Extending general absolution: why such a move is out of the question

Extending general absolution: why such a move is out of the question

Fr Peter Joseph

There can be few abuses more harmful to one's spiritual well-being than interference with the Sacrament of Penance. If you mislead people into not repenting, but continuing in sin, you may lead them into eternal damnation. There are few abuses also which could equal general absolution in the laziness that motivates it and the cavalier attitude it manifests towards souls. It is a symptom of total indifference towards people's sense of guilt and the need for forgiveness to be administered personally, along with salutary advice and direction to help amendment of life, peace of conscience and avoidance of scruples.

Anyone who thinks that extending general absolution is going to do good in the Church is simply out of touch with pastoral and spiritual reality. However, in this article I want to show not that general absolution is harmful to Catholics (something which should be obvious), but that its extension is an impossibility (like women priests), which not even the Pope could change, even if he felt like it, so to speak.

Unchanging teaching

The Council of Trent defined solemnly:

  • that Penance is a Sacrament instituted by Christ for the remission of sin committed after Baptism;
  • that the words of Christ, "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained" (Jn 20:22-23), refer to the power of forgiving and retaining sin in the Sacrament of Penance;
  • that three acts are required of the penitent for the complete and perfect remission of sins, viz., contrition, confession, and satisfaction;
  • that by divine law the penitent must make a specific confession of all grave sins, even those of thought, which he or she can call to mind; that private, or auricular confession, as practised in the Church from the beginning, is not a human invention or opposed to the ordinance of Christ;
  • that, for those who have fallen into grave sin after Baptism, the Sacrament of Penance is the only gate of salvation; that though “t sometimes happens that contrition is perfect through charity and reconciles man with God before the Sacrament of Penance is actually received, nevertheless the reconciliation itself is not to be ascribed to contrition alone, but to contrition together with the desire it includes of receiving the Sacrament. (See Denziger 1701-1707, 1677).

Speaking to the Penitentiaries of Rome on 23 February 1981, Pope John Paul II said, "the teaching of the Council of Trent about the necessity of integral confession of mortal sins is still in force in the Church, and always will be." By the way, integral confession rules out what some people call "Rite of Reconciliation 2.5" where you are told to come up and tell one sin to Father. You have to tell all your mortal sins; otherwise it is a sacrilegious confession.

In infallibly defining these truths of faith, Trent set out the four essential elements of the Sacrament as given by Christ and entrusted to the Church: contrition, confession, satisfaction, absolution.

Contrition is the sorrow which we conceive for having offended God by sin. Confession is the declaration of our sins to the priest, in order to obtain forgiveness. Satisfaction is the voluntary acceptance of the penance given by the priest. The object of this penance is to discharge, in part at least, the debt of temporal punishment that often remains after sin has been remitted. Absolution takes away the guilt of sin by the power of Jesus Christ.

But from which of these four could Catholics be dispensed?

It should be obvious that there can be no forgiveness if the penitent is not sorry; there is no dispensation from the requirement of contrition. It is equally clear that a penitent must be absolved by the priest for the sacrament to take place; otherwise we have no sacrament. Satisfaction is binding insofar as the pentient is capable. Similarly, confession of sins is binding only insofar as it is possible.


The old axiom, "no one is bound to the impossible" means that a dying person who cannot speak is not obliged to state his sins. But the priest can still give absolution, and it will have effect if the individual is sorry for sins. But if a seriously sick person, or indeed any Catholic, is capable of confessing any mortal sin privately to a priest, he or she is bound by divine law to do so; not even the Church can offer dispensation.

The Church dispenses the faithful from this God- given law, only when God himself dispenses from this law of his, namely, when circumstances make it morally or physically impossible to fulfil.

The Church has never claimed the power to change the essentials of the sacraments, but she does claim the authority to determine the mode and conditions under which she will administer her sacraments, a power given to her by Christ when he said, "Whatever you bind on earth ..." (Matt. 18:18).

While the four essential parts of the Sacrament of Penance have always been present, their order has varied over the centuries. In the early Church, the sacrament took place with its parts in the following order: (1) contrition (2) confession (3) penance (4) absolution. Today, the sacrament takes place in this order: (1) contrition (2) confession (3) absolution (4) penance. All four parts are essential to the sacrament, but their order can be adapted as the Church determines.

How then does general absolution fit into this schema? General absolution means absolution of a number of people together, without prior individual confession. In cases of general absolution, the Sacrament of Penance is taking place with its parts in this order: (1) contrition (2) absolution (3) confession - when possible (4) penance - when possible.

General absolution is only permitted where danger of death threatens, and there is no time for the priests present to hear individual confessions; or given the number of penitents and the paucity of priests, confessions cannot be heard within an appropriate time, and penitents will be deprived of the sacraments for a long time.

However, a large gathering for some occasion is not sufficient reason (cf. Canon 961 and CCC 1483). Examples of situations where a priest could give a general absolution: a priest on an aircraft that is headed for a crash; a priest visiting a territory only briefly whose inhabitants cannot have access to a priest for a long time and are too numerous to hear one by one; a chaplain with armed forces about to go into battle.

Mortal sins

Note, however, that the Church does not dispense Catholics able to confess from the God-given obligation to confess mortal sins. Catholics absolved at a general absolution are still bound by divine law to confess any mortal sins at the next opportunity if and when it arises. Absolution is given them by the Church on this condition. Anyone who has no intention to confess mortal sin when able, is not absolved of sin, not forgiven - just as in a normal confession, absolution is given on condition that one intends to perform the penance.

It is God who lays down the conditions for forgiveness. We cannot constrain him to give us this gift of forgiveness on our terms. The freely chosen rejection of one of the four parts during the sacrament vitiates the sacrament. And yet this is happening all the time during "Third Rite" sessions held in some Australian parishes.

Who has ever heard of a "Third Rite" session where the people were told that they must confess mortal sins at the next opportunity? No priest conducting an illicit session would ever announce this obligation to his congregation, since that would destroy the purpose of the whole business.

In practical terms, when general absolution is practised without necessity, there are multiple grounds for judging it invalid: most Catholics present have made no proper examination of conscience; a good number may be without contrition and a firm purpose of amendment if, for example, they are living in sin and intend to keep doing so; the great majority have no intention to confess their sins to a priest privately - which is why they came to the session in the first place. On top of all this, it is also arguable that a general absolution is invalid outside the stated norms, since the Church does not supply such faculties to priests except in cases of necessity. For all these reasons, and others, the laity need to be advised to avoid any illegitimate sessions conducted in their parishes.

Given this doctrinal understanding of the sacrament, we can see how the Church as custodian of the sacraments and the deposit of faith cannot change this divinely given dispensation. It is a sheer waste of time to petition the local bishops or the Holy See to extend the provisions for general absolution outside cases of necessity.

Fr Peter Joseph is the vice-rector at Vianney College, the diocesan seminary of Wagga Wagga, having recently studied for his doctorate in Rome.

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