Withholding Absolution. A Pastoral Option?

Mark Vickers FAITH Magazine November-December 2008s

Fr Mark Vickers is Parish Priest of Hatfield South and chaplain to Hertfordshire University

For those passing through seminary in recent years there often seemed only two absolute rules of confessional practice:

1. Never ask questions; and
2. Never withhold absolution.

The priest is deeply conscious that he too is an unworthy recipient of God’s merciful forgiveness. Is it conceivable then that he, a minister of God’s mercy, should withhold this gift from others?

Any doubts ought to be dispelled by Our Lord’s institution of the sacrament: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn. 20:23). Canon Law and the documents of the Magisterium are clear that circumstances exist in which absolution might, indeed should, be withheld. The presumption, of course, is that absolution will be granted: “If the confessor is in no doubt about the penitent’s disposition and the penitent asks for absolution, it is not to be denied or deferred” (CIC, c. 980). However, it is equally clear that the presumption may be rebutted.

In penitential services, especially those held in schools, it is not uncommon to find non-Catholics, even non-Christians, approaching the priest. Not all are aware that they cannot celebrate the sacrament. The priest, perhaps after a welcome, should briefly explain the Church’s teaching and offer to pray with them. Absolution can only be given to non-Catholics if there is a danger of death or, in the Bishop’s judgment, there is “some other grave and pressing need” and on the conditions laid out in c. 844.*

In a number of unlikely pastoral situations the priest is also unable to give absolution. In reserved cases the priest lacks faculties to absolve; these must be referred to the competent authority. A priest may not absolve a partner in a sin against the Sixth Commandment. Nor may he absolve a penitent who has falsely denounced another confessor in the circumstances described in c. 982.

What of other, more common, situations? Faulty catechesis, pressure from family members, habitual custom, may produce penitents, especially prior to Christmas and Easter, who declare they have no sins to confess. Of course, the priest invites them to reflect upon their lives with a view to inducing the correct disposition and the confession of any sins committed since they last approached the sacrament. Canon Law specifically envisages the confessor having to ask questions, but always “with prudence and discretion” (c. 979). Such an approach, used gently but clearly, often leads to the acknowledgment of sin. If the correct disposition is apparent, absolution will certainly be given. Otherwise, the priest explains Church teaching and offers to pray with the penitent, always inviting themto return to the sacrament in the future.

The correct disposition on the part of the penitent is sorrow for their sins and a purpose of amendment (c. 959). Occasionally, a penitent may “confess” their sins, but indicate that they have no regret in respect of them. Rather, they look almost to the Church for ratification of their behaviour. There are those also who mention a sin but leave the confessor in little doubt that there is no intention of future amendment. This is most frequently the case with “states of sin”, e.g. an irregular union or an ongoing adulterous relationship. With sensitivity the priest endeavours to bring the penitent to see the true consequences of their action, which includes the wounding of their relationship with God, the Church and the wider human community. “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, bereconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). The priest might highlight the providential nature of their act of confession, and encourage consideration of avoiding the occasions of the sin in question.

Often a grudging acknowledgment of sorrow, a hesitant acceptance that they will endeavour to begin to rectify the situation will be elicited. To grant absolution, one is not seeking cast-iron guarantees that the sin will never be committed again, nor demanding perfect contrition. Other things being equal, absolution can be granted if the penitent simply expresses the desire not to sin again, or regrets the consequences of sin.

Yet a few may hold out against any expression of contrition or purpose of amendment. What do we say to them? There is a view that, for “pastoral” motives, everyone who approaches the sacrament should receive absolution. Not only is this theologically incorrect, it also lacks pastoral charity. How is that individual being helped in the process of conversion, to hear Christ’s call to repentance and holiness of life? At best, they are left with a diminished sense of both the seriousness of sin and the sheer beauty of God’s forgiveness; at worst, they may despise a sacrament that appears simply mechanical or even magical. Furthermore the necessary healing of the ecclesial and of the human community is postponed. It also suggests arrogance on the part of the priest. We are ministers, notmasters, of the sacrament. We are required “to adhere faithfully to the teaching of the Magisterium” (c. 978, s.2). This, in fact, is the truly pastoral approach as taught by Pope John Paul II: “To acknowledge one’s sins… to recognise one as being a sinner, capable of sin and inclined to commit sin, is the essential first step in returning to God” (Pope John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Penitentia, (1984), n.13). Were it not possible to withhold absolution the very integrity of the act of Christian conversion would be undermined.

Withholding absolution may produce a variety of responses: surprise, dismay, anger – possibly directed against the priest personally. We invite the penitent to continue to reflect upon the truth of the situation, making clear the open invitation to return to us. It may be appropriate for the penitent to be reminded that such withholding of absolution is an act of compassion.

“God… pardons nothing to those who pardon themselves everything,” declared that saintly confessor, the Curé of Ars. Purporting to absolve an unrepentant penitent brings no one to this realisation. The rare necessity of having to withhold absolution may just do so. At least the penitent is given a clear choice: persisting in their sins and remaining unreconciled to God and the Church, or the conversion that leads to salvation. This is the tough love preached by Our Lord. Tough love is required on occasion, but we must be careful not to love to be tough. Withholding absolution is a last resort. We do not seek to break the bruised reed or to quench the wavering fame.

“In hearing confessions the priest is to remember that he is at once both judge and healer, and that he is constituted by God as a minister of both divine justice and divine mercy, so that he may contribute to the honour of God and the salvation of souls” (c. 978, s.1).

* I.e., for most other Christians in this country this means they are unable to approach a minister of their own communion, spontaneously ask for the sacrament, demonstrate they hold the Catholic faith in respect of the sacrament and are properly disposed.

Faith Magazine