by Jonathan Petre
THE VATICAN has again told priests not to use general absolution except in cases where it is absolutely necessary.
This is the conclusion of a report by the Vatican's International Theological Commission which says that if there are not enough priests to hear confession, a nonsacramental penance service "is more suitable than general absolution."
The report rejects recent trends in Church thinking and practice which has seen general absolution — where penitents are absolved without first making a personal confession — as the first way of dealing with extraordinary situations when they arise.
The report, which was sanctioned by Cardinal Joseph Ratxinger and released in an English translation this month. was described this week as "very significant" by Fr Anthony Churchill, former secretary of the now defunct Liturgy Commission.
He said the bishops in this country were divided over the Vatican reguhations, most clearly laid down in Canon 961 of the new code of Canon Law, "Different bishops have interpreted the regulations differently." he said. "The Holy See, however, has made it increasingly clear that it does not want general absolution to be normal practice."
The thirty leading theologians in the Vatican Commission, established by Pope Paul VI in 1969, acknowledged "the difficult and even somewhat dramatic pastoral situations in many parts of the Church today" that may make it difficult for Catholics to confess individually because of a lack of priests.
But they suggested that the "possibility of a Christian obtaining the forgiveness of grave sin by perfect contrition" provides a pastorally better framework for dealing with those situations than general absolution without individual confession.
A non-sacramental penance service in which persons with grave sins are urged to perfect contrition "is more suitable than general absolution because in this way the obligation to the later personal confession can be made psychologically more understandable to most of the faithful," the commission said.
The Church's tradition of perfect contrition, it commented, says that this act "also always implies the desire of receiving the sacrament of penance as soon as possible" and that it "probably is a sufficient disposition for receiving the Eucharist" when there are not enough confessors available.