Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 13, 2002
Vatican strict on general absolution
Bishops' conferences asked to provide guidelines soon
By JOHN NORTON
"It is not acceptable to contrive or to allow the contrivance of situations of apparent grave necessity."
- Pope John Paul
According to Church law, individual confession is the "sole ordinary means" of receiving absolution, but exceptions for "general absolution" are allowed in cases of imminent danger of death or "grave necessity," as determined by the local bishop.
In general absolution, a group of penitents receives forgiveness for their sins without making an individual confession of sins. According to canon law, those who receive general absolution must confess their serious sins as soon as possible.
The pope's letter largely reiterates existing Church law, but offers a six-point clarification of "grave necessity."
Church law says a "grave necessity" exists when a sufficient number of priests are not available to hear the confessions of individuals "in an appropriate way within an appropriate time," potentially preventing penitents from receiving absolution "for a long time."
The pope said bishops are responsible for determining cases that meet the requirement of "a long time," but added, as an example, that a period of less than a month was insufficient.
Examples where "grave necessity" might occur, he said, were in mission territories where a priest can visit only very few times a year, or in situations of war or exceptional weather conditions.
He also told the bishops "it is not acceptable to contrive or to allow the contrivance of situations of apparent grave necessity."
The pope said the bishops' conferences must send "the text of norms which they intend to issue or update in the light of this (letter)" to the Vatican's congregation for sacraments "as soon as possible."
The question of the use of general absolution has been a point of friction over the years between the Vatican and some bishops, especially in the English-speaking world, where it is also called the "third rite of Penance."
At the press conference, Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez, prefect of the Vatican's congregation for sacraments, objected to the phrase "third rite," saying it made general absolution sound interchangeable with the first two rites, which both involve individual confession.
He said his office plans to remove general absolution from the main text in future editions of the Roman Ritual, an official book of ceremonies used in administering the sacraments, and put it into an appendix "to underline that this is an exceptional and extraordinary form."
Ratzinger said he did not see the pope's letter as "putting new burdens on the shoulders of Christians."
"I would say it is just the opposite," he said. "Certainly confession of one's sin can seem often burdensome to a person, because it humiliates his pride and confronts him with his poverty. But it is exactly this that we need; we suffer from closing ourselves into our illusion of guiltlessness and in this way also closing ourselves from others."
(The full text of the apostolic letter can be found on the Vatican's Web site at: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/motu_proprio/documents/hf_jp-ii_motu-proprio_20020502_misericordia-dei_en.html.)
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