Q. How does God forgive the sins of non-Catholics and non-Christians? I have the impression that God makes forgiveness harder for Catholics because they have to go to a special sacrament. Is this an improper way of looking at things?
A. Here’s a reply from Msgr. M. Francis Mannion:
The normal way in which Catholics have their serious sins forgiven is through the Sacrament of Penance and reconciliation. I say "normal" because God is not bound to his sacraments. He can act freely to forgive as he chooses -- and the God in whom Christians believe is infinitely forgiving. If a Catholic is hit by a bus and makes a good Act of Contrition before he or she dies, then God forgives whatever sins have been committed. Or if someone who has no access to a priest for confession is truly repentant, then he or she can receive forgiveness. When Catholics have access to a priest, then, of course, the obligation to confess comes into play.
God certainly forgives non-Catholics and non-Christians whey they are truly sorry for their sins and follow their best conscience on moral matters. God sees into the hearts and minds of all men and women, and when they are of good will, then they are in God's grace.
Are things made harder for Catholics because they are bound by the Sacrament of Penance? Only if one looks at the sacraments as a burden! The sacraments are not, of course, a burden, but the means by which God is present and active in the world. Sacramental confession certainly has its embarrassing side, but if the confessor is doing a good job, then the result of confession should be that the penitent feels relieved, reassured and joyful.
One of the things I have found with some non-Catholics in my years as a priest is that they often have an undefined and unresolved sense of carrying unforgiven burdens. They are not sure how they stand in God's eyes (or, if they are nonbelievers, how they stand in the sight of whatever ultimate reality there is). Catholics, as well as Orthodox Christians and those traditions that have something like confession, have the assurance that, with true repentance of life, they really can have God's forgiveness and that no sin truly repented of is unforgivable.