Catholic World News News Feature
General absolution again October 25, 2001
Almost twelve months after the fact, the after-shocks of the historic Statement of Conclusions continue to be felt in Australia. Determined to ensure the Archdiocese of Adelaide conforms with Church teaching on the Third Rite of Reconciliation (that is, general absolution), the Vatican has instructed Archbishop Leonard Faulkner to circulate among his priests a "Statement of Clarification" that effectively rules out any possibility of continued use of general absolution.
At the end of 1998, following discussions between some of Australia’s bishops and leading members of the Vatican Curia on the parlous condition of the Church in Australia, a summary document titled Statement of Conclusions was released. In his concluding address to Australia’s bishops, following the Synod of Oceania, Pope John Paul II urged them to implement the reforms called for in the Statement, including a pointed reference to the need for proper celebrations of the Sacrament of Penance.
While the practice of individual confession had all but vanished in Australia, the Statement noted that general-absolution ceremonies continued to proliferate, despite the restrictive conditions for their use set out in the Code of Canon Law. In some dioceses, the Third Rite had become virtually the only form of the sacrament ever celebrated. The Statement called on the bishops to interpret the terms of Canon Law--particularly canon 961--strictly, so as to stem these abuses.
On their return from Rome, most Australian bishops acted promptly to bring an end to general absolution, but a few continued to prevaricate.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments then issued a strongly worded instruction dated March 19. "In recent years," it said, "in spite of repeated clarifications given by the Holy See... there has been an increasing demand for the indiscriminate use of 'general absolution.'" This new document, the Congregation explained, was written to remove "any remaining doubt or confusion regarding this matter."
At the conclusion of their National Conference in April, the Australian bishops issued a letter endorsing the contents of the Statement of Conclusions, including a commitment to keep use of the Third Rite "strictly within the conditions laid down by Canon Law."
Yet, a number of bishops still continued to hold out. Archbishop Faulkner went so far as to state during a June radio interview that general absolutions would continue in his diocese. He had earlier issued a set of Pastoral Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacrament of Penance which seemed at first to indicate Adelaide’s commitment to adhere to Church teaching. But in his subsequent radio interview, the archbishop offered a series of "soft" interpretations of "grave necessity" that effectively negated the Pastoral Guidelines. For example, he suggested that if people found the Third Rite "helpful," if there was a "real need," if individual confession would be a "burden," or if there were some "psychological" difficulty in getting to confession, approval would be forthcoming.
Such disregard for the Holy Father’s directive and the united agreement of the Australian Episcopal Conference called for a strong response, if the Statement of Conclusions was to retain any credibility.
A STRONG RESPONSE
This response was evident when, on October 6, 1999, Archbishop Faulkner sent a circular letter to the priests of Adelaide, together with a "Statement of Clarification" on his Pastoral Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacrament of Penance. Although this Statement is written in the first person, as if composed by the archbishop himself, it appears on the letterhead of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. Perhaps the archbishop was thus signaling to his priests that he was acting under orders from Rome and not on his own initiative. (Many of Adelaide’s priests and laity are opposed to any curtailing of the Third Rite).
The Statement of Clarification could not have been more explicit. It first repeats that priests are to provide "regular scheduled opportunities for confession ... in all parish churches," adding that communal celebrations incorporating opportunities for individual confession could be encouraged at "key moments of the Church’s year." The practice of asking penitents to name "just one sin or to name a representative sin" (as has occurred during the communal Second Rite of Reconciliation) was to be "eliminated."
Of particular significance, paragraph 7 tightens up the condition cited in Canon 961 that would allow for the use of general absolution if the penitents would otherwise be deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion for a lengthy period of time. The Clarification signed by Archbishop Faulkner reads: Until such time as the Holy See shall decide otherwise, in the Archdiocese of Adelaide that period of time is to be considered as one that exceeds 30 days. At the present time such a circumstance is never realized in this archdiocese.
The archbishop went on to announce that another canonical loophole cited in justifications for general absolution--"grave necessity"--had to be read as meaning "true physical impossibility" of individual confession. As for other situations involving "typically wartime conditions and imminent widespread catastrophe... and where imminent danger of death threatens," his Clarification concludes: "It would therefore seem highly unlikely, God willing, that the requisite conditions could occur within the Archdiocese of Adelaide in the foreseeable future."
In the most unlikely event that any of these restrictive conditions could be met, priests were told to make it clear that penitents who had committed grave sins must make an individual confession "as soon as possible, when the opportunity occurs ... before receiving another general absolution, unless a just reason intervenes."
The concluding paragraph of Archbishop Faulkner's letter affirms: If restrictions exist in Church law, they are first of all guided by the authentic, and in this case, infallible teaching of the Church, and secondly due to the fact that the Sacrament of Penance must be protected from any risk of misuse and all possibility that it could be administered invalidly. Such restrictions are binding on bishops, priests, deacons and all lay Catholics and cannot arbitrarily be ignored. Hence, all improvised and unauthorized practices in the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance must be resolutely set aside.
SIGNAL TO OTHER SEES
The immediate focus of this Statement of Clarification might have been Adelaide, but it sent a clear signal to any other Australian dioceses which have been reluctant to apply Church teaching on the Sacrament of Penance.
This issue can be viewed as a test case. If Rome failed to persevere over a relatively clear-cut matter like the Third Rite, how could she expect serious implementation of the other more complex, long-term reforms called for in the Statement of Conclusions? - Michael Gilchrist