Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, Explanatory Note Concerning General Absolution without Previous Individual Confession La normative, 8 November 1996.
I. The norm of canon 961 concerning general absolution must be interpreted and correctly applied in the context of canons 960 and 986, §1.
Canon 960 reads: “Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the sole ordinary means by which a member of the faithful who is conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and with the Church.
Physical or moral impossibility alone excuses from such confession, in which case reconciliation may be attained by other means also.”
The canon sanctions the obligation of individual confession with absolution as “the sole ordinary means” to obtain reconciliation with God and the Church. This ordinary means is qualified as of “divine law” by the Council of Trent (see DS, no. 1707). The canon indicates other possible forms of reconciliation, but these can take place obviously as extraordinary, only when there is a physical or moral impossibility to have “individual and integral confession and absolution.”
The obligation sanctioned in c. 960 finds its verification and confirmation in c. 986, §1 which states: “All to whom by virtue of office the care of souls is committed, are bound to provide for the hearing of the confessions of the faithful entrusted to them, who reasonably request confession, and they are to provide these faithful with an opportunity to make individual confession on days and at times arranged to suit them.” This is, in fact, a basic right of the faithful and a grave obligation of their “sacred pastors” ( cc. 213 and 843).
The obligation of individual confession sanctioned by canon 960 as the “only ordinary means” for reconciliation is often underlined and reaffirmed by the legislator—also after the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. For example, in the post synodal apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia: “The individual and integral confession of sins with individual absolution constitutes the only ordinary way in which the faithful who are conscious of serious sin are reconciled with God and with the Church.”
From the above-mentioned norm is reached the conclusion which is prescribed in canon 961 that general absolution is by its nature an exception, and is subject to the norm of canon 18: “Laws which … contain an exception from the law are subject to strict interpretation.”
John Paul II in the same apostolic exhortation returned to underline expressly its extraordinary nature: “The third form, however—reconciliation of a number of penitents with general confession and absolution—is exceptional in character. It is therefore not left to free choice but is regulated by a special discipline.”
II. In presenting the extraordinary mode of general absolution canon 961, §1, nos. 1° and 2° establishes only two conditions which indicate the only cases in which such absolution is lawful:
1–when there is an imminent danger of death (immineat periculum mortis) and the priest or priests do not have sufficient time to hear individual confessions. (This is a reference to the original ground for the granting of the permission of general absolution during the conflict of the two world wars).
2–when there is a grave necessity (adsit gravis necessitas). The canon explains that a state of necessity is verified when the number of penitents and the lack of priests force the faithful to be deprived for a long period of time—through no fault of their own—of the grace of the sacrament and of holy Communion.
For a grave necessity to exist, both elements must exist at the same time: first the lack of sufficient priests and a large number of penitents, and secondly that the faithful have not had and do not have the possibility to go to confession before or immediately afterward. In practice, that they are not responsible through their negligence for the actual deprivation of the state of grace and for the impossibility to receive holy Communion (sine propria culpa) and that this state is foreseen for a long time (diu).
A large number of faithful does not per se justify general absolution. For that reason the same canon states: “Sufficient necessity is not considered to exist when confessors cannot be present due only to the large number of penitents such as can occur on some great feast or pilgrimage.”
III. Canon 961, §2 also establishes that it is up to the diocesan bishop to determine in the concrete case, in light of the criteria “agreed upon with the other members of the conference of bishops,” whether the conditions for the granting of general absolution are verified.
The diocesan bishop has—however, in concrete cases in light of the criteria established by the conference of bishops—the task to verify whether or not the conditions established by the Code of Canon Law exist. He cannot establish the criteria and he does not have in any way the power to modify, add or remove the conditions established in the Code and the criteria agreed upon with the other members of the conference of bishops.
In his interventions, the supreme legislator has recalled many times the delicacy of this norm and has often called to mind the responsibility of the pastors of the dioceses [i.e., the bishops] for its observance.
Already Paul VI of happy memory in a discourse to some of the United States bishops said: “Ordinaries were not authorized to change the required conditions, to substitute other conditions for those given, or to determine grave necessity according to their personal criteria, however worthy” (AAS, 70 , p. 330).
John Paul in his aforementioned apostolic exhortation repeated this serious obligation: “The bishop therefore, who is the only one competent in his own diocese to assess whether the conditions actually exist … will give this judgment with a grave obligation on his own conscience, with full respect for the law and practice of the Church and also taking into account the criteria and guidelines agreed upon … with the other members of the episcopal conference.”
IV. Also the draft of canon 961, which was submitted to the consultation of the bishops proves the exceptional character of reconciliation through general absolution as one can see through a study of the acts published in the review Communicationes.
Emblematic in this regard is the passage from an initial formulation, which foresaw positively the possibility of general absolution, to a formulation, which to the contrary directly prohibited general absolution, foreseeing it only as an exception.
In the 1975 draft of De Sacramentis, the present canon 961, which was then 132, §1, stated in a positive way: “Observing the prescriptions of canon 133, the absolution of a number of penitents without previous individual confession can, or even must be given …
The possibility of general absolution foreseen in this positive formulation remained unchanged even after the examination of the observations made in the first consultation (see Communicationes, 9 , pp. 52-54), and in the same formulation in the 1980 Schema CIC under the canon 915, §1).
. “Firmis praescriptis can. 133, absolutio pluribus insimul paenitentibus, sine praevia individuali confessione, generali modo impertiri potest, immo vel debet ...”
The change was introduced following the observations made for the 1980 draft by the fathers of the commission, as a result of the report published concerning this work.
Concerning §1: 1. It is preferred that §1 be written in this way “General absolution without previous individual confession will not be given, unless… ” (First Father).
2. It should be “Absolution … cannot be given: 1) unless there is imminent danger of death … 2) unless there is a very serious necessity … “ Negative formulation, the suppression of the words “or must” and the substitution of “serious” with “very serious” are absolutely necessary in order to avoid abuses, which in fact already exist.
The formulation in the proposed text will cause much damage to the spiritual life of the faithful and to vocations, because the faithful will practically never confess their sins. (Third Father).
Response. It is accepted and the text of §1 will be: “Absolution … cannot be given unless: 1) imminent … 2) there is serious …” (“Report Containing a Synthesis of the Observations,” in Communicationes, 15 , p. 205.)
In the 1982 “Latest Draft,” canon 961 is drafted in the negative formulation, which was given definitive sanction by the legislator in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.
. "Ad §1: (1) Præfertur ut §1 ita redigatur: Absolutio pluribus insimul paenitentibus sine praevia individuali confessione generali modo ne impertiatur, nisi... (Alter Pater).
(2) Dicatur: «Absolutio... impertiri non potest: 1) nisi immineat periculum mortis... 2) nisi adsit pergravis necessitas...» Formulatio negativa, suppressio verbi «vel debet» et substitutio «gravis» cum «pergravis» sunt omnino necessariae ad abusos vitandos, qui revera iam fere habentur.
Formula in textu proposito permulta damna infert vitae spirituali fidelium et vocationibus, quia fideles fere numquam peccata sua confitentur (Tertius Pater)"
R. Admittantur: et textus §1erit: «Absolutio... impertiri non potest, nisi: 1) immineat... 2) adsit gravis...» (Relatio complectens Synthesim Animadversionum..., in Communicationes, 15 , p. 205).
V. The correct application of the norms relative to general absolution requires also the observance of what is prescribed in the following canons 962 and 963.
Canon 962, §1 establishes a further specific obligation relative to general absolution. In order for the validity of general absolution given according to the canonical criteria, it is required, in addition to the necessary dispositions for confessions in the ordinary way, the intention to confess in the ordinary way all mortal sins that could not be confessed because of the grave necessity.
In an allocution to the penitentiaries of the Roman basilicas, John Paul II pointed out this aspect: “But I want to recall the scrupulous observation of the quoted conditions reiterating that in the case of a mortal sin, even after general absolution, the obligation of a specific accusation of the sin subsists and to confirm that the faithful have the right to their own individual confession” (in AAS, 73 , p. 203).
In the apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia, after having recalled that individual confession is the only ordinary means of reconciliation, he wrote: “From this confirmation of the Church’s teaching it is clear that every serious sin must always be stated … in an individual confession.”
Although canon 963 does not determine in forma specifica a precise time within which the individual confession must be made before another eventual general absolution, it does establish clear normative standard: an individual confession should be made before another eventual general confession and it must be made quam primum (as soon as possible), i.e., as soon as the exceptional circumstances cease that gave rise to recourse to general absolution.
From the Vatican, November 8, 1996.
Titular Archbishop of Vertara
Titular Bishop of Drivasto
Prot. No. 5309/96, 8 November 1996, Comm 28 (1996): 177-181; W.H. Woestman, Sacraments: Initiation, Penance, Anointing of the Sick: Commentary on Canons 840-1007 (Ottawa, Saint Paul University, Faculty of Canon Law, 2004): 471-475.