Personal Nature of Confession Stressed in New Papal Document

General Absolution Has Been Abused, Says Cardinal Ratzinger

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 2, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Personal confession of sins, rather than the general or collective way, is the proper and ordinary realm for the sacrament of reconciliation, John Paul II reaffirms in a new document.



The apostolic letter "Misericordia Dei" (God´s Mercy) was written in response to the improper use in some countries of general confession and general absolution. The general approach is designed for emergency situations where penitents have the intention of going to private confession afterward. But in recent years the approach often has been used as the normal method.

"The fact that humanity needs purification and forgiveness is something that is self-evident in our historical time," Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained today when presenting the document to the press.

"Precisely for this reason, the Holy Father wished to write an apostolic letter, which above all underlines the personal character of the sacrament of penance," he said.

The prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith added that "guilt, despite all our ties with the human community, is in the ultimate sense something totally personal, therefore our healing and forgiveness must also be totally personal."

Cardinal Ratzinger explained that "God does not treat us as parts of a collectivity. He knows each one by name, calls him personally and saves him, if he has fallen into sin. Although the Lord addresses each person directly in all the sacraments, the personalist character of Christian life is manifested in a particularly clear way in the sacrament of penance."

This personal dimension, the cardinal said, was in "the shadow in recent decades because of ever more frequent recourse to collective absolution, increasingly considered as a normal form of the sacrament of penance."

This "abuse," the cardinal added, "has contributed to the progressive disappearance of this sacrament in some parts of the Church."

"Does this document, then, add a new burden to the backs of Christians?" Cardinal Ratzinger asked. "It is precisely the contrary; the totally personal character of Christian life must be defended. Of course, confession of one´s own sin can seem like something heavy for the person, as it humbles his pride and confronts him with his poverty."

However, he stressed, "This is precisely what we need; we suffer precisely for this reason: We shut ourselves in in our delirium of guiltlessness and for this reason, we are also closed to others."

"In psychotherapeutic treatments, a person is made to bear the burden of profound and often dangerous revelations of their inner self," the cardinal added. "In the sacrament of penance the simple confession of one´s guilt is presented with confidence in God´s merciful goodness."

"It is important to do it, without falling into scruples, with the spirit of trust proper to the children of God," the cardinal concluded. "In this way, confession can become an experience of deliverance, in which the weight of the past is removed from us and we can feel rejuvenated by the merit of God´s grace."

Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez also spoke during the presentation of the document. He explained that it "confirms the traditional teaching of the doctrine of the Church, according to which, the only ordinary way to celebrate the sacrament of penance is the one that implies the total confession of sins to the priest with personal absolution."

The prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments clarified that so-called collective or general absolutions must be considered extraordinary and exceptional.

"Recourse is taken to them only and exclusively in case of danger of death or when it is physically and morally impossible to celebrate the sacrament in the ordinary way," the cardinal explained. "[To] equate collective absolutions with the ordinary way of celebrating the sacrament of penance is a doctrinal error, a disciplinary abuse and a pastoral harm."

Archbishop Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legal Texts, also spoke at the press conference to highlight the two dimensions of the Pope´s apostolic letter.

Those dimensions, he said, are "the fundamental right of the faithful to receive from the sacred pastors the sacraments instituted by Christ," and the duty of the latter to "establish and diligently apply the canonical and liturgical laws that ensure the valid and licit celebration of the sacraments."