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Cardinal, pastors discuss general absolution

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

A long festering controversy over the practice of general absolution in Chicago-area parishes may be moving toward a resolution. During a two-hour meeting in mid-June between Cardinal Francis George and some 100 pastors, tentative steps were taken toward rapprochement, though the two sides are still far apart.

Many Chicago pastors favor general absolution -- one of three forms for the sacrament of penance prescribed in the Roman Ritual -- as a way of attracting more people to the sacrament and responding to a growing shortage of priests. Pastors say the tradition is firmly established in the archdiocese and should be respected.

George, however, says the Chicago practice does not meet criteria established in canon law.

According to canon law, the rite of general absolution is reserved for situations in which people are in danger of death or when the number penitents is so large that there aren’t enough confessors to hear confessions in a timely manner.

George said he would be willing to “bring a report on our experience with the rite directly to the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship.” But he immediately added, “This does not mean I personally believe that the conditions for the ordinary use of general absolution are met here at this time; they are not.”

For more than 25 years a sizable number of Chicago archdiocesan parishes, especially large ones (and most often during Advent and Lent), have followed the church’s rite for general absolution as an alternative to individual confession to a priest. Some of the parishes using general absolution in the Chicago area have more than 3,500 families. The rite consists of a communal service involving prayer, scripture reading, an extended examination of conscience, a joint statement of contrition, a silent imposing of hands on each penitent by a priest, followed by a statement general absolution for participants.

Though all present are absolved through this rite, the law states that those conscious of mortal sin must intend to confess individually at a later time.

The diocesan bishop is to determine if circumstances justify use of general absolution.

Clearly, the sticking point is conflict between pastoral service and episcopal authority.

“I think we’re in dialogue with the cardinal, and that’s a good place to be,” said Fr. Robert McLaughlin, rector of Holy Name Cathedral and a leader of the Pastors’ Forum, a loose coalition of some 125 pastors. “I’m not discouraged.”

In a letter to pastors after the meeting, George wrote, “The reasons for making use of general absolution are not unpersuasive, and those talking to the question were some of our most effective pastors, all of whom are also giving time to hearing individual confessions.” He added, “If we are to work toward change we have to work together, with mutual trust and in obedience to the church, which gives us the only authority we possess.”

Pope John Paul II has inveighed against a too liberal use of the rite in Australia and elsewhere, and George has stated repeatedly that he does not believe the conditions for the third rite exist in Chicago.

“Though the misuse of authority weakens the church,” he wrote, the pastoral question is “how can we together come to some alternative for general absolution which will still bring the forgiveness of God into our people’s lives. This demands more discussion.” He called for another meeting with the priests in three months.

During the June meeting, the forum presented a history of sacramental penance, noting that its form has changed many times over the centuries. Cited was a mid-1980s poll that reported that 61 percent of Catholics go to confession once a year at most or never.

The forum statement also said that Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in June 1997 had prepared a letter to Vatican officials stating his intention to permit general absolution in Chicago. Two months later, the cardinal’s cancer returned and his decision was never promulgated.

Fr. William Stenzel, pastor of a large suburban parish, said general absolution had long been of benefit to Catholics in Chicago. “Why should we abandon such an effective ministry when we have been mandated by Jesus through the apostles to do this ministry,” he said. “I always remember the elderly lady from Pullman who brought neighbors back to regular church practice by inviting them to a penance service where they could experience God’s love without risking a closeted conversation with a stranger whose reaction was unpredictable. [She said] ‘The pope ought to go to one of these. He’d like it.’ ”

Fr. Donald Headley, a priest for 43 years, told George concerns about making forgiveness too easy are unfounded. “Grace is not cheap,” he said. “It’s free. It should be made available in as many ways as possible.”

McLaughlin said the pastors’ differences with the cardinal derive from different views of church and authority. The pastors’ is rooted in their experience of listening to parishioners and in their understanding of service, while the cardinal’s is rooted in law and a top-down approach to authority, he said.

National Catholic Reporter, July 27, 2001