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Vatican to halt general absolution

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) is about to issue new instructions on the Sacrament of Reconciliation aimed at halting the practice of general absolution.

Vatican sources told The Tablet that the soon-to-be-released document sets criteria and conditions that would make it virtually impossible to use what is commonly known as the Third Rite of Penance.

The post-Vatican II form of the sacrament allows for general absolution in "special, occasional circumstances" when "not enough confessors are available to hear individual confessions properly within a reasonable time". The practice was becoming so popular in some parts of the world immediately after the Second Vatican Council that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1972 issued norms for its use. The guidelines were then incorporated in the revision of the Rite of Penance (Misericordiam Suam), which the Congregation for Divine Worship published in 1974.

A Vatican official said the most significant correction would be to remove from individual diocesan bishops the authority to decide if conditions existed for the use of the Third Rite. Bishops will now be forced to follow guidelines set by their national episcopal conferences, which must first conform to newer, more limited criteria and approval from Rome. By comparison, current legislation says the diocesan bishop regulates the "discipline" of the sacrament in his diocese. "It belongs exclusively" to him, states Misericordiam Suam, "after consultation with other members of the conference of bishops…to decide when it is lawful to give general absolution."

Another Vatican official said the approximately 15-page new text would be issued in the form of an "instruction". He said it was originally dated 19 March, but numerous revisions had delayed its publication. It would now appear, at the earliest, later this month. The source said changes were still being made to the "final draft".

Pope John Paul II is known to be opposed to general absolution, and has stated on many occasions that people need to regain a "sense of sin" in order to redress many of the ills in society. The Pope has forcefully pointed out that habitual, individual confession is the main way of doing this. But pastoral experience seems to show that general absolution can be a way to draw Catholics back to the confessional. The Congregation for Divine Worship rejected such arguments as recently as 2000 when it blocked the bishops in England and Wales from holding a series of special Holy Year reconciliation services that were to incorporate general absolution.

The Tablet

22 Apr 2002