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Sacrament of Penance, The

by Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments

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  • Descriptive Title:
    The Sacrament of Penance
    Letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to the Church in Australia about the laws concerning General Absolution.
  • Larger Work:
  • Publisher & Date:
    Vatican, March 19, 1999

The Sacrament of Penance

By the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments

Prot. N. 697/99/L

In fidelity to the mission entrusted to the Church by our Savior Jesus Christ, when he gave to his Apostles and to their successors the power to forgive or to retain sins (Jn 20:19-23), the Church "has never failed to call men from sin to conversion through the celebration of penance to show the victory of Christ over sin" (Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, Ordo Paenitentiae, 1).

In recent years, in spite of repeated clarifications given by the Holy See on the necessary conditions for the valid and licit administration of the Sacrament of Penance, there has been an increasing demand for the indiscriminate use of "general absolution". It is perhaps important to recall that the recent Statement of Conclusions, signed by the Superiors of six Congregations of Roman Curia as well as a representation of Australian Bishops, did not revoke anything permitted by the dispositions of the law concerning "general absolution". What has been done is to emphasize the dispositions of law in force. In the hope of removing any remaining doubt or confusion regarding this matter, this Congregation has considered it opportune to bring to the attention of the Catholic faithful in Australia, the essential conditions for the ordinary and extraordinary celebration of the sacrament in the Latin Church.

The norms in force are found in particular in the Ordo Paenitentiae of the Rituale Romanum and in the Codex Iuris Canonici (cfr. cann. 959-991, and cann. 960-962, in particular) and are based on the constant doctrine of the Church, as well as the traditional practice of the Latin Church, and therefore, it is not possible to modify them or to derogate from them for any reason. Consequently, "Rite III" must be understood to be of an "altogether exceptional character" (Pope Paul VI, Allocution to the Bishops of the region of New York in the United States of America, 20 April 1978: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 70 (1978) 331) and is in no way an "ordinary" rite equatable with "Rite I" and "Rite II". To present "Rite III" as an acceptable alternative to individual and integral confession is contrary to the clear and certain canonical dispositions laid down for the common good of the Church.

Specifically, it is the Church's solemn teaching that for an integral and complete pardon of sins, three acts are required of the penitent as parts of the sacrament: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. By divine law, it is necessary that penitents confess to a priest all mortal sins as well as any specifying moral circumstances that they remember after a careful examination of conscience. Having confessed his sins in this way, the penitent is then absolved from his sins in the judicial act of the priest's sacramental absolution (cf. Conc. Oecum. Flor., session VIII, Bulla unionis Armenorum: Denziger-Schönmetzer 1323; Conc. Oecum. Trid., session XIV, Canones de sacramento paenitentiae, cann. 4, 6-9: Denz.-Schön. 1704, 1706-1709; Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Sacramentum Paenitentiae, (16 June 1972): Acta Apostolicae Sedis 64 (1972) 510-514; can. 988, § 1).

For this reason the Codex Iuris Canonici states that "integral and individual confession and absolution is the sole, ordinary means by which a member of the faithful who is conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and with the Church. Physical or moral impossibility alone excuses from such confession. . . " (Can. 960).

Due to the "altogether exceptional character" of "general absolution it may not be administered except in two difficult situations of serious need on the part of the faithful" (1) imminent danger of death in which there is not time for the priest of priests to hear the confessions of the penitents individually; (2) certain well-defined situations where there exists a grave necessity that would deprive the faithful of sacramental grace or of Holy Communion for a lengthy period of time (cf. Can. 961, §1, 1°-2°).

If in the opinion of the confessor there is a case of grave necessity that could permit "general absolution", it is to be submitted to the judgement of the Diocesan Bishop with whom lies the responsibility for decided whether the necessary conditions are indeed present (cf. Can. 961); without such a decision, "general absolution" may not be conferred. Moreover, as the canon itself points out, "sufficient necessity is not considered to exist when confessors cannot be available merely because of a great gathering of penitents, such as can occur on some major feastday or pilgrimage" (can. 61, §1, 2°). The authorization given to Diocesan Bishops does not permit them "to change the required conditions, to substitute other criteria however worthy" (Pope Paul VI, Allocution to the Bishops of the region of New York in the United States of America, 20 April 1978: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 70 (1978) 330). The Diocesan Bishop "makes this judgement graviter onerata conscientia, and with full respect for the law and practice of the Church" (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 2 December 1984, n. 33: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 77 (1985) 270). Furthermore, the fact that the canons acknowledge the right of the faithful to confess their sins on days and at times arranged for their convenience (cf. Can 986, §1) cannot be used as a justification for an alternative practice of "general absolution".

In this context it is of great importance to remember that even when the sacrament is received by means of a collective absolution, it nevertheless requires, as a result of its divine and irreformable foundation, that each penitent have the necessary dispositions for the reception of the sacrament, namely, individual and personal repentance for sins committed, the resolution to rectify scandal or injuries that may have been caused in relation to those sins, the intention of amending his life, and the intention to make an integral and individual confession as soon as possible of those grave sins from which he is impeded from confessing at the time. Each of these dispositions must be present in order that the sacramental absolution be received validly (cf. Conc. Oecum. Trid., session XIV, cap. IV: Denz.-Schön. 1676-1677; session XIV, Canones de sacramento paenitentiae, can. 5: Denz.-Schön. 1705; can. 987; Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Sacramentum Paenitentiae, 16 June 1972): Acta Apostolicae Sedis 64 (1972) 512; cann. 962, §1, 963, 988, §1; Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliation et Paenitentia, 2 December 1984, n. 31: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 77 (1985) 260-261).

Nor should the importance of the act of satisfaction be passed over. This final act of the penitent "crowns the sacramental sign of Penance" (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 2 December 1984, n. 31: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 77 (1985) 263). Hence, the confessor is to impose salutary and appropriate penances, in proportion to the kind and number of sins confessed, taking into account, however, the condition of the penitent. The penitent, for his part, is bound personally to carry out these penances (cf. Can. 981).

All priests who exercise their ministry reconciling penitents are reminded that these obligations of the faithful are concomitant with a corresponding right for them to be given sacramental grace and spiritual riches of the Church in individual confession (cf. Can. 213). Therefore, priests are bound to adhere faithfully to the teaching of the Magisterium and to the norms established by the competent authority catechesis on the authentic nature and requisites of the Sacrament of Penance.

The grace of the sacrament is the communication of the indescribable mercy of God through the ministry of the Church which touches the Christian in the depths of his being, as well as in his relationship with God, with the Church, with others of the faithful, and with all his fellow men. As a consequence, all deviations from the authentic practice of the Church in this regard constitute a serious and wrongful deprivation, also punishable in accordance with the sacred canons.

19 March 1999
Solemnity of St. Joseph

The Congregation for Divine Worship
And the Discipline of the Sacraments

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