2, Chapter XVII
transcript made at a conference in Florence on this subject must
be incomplete, for I am accustomed to say that the new formula is
the formula of an eastern rite and that it is certainly valid when
it is correctly translated.
it is frequently badly translated or shortened. Often it is reduced
to “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Sometimes it is omitted altogether,
because the Holy Spirit has already been invoked. As to the Holy
Oils, the validity of their consecration is questionable. In some
dioceses Confirmation is no longer administered: baptism is supposed
is because of that situation, disastrous for their children, that
parents insist on my coming to give their children the sacrament
of confirmation. I accept reluctantly: and I should prefer not to
respond to those invitations if I learned that the sacrament was
administered in the normal way.
Concerning the Sacrament
think the following document will provide a sufficient answer; if
I have asserted that collective absolution is not sacramental, that
is because the spirit in which it is given by most priests makes
nonsense of the idea of judgment (which is what the sacrament of
Penance is) and of the necessity of integrity of confession.
make the exception into the rule is to risk changing the law in
I am sure that when the sacrament is given in the spirit of the
exceptions formerly authorized it is valid.
Sacrament of Penance
The new Ordo Poenitentiae (NOP).
June 1972: From the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, "Pastoral norms for the administration of general sacramental
December 1973: From the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship,
the Novus Ordo Poenitentiae, that is, the new ritual for
Penance. This last document envisages three modes of sacramental
mode: individual confession and absolution.
confession and absolution at the close of a penitential ceremony.
some special cases (pro certis casibus) general confession
last mode leads to grace abuses of the sacrament in what concerns
the integrity of the confession.
NOP gives the conditions for validity, in the third mode of absolution,
to be fulfilled by the faithful:
for sins committed,
firm purpose not to commit them again,
firm purpose to make up for scandal and injury which have resulted,
(what is special to this mode) the intention of confessing each
mortal sin in an individual confession which must be made within
is said, in addition, that there is no right (and it is therefore
invalid?) to receive another general absolution without a previous
auricular confession of grave sins not yet confessed.
The Church's former discipline (there is nothing on the subject
in the Ritual or in Canon Law).
XV: Sacred Penitentiary (6 February 1915): General absolution is
authorized for soldiers when they are called to fight, when their
numbers are such that they cannot be heard singly and when they
have made an act of contrition.
XII: S.C. of the Consistory (1 December 1939): extension of the
foregoing concession to all the faithful in danger of death during
December 1940: in answer to a query: the permission applies not
just when fighting is imminent but when it is thought necessary
to use the permission.
Indult granted to Cardinal Bertram: general absolution is authorized
for the faithful working in war factories and for prisoners unable
to make their confession singly (so, not in proximate danger of
death), and also for foreign workers and for prisoners in large
March 1944: the Sacred Penitentiary summed up all the foregoing
and made a clear statement of the doctrine and practice of general
absolution. The indult granted to Cardinal Bertram seems to be
extended to the whole Church:
from cases where there is danger of death, it is permitted to
give sacramental absolution to several of the faithful all at
once. Moreover, merely because of the great number of penitents,
as on a great feast or when an indulgence is to be gained, it
is permitted to give sacramental absolution individually to penitents
when they have made only part of their confession (Cf. Proposition
59 among those condemned by Innocent XI, 2 March 1679, Dz 1209);
that would, however, be permitted in case of serious and urgent
necessity proportionate to the gravity of the divine precept of
the integrity of confession, for example, if the penitents, through
no fault of theirs, were to be deprived for a long time of the
grace of the sacrament and of Holy Communion.
text of the Normae Pastorales of 1972 refers in a note to
the Sacred Penitentiary text of 1944. This is what it says:
from cases of danger of death, it is permitted to give sacramental
absolution to the faithful who have confessed only in general
if they have been suitably exhorted to repentance, if there is
grave necessity, that is to say, if, given the number of penitents,
there are not enough confessors available to hear each one's confession
normally within convenient time-limits, so that the penitents
would be forced to stay deprived for a long time, through no fault
of their own, of the grace of the sacrament or of Holy Communion.
Such a state of affairs could arise especially in mission countries,
but also in other places, or for groups of people, when such a
necessity appears. But, on the other hand, when confessors are
available general absolution is not made licit simply by a great
gathering of people, as can happen, for example, on a great feast
or at a great pilgrimage.
Comparison of the two texts
permitted, except in very grave and urgent necessity
and not blameworthy deprivation of sacramental absolution
and of communion.
in grave necessity
S.C. Doc. F. 1972.
enough confessors to hear everybody's confession within
a reasonable time, so that there will be long and not blameworthy
deprivation of sacramental absolution and of Holy Communion.
may be remarked:
the two texts approach the question each from its own point of
view: the first speaks of prohibition, the second of permission.
In the first, “a very grave and urgent necessity" is required;
in the second, "a grave necessity" is enough.
most important, what in the first text was grave necessity is
in the second no more than a consequence ("so that"),
the "necessity" becomes the insufficiency of confessors
and the lack of time! If that is the fact of the matter, the spirit
of the first text is contradicted, and the second text comes under
the condemnation of Innocent XI!
shifting of stress between the two texts can be shown plainly in
the following scheme:
C. Doc. F. 1972
absolution is not permitted.
General absolution is permitted.
is not justified by the number of penitents.
It is justified by the number of penitents.
Unless there will be too long a deprivation of the grace of
Because without it there would be too long a deprivation of
the grace of the sacrament
comparison of the texts is more expressive than the one which preceded
it. It shows clearly
was not permitted has now become permitted;
did not justify the forbidden practice justifies it for the future;
"very grave and urgent necessity" is not any more too
long a deprivation of the grace of the sacrament, but simply the
number of penitents measured against the availability of confessors
and of time.
being the facts, we can show that the new practice is opposed in
spirit and in reality to the former practice. There are three arguments,
one speculative, one practical, and the third a reductio ad absurdum.
1972 text also refers to the proposition condemned by Innocent XI
which, with the word "only" added in 1944, runs as follows:
is permitted to give sacramental absolution to any of the faithful
who, only because of the large number of penitents-as can happen
on a great feast day or when there is an indulgence to be gained-have
made only part of their confession."
laxists, who upheld that proposition, would not have done so if,
on a feast day, there had been as many confessors as penitents:
so it is clear they thought it right to absolve those who had made
only part of their confession on the ground that otherwise it would
be impossible to hear all their confessions in reasonable time!
is therefore stupid, and a relapse into the laxist error, to say
that inability to hear all the confessions in a reasonable time
is "grave necessity"!
the 1972 text is drawn up in that sense: the number of penitents
becomes the "grave necessity," and too long a deprivation
of the grace of the sacrament, which is the only "grave and
urgent necessity," is presented only as a regular consequence
of the other. In that form the text prompts to neglect of the rest
of the sentence: "so that the penitents are compelled..."
the only reason which could really justify the case is practically
eliminated, either by neglect, coming as it does at the end of the
sentence, or because it is thought of as a regular consequence of
the reason newly and fraudulently introduced by a twisting
if the text. And the new reason is none other than the one rejected
by Innocent XI!
will object, no doubt, that the 1972 text is not formally heterodox,
and that its very ambiguity allows it to be understood in the traditional
sense. The "Pastoral Norms" of 1972 even try to restrict
the broad interpretation of the text, in a paragraph which says:
must teach the faithful that those whose conscience is burdened
with mortal sin are forbidden, if they have opportunity of recourse
to a confessor, to refrain deliberately or by negligence from
meeting their obligation of individual confession and to wait
for an occasion when general absolution will be given.
is also said that individual confession must continue to be the
that paragraph is not quoted in the Ordo Poenitentiae of
1973, and it is typical of the spirit of present reforms that, having
opened a door, they then pretend to close it; or having closed a
door for good and all, they then endeavor to open it again. Or,
to put it less pointedly, seeing that they have opened a door, the
authors of the reform protest that their directives are being abused
and they try in vain to shut the door; or, having closed a door
once and for all, they then feel obliged to open it just a little!
The perpetual swing of the pendulum! Here is another text which
tries vainly to close the door: it is in a letter dated 8 February
1977 sent by Mgr. Bernardin, President of the Episcopal Conference,
to the Bishops of the United States, informing them of the precise
explanations given by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith on the subject of general absolution (Documentation
Catholique, n. 1716, 20 March 1977). The paragraph which concerns
us is as follows:
example mentioned explicitly in article 3 (of the Pastoral Norms)
of pastoral situations which do not justify recourse to general
absolution-a great concourse of penitents expected on the occasion
of a great feast or a great pilgrimage, when it is possible to
take measures to ensure confessions-should a fortiori implicitly
exclude the calling together of large crowds with the primary
purpose of giving general absolution.
commentary by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
on its Pastoral Norms was intended to repudiate the "broad"
interpretation of those Norms which had recently led to two serious
abuses of the sacrament in the United States. But is it not deceiving
itself about the effectiveness of its restrictions on the interpretation
of an ambiguous text? The Pastoral Norms of 1972 explicitly foresee
the case of penitential ceremonies-which are the occasion of the
abuses in question-in paragraph 10:
penitential rites: The faithful must be carefully taught that
liturgical celebrations and collective penitential rites are very
useful for a more fruitful preparation for confession...If penitents
make their individual confession during the course of such celebrations
each one should receive absolution personally from the confessor
to whom he goes. In cases where sacramental absolution has to
be given collectively, it must always be administered according
to the particular rite fixed by the Congregation for Divine Worship...
the faithful are encouraged to flock to penitential ceremonies where,
if, as is usual, there are few priests (for priests willing to hear
confessions are rare), the conditions for permitting general absolution
seem to be easily fulfilled! And that, though the "primary"
purpose of the celebration was not to give general absolution; in
practice, the organizers of penitential celebrations will be eager
to affirm that the case is urgent, given the great gathering of
the faithful, without inquiring if the faithful have really no other
possibility of receiving the grace of the sacrament soon. Thus,
relying on an ambiguous text which futile attempts have been made
to limit, a mode of procedure is introduced in practice contrary
to the traditional practice of the Church and a grave abuse of the
sacrament of Penance.
the 1972 text were interpreted strictly there would be no more general
absolutions than there have been since 1944; but that is not the
case. General absolution at the close of penitential ceremonies
tend to be the rule. Three recent cases can be quoted where general
absolution was given by abuse to a crowd of the faithful after a
penitential ceremony: to 11,500 people at Memphis, in Advent, 1976,
and to 2,000 at Jackson, with great publicity. It was to prevent
the recurrence of such deplorable scenes that the Sacred Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote the commentary on the Pastoral
Norms which was published by Mgr. Bernardin (Cf. above, p. 172).
But that document is powerless to obstruct similar aberrations:
a few months later the "famous" general absolution took
place in Lourdes, 12 September 1977 for the pilgrims from the diocese
of Vannes under the presidency of their bishop.
strict interpretation of the ambiguous text of 1972 remains a dead
letter, and reminders are useless. The truth is that, when in these
matters, a door has been opened it just cannot be shut.
The validity of irregular general absolutions
1944 text and that of 1972 both say that, apart from the cases indicated,
general sacramental absolutions should be considered grave abuses
"which all priests must be careful to avoid, conscious of their
personal responsibility for the good of souls and the dignity of
the sacrament of Penance" (Pastoral Norms, n. 8). Those abuses
are therefore gravely illicit and detract from the dignity of the
sacrament. Do they also affect its validity? The answer could be:
ipso facto, no; but in certain cases, yes.
commentary in Bonne Presse on the Instruction of 1944 said:
from the cases provided for, general absolution is illicit and is
a grave abuse on the part of the minister, but the absolution is
valid if the dispositions of the penitent are what they ought to
case of general absolution would not be valid? The case where the
faithful, insufficiently instructed by the priests, lack the requisite
intention to confess, the next time they go to confession, each
one of their grave sins.
further, in our opinion, it can be asked if irregular general absolutions
do not ipso facto make the sacrament invalid because in fact
the reason exempting from integrity of confession is bound to be
missing. The fact is that the divine precept of integrity of confession
concerns the validity of the sacrament of Penance. All theologians
recognize the existence of grounds, physical and moral, which exempt
from integrity,1 and the Magisterium
has named a number of such grounds (in 1915, 1939, 1940, and 1944),
thus recognizing in those cases the true sacramentality and validity
of the general absolution; but they cannot escape the conclusion
that the sacrament is sacrilegious abused, and is invalid, when
general absolution is given in the absence of a reason exempting
from integrity of confession.
in many cases the general absolutions which follow penitential ceremonies
seem to be invalid, from lack of the requisite intention in the
penitent supplying the integrity of his confession the next time
he goes to Confession, or from lack of a physical cause for exemption.
Pastoral value of the practice authorized by the Pastoral Norms
59, condemned by Innocent XI, is: "at the least scandalous;
in practice, pernicious." What is to be said of a document
which favors, though later introducing restrictions, the practice
14 July 1972 L'Osservatore Romano made this comment on the
discipline of general absolution:
is a pastoral document and consequently makes no innovation in
doctrine and leaves the present discipline substantially unchanged,
though it makes provision for certain urgent cases.
seems to us, on the contrary, that there is a shift of emphasis
at the doctrinal level: what was formerly forbidden except
in a limited number of cases is now permitted. As to discipline:
the earlier discipline would be unchanged if the 1972 norms
were applied "strictly," but in fact it is the opposite
which is happening, for all the futile reminders from the authorities
in Rome. Finally, what in the earlier discipline was not "an
urgent case" at all is given that name now in a text which
is ambiguous but which is the basis of a clear practice.
can therefore conclude by saying that the "Pastoral Norms,"
far from being "a pastoral document," are an anti-pastoral
discipline by their introduction of general absolution at the
conclusion o f penitential ceremonies as one of the possible rites
of sacramental absolution. In fact it seems that here, as so often,
the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, trying to
use its authority to limit the damage they do, has done nothing
but ratify the novelties emanating from the Sacred Congregation
for Divine Worship.
All moral theologians number among such physical grounds "lack
of time due to imminent danger of death," but they add that,
outside that case, "lack of time never exempts from integrity"
(Cf. Prummer, Man. Theol. Mar. Vol. III, no.379).
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