From Catholic Answers Magazine via the WayBackMachine
By Fr Jerry J. Pokorsky
The pope had harsh words for priests who withhold sacramental forgiveness. But there can be justifiable reasons for it.
The Church’s ritual has the priest introduce confession with these words: “May God who has enlightened every heart help you to know your sins and trust in his mercy.”
As the Code of Canon Law (CIC) puts it, “individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary means by which a member of the faithful conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and the Church” (960). We need God’s grace to recognize our sins, and the confessor is, by his office, an instrument of God’s grace.
Occasionally, when a confessor has significant doubts as to a penitent’s disposition, circumstances, Scripture, traditional pastoral practice, and canon law require a priest to deny absolution.
- After the Resurrection, Jesus breathed on his new priests and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23).
- Canon 987 reads, “To receive the salvific remedy of the sacrament of penance, a member of the Christian faithful must be disposed in such a way that, rejecting sins committed and having a purpose of amendment, the person is turned back to God.”
- Canon 980 reads, “If the confessor has no doubt about the disposition of the penitent, and the penitent seeks absolution, absolution is to be neither refused nor deferred.”
- Certain particularly grave sins impede the reception of the sacraments, and absolution cannot be granted until ecclesiastical authorities grant approval (see paragraph 1463 of the Catechism).
“Amen” is a solemn expression of our belief. It derives from the Hebrew verb aman, “to strengthen” or “to confirm.” “Amen” concludes the Creed at Mass, and we can think of “amen” as the Creed in brief. Above all, “amen” is on our lips in response to “the body of Christ” immediately before we receive the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus. Jesus gives himself to us in friendship, and our “amen” opens our hearts, adorned by his grace, to him and the entirety of his teaching.
“Anyone who desires to receive Christ in Eucharistic Communion must be in the state of grace. Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive Communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance” (CIC 1415). We must confess every mortal sin by kind and number—or an approximation, as we are aware—with a firm purpose of amendment. Confession restores our honesty and personal integrity and gives meaning to our “amen.”
Yet, often, we cannot see our sins except after many years. The prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? ‘I the Lord search the mind and try the heart, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings’” (Jer. 17:9-10). If God would reveal the entire burden of our deficiencies, perhaps our discouragement would be crushing and our sorrow unbearable. We are a work in progress.
The life of Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish missionary and Dominican priest, is a story of a spiritual and moral work in progress. Las Casas was the first to expose the oppression of the Indians by Spaniards in the Americas. He was also the first to agitate for the abolition of slavery. However, at one point, Las Casas suggested that African slaves substitute for Indian slaves. The suggestion conformed to cultural expectations. But with God’s grace, Las Casas regretted the proposal. He took his “amen” seriously.
Las Casas tirelessly wrote books, tracts, and petitions, arguing his defense of the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. He became an adviser to King Charles of Spain, who signed laws requiring Spaniards to free their slaves after a generation. It would take the English-speaking Americans another 300 years to free their slaves, and only after a brutal American Civil War.
Church bells tolled throughout Hispaniola upon news of the death of Las Casas in 1566. The Dominicans introduced his cause for canonization in 1976. In 2002, the Church began the process of his beatification.
Why this history? It may come as a surprise that the heroic life of Bartolomé de las Casas begins with a priest denying him absolution. A group of Dominican friars arrived in Santo Domingo in 1510, led by Pedro de Córdoba. They were appalled by the injustices of the slave owners and refused them absolution without a purpose of amendment. Las Casas—a slave-holder—was among those denied. The anonymous priest hearing the confession of a young Las Casas became a powerful instrument of God’s grace.
The prophet Ezekiel proclaimed that we are responsible for the sins of others if we cooperate with them. “If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand.” But a priest saves his life when he judiciously denies absolution as a warning: “If you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life.” (Ezek. 3:18-19)
With academic study and pastoral experience, we can understand the conditions under which the refusal of absolution is essential to respect human freedom and provoke repentance. (Alas, some sins, such as forms of genital mutilation, cannot be physically reversed, but they can be reversed in a supernatural way by a sorrowful heart.) The possibilities are rooted in Scripture and the precepts of canon law. But the fundamental reason is also rooted in honesty and integrity when we receive Communion.
Denying absolution, under certain strict circumstances, provides clarity and discourages a lie when responding with the word “amen.” Honest repentance accepts God’s promise: “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isa. 43:25).
Post a Comment
Comments are subject to deletion if they are not germane. I have no problem with a bit of colourful language, but blasphemy or depraved profanity will not be allowed. Attacks on the Catholic Faith will not be tolerated. Comments will be deleted that are republican (Yanks! Note the lower case 'r'!), attacks on the legitimacy of Pope Francis as the Vicar of Christ (I know he's a material heretic and a Protector of Perverts, and I definitely want him gone yesterday! However, he is Pope, and I pray for him every day.), the legitimacy of the House of Windsor or of the claims of the Elder Line of the House of France, or attacks on the legitimacy of any of the currently ruling Houses of Europe.