CHICAGO — Chicago's Cardinal Francis George is facing a major challenge to his efforts to curb a longstanding practice by some priests of giving penitents general absolution.

A group of about 100 diocesan priests has insisted that general absolution, though restricted under canon law to cases of extreme necessity, is essential to good pastoral care.

The cardinal has responded by engaging them in a continuing dialogue that, he has, said could lead to the joint presentation of a report on the archdiocese's experience with general absolution to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. However, he has reminded the priests that neither he nor they have the authority to allow general absolution without Vatican consent.

“The misuse of authority, in the long run, weakens the Church, no matter our good intentions,” he wrote in a letter that followed a June 19 meeting at Holy Name Cathedral with the Pastors' Forum.

Permitted as one of three forms of celebrating the sacrament of penance, general absolution, or Rite III, is to be used only in urgent situations when penitents would not otherwise have time to have an individual confession heard.

Canon No. 961 states that general absolution can be used when “serious necessity exists,” such as when a supply of confessors Cody, who allowed it provided he was informed ahead of time or the vicar was notified afterwards.

“From that point on, people began to use it,” Father McLaughlin said.

However, the Congregation for Divine Worship has made a point in recent years of letting bishops know that the practice is not to continue, particularly after its widespread use in Australia was publicized.

In a circular letter to bishops last year, the Congregation restated the rules for the sacrament of penance and emphasized the importance of individual confession. Said the letter, “In response to God's sacramental gift: It would ... be foolish, as well as presumptuous, to wish arbitrarily to disregard the means of grace and salvation which the Lord has provided and, in the specific case, to claim to receive forgiveness while doing without the sacrament which was instituted by Christ precisely for forgiveness.”

Necessary Practice?

Priests in the Chicago Archdiocese who support using general absolution tout its benefits and say that those who favor restricting it are too far removed from everyday parish ministry. They also argue that the shortage of priests makes private confession difficult, particularly during Lent and Advent when more people come to the sacrament.

“I see [general absolution] as an absolute pastoral necessity in order to restore a broader sense of relationship to the sacrament of reconciliation,” said Father Bill Stenzel, who presented a position paper supporting of general absolution to the June 19 Pastors' Forum attended by Cardinal George.

Father Stenzel is pastor of the 2,800-member St. Francis Xavier Parish in LaGrange, Ill., which offers general absolution services during Lent and Advent.

“We get huge crowds at our services and the people coming are not radical, liberal bridge-burners,” he said. “They are elderly, faithful, the backbone of the church. They consistently attest to the significance of [general absolution] in comparison to what their experiences have been in individual confession.”

Father Stenzel said the services typically last from 60 to 90 minutes and offer more time for reflection and examination of conscience than does individual confession, known as Rite I.

Rich Seng, a parishioner at St. Mary's of the Angels Parish, said he has never been to a general absolution service, nor has he ever had a problem finding a priest for confession. He said he would not object to the use of Rite III, as long as it was done with permission of the local bishop, but that he thinks private confession with its opportunity for counsel from the priest may lead to deeper reflection and contrition.

Deception?

Father Stenzel said general absolution services lead people back to a proper relationship with individual confession, enabling them to distinguish when that form or the general form meets their needs.

During the services, each penitent usually receives the imposition of hands from a priest and has the opportunity to say something. “The look on their face says more than any word could articulate,” Father Stenzel said.

However, Greg Morrow, a member of Chicago's St. Thomas More Parish who has been fighting the use of general absolution in the archdiocese for many years, said he is concerned that those who go to confession in this way are not receiving forgiveness.

“It's not valid,” he said. “Nobody actually receives absolution and they're deceiving the people.”

Father Patrick Lagges, vicar for canonical services for the Archdiocese, said he believes that parishioners who are given general absolution are receiving a valid sacrament, provided they are properly disposed and intend to confess any serious sins to a priest as soon as possible.

“The problem is not with the people. They're OK. They've received a valid absolution, but the problem is the discipline the priest has followed in giving absolution.”

He said Cardinal George's discussions with priests who advocate the practice are aimed at rectifying that discipline.

“If priests are not celebrating the sacraments correctly, whether Penance or Eucharist, the bishop's first responsibility is to talk to them personally. ... That's exactly what the cardinal is doing. He's talking to his pastors.”

Father Lagges said the cardinal is trying to clarify what is meant by general absolution. Sometimes, he said, priests refer to communal penance services at which penitents have the opportunity to mention a sin or sins to a priest as general absolution. “But it's not quite. It's sort of like a hybrid.”

General absolution, he said, implies that there is no individual encounter between priest and penitent.

A one-on-one encounter that is part of a communal service might not be the most beneficial, he said, “but it's at least an encounter and it's individual auricular confession, which again fulfills the minimum.”

Rite III has been an evolving issue in the church, Father Lagges said. “And there haven't been any hard-and-fast rules while it was developing.” As a result, he said, different priests remember being taught different things about it.

“Part of it is just the confusion that comes with any developmental process,” he added. “I don't think it's priests being openly disobedient or anything like that. It's simply priests doing what they remember in that developmental process.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says general absolution may be used in the case of “grave necessity” which it defines as “when there is imminent danger of death without sufficient time for the priest or priests to hear each penitent's confession.”

It adds, “Grave necessity can also exist when, given the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors to hear individual confessions properly in a reasonable time, so that the penitents through no fault of their own would be derived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion for a long time.”

Even in that case, “for the absolution to be valid the faithful must have the intention of individually confessing their grave sins in the time required,” the catechism instructs.

“The diocesan bishop is the judge of whether or not the conditions required for general absolution exist,” it concludes. “A large gathering of the faithful on the occasion of major feasts or pilgrimages does not constitute a case of grave necessity.”

Judy Roberts writes from Millbury, Ohio.