Loosing and Binding

Penitents do not have an absolute right to absolution: they must meet what the sacrament itself requires for the forgiveness of sins.

I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Matthew 16:19

Speaking to rectors and seminarians from Latin America on November 10, Pope Francis urged future priests to exercise the ministry of mercy in the confessional. But laying aside his prepared address, he offered some ex tempore remarks about the sacrament of Reconciliation that were problematic and deserve comment.  

After his usual attack on “rigidity” as a camouflage for “a true rottenness” (il vero marcio), Francis discussed the case of priests who defer absolution in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Without greater specificity of what he had in mind, the Pope said it is suffering to meet “people who come to cry because they have gone to confession and…told everything. If you go to confession because you have done one, two, ten thousand wrong things…you thank God and you forgive them!” 

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And “if the other person is ashamed” one must not beat them: “’And I cannot in mortal sin, I have to ask the permission of the bishop….’ This happens, please! Our people cannot be in the hands of deliquenti! And a priest who behaves like this is a delincuente, in every word. Like it or not.”

Deliquenti can mean a whole range of things, none of them nice:
“delinquents,” “scoundrels,” “thugs,” or “criminals.” This from a pope who, in the same address, counseled future priests to be “close” to their bishop like to a “father” and concluded with his usual admonitions against “gossip.”

If I were a priest, I’d hesitate to be frank to a “father” who thinks I’m a deliquenti. And since the Pope bluntly says “if you don’t have the courage to tell him [the bishop] things to his face,…don’t tell someone else,” I’ll be frank: after almost ten years into this pontificate, papal instruction by ad lib is becoming ever more destructive to the Church.

What is Francis talking about? It’s not clear. Is his issue with priests who defer absolution? Assuming that’s the case, there are two situations where priests defer absolution: when the confessor encounters a reserved sin, or he judges the penitent does not meet the necessary conditions for absolution.

Canons 1370-1399 include a number of sins that incur excommunication, including four whose absolution is reserved to permission of the Holy See, (i.e., the pope). Sins incurring excommunication reserved to the Holy See are not likely to be committed by the average penitent. They include acts that contain a particular moral malice: desecrating the Eucharist, attempting to absolve one’s accomplice in sins against the Sixth Commandment, violating the seal of confession, or physically attacking the pope. 

One needs to be a priest to commit the second and third, and the other two are grievous sacrileges. Certain other sins may incur excommunications reserved to the local bishop but, except for abortion, they are also likely not commonplace. In the case of abortion, given its unfortunate frequency, many bishops have granted standing faculties to priests to lift the excommunication and absolve the sin. The Church wants to bring post-abortive women back to God, but it also wants to emphasize the gravity of an act Vatican II called an “unspeakable crime” (Gaudium et spes, 51).

The Church reserves the absolution of certain sins not because it is “rigid” or “judgmental” but to stress the gravity of those acts, whether they are infrequent or even frequent: using the confessional to solicit sex or obtaining an abortion are serious moral faults, even if the penitent doesn’t recognize the sin as such.  

As regards a confessor judging whether a penitent has the necessary dispositions for absolution, the question is not even one of canon law but of basic sacramental theology. Certain conditions must be fulfilled to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation validly. A penitent who deliberately conceals a mortal sin in confession, who lacks contrition, or who does not exhibit a firm purpose of amendment by removing himself from near occasions of sin cannot be absolved. That’s not because the priest or even the pope says so, but because the person lacks a necessary element to be forgiven.  

One can imagine that perhaps the kind of case the Pope has in mind is of persons who recognize, for example, that living in a second marriage after divorce violates Jesus’ teaching about adultery but who will not give up acting like a spouse (i.e., having sex) in that invalid second marriage. Such a penitent cannot be given absolution not because the confessor is “rigid” but because the penitent is living in an objective state of mortal sin that he will not give up. Even God cannot forgive a sinner who won’t surrender a sin.

The dispositions necessary for valid absolution come from the very nature of the sacrament: truly being sorry for sin means removing one’s self from situations that facilitate committing that sin. If I don’t want to get out of the situation, I want to keep sinning.  

So, what does the Pope have in mind? Is this a backdoor invocation of a certain reading of Amoris laetitia, especially nr 243? It’s unclear because the Pope’s remarks were off-the-cuff. But on matters of such importance, both the faithful and priests have a right to expect more clarity than off-the-cuff comments.

If he is implying that the priest should acquiesce in a penitent’s judgment about whether or not something he is doing is a sin, then that is a false notion of conscience. Conscience must be respected, but conscience can be in error. The confessor’s job is to correct erroneous consciences, not leave them in error.

Penitents do not have an absolute right to absolution: they must meet what the sacrament itself requires for the forgiveness of sins. That is what the Church has always meant when it speaks of the role of the priest in the confessional as a judex, a “judge.” The confessor must determine—must “judge”—whether a penitent is truly penitent.   Penitents do not have an absolute right to absolution: they must meet what the sacrament itself requires for the forgiveness of sins.Tweet This

Christ Himself gave priests that responsibility. This essay opens by quoting Matthew 16:19, where Jesus explicitly tells Peter he has the responsibility of binding and loosing, not just the later. The other two texts also traditionally associated with the institution of the sacrament of Penance—Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23—also explicitly invoke the adjudicatory task of “forgiving or retaining” sins based on the sinner’s readiness as determined by the confessor. 

A confessor must be discreet when he cannot immediately absolve a penitent. The fact the penitent is in the confessional demonstrates good will, and one must not snuff out a smoldering wick (Isaiah 42:3). But the confessor must also be truthful, not leaving a penitent in sin but helping to usher him toward true and necessary conversion. That is why Bernard Häring—no “rigid” moralist—counseled priests to speak of “deferring” absolution as they worked to bring the penitent to proper repentance.  

That is true pastoral accompaniment. Priests doing that deserve not to be insulted.

This story got little coverage in the United States: two usual sources, Catholic News Agency and America, reported the event but omitted the confessional remarks. What I find disturbing, however, is that the Vatican’s own news service cited them. That makes it fair to ask: what does the Pope mean and can it be reconciled to sacramental theology and canon law?

[Photo Credit: Vatican News Service]


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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