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Restrictions on absolution are not so easily placed

Some points to keep in mind when reading about the Australian Royal Commission’s investigation of child abuse.

Gail Furness, senior counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, speaks at a hearing in Sydney Feb. 6. (CNS photo/AAP handout via EPA)

Clergy, lawyers, and physicians have long been exempt from the duty to report certain crimes known by them to have been committed by certain persons. I do not know what use the Australian Royal Commission charged with investigating child abuse might wish to make of the information being provided to it regarding Catholic canon law and sacramental doctrine on Confession in regard to clerical civil duties under criminal reporting statutes, but the commissioners will certainly need, before anything else, an accurate understanding of that Catholic law and doctrine.

Apparently (I say “apparently” because I have read only a few pages of the copious testimonies presented to the Royal Commission), some ecclesiastical witnesses are telling the commission things like, absolution from the grave sin of child abuse can, as matter of Church law and doctrine, be withheld or made conditional based upon penitents reporting themselves to civil authorities, this, either because the refusal to ‘turn oneself in’ is supposedly a sign of “impenitence” (and impenitence renders the sacrament null) or because it represents a failure to perform sacramental “satisfaction” (and this failure supposedly renders the sacrament null).

Such claims, if they were in fact made, would, I suggest, significantly distort Catholic law and doctrine concerning the sacrament of Confession-Penance.  I shall try to clarify these points for concerned parties.

POINT ONE. Confessors may withhold absolution from penitents who are not sorry for their sins (1983 CIC 980, olim 1917 CIC 886), but the refusal of a penitent to manifest his or her sins publicly does notsuffice as proof of a lack of sorrow for them. Perhaps those who claim that absolution may be withheld from penitents who decline to disclose their sins publicly could point us to an official or a credible scholarly source supporting that claim so we could consider it.

While we wait for that show of proof, let me offer a couple observations:

(1) Penitents confessing sins enjoy the presumption of being sincerely sorry for their sins. McAreavey, Great Britain & Ireland Comm (1985) 538: “The very fact of approaching this sacrament implies sorrow for sin and so a penitent should always be presumed to be in good faith”; McManus, CLSA New Comm (2000) 1161: “[c]anon 980 affirms the presumption that the penitent has confessed his or her sins in good faith and has the requisite disposition”; and Dom Augustine,Commentary (1920) IV: 295: “No one who gives signs of repentance should be refused absolution.”

This presumption of being sorry for one’s sins and, in that respect, of being eligible for absolution, yields only in the face of “positive and serious doubt regarding the required dispositions”—(those requisite dispositions being: sorrow for sin with a firm purpose of amendment, self-accusation before a confessor, and acceptance of a lawful penance, per CCC 1451, 1459-1460)—all the while bearing in mind that “the refusal of absolution is an extreme and odious measure…” per Loza, Exegetical Comm (2004) III/1: 807, emphasis added. Again, “Though the priest may think that a delay of absolution would be of greater benefit to the penitent, he may not for that reason delay absolution without the free consent of the penitent.” Woywod,Practical Comm (1948) I: 495.

(2) Further, the few commentators who discuss the possibility of absolution being conditioned upon a future event (such as a later self-reporting of one’s crimes) reject that theory. Davis, Moral & Pastoral Theo (1945) III: 256: “The Sacrament of Penance cannot be given conditionally on some future event for the absolution cannot be suspended in its effect.” Cappello, De Sacramentis (1953) II, n. 77: “The sacrament [attempted] on a future condition is certainly rendered invalid, especially under the tradition and practice of the Church which has never administered this sacrament with this condition.” (my trans.)

In short, I see no canonical or sacramental support for the claim that a public self-disclosure of a penitent’s sins, at the time of or following confession, can be required for absolution.

POINT TWO: While the refusal to accept a lawful penance can be grounds for refusing absolution, the failure to perform a penance lawfully imposed does not render the prior confession and/or absolution null. As above, perhaps those who think that the failure to perform even a lawfully imposed penance renders a prior confession/absolution invalid could point us to an official or a credible scholarly source supporting that claim so we could consider it.

While we wait for that show of proof, let me offer a couple observations:

(1) Confessors are required to impose “salutary and suitable penances”, penitents are “obliged to perform these personally” (1983 CIC 981), and the refusal of a penitent to accept a suitable penance could be grounds for refusing absolution. See, e.g., McManus, op.cit., 1162; Loza, op.cit., 810; Davis, op.cit., 261-262. But,

(2) The refusal to perform (or to seek the commutation of) a lawful penance/satisfaction, while it is generally regarded as objectively sinful (Davis, op.cit. 267; Cappello, op.cit., n. 246), does notretroactively render null or invalid an absolution previously granted. Davis, op.cit. 262; Cappello, op.cit., n. 236; Palazzini, s.v. ‘Satisfactio’ in DMC (1968) IV: 205.

In short, I see no canonical or sacramental support for the claim that the failure to perform even a rightly imposed penance renders a penitent’s previous confession invalid or a confessor’s prior absolution null.

POINT THREE: Unusual public activities may generally not be imposed as penances for sins, and certainly not, I suggest, if those sins are not already known to have been committed by the penitent.

Sins come in many degrees of gravity and are committed under a wide variety of circumstances, but traditionally, the post-absolution penances to be assigned for sins are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. McManus, op.cit., 1162; Palazzini, op.cit. 205. Others rightly suggest performing works of mercy, restitution of stolen goods, retraction of slanders, and so on. CCC 1459-1460; McAreavey, op.cit., 535.

Public acts, however, which might be taken by others as works of sacramental satisfaction, must generally be avoided lest the revelation of the confession follow. Cappello, op.cit., n. 244, Palazzini, op.cit., 207.

Only, it seems, if a penitent’s sins are already known by the community to have been committed by the penitent (such as could occur if, say, one is known to have gone around falsely accusing an innocent neighbor of theft or adultery), could that penitent be directed, as a penance/satisfaction for sin repented of and absolved, to publicly retract the slander. Note, however, that such an obligation of ‘restitution’ already exists as matter of natural law, regardless of whether it was ordered as a penance, per e.g., Abbo-Hannan, Sacred Canons (1960) II: 16, citing Coronata, De Sacramentis (1943) I, n. 371, who seems worth quoting at length here:

“As for whether a public penance as sacramental satisfaction can be imposed on a penitent, under current law, it seems that such should be entirely rejected, for that would be to oblige a penitent to manifest his sin, something too burdensome and unreasonable. One could except the case where it is necessary for the public repair of scandal properly so-called, in which case the penitent is bound to repair this scandal publicly even if the confessor did not impose it as a sacramental penance.” (my trans.)

In sum, any assertions that: (1) absolution from sin may be withheld from a penitent who declines to report his or her acts to civil authorities; (2) absolution may be made contingent upon a penitent’s later reporting his or her acts to civil authorities; (3) a penitent’s failure to perform a penance/satisfaction renders the prior confession and/or absolution null; or (4) public acts of penance/satisfaction may be imposed on a penitent for sins not known by the community to have been committed by the penitent, are either simply wrong or, at best, are subject to serious interpretive restrictions.

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.

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