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Hopeful discussion underway in Chicago

The recent exchanges between Cardinal Frances George of Chicago and about 100 of his pastors over the question of general absolution are to be applauded.

For his part, George not only met with the priests to discuss the difficult issue, but seems to have taken their points seriously. For their part, the priests, besieged these days by shrinking ranks and growing demands, refuse to simply walk away from what they see as a critical need for their parishioners (see story page 6).

In the wake of those discussions, George conceded that “the reasons for making use of general absolution are not unpersuasive, and those talking to the question were some of our most effective pastors.” However, he also noted that while he was willing to report to the Vatican on the archdiocese’s experience of general absolution, “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.”

So we have George understanding both sides of the problem. The question remaining is who will hold sway? What voices will he ultimately listen to?

The pastors was a good place to begin. They are among his most effective for a reason -- they take the situation of their people seriously.

It is understood that some in the Vatican want to hear nothing about general absolution. They consider it cheap grace, that reconciliation and forgiveness can be conveyed adequately only in the traditional rite.

It is also increasingly clear, as the reports from Rome in these pages suggest week after week, that the Vatican is hardly a monolith, and that a religious leader passionate about meeting the needs of his or her constituents can effect creative solutions even in the current atmosphere of the Vatican.

George will hear lots of voices on this issue. We know he will hear from those on the far right who show up in church, little notepads in hand, to catalogue what they deem intolerable irregularities. Our hunch, though, is that they are not the people who are organizing liturgies, teaching the young people of the parish, singing in the choir and overseeing and carrying out the incredible array of ministries that is a normal part of parish life. In short, our hunch is that while they are very effective in complaining to Rome, they would not make very effective pastors.

He might also hear, if he takes the time to delve into the matter, the voice of his predecessor, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, on why he planned to tell Vatican officials of his intent to permit general absolution in his archdiocese. According to the pastors who recently met with George, that intent was cut short when Bernardin’s cancer returned.

Some pastors set what they describe as their own more collegial and pastoral instincts against what they see as the cardinal’s more rigid notion of law and hierarchy. That may not be an unfair assessment. But George’s first instinct, to consult his priests and hear what they have to say, suggests, perhaps, that not all of the pastoral instinct exists on just one side.

National Catholic Reporter, July 27, 2001