Switzerland: Abolition of practice of general absolution

Source: FSSPX News


Document sans nom

On January 14, the Swiss Bishops’ Conference (CES) issued a Decree entitled “Revisions of the norms specific to the CES concerning Canon Law (series VI)” on the abolition of the practice of general absolution during penitential services in the dioceses concerned. An “Article accompanying the CES Decree” signed by Fr. François-Xavier Amherdt, Professor of Pastoral Theology at the University of Fribourg, was published on the same day.

The Swiss Bishops refer to article 961 of the Code of Canon Law which stipulates that absolution may not be given to a group of penitents without prior individual confession, except in cases of imminent death. They also respond to the request by John Paul II in his Apostolic letter Misericordia Dei, of May 2002, in this Decree, signed on January 1, 2009 by Mgr. Kurt Koch, President of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference, and Fr. Felix Gmür the Secretary General. In the presentation of this Decree, the bishops note that the penitential service with general absolution is not one of the ordinary forms of the celebration of this sacrament. “More than this, it is the exception,” he writes, quoting article 960 of the Code of Canon Law. “Only danger of imminent death would at the present moment justify the granting of general absolution in the dioceses of Switzerland,” the other “extraordinary cases” referred to up to now in Switzerland for the granting of general absolution were explicitly ruled out by John Paul II in his apostolic letter Misericordia Dei.

The decree makes clear that “individual and integral confession and absolution are the sole ordinary means by which the faithful, conscious of grave sin, are reconciled with God and the Church.” It is therein stipulated that “general absolution when there is no danger of death” granted in dioceses and abbeys under the jurisdiction of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference cannot be justified as “an urgent situation” which would permit the granting of general absolution.

In Misericordia Dei, John Paul II recalled that “Individual and integral confession and absolution are the sole ordinary means by which the faithful, conscious of grave sin, are reconciled with God and the Church; only physical or moral impossibility excuses from such confession.” John Paul II said of this measure that it “seems especially necessary, given that in some places there has been a tendency to abandon individual confession and wrongly to resort to “general” or “communal” absolution. In this case general absolution is no longer seen as an extraordinary means to be used in wholly exceptional situations. On the basis of an arbitrary extension of the conditions required for grave necessity, in practice there is a lessening of fidelity to the divine configuration of the Sacrament, and specifically regarding the need for individual confession, with consequent serious harm to the spiritual life of the faithful and to the holiness of the Church.”

However, the link established between penitential services and general absolution, in several Swiss dioceses (the practice differed in the dioceses of Sion and Lugano and at the Abbey of St. Maurice) “has sometimes prevented this type of celebration from spreading in its original form,” says the decree with an acute sense of euphemism.

The article accompanying the Swiss Bishops’ decree, signed by Fr. François-Xavier Amherdt, points out that there is no question that “through the present Decree which abolishes general absolution except in danger of death, communal penitential services as such will be abolished, especially at the high points of the liturgical year (Advent, Lent, All Saints’ Day…). They end by the invocation of God’s forgiveness – a supplication – as at the start of the Eucharist (May Almighty God have mercy on us…). They have a very real value in themselves – although not offering the sacrament of Penance as such. So it is worth maintaining them and developing them, while offering the possibility of receiving individual absolution with a personal confession of one’s sins. It should be noted that the Swiss bishops’ Decree refers to the future and consequently does not call into question the validity of any previously granted general absolution. May the faithful and their pastors be perfectly reassured on this point!” (sic)

Fr. Amherdt admits that the suppression of general absolution “will no doubt cause disappointment and raise questions”, but “it may nevertheless give rise to renewed creativity (sic) in order to find different ways of making us more open to the treasures of divine mercy.” It continues “it is curious that in these times, where individualism and autonomy are so exacerbated and legitimately claimed, that a measure as individual as personal confession should be so badly perceived.”

Pope Benedict XVI himself evoked “the crisis which the Sacrament of Reconciliation is going through” when he addressed the Swiss bishops at the Vatican on November 7, 2006, at the conclusion of their ad limina visit, which had been interrupted in 2005 by the hospitalization of John Paul II. The Holy Father invited them to “re-launch” in their dioceses “A penitential pastoral care which encourages individual confession”. And he specified “The Motu proprio Misericordia Dei (April 7, 2002), of John Paul II, will be very useful to you.” He then explained to them their task: “Ask your priests to be untiring confessors, generously offering suitable schedules for personal confession to their faithful; encourage them also to approach this sacrament frequently. Urge them to go to confession regularly, which will allow them to discover the gift of God’s mercy and which will encourage them to be merciful as He is, in their dealing with others.”

Benedict XVI at that time recalled that Confession “helps us to form our conscience, to fight our bad tendencies and allows us to be healed by Christ, and to progress in our spiritual life.” Finally, he invited priests to “observe rigorously the norms of the Church concerning general absolution, referred to in the document Misericordia Dei, which demands truly exceptional situations for having recourse to this extra-ordinary form of the sacrament of Penance.”

(Sources: Apic / CES / vatican.va)