Absolution Means Saying You’re Sorry

The pope said priests can "never deny absolution." Is this true? Absolutely not.

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Is it only the hopelessly naïve and unworldly—people like me, in other words—who find it off-putting when those for whom one expects a certain gravitas behave like bikers at a bar, tossing off four-letter words like forbidden firecrackers? Or do other people find it offensive as well and are, in fact, shocked and embarrassed when they hear it?  

Have I anyone in particular in mind? Well, I’m afraid I do: the current pope, for whom, apparently, the practice of launching f-bombs has long been a habit. From an entry in a report, for instance, written more than thirty years ago by his then Jesuit Superior, Fr. Peter Hans Kolvenbach, one notes that even then it had been seen as a problem. Describing it as among “a series of defects, ranging from habitual use of vulgar language to deviousness,” the habit appears not to have been overcome.  

And, of course, it surfaced once again in Barcelona not too long ago where, speaking before a group of young seminarians, he launched a flotilla of expletives that one does not ordinarily expect to hear coming from the mouth of God’s Vicar. Now, it is widely known, of course, that whenever formal or prepared remarks are scheduled, the Holy Father will not infrequently lapse into a sort of unscripted verbal stream of consciousness. But flying f-bombs while speaking to future priests about the Sacrament of Reconciliation?

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So, it is not just the style of his speech that is troubling. I mean, if it were just a matter of an inadvertent obscenity or two, one would certainly regret having to hear it, but one would hardly want to make a doctrinal big deal of it. But this was different, betraying rather more than a want of verbal decorum. It was the content of his speech, the argument which he made, that is most objectionable.

So, what did the pope say? The headline is pretty revealing: “Pope curses ‘delinquent’ priests who withhold absolution.” Now there’s an icebreaker. Who are these priests and why would they be withholding absolution? Maybe they do need to be cursed, along with the “clericalism” that prompts their unconscionable refusals.

Priests, he said, must never be “clerical” but must instead always forgive everything. Yes, even when there is no intention to repent and try to do better. “We can never deny absolution,” he pronounced, “because we become a vehicle for an evil, unjust, and moralistic judgment.”

This statement was followed by two warheads that have since caught everyone’s attention: namely, his denunciation of all those “f***ing careerists who f***up the lives of others.” Indeed, the pope continued, were any priest even to think of withholding absolution, he would first need to “ask the permission of the bishop” before doing so. Otherwise, he said, “our people are in the hands of criminals. And a priest who behaves like this is a criminal, in every word. Like it or not.”

To repeat: a real icebreaker. But is it true? It is not. Absolution, as even the youngest of penitents can tell you, is not an entitlement, not something to which one has an automatic claim. It is not at all like a Social Security check which, having paid into the system, you’ve every right to receive.

Absolution depends on being sorry, of evincing at the very least a modicum of real regret for the sins you’ve come to confess. It is not dependent—thanks be to God and the Council of Trent—on perfect contrition (which is sorrow prompted by the pure love of God and the deepest detestation for sin) but enough of that attrition which, notwithstanding Luther’s derisive dismissal of it as nothing more than “repentance of the gallows,” genuinely moves the penitent to make a sincere expression of sorrow lest his sins send him to Hell.

Fear of the Lord is not a bad motive for popping into the box to unburden oneself of sin. Servile, yes, and not that filial fear one finds in, say, the Prodigal Son. Nevertheless, it remains a sufficient reason for any priest to pronounce absolution. Entirely self-serving, to be sure, but in the eyes of God and the Church, it is enough. Now, if you haven’t got even that going for you, why on earth would you be on the inside of the confessional anyway? As they like to say in every Twelve Step Program, “If you don’t want a haircut, what are you doing in the barbershop?” 

But forgiving sins when there is not even the least scintilla of sorrow? How often would that happen even if the pope’s proposal were put into practice? But more to the point, is that how Jesus intended His Church to administer the Sacrament?

No sooner had Christ entered Galilee to begin His public ministry than He announced the whole point of His coming among us, which had everything to do with true sorrow for sin. “The time is fulfilled,” He said to all who would listen, “and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Unless I, and uncounted members of the Church down through the centuries, are missing something, the operative word here is repent. The time to be sorry, therefore, is now. So, get over yourself, go to confession, then try and stop sinning. 

Canon Law, by the way, is perfectly clear about all this, stating that in order for penitents to obtain “the saving remedy of the sacrament of penance, they must be so disposed that, repudiating the sins they have committed and having the purpose of amending their lives, they turn back to God” (Canon 987).

Metanoia, in other words, is not an option. Saying you’re sorry and really meaning it is not one of those negotiable extras comparable to a side chapel in a large cathedral where only the truly pious may be expected to visit. Expressing grief for sin is not to gild the lily, as it were; it is rather to acknowledge that before the just Judge of the universe no one gets off the hook. And since all stand convicted, all are required to show repentance.

[Photo Credit: Vatican Media]


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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