What is the position regarding General Absolution? — PHP.
There is fairly strong feeling about the use of General Absolution, caused especially by the natural dislike many people have for verbally revealing themselves to another person and also by the feeling that the new rite of Penance of 1973 made general absolution at last a legitimate manner of receiving the grace of sacramental forgiveness.
But then things went sour apparently, Rome sent out strong words on the correct use of this sacrament, and general absolution receded into the background.
Was this all a bad PR job on the part of the Church, or is there room for general absolution in the near future?
There is no doubt that development in Christian understanding and practice is both possible and desirable, so that in theory at least general absolution if it pertains to legitimate development need only wait for the right moment.
Indeed, the sacrament of Penance has grown considerably since the first days of the Church.
In this brief article we mention a couple of landmarks in this growth. In the time of the Fathers the order of the sacrament was confession, penance and reconciliation.
This reconciliation at the hands of the bishop might not occur till some years after the confession, since the (severe) penance had first to be completed. (To twentieth century eyes it is small wonder that confessions tended to be saved up for one's death bed).
In the sixth century, Irish and Anglo-Saxons moved from that, bringing confession into daily life and away from its concentration on the dying, and with a simpler form of absolution at the hands of a priest instead of the solemn forgiveness from the bishop.
The seventh century Irish missions to Europe met with little opposition in proposing this as a replacement.
This of course pertains to earlier days when to some extent the Church was still finding her feet. But it is nevertheless 500 or more after Christ and so there is constant growth.
If we look at more recent Church legislation, we can see what the Church has said, and also work out her attitude to penitents. This, to be technical for a moment, refers to positive law which is concerned with the proper application of divine law. Divine law established the necessity of the sacrament, now positive law determines how the sacrament should be used.
Just before, and then during, World War One, the Church allowed general absolution for soldiers who were mobilised, because theoretically they were in danger of death — though with the proviso that they should seek individual confession as soon as they could.
At the end of the war these faculties were withdrawn and they were not granted again until World War II.
Then in 1944, in answer to a doubt, Rome issued Ut dubia which set out the conditions and circumstances for general absolution, in particular necessity not convenience, the bishop's decision not the priest's, the abuse of Confession if a penitent "saves up" a mortal sin for the next general absolution.
Then in 1972 (after the Council and just before the promulgation of the new rite) Rome more or less repeated what she had said in 1944. The Church's war-time decisions in this century suggest she does care for individual souls.
The question unanswered is whether she is out of touch 'and here we get more to the level of personal experience and opinion.
I believe Confession, one of the seven sacraments of the New Testament given us by Christ, constitutes an important pastoral problem to which everyone might usefully give thought.
Awareness of sin has become dulled. Consciousness of sin's effects is neglected.
The importance of reconciliation and of trying to repair damage is not appreciated. The realisation that Confession is a revivifying
experience, crucial to our spiritual health, and not just a furtive ritual to be got through swifly and seldom, is something few people seem to have.
I believe that when we (priests and people) are aware of the life contained in this sacrament, and of the death or at least moribund state without it, that it is then that we can more properly evaluate the merits and demerits of general absolution.
While it is true that we try to live the triumphant life of Easter rather than the less cheerful times of Lent, it is nevertheless also true that we need Lent in order to share more deeply in Easter.
It is rather like our wish to live a full and healthy life requiring that we visit doctor, dentist, optician etc in order to do so.
We know what will happen in our physical lives if we neglect ourselves. Sin is the intrusion of the negative into our spiritual lives. To appreciate general absolution we try to appreciate sin.
Sin, we know from school, offends God, and effects ourselves and our neighbour. But how does it offend God? Just by breaking a rule? Or does it offend his goodness itself? How can it? What is infinite goodness? This is not a theme which Roman laws can instill into us, but rather something pertaining to prayer and reflection.
Sin affects ourselves. Are we aware of this in the way that we know a tooth abcess will affect more than one molar if we ignore it? What is this baptismal life that sin harms? Can't I be holy or good without it?
If my body requires exercise and my mind stimulation, what about my soul? Will the imitation of Christ help me to seek virtue for its own sake (rather than just avoid vice)?
Will it enable me to see others as Christ sees them and make me want to be generous towards them (not perhaps the ultimate generosity of Calvary but at least the generosity of a more selfless life)?
The question of general absolution is evidently quite complicated and seems to need work in other directions first.
I feel that some strong initiative is needed from the
teaching Church to make penitence and the need for forgiveness much more central to the Christian life than it has been at least in my life-time.
Despite the psychological attractions of general absolution its introduction now would distract the Church from working on this more urgent priority.