear the confession of someone who was sick and dying when a priest was not available. The non-sacramental confession was intended to prepare the person for death and bring them comfort during their last hours. Again, however, the answer to the problem of a dying persons wanting to confess was provided by the Church from the very beginning; namely, the making of a sincere Act of Perfect Contrition.
That a priest, and only a priest, can confer sacramental absolution is a datum of divine law, as witnessed to by the Council of Trent (when all kinds of challenges to sacramental doctrine were being raised by the Reformers). The powers conferred by Holy Orders are necessary for the priest, acting, of course, in the person of Christ, who alone can forgive sins. And the ordinary means of forgiveness, in accordance with the Saviors will, is through the sanctuary of the Confessional a precious gift Catholics have learned to value in reverence and love.