The 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.
But 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 to suffice.
It 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.
Answer Concerning the Sacrament of Penance
I 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.
To make the exception into the rule is to risk changing the law in its essentials.
But I am sure that when the sacrament is given in the spirit of the exceptions formerly authorized it is valid.
The Sacrament of Penance
1. The new Ordo Poenitentiae (NOP).
-16 June 1972: From the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Pastoral norms for the administration of general sacramental absolution."
-2 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 absolution.
-Traditional mode: individual confession and absolution.
-Individual confession and absolution at the close of a penitential ceremony.
-For some special cases (pro certis casibus) general confession and absolution.
This last mode leads to grace abuses of the sacrament in what concerns the integrity of the confession.
The NOP gives the conditions for validity, in the third mode of absolution, to be fulfilled by the faithful:
-sorrow for sins committed,
-a firm purpose not to commit them again,
-a firm purpose to make up for scandal and injury which have resulted,
-finally (what is special to this mode) the intention of confessing each mortal sin in an individual confession which must be made within the year.
It 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.
2. The Church's former discipline (there is nothing on the subject in the Ritual or in Canon Law).
-Benedict 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.
-Pius XII: S.C. of the Consistory (1 December 1939): extension of the foregoing concession to all the faithful in danger of death during air raids.
-10 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.
-1940: 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 bodies.
-25 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:
Apart 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.
The text of the Normae Pastorales of 1972 refers in a note to the Sacred Penitentiary text of 1944. This is what it says:
Apart 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.
3. Comparison of the two texts
Not permitted, except in very grave and urgent necessity
Permitted in grave necessity
It may be remarked:
a) the two texts approach the question each from its own point of view: the first speaks of prohibition, the second of permission.
b) In the first, “a very grave and urgent necessity" is required; in the second, "a grave necessity" is enough.
c) 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!
The shifting of stress between the two texts can be shown plainly in the following scheme:
S. Pen. 1944
|S. C. Doc. F. 1972
1) General absolution is not permitted.
|1) General absolution is permitted.
2) It is not justified by the number of penitents.
|2) It is justified by the number of penitents.
|3) Unless there will be too long a deprivation of the grace of the sacrament.
|3) Because without it there would be too long a deprivation of the grace of the sacrament
That comparison of the texts is more expressive than the one which preceded it. It shows clearly
1)what was not permitted has now become permitted;
2)what did not justify the forbidden practice justifies it for the future;
3)the "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.
Those 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.
The 1972 text also refers to the proposition condemned by Innocent XI which, with the word "only" added in 1944, runs as follows:
"It 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."
The 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!
It 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"!
But 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..."
Thus, 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!
Some 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:
Priests 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.
It is also said that individual confession must continue to be the ordinary mode.
But 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:
The 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.
That 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:
Collective 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...
So 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.
If 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.
The 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.
5. The validity of irregular general absolutions
The 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.
The commentary in Bonne Presse on the Instruction of 1944 said:
Apart 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 be.
What 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.
But 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.
Thus, 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.
6. Pastoral value of the practice authorized by the Pastoral Norms of 1972.
Proposition 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 thus reproved?
On 14 July 1972 L'Osservatore Romano made this comment on the discipline of general absolution:
It 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.
It 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.
We 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.
1. 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).