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On the rite of reconciliation

Had a discussion today about the rite of reconciliation. As Bp Dan Martins taught me, I make a special effort to promote the rite during Advent and late Lent. In planning that today, a question arose about absolution. My interlocutor proposed that absolution is only proclaimed if there is evidence of real repentance. She was troubled by the idea of an unconditional absolution.

Thought I’d share a note I sent to her afterwards. I wonder how this compares to your own thinking about the rite and absolution. This is my first time articulating my own understanding of the matter and I would love to learn from others on this.

Dear friend,

I thought I’d make an effort to clarify our discussion earlier because I could tell you were concerned about the claim made that absolution is not conditioned upon contrition.

The point is that we are very careful not to suggest that salvation is a result of our own action or that we earn it in any way. We want to preserve the understanding that salvation is entirely God’s will, the result of which is the bestowal of unmerited grace. It’s pure gift from God, not our work in any way.

The declaration of absolution is an assurance of pardon based entirely upon God’s act on the Cross. When we pronounce it, we are not stating a new fact, but rather re-stating the meaning of the Cross.

Your concern, rightly, is that such absolution is vulnerable to abuse if it is not conditioned upon real repentance.

I would respond: God’s decision to be with us is based on God’s nature alone, and not on our faithfulness or goodness. We don’t add to that divine decision with our behavior. We can only receive.

And if we, in our freedom (that God honors), refuse to accept God’s gracious acceptance of us by responding to such grace as divine command, then our refusal is nothing other than a rejection of grace.

And the name which describes the life of those who reject grace is Hell.

So if one hears the word of God’s gracious act (the absolution) but does not in fact respond with repentance, then the free choice one makes is (a still revocable) life called Hell.

Therefore it is neither necessary nor appropriate for a priest to withhold absolution short of clear evidence that the rite itself is entered into disrespectfully or fraudulently. We don’t have windows into people’s souls, so we have to presuppose the truthfulness of their words of confession.


  1. Thanks for this, Father. This question about if and when withholding absolution is required is one that I’ve also discussed with other priests friends. Two comments:

    1) Salvation is a result of our own action (though an act made possible by grace) at least to the extent that we must receive that salvation. The Sacrament is a way by which I choose to reach out and receive the free gift that is offered. Jesus is quite clear that the refusal to forgive another is, in fact, a choice to cut oneself off from being able to receive the forgiveness of God.
    2) Just as denying someone Communion at the Altar must be done with extreme care (see a recent article in First Things on this), the same is true about denying absolution. The clearest scenario is when the person feels “bad” (i.e. convicted) that they are acting in sin and come to confession wanting to be resolved or better. While their heart is very difficult to discern, the refusal to amend can be much clearer. I had an instance a umber of years ago where a person came to confess that they were sleeping with a man who was still married (though in divorce proceedings). She felt conflicted about this (good!) but when asked, had no intention of stopping. That was the most obvious example I have experienced.

    Thanks for helping those of us to whom this ministry has been committed to think prayerfully about how we wield the keys, it were.

    To that end, I include some traditional prayers for the priest before and after confessions:

    Prayers Before Hearing Confessions
    These may be said according to the opportunity of the Priest

    O God, who by thy Holy Spirit perfectest the elect, pour thy heavenly light into the hearts of these thy penitent servants, that they may know and acknowledge all their sins against thee, and, confessing and forsaking them, may obtain mercy. And upon me, thy ministering servant, bestow thy grace, that I may rightly heal that which is broken, and bind up that which is wounded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    O LORD Jesus, I desire to administer this Sacrament of Penance with that same surpassing love with which thou didst hallow this ordinance, when with most earnest desire for our salvation thou didst institute it, to be administered by the Apostles and their successors, to the praise of God the Father, and the salvation of all mankind: I beseech thee that it may profit me, and all and each unto whom I shall minster it, in union with that love of thine, to the increase of our salvation, and of our everlasting happiness. Let the grace of the Holy spirit so enlighten and kindle my senses and my heart, that according to thy good pleasure I may ulfill the ministry laid upon me, and mat be counted worthy to be defended and preserved from every assault of temptation; In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

    O LORD Jesus Christ, who didst say to thine Apostles, Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain they are retained: look mercifully upon me thy servant; enlighten my understanding, give me a right judgment in all things, fill my heart with divine love. Grant me so to minister this thy gift of Absolution, that the hearts of these thy children mat be truly turned to thee, that together with them I may attain to everlasting life. Who livest and reignest, world without end. Amen.

    GRANT me, O Lord, the wisdom that sitteth at thy right hand, that I may judge thy people according to the right, and the poor with equity. Grant that I may so wild the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, that I may open to none to whom it should be shut, nor shut it to any to whom it should be opened. Give purity to my intention, sincerity to my zeal, patience to my charity, and fruit to my labors. Grant that I may be mild, yet not remiss, stern, yet not cruel. Let me neither despise the poor nor flatter the rich. Give me gentleness to draw sinners unto thee, prudence in examination, wisdom in instruction. Grant me, I pray thee, skill to turn men aside from evil, perseverance to confirm them in good, zeal to persuade them to better things: give wisdom to my answers, rightness to my counsels: give me light in darkness, a good understanding in confusion, victory in difficulties. Let no vain conversations entangle me, nor evil defile me: let me save others and not myself be cast away. Amen.

    Prayers after hearing Confessions

    O Lord God, who willest not the death of a sinner, but that he should be converted and live, have regard to the sacrifice of a troubled spirit, a broken and contrite heart, offered to thee by this penitent, promising to keep hereafter the judgements of thy righteousness. Strengthen that which thou has wrought in us, loosing in heaven what in thy Name we have loosed on earth, and perfecting more and more in the fear and love of thee the sanctification of him whom the Good Shepherd hath sought in his wanderings, and laid on his shoulders, and brought back rejoicing. Let not his last state, through the return of the devil, be worse than the first, but make him to walk henceforth in newness of life. Forgive me also, O Lord, all the failings and imperfections of guilt which I have now been guilty. Grant that what I have heard may not be to me the occasion of sin, but that considering myself, seeing that I am compassed with infirmity, I may ever watch unto prayer, that I fall not into temptation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    O LORD Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, accept this my ministry and service, with that exceeding love wherewith thou didst absolve blessed Mary Magdalene, and all sinners who fled unto thee. And whatsoever I have done carelessly or unworthily in the administration of this Sacrament, do thou be pleased to supply and to make satisfaction for by thyself. I commend to thy most loving Heart all and each who have now confessed unto me, beseeching thee to keep them, to preserve them from backsliding, and after the trials of this life to lead them to everlasting gladness with thee. Amen.

    Be present, O Lord, with our supplications, and graciously hear me, who am the first to need thy mercy; and also grant unto me, whom not for mine own merit, but of thy grace, thou hast appointed minister of this work, faithfulness in executing my commission; and do thou through my ministry perform that which cometh only of thy goodness; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

  2. That’s a very interesting way to put it. Not entirely traditional… but maybe more pastorally useful than talk of matter and form.

    In terms of traditional (Thomistic) sacramental mechanics, absolution is only half of the equation. The matter of the sacrament is “penance,” i.e. contrition, which is why it is normally called the sacrament of penance. (“Reconciliation” is the effect, and “confession” is the outwards appearance: penance is what receives grace through the form of absolution.)

    I don’t think it’s accurate to say that we do not earn salvation “in any way.” That is too extrinsic. We can be / are saved because our humanity is wrapped up in Christ; his merit is thus ours (not an “alien” righteousness in Lutheran terms). This is what enables us, even while we “have nothing we have not received,” to participate in Christ’s merit so that it becomes ours. God made us without us, but he doesn’t save us without us.

    So I get what you mean about absolution only being a re-statement of the cross, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Surely this is a non-identical repetition in which there is something genuinely new even while there is nothing new (is this not the mystery of the eternal inhabiting time?). The key is to remember that our participation in the causality of grace does not compete in any way (there we can be absolute!) with the gracious decision of God for us. That is, to say that salvation is entirely God’s will is not to say that it is not also our will. “Unmerited” is too polemical. It is merited, absolutely, by Christ (a human being!); it is also merited, contractually — in the sense that God has made certain promises which he will always keep — by us.

    Anyway, what you say above is, again, probably a little more accessible. Our age is deeply anti-metaphysical (even while this is itself a metaphysics), and so talk about “form” and “matter” in sacraments is not always helpful.

    Fr. Olver’s example also shows how there are in fact very rare occasions where withholding absolution would be appropriate (similar to the rare occasions where withholding communion is appropriate). The only difference is that there are strong scriptural and traditional warnings against receiving communion “unworthily” — i.e., it can be be bad for you, and thus it is a pastor’s duty to prevent it if possible. I’m not sure if any such danger is attached to an unfulfilled absolution.

  3. Also, just so we’re clear (or maybe this is complicating; I don’t know), when Fr Olver and I speak of some action on our part that results in grace, I don’t think we should characterize that as the kind of “do what is within you” of late medieval semi-pelagianism against which Luther reacted so strongly, and against which Craig implicitly speaks above. (Whether or not his characterization of that theology or ours is accurate!)

    All of this — confession, absolution, true penitence — comes within the life of grace following baptism. It presupposes the divine election, in a sense; any talk of merit is thus always already wrapped up in the merit of Christ which has laid claim to the individual seeking reconciliation.

    That’s my Catholic reading of things, anyway. It would be useful to think about this alongside the “joint declaration on justification.” A Lutheran “simul justus et peccator” is not really compatible with sacramental confession, if you ask me. Or, if it is, it has to be described in very different terms. (I have no idea what Calvin would say. Perhaps, Craig, you can speak up if you have an insight there.)

  4. I think the metaphysics one assumes is critical here. I recognize that my account resonates with long-ago-absorbed Reforned anxieties and does not reflect the Thomist metaphysics that I am just beginning to understand in a fruitful way. I see Luther the same way. Though he reacted against the Scholastics, he nonetheless did so within a metaphysics shaped by Ockhamists over two centuries, and so he denied an infused elevated grace and instead pointed to the Christ within. Participatoin, for Luther, is not in a transcendental but in Christ himself, and so all the conceptions of non-identical repetitions have to be re-constructed. I will have to think about how he thought of the rite of penance on this particular question. You’ve also motivated me to reconsider Hooker’s long treatment of this rite, for I was less attuned to its potential implications when I read it.


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