When Should A Priest Refuse Absolution?

Photography by Stephen McElligott

A priest may refuse absolution when there’s an indication that the penitent is not expressing true sorrow and a firm purpose of amendment for their sin. When we go to confession we do so with the full intent of trying not to sin again. This usually happens when a person is in a constant state of sin but has no resolve to cure the problem. For example, a person may be confessing they use birth control, are cohabitating or in an illicit sexual union but have no intention to stop.

In this case, the priest has no alternative not to give absolution with that knowledge. There are other moments when a person may be committing the same sins again and again, but the priest feels that each time they come to confession with the same sins there’s no true contrition in them. Confession is becoming relative in a sense where they’re almost abusing confession coming weekly and yet not doing anything to rid themselves of the sin or show true contrition.

This one is a little more tricky and dares I say dangerous, not for the priest but for the penitent. I say not for the priest because he’s been given the power to retain sins even if his reasons are not theologically sound or imperfect therefore unlikely to be held accountable. It’s dangerous for the penitent because he could leave the confessional, get hit by a bus and go straight to hell having not received his absolution.

I think every priest has a pastoral duty to ensure they know the person beforehand, and unless they have the spiritual insight of reading hearts like St.Padre Pio did, should avoid this practice in the case of the latter altogether. I say this because a priest never really truly knows whether another person has true contrition or not. This is between the penitent and the Lord who alone knows all hearts.

If a person is struggling with their sins and showing no improvement week after week this is no reason to refuse their absolution either. The priest’s duty is to use the retainment of sins for the benefit of the Penitent, and that the salvation of the soul via confession should not be denied simply because no signs of improvement are being displayed. I’m talking about habitual sins like anger or lust where a person is up and down like a Pendulum. One week they show improvement while yet another they lapse and the week after lapse even further only to bounce back again the following week.

A priest cited the example of Padre Pio to me, but Padre Pio grew up during a time when the heresy of Jansenism had plagued Italy, France and Ireland. Jansenism was a severe moral theology that refused the forgiveness of sins to penitents. Padre Pio’s behaviour in this regard had been in direct conflict with that of St.John Vianney, who, being tired of refusing people absolution had a conversion experience by reading that of St.Alphonsus di Ligouris book. After this he rarely if ever refused anyone except in the extreme circumstances cited previously.

Therefore, the great Saint that Padre Pio was, he had not been without his own imperfections. All Saints had these such as St.Joseph of Cupertino. He could levitate and be often found spending hours in ecstasy. But he had a dark side to him where he would have explosive outrages and anger for no apparent reason. These types of imperfections are crosses to bear for all of us and demonstrate that Saint or sinner none of us are perfect.

I believe that only in cases where you truly know the person to be unrepentant such as they state an unwillingness to change their behaviour should you ever refuse absolution. Otherwise, how do you know if the person is not truly sorry for their sins or has no intention to work out not doing the sin between now and the week after when they return again for confession? Why place them in the danger of going to Hell because of having not given them absolution due to such presumptuous behaviour? Where is the pastoral care for such a soul in cases like these?

I invite priests to think about that very serious situation. The Lord has given them great power but also requires of them incredible discretion in its use.

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