In an extraordinary ABC radio interview (5AN, 7.14am) on 1 June, Archbishop Leonard Faulkner made it clear that general absolutions would continue in the Archdiocese of Adelaide. Asked whether the new guidelines spelt "the end of general absolutions in the archdiocese", the Archbishop responded, "No. Certainly not. No."
He added that there would be "opportunities" for all three forms of the Sacrament of Penance to be celebrated. With general absolutions, he said, "where there are cases of real necessity - and there will be in many cases - all the parishes and communities have to do is contact me and the approval will be given. So that I expect that Catholics in this archdiocese will continue to receive the sacrament in all three forms."
The only change, the Archbishop explained, would be that "instead of the parish or community determining its own decision with regard to the celebration of the third form or general absolution, they have to refer every celebration to me prior to the celebration." But apparently approval could more or less be taken for granted.
Earlier, the Statement of Conclusions, the Holy Father (in his address to the Australian Bishops in Rome on 14 December 1998) and a Vatican document on the Sacrament of Penance (19 March 1999) had all called for an effective end to the use of the Third Rite of Reconciliation (or general absolution) throughout Australia. And the Letter from the Australian Bishops to the Catholic People of Australia following their conference last April states that the Church would be following the Pope's request that use of the Third Rite would "be kept strictly within the conditions laid down by Canon Law" (par 12).
In Australian conditions, that meant, in effect, no general absolutions at all, anywhere.
That Archbishop Faulkner believes he can nevertheless circumvent all this underlines the fact that no matter how 'watertight' Church documents might appear on paper, they can be 'interpreted' away, if one has a will to do so.
Canon Law (961), after indicating that the Third Rite can be used only in the case of danger of imminent death, or other such emergencies, says that individual bishops may determine whether "grave necessity exists", but this must be according to "criteria agreed [to] with the other members of the Episcopal Conference - in other words, based on a strict interpretation of Canon Law."
But Archbishop Faulkner has signalled in no uncertain terms that his approach to the requirements of Canon Law will be anything but strict. His radio interview comments constitute a clear challenge to the Australian Bishops Conference and the Holy See.
Prior to his radio interview, it appeared that Archbishop Faulkner intended to adhere to the policy set down by the Episcopal Conference and the Holy See. The contents of his new Pastoral Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacrament of Penance in the Archdiocese of Adelaide (to take effect on 18 May 1999) could not have been more orthodox. The impression conveyed was that general absolutions, once prevalent in the Adelaide Archdiocese, would virtually cease altogether.
In his letter to Adelaide's Catholics which accompanied the guidelines, Archbishop Faulkner said he was responding to "the directive of the Holy Father" in replacing the existing guidelines (established under his predecessor Archbishop Gleeson in 1976), since, in the Pope's words to the Australian bishops last December, general absolution was "appropriate only in cases of grave necessity, clearly determined by liturgical and canonical norms." Any future celebrations of the Third Rite, said the Archbishop, would "require the prior approval of the Archbishop in every case."
The document itself cites authoritative sources on the Sacrament of Penance, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Code of Canon Law and the Pope's Apostolic Exhortation, Reconciliation and Penance, and Address to the Australian Bishops (14 December 1998). Quotes from the Code of Canon Law make clear that "a great gathering of penitents" (such as during Christmas and Easter) does not justify general absolution, that a bishop must judge each individual situation on its merits, according to "grave necessity" (such as "danger of death"), and that, in any case, a person "whose grave sins are forgiven by a general absolution" should "as soon as possible ... make an individual confession before receiving another general absolution, unless a just reason intervenes."
The document further indicates that the Archdiocese would be undertaking, in the words of the Pope, "a great catechising effort in relation to the Sacrament of Penance."
This all seemed very edifying and encouraging.
In the subsequent radio interview, however, Archbishop Faulkner makes it clear that despite its strong-looking contents the guidelines remain open to a permissive interpretation and that in practice it would be more or less "business as usual" in Adelaide.
Asked about the "circumstances" that would elicit his approval for general absolution, the Archbishop said he would follow the Code of Canon Law.
Having said that, he then offered his own version of the "grave necessity" and "strict" interpretation insisted upon by the Holy See and the Bishops Conference: "I'll follow those. I think there are very many people who find this way of celebrating reconciliation [general absolution] very helpful to them and as long as that is illustrated - and also there's a great need - then I'll certainly grant the approval for the celebration ... It's good to remember we're dealing with something that should not be a burden for people."
In short, as long as there is a "great need", it is "helpful" and individual confession is found to be a "burden", general absolutions will be approved in Adelaide.
Also, if people found it "difficult, not only to find the opportunity, but also to actually physically and psychologically get to individual confession", again general absolution would be approved.
Finally, the Archbishop, as if to justify his position for continuing with general absolutions on a large scale - despite all the strong documentation clearly calling for tight restriction if not abandonment - observed: "As far as I can see, there are very few people [in the Adelaide Archdiocese] who are opposed to us celebrating the Sacrament of Confession through general absolution."
[As AD2000 goes to press, there is no indication that the Archbishop has publicly retracted any of his radio interview comments.]