General absolutions continue in the Toowoomba Diocese

General absolutions continue in the Toowoomba Diocese

Michael Gilchrist

In Queensland's Toowoomba Diocese, the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish Bulletin of 24 March informed local Catholics that "the 3rd Rite of Reconciliation will be held on Tuesday night 26th March at 7.00pm." The situation was similar in other parishes around the city of Toowoomba, including St Anthony's, St Theresa's and St Thomas More's. The Cathedral also provided a Third Rite celebration on 25 March, with Fr Jim Cronin as celebrant.

Throughout much of the Toowoomba Diocese, in fact, in the period leading up to Easter 2002, the Third Rite (or general absolution) seemed a routine event - as it has been in the lead-ups to Christmas and Easter over the past three years or more.

When AD2000 approached Bishop William Morris on this matter, he referred to Canon 960 of the Code of Canon Law regarding "physical and moral impossibility" as "basic grounds for permission to be granted" for general absolution.

This situation might surprise many Catholics outside Toowoomba who were under the impression the practice had more-or-less ceased throughout Australia since 1999, at the specific request of Rome, which ruled out its "illegitimate" use.

Prior to the Synod of Oceania in December 1998, such "illegitimate" use of the Third Rite had been quite widespread around Australia. But following a special meeting between a group of Australian bishops and senior Vatican cardinals in Rome, a strongly worded document - titled Statement of Conclusions - was released, containing a list of matters requiring episcopal attention, among them "illegitimate use of general absolution." This "illegitimate use", the Statement said, "was to be eliminated."

Pope John Paul II, during his address on 14 December 1998 to all the Australian bishops gathered in Rome for the Synod of Oceania, lent further emphasis to the Statement's directive, while the Australian bishops at their conference in April 1999, in embracing the Statement of Conclusions, agreed specifically that the Third Rite should be "kept strictly within the conditions laid down by Canon Law."

Canon 960 states that "physical or moral impossibility alone excuses" a penitent from "individual and integral confession", allowing "other means" for attaining reconciliation, i.e., general absolution.

Canon 961 directs that general absolution, without prior individual confession, "cannot be given to a number of penitents" except where "danger of death threatens" or "there exists a grave necessity", as where there are too few confessors available, thus depriving penitents of "sacramental grace ... for a lengthy period of time." It added that a "great gathering of penitents" at "some major feast day or pilgrimage" did not justify general absolution.

Canon 961 adds that the diocesan bishop is the one to judge whether the necessary conditions apply for general absolution in his diocese, while Canon 962 sets out the requirements for valid use of general absolution, e.g., the need for penitents to confess any grave sins individually "in due time."

While the vast majority of Australian bishops terminated general absolution in their dioceses - apparently convinced a "strict" interpretation of Canon Law meant, in effect, allowing no Third Rite at all. However, a few indicated they would continue with the practice.

This prompted a sternly-worded document from the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments which pointed out that "the authorisation given to Diocesan Bishops does not permit them 'to change the required conditions, to substitute other conditions for those given, or to determine grave necessity according to their personal criteria however worthy' [quoting Pope Paul VI]."

While this intervention saw a further reduction in the Third Rite, Toowoomba appears to have been an exception, with guidelines drawn up by Bishop Morris leaving the door open for its continuation.

These guidelines first quote the Church's official position, which is then interpreted by the Bishop. Canon Law's "grave necessity" translates into "genuine needs" or "serious necessity", while "strict" is modified to a "strict but not restrictive" interpretation of the "canonical and liturgical norms of the Church."

"Physical or moral impossibility"

The Bishop then outlines how Canon 960's "physical or moral impossibility" could apply in his Diocese: "Within this area of Church discipline some of the more pastorally sensitive issues that have made the celebration of general absolution a necessity in some contexts can be taken into consideration when decisions are made. Such issues can, in many cases, be rightly judged to be causes which excuse a less than strict adherence to the law because of situations which present moral and physical impossibility.

"In this rural Diocese, for example, the difficulty many people experience in maintaining their anonymity without having to travel excessive distances, or the breakdown of relationships that prevents a person from feeling able to approach a particular priest in a one-to-one situation, may be real grounds for claiming moral or physical impossibility. Negative experiences of the confessional, and even the reality of physical and sexual abuse, may also need to be taken into account when decisions about the use of this rite are made."

While one can understand the Bishop's concerns, such factors as "excessive distances" and "breakdown of relationships" cited in his guidelines as instances of "physical or moral impossibility" do not seem applicable to the numerous parishes within the city of Toowoomba, where distance or lack of adequate choice of confessors would not be relevant factors.

If, however, Toowoomba's approach to use of the Third Rite is in full accord with Canon Law - as Bishop Morris obviously believes it is - it would seem, given similar conditions to Toowoomba exist throughout much of Australia, that those dioceses which have terminated the Third Rite ought to allow its reintroduction. Or perhaps Rome should clarify how Canon 960 should be applied to the Australian scene, assuming it has not already done so.

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