VATICAN CITY — Calling for a “vigorous revitalization of the sacrament of reconciliation,” Pope John Paul II issued a new apostolic letter aimed at eliminating abuses of general absolution which he said cause “serious harm to the spiritual life of the faithful and to the holiness of the Church.”
“In some places there has been a tendency to abandon individual confession and wrongly to resort to ‘general’ or ‘communal’ absolution,” notes the Holy Father in his 16-page letter entitled Misericordia Dei (By the Mercy of God). The letter was dated Divine Mercy Sunday and released on May 2. It was issued “motu proprio,” meaning that it promulgates regulations on the Pope's own authority.
General absolution means the priest gives absolution to a number of penitents at once without each one confessing his sins personally. Permitted in cases of “grave necessity,” it has become a routine practice in some dioceses.
It was used most famously — and correctly — recently for Catholic firefighters heading into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Lacking time for individual confessions, the firefighters were in danger of death and so priests on the scene administered general absolution. As in all such cases, penitents who received general absolution are obliged to personally confess their serious sins as soon as possible, even though absolution has already been granted.
“Since the integral confession of serious sins is by divine decree a constitutive part of the sacrament, it is in no way subject to the discretion of pastors (dispensation, interpretation, local customs, etc.),” writes the Holy Father in the key part of the text. “In the relevant disciplinary norms, the competent ecclesiastical authority merely indicates the criteria of distinguishing a real impossibility of confessing one's sins from other situations in which the impossibility is only apparent or can be surmounted.”
“Integral confession” means that penitents must confess all serious sins (also called “grave sins” or “mortal sins”) committed since baptism which have not been previously confessed. Misercordia Dei reiterates that absolution can only be validly received after such an integral confession, together with contrition and a purpose of amendment. Specific mention is made that “penitents living in a habitual state of serious sin and who do not intend to change their situation cannot validly receive absolution.”
In framing the issue of general absolution in the context of “divine decree,” John Paul is stressing that the Church does not have the authority to change what Christ himself willed. The Church does not have the power to dispense from individual confession; she can only make provisions for cases where it is truly impossible. In this sense, Misercordia Dei echoes the 1994 letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which taught that the Church does not possess the authority to ordain women to the priesthood.
“It is not in the power of the Church to substitute general absolution for personal confession,” said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the press conference presenting the document. “The pope reminds us of this in this new ‘motu proprio,’ which thus expresses the Church's awareness of the limits of her power — expressing the link with the word of the Lord, which binds even the pope.”
“To equate ‘general absolution’ with the ordinary forms of the celebration of the sacrament of penance is a doctrinal error, a disciplinary abuse and a pastoral harm,” added Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
Misercordia Dei does three new things. It clarifies what constitutes the “grave necessity” under which general absolution can be administered, it requires national bishops’ conferences to draw up rules for when it can be done, and it assigns to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments the responsibility for approving those rules on behalf of the Holy See.
Canon 961 of the Code of Canon Law regulates general absolution, permitting it only in danger of death or “grave necessity,” meaning that there are not sufficient priests to hear all the confessions appropriately and that penitents would have to go a “long time” without sacramental grace or Holy Communion.
“It refers to situations which are objectively exceptional, such as can occur in mission territories or in isolated communities of the faithful, where the priest can visit only once or very few times a year, or when war or weather conditions or similar factors permit,” Misericordia Dei clarifies.
“The two conditions set down in the canon to determine grave necessity are inseparable,” the letter adds. In practical terms, this means that only a lack of confessors is not sufficient for grave necessity, but that the faithful would also have to be denied access to the sacraments for a long time. The letter further specifies that a “long time” means at least one month. If it would be possible for the faithful to get to confession and Holy Communion within a month should they wish, grave necessity does not exist. Therefore, “the large number of penitents gathered on the occasion of a great feast or pilgrimage, or for reasons of tourism or because of today's increased mobility of people, does not in itself constitute grave necessity.”
Misercordia Dei also underscores what canon law already states, that no parish priest has the authority to determine what constitutes “grave necessity.” In danger of death, he ought to administer general absolution, but in all other cases, the determination of “grave necessity” is solely the competence of the diocesan bishop.
As well, Misericordia Dei reiterates previous instructions — this time with papal weight — that churches ought to have confessionals “in an open area” and with “a fixed grill so as to permit the faithful and confessors themselves who may wish to make use of them to do so freely.”
In 1998, Archbishop's Herranz's council instructed that both penitent and priest always have the right to confession behind the grill. So-called “face-to-face” confessions require the consent of both parties. A priest need not offer it, and may not force it upon a penitent.
While existing law allows for the possibility for national bishops’ conferences to have common policies on general absolution, Misericordia Dei now makes that mandatory. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments will act on behalf of the Holy See in giving approval to such norms, underscoring that this is a matter of the integrity of the sacraments. In purely legislative matters relating to bishops’ conferences, the Congregation for Bishops acts for the Holy See.
It would be possible for a national episcopal conference to say that situations of “grave necessity” never arise in their territory, as has been done by the Irish bishops.
“This is an attempt to assist the local bishop in the application of the law of the Church,” said Archbishop Julián Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. Archbishop Herranz spoke of the bishop's mission as teaching, celebrating the liturgy and enforcing discipline. “It is not enough for a bishop to teach well and celebrate magnificent liturgies if he neglects discipline.”
Archbishop Herranz noted that Misercordia Dei encourages priests to be generous in availability for confession.
“It is particularly recommended that in places of worship confessors be visibly present at the advertized times, that these times be adapted to the real circumstances of penitents, and that confessions be especially before Masses, and even during Mass if there are other priests available, in order to meet the needs of the faithful,” the letter says.
Summed up Archbishop Herranz, “There has not been a crisis in confession, but a crisis of confessors.”