The COVID-19 pandemic has forced governments and individuals to operate as if every day brings with it a new contingency plan. The Catholic Church is no different, in a sense, at least when it comes to the sacrament of confession, which provides in times of emergency a rarely used but powerfully efficient contingency plan: general absolution.

The Church offers three forms to the Rite of Penance — the familiar form of individual confession; communal celebration of the sacrament of penance with individual confession (often referred to as a “penance service” popular in parishes during Lent); and general or “collective” absolution. The last of these three is the Church’s “nuclear option” when it comes to offering souls forgiveness for their sins — both venial and mortal.

General absolution is usually imparted to large groups gathered in one place and always in times of crisis or looming disaster.

In a recent note issued by the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary on the sacrament of reconciliation clarifying basic teachings on confession during the pandemic, special attention was paid to this third form of the rite of confession.

The note points out, “collective absolution, without prior individual confession, cannot be imparted except where there is an imminent danger of death, since there is not enough time to hear the confessions of individual penitents, or a grave necessity, the consideration of which is the responsibility of the diocesan bishop, taking into account the criteria agreed upon with the other members of the Episcopal Conference and without prejudice to the necessity, for valid absolution, of votum sacramenti on the part of the individual penitent, that is to say, the purpose of confessing serious sins in due time, which at the time could not be confessed.”

With the threat of COVID-19 and the social restrictions that have resulted from the pandemic, the note indicates that general absolution is a real possibility at this time.

“This Apostolic Penitentiary believes that, especially in the places most affected by the pandemic contagion and until the phenomenon recedes, the cases of serious need [for general absolution] will occur,” the note states.

In the U.S., at least one diocese — the Archdiocese of Indianapolis — had indicated that general absolution may become necessary as the pandemic continues. In a letter to his priests, Archbishop Charles Thompson of Indianapolis addressed the possibility.

Archbishop Thompson, the letter notes, “may, in the current situations, determine that the circumstances warrant the use of the third form of the Rite of Penance, often called ‘general absolution.’ However, it has been determined that this scenario has not yet presented itself, and this form may not be utilized at this time.”

 

Extraordinary Circumstances Only

According to Father Ryan Rojo, who holds a licentiate in sacramental theology and serves as a member of the liturgical committee for the Diocese of San Angelo, Texas, general absolution is and ought to be rarely used.

“General absolution has always been an option in the life of the Church but only envisioned in extraordinary circumstances,” he said. “The example we had in seminary was the plane is going down, and you don’t have time for individual confessions. So the Church provides this opportunity because the Church operates from a place of mercy.”

While Father Rojo sees that the current situation may require more frequent use of general absolution, it remains at the discretion of individual bishops to decide if circumstances have rendered opportunities for individual confessions impossible.

“It all depends on where you are in the world in light of this terrible pandemic,” he said. “For instance, it might depend on if you’re in Italy — where circumstances might warrant it more readily than in, say, West Texas, where I’m located.”

But general absolution is not a get-out-of-sin free card; rather, said Father Rojo, it retains the same conditions for validity as an individual confession — including contrition and a firm intention to sin no more.

Although penitents are not required to articulate their sins verbally in general absolution, they must call them to mind while the priest administers the sacrament in this form.

“The priest granting general absolution would have an obligation to make everyone aware of that fact and what he is doing,” he said. “He has to make sure everyone can hear him imparting the absolution and there’s still a sense that the individual is contrite and wants to receive this absolution and mercy. It’s not that God’s grace can overcome free will, but forgiveness is something we will, want and desire.”

Neither is general absolution an opportunity for a priest to “call it in” when it comes to confession. According to Father Rojo, priests can abuse the sacrament in this form either in haste or ignorance of its purpose and parameters.

“I have heard stories in which a priest is tied up in the confessional, and he had to run off to Mass,” he said. “So he comes out of the confessional and imparts general absolution to those waiting in line. Even worse, at a penance service, a priest doesn’t want to hear individual confessions and so he imparts general absolution. Those would be examples of an abuse of what the Church intends.”

“The Church keeps general absolution in its back pocket for extraordinary circumstances,” Father Rojo said, “because it’s important that the individual penitent goes through the process of acknowledging his sinfulness and confessing that to the Church.”

Joseph O’Brien writes from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.