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What is General Absolution? What are the Church’s norms regarding General Absolution?

RESPONSE: General Absolution is an exceptional means of forgiving sins that the Church provides in grave circumstances, such as when 1) danger of death threatens a person or group of people; or 2) there are not enough priests to hear the faithful’s confessions in an appropriate time, and the faithful will thereby be deprived of sacramental graces or of Holy Communion for a lengthy period of time (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1483).[1] The diocesan bishop has the authority to judge whether the proper conditions for General Absolution exist.[2] For the faithful to “benefit validly" from General Absolution, they must not only have the intention of “individually confessing their sins" during the General Absolution service (Catechism, no. 1483), but also be “personally resolved to confess in due time each of the grave sins which cannot for the moment be thus confessed."[3]

DISCUSSION: Our Lord empowered His apostles to be His ministers in the forgiveness of sins (Jn. 20:19-23).

Though God alone forgives sins, He has given priests the power to exercise this ministry in His name (Catechism, nos. 1441-42). The Church teaches that “individual and integral Confession," i.e., one in which the penitent has the opportunity to give a personal and complete Confession, is the “only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile themselves with God and the Church, unless physical or moral impossibility excuses from this kind of Confession" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1484; emphasis added). We are the Father’s sons and daughters (Rom. 12:14-17) for whom His Son Jesus Christ died
(Rom. 5:12-21). He wants us to be in right relationship with Him and He attends to us personally within the family of God, the Catholic Church:

There are profound reasons for [the norm of individual and integral Confession]. Christ is at work in each of the sacraments. He personally addresses every sinner: “My son, your sins are forgiven" (Mk. 2:5). He is the physician tending each one of the sick who need Him to cure them. He raises them up and reintegrates them into fraternal communion. Personal confession is thus the form most expressive of reconciliation with God and with the Church (Catechism, no. 1484).

But “in case of grave necessity, recourse may be had to a communal celebration of reconciliation with general Confession and General Absolution," (Catechism, no. 1483) The diocesan bishop judges if the conditions for General Absolution exist, although Canon Law says that “a large gathering of the faithful on the occasion of major feasts or pilgrimages does not constitute a case of grave necessity" (Catechism, no. 1484).

Also, prior to receiving General Absolution, the faithful should be exhorted to make an act of contrition, “even in the case of danger of death if there is time."[4] After having the age of reason, every Catholic is bound by obligation to confess grave sins at least once a year.[5] With due regard to the obligation noted in Canon Law no. 989, “a person who has had serious [grave] sins remitted by General Absolution is to make an individual sacramental Confession before receiving another General Absolution unless a just cause intervenes."[6]

At some large penitential services, penitents have been instructed to replace individual confession with writing one or several sins on a piece of paper, which are then read by a priest and burned. Such a practice violates the Church’s norms previously cited for individual and integral Confession (Catechism, no. 1484). The practice also risks the grave matter of violating the seal of Confession,[7] because papers could possibly be read by more than one person prior to their burning, or those not completely burned could be later obtained from the trash and read by others.


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