QUAERITUR: absolution without any confession

From a reader:

There is a parish in our diocese that offers a rather unique penance service with no individual confession offered. A penance service is held and people simply file up in a line, say to the priest “I am sorry for my sins” and he gives them absolution one by one. Is this valid?

That doesn’t sound valid to me, if that is what is being done.  Unless there has been an earthquake or there is a meteor about to strike, that is not valid.

Absolution without individual confession of sins may not be given except in an emergency.  Furthermore, a person who receives a valid absolution must seek individual confession of sins and absolution at the earliest opportunity.

Except in the case of an emergency (i.e., there are too many people for one priest and too little time, there is a disaster, people are too close and listening and there is a chance of death, etc.) for the sacrament to be valid a penitent must confession all mortal sins.

Saying “I am sorry for my sins” can suffice for an expression of sorrow for sins.  The priest must have a reasonable certainty that the person is truly sorry.  But that statement does not substitute for confession of the mortal sins themselves.

It may be that the priest there is unaware that what he is doing is wrong.  Perhaps he can be instructed or persuaded.

If there is printed material available describing this service, a video/audio recording of the people being instructed to do this, I would get hold of it and put a question about it to the local bishop or even to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  If you have some sort of proof that this is what is done, the Congregation would be very interested to hear about it, if the local bishop is uninterested.

Hearsay does not suffice.

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  1. dans0622 says:

    Yes, I would have to agree that such a practice would not result in a valid absolution of mortal sins. As c. 988.1 says: “A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which the person has knowledge after diligent examination of conscience.”

  2. Tim Ferguson says:

    I am thinking of starting a major crusade to push our bishops to start observing canon 508. Canon 508 establishes the office of a “Canon Penitentiary” – if the diocese has a chapter of canons, one of the canons is to be appointed to absolve censures (except those reserved to the Holy See). If the diocese does not have a chapter of canons (and no diocese in the US does at this point), “the diocesan Bishop is to appoint a priest to fulfil this office.” From my informal survey of dioceses in the US, no bishop – not even any of the “good ones” has appointed a canon penitentiary. [This is a GREAT idea and I have often pondered it.]

    Besides his task of lifting censures in the internal forum, it seems to me that a canon penitentiary could serve so many useful purposes – including speaking out publicly against abuses of this sort. The C.P. can instruct priests in the proper manner of administering the sacrament, can serve as a preacher at legitimate penance services around the diocese, can be the “go to guy” for questions about the sacrament, and can draw attention to the sacrament – maybe have him give an annual ferverino to the priests, write a couple articles each year in the diocesan newspaper. It would be the perfect job for an older priest, of proven skill in the confessional.

    It’s a shame that this office has gone neglected – and in light of that, it’s no wonder that stories like this one, and the myriad of similar ones, keep cropping up all around the country.

    Enforce Canon 508!

  3. benedetta says:

    Read in a local bulletin that scheduled such an Advent reconciliation service that the folks wait in a line before the priest, present a piece of paper on which they have written their sins (pencils and papers provided by the church) and then the priest gives absolution and they then put their paper in a bowl which is later burned amidst great ceremony. There is a “fine print” (“legal disclaimer”?) that says that they would still need to technically confess their sins individually if that is what they so desire. Don’t get the point of having this sort of “service” when the real thing suffices (overwhelmingly suffices…). Can’t see why anyone would encourage people to attend this instead of encouraging straight -up confession. An awful lot of effort to expend to play it as fast and loose as very technically possible…Like the old song goes, “ain’t nothing like the real thing baby…”

  4. jkm210 says:

    The parish I grew up in used to do this “burning the sins” business, but I checked their online bulletin, and it’s not them this time, thank goodness.

    However, provided that the person handed the paper directly to the priest who then read the sins right at that moment, then went forward with penance, act of contrition, and absolution, I wonder if that might technically be valid, if not the best way of going about things.

    For example, whereas I am sure there are situations in which a deaf person might be able to confess to a priest using sign language, if this were impossible, maybe they would write it down. Canon law says you can use an interpreter for confession, but, again, such a person may not always be available.

  5. benedetta says:

    jkm210, Sure it may very well be, at the end of the day, “technically valid” as you are describing it and this place clearly knows it isn’t right hence the disclaimer…But it seems like with all the energy expended to do this elaborate thing, why not, just plainly offer what is good, simple and true (with a little encouragement)?

  6. dominic1955 says:

    The only diocese that I know for sure has a Canon Penitentiary is the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and the good Msgr. knows his stuff! I would think that dioceses would want a priest who is on top of his game in this area in charge of making sure Confession is available and done properly, along with having the proper know-how of some of the more extraordinary canonical issues (i.e. what do to with reserved sins, how to deal with the Apostolic Penitentiary when this is needed, etc.).

  7. Aengus Oshaughnessy says:

    It seems to myself that all this malarkey about writing down sins, not specifying sins, and all the rest of this sort of thing, is merely a way of getting around confessing. The fact of the matter is that most people are shy of talking about their sins, and most don’t find confession pleasant, so now people are coming up with all these convoluted ways to avoid actually talking to the priest. Really, that’s half the point of confession–the cleansing act of recognising your sins and saying them out loud. What the dickens are we coming to?

  8. benedetta says:

    I have the bulletin in hand. I misquoted the disclaimer point above. [THIS IS WHY WE NEED TO GET THINGS IN WRITING!] Instead, it is actually claimed that it is a fully valid sacrament and it is offered as an honest to goodness “alternative” to the “usual” way. Here we go:

    “We will have a combined penance service with [another church]. Although the opportunity for the usual way of confession will be available, we will also celebrate the sacrament in a way which has proved fruitful [elsewhere]. After the examination of consciences, people will have the time to write their sins on a piece of paper. Forming a procession line, each person will present their sins to the priest. The priest will silently read their sins and then grant absolution. After the communal penance (Our Father, together), we will gather in the back of the Church and collectively burn our sins.”

    [People who are “mute”, who cannot “speak” with their voice could still “sign” their sins. If nothing else suffices, a person could write them and the priest could read them. This is irregular, but valid. If a person who had the use of speech would do that… I think it is very badly advised unless, for example, you were in a concentration camp, but it is probably valid. THIS IS WHY WE NEED TO GET THINGS IN WRITING AND NOT BY HEARSAY! DETAILS MATTER. That said, rather shouted, if the person just wrote one sin or concealed mortal sins, they would not be absolved. As a priest, there are reasons to ask questions about what the penitent means. This really lousy method makes the validity of the sacrament verrrrrrrrry risky.]

    Something about that part of “forming a procession line…” was what really kind of creeped me out the most.

    I couldn’t make this stuff up…alas, I myself am not so creative as to be able to redesign an actual sacrament! But clearly, the wisdom of this has been passed along by others “in the know”.

    So the address again was? Might as well brew up a pot of coffee and get started…

    And what happens next? Do folks get their collection money back?

  9. ghp95134 says:

    “…After the communal penance (Our Father, together), we will gather in the back of the Church and collectively burn our sins.”

    Welllllll …. this is a Shinto practice, as well as the practice of a neo-Shinto [with bits of Christianity mixed] religion called Seicho-no-Ie. I speak from [prior] first-hand experience. The “sins” are written on a bit of paper that is blessed then burned by the Shinto [or Seicho-no-Ie] priest.

    I suppose if it is good enough for the “pagans,” then it is good enough for Catholics? …. NOT!

    –Guy Power

  10. priests wife says:

    Father- this is so concerning to me- is it only ‘liberal’ priests playing with the sacraments or would you say that good priests are simply so burnt out and disheartened?

    Confession should ideally have an element of spiritual direction, don’t you think? [Well…. no. A priest should admonish the penitent if necessary or encourage, and perhaps give a pointer, but… “spiritual direction”?
    No. Not unless the confession is in the context of spiritual direction, which itself could be overrated in many instances. You can’t spend a lot of time chatting when people are in line and waiting. That’s not fair.]

    Isn’t it the right of a lay person to be able to give a good confession? Isn’t it a priest’s obligation to hear it? Isn’t it a sin for a priest to NOT take it seriously?

  11. Random Friar says:

    I am edging toward validity but illiceity, since the faithful are most likely attempting to confess in “good faith.” That said, this needs to be stopped A-S-A-P. That is how the whole Australian mess with Option III (General Absolution without Individual Confession) got stopped. As always, be respectful to the bishop and vicar, and simply point out the facts and voice your concern.

    I don’t know about the Shinto roots of the burning of the sins one. It might be a case of similarity. This sounds an awful lot like certain exercises among evangelicals at retreats and conferences (their way of showing how God forgives sins and doesn’t “remember” them). I don’t know if it’s still in fashion, though.

  12. benedetta says:

    Well I’m certainly chastened with respect to getting the facts right the first time. I didn’t post the original Quaeritur but in reading it through it rang a bell. At least was able to get the actual bulletin and how it was presented. It is an ongoing situation though where strange things present which may be in the very technical sense, valid. I certainly understand the human tendency to seek out constant innovation and change but when it comes to the sacraments they can be taught in their essence and experienced the way in which the Church has set forth. There is much to be said for the guarantee of having the framework in place for experiencing the changing readings and prayers for each day . When the framework is simply and faithfully adhered to, the message of the Gospel and the Church resonates that much more. Likely those who designed the service in the bulletin I discovered had their own reasons for doing this but those reasons are not explained other than that it has worked well in other places. On the one hand, we are to have power to the laity and “down with clericalism” and yet we are to merely accept this type of confession service as presented and designed without questioning it. I am confused as to why energy and resources would expended to do something like this, even when it technically passes as probably valid.

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