The decision by Archbishop Leonard Faulkner of Adelaide to continue for the time being the practice of general absolution - despite the explicit affirmation in the recent Statement of Conclusions between the Australian bishops and heads of Roman Congregations, that the "illegitimate use of general absolution ... is to be eliminated" - poses real dangers to the unity of the Church in Australia.
The joint statement was endorsed by Pope John Paul II during a meeting with all the Australian bishops at the end of their ad limina visits to Rome last December.
Since then, a majority of bishops and all archbishops in other dioceses throughout Australia have directed that the practice of general absolutions, available through the Third Rite of Reconciliation, is to be discontinued.
Archbishop Faulkner told a public meeting in Adelaide that he had instructed parish priests to increase opportunities for individual confessions where necessary, but added, "I have asked for advice about what constitutes 'grave necessity' for this archdiocese [see box], and until these matters are clearly established, the norms agreed to by Archbishop Gleeson will continue to apply. I have made a judgment [that] until such time as we have a definite policy, what has been in practice will remain." (In 1975, the former Archbishop of Adelaide, Dr Gleeson, received permission from Rome to use general absolution during Lent and Advent, to cope with the number of penitents.)
The Archbishop's statement, telecast nationally on the ABC's Four Corners program on 8 March, was widely interpreted as dissent from the joint Statement of Conclusions and the papal directive.
Both issues are certain to be discussed at the forthcoming meeting of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference in Sydney after Easter.
Meanwhile, some elements have been organising themselves to discourage the reform process.
A joint 3-day conference of the National Council of Priests and the Leaders of Religious Institutes was held in Sydney in February to discuss the statement.
The conference participants issued a statement which strongly disputed the Statement of Conclusions. It rejected any halt to general absolutions and complained that the Vatican's "overwhelmingly negative estimation of Australian Catholicism did not reflect their own broad experience of the Church here."
This claim was already undercut by Archbishop Carroll of Canberra and Goulburn, one of the bishops involved in the pre-Synod of Oceania meetings. In a letter to his clergy, reproduced in full in the diocesan paper, Catholic Voice, the Archbishop offered a revealing account of the meetings between the Australian bishops and Vatican Cardinals.
He endorsed Cardinal Ratzinger's comment that the statement was "a fair account of the dialogue" between the Australian episcopal representatives and the Vatican Cardinals. Despite claims as to the "negativity of the Pope's address and the Conclusions document," said Archbishop Carroll, "if one reads them objectively ... one can scarcely quarrel with their major points."
In the Brisbane Archdiocese, however, Catholics were receiving mixed signals. Archbishop John Bathersby confided to a gathering of over 200 priests on 3 February that it had taken him almost a week "to get over the hurt" of Pope John Paul II's "stern instruction to the Australian bishops at the end of their ad limina visit on 14 December." He said that "after much prayer and consideration he came to realise that accepting the challenge from those in authority was a necessary part of belonging to a universal Church."
The Archbishop has issued a pastoral letter calling for a cessation of general absolutions, but later expressed the hope that a wider use of them might be sanctioned in the future, "as he had seen for himself how much good had been done by general absolution."
At the same time, Brisbane's archdiocesan weekly, The Catholic Leader, has continued to publish articles and comments critical of the Statement of Conclusions. These seemed designed to lower the credibility of the statement and to blunt the impact of its directives.
Elsewhere, the reactions were more positive. Bishop Kevin Manning of Parramatta oversaw a special edition of his diocesan newspaper, Catholic Outlook, devoted to the Synod of Oceania and the Statement of Conclusions, the text of which was reproduced in full. In his letter to the diocese, Bishop Manning said: "The Holy Father left no doubt that he was calling each bishop 'to assume full responsibility, setting his face resolutely against all that might harm the faith that had been handed down' (1 Cor 4:7)."
During an interview with the managing editor of Perth's archdiocesan weekly, The Record, (which also reprinted the text of the Statement in full), Archbishop Barry Hickey said he was well aware of the crisis of faith alluded to in the statement: "My eyes have been wide open and I do what I can to reinvigorate the faith and call people back to the practice of the faith ... I think that the basic call was a call to bishops to take their responsibilities seriously ... We are all in the one Church and we can't just pick and choose."
Australian bishops who share the Pope's concerns will no doubt be fortified by the Statement of Conclusions. As Archbishop Pell told readers of Kairos (Melbourne's archdiocesan periodical), "the Holy Father and the joint statement confirm the line we are following in Melbourne."
What it's all about ...
The church's law in relation to general absolution is set out below:
"General absolution, without prior individual confession, cannot be given to a number of penitents together, unless:
1. danger of death threatens, and there is not time for the priest or priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents;
2. there exists a grave necessity, that is, given the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors available properly to hear the individual confessions within an appropriate time, so that without fault of their own, the penitents are deprived of the sacramental grace or of holy communion for a lengthy period of time. A sufficient necessity is not, however, considered to exist when confessors cannot be available merely because of a great gathering of penitents, such as can occur on some major feast day or pilgrimage [e.g., Christmas or Easter]."
(Canon 961 of the Church's Code of Canon Law)