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Q and A with Fr Flader: Repentance and absolution

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Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh listens to confession from a young woman during a rally for life and youth Mass in Washington in January 2010. Photo: CNS/Bob Roller

Dear Father, I read recently that Pope Francis told some seminarians that priests should always forgive sins, even when the person is not sorry for them. This didn’t sound right to me. Is it?

It was reported that Pope Francis told seminarians from Barcelona, Spain that they must not be clerical and should always forgive; even “if we see that there is no intention to repent, we must forgive all.”

If we deny absolution to someone who is unrepentant, “we become a vehicle for an evil, unjust, and moralistic judgment.” Since this is not the traditional teaching of the Church and the Pope was speaking without a prepared text, it would be safer to assume that he was misquoted.

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What is the traditional teaching? We should begin by saying that when someone goes to Confession, by that very fact they are showing they are sorry and want to be forgiven. It is exceedingly rare that anyone going to Confession would not be truly repentant and determined to try to avoid falling into the sin again.

In my more than fifty-five years of priesthood I have had only one such case. The person admitted openly that he was not sorry, that he was planning to commit the sin again in a few days’ time, and he understood that I could not grant him absolution.

In instituting the sacrament of penance on the evening of his Resurrection, Christ himself referred to the possibility that the apostles would not always be able to forgive the sins confessed: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:22-23). Retaining sins, in this context, means not forgiving them. So Christ already allowed for this possibility.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting the Council of Trent, teaches that true sorrow, contrition, is necessary for one’s sins to be forgiven. It is one of the acts of the penitent: “Among the penitent’s acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is ‘sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again’” (CCC 1451).

“God will always forgive us, no matter how many or how grave the sins we have committed, provided we are truly sorry.”

What is more, The Code of Canon Law states that for penitents to receive “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” (Can. 987).

We see the importance of repentance and God’s readiness to forgive in Christ’s parable of the prodigal son. The younger son, having received his share of the inheritance, went off and squandered the money, living loosely with women.

Finding himself penniless and reduced to feeding swine, an unclean animal for the Jews, he repented sincerely, saying: “I will arise and go to my father and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants” (Lk 15:18-19).

The father, an image of God the merciful Father, moved with compassion, embraced him and kissed him, put a ring on his finger, clothed him in the best robe, put shoes on his feet and called for the fatted calf to be killed and eaten to celebrate his return (cf. Lk 15:20-24). God will always forgive us, no matter how many or how grave the sins we have committed, provided we are truly sorry.

The Catechism, quoting the Council of Trent, distinguishes between perfect contrition and imperfect contrition: “When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called ‘perfect’ (contrition of charity).

Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible” (CCC 1452). “The contrition called ‘imperfect’ (or attrition) … is born of the consideration of sin’s ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner (contrition of fear). Such a stirring of conscience … disposes one to obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance” (CCC 1453).

One could also distinguish sorrow for a merely human motive; for example, sorrow moved by pride when the person has not been able to overcome a particular sin. This sorrow is not sufficient for absolution, since it is not directed to God but rather to oneself.

So true contrition with a resolution to try to avoid the sin in the future is necessary to receive absolution. And God will always forgive a contrite person: “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps 50: 17).

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