Jesus said therefore to them again, “Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent Me, I also send you.” When He had said this, He breathed on them, and He said to them: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.”—John 20:21-23, DRB.
Let me say at the outset of this blog that it is long but probably worth it. It is practically written for other priests but it will help lay people historically. The only answer you need is in the last paragraph of this post. However, this blog will give much sacramental theology and confessional experience before that point. I also understand there may be old liberal priests reading this, thinking “I have never denied absolution in 70 years. What monster of an arrogant priest would even write a blog called When to deny absolution?” But, on the other hand, there are certain traditional priests who are now denying absolution with unusual frequency. They may be equally shocked at how overly-merciful (or “lax”) this is.
Part I: The Dilemma
The verses quoted at the top of this blog post from towards the end of the Gospel of St. John are perhaps give the clearest Catholic explanation as to why Jesus Christ has chosen to forgive sins committed post baptism by means of His priests’ hearing confessions. The Greek word above for to forgive (as in forgive others’ sins) is ἀφῆτε (afité) meaning the imperative or second-person plural of to release. The Greek word above for retain (as in retain others’ sins) is κρατῆτε (kratité) meaning “to hold.” So, a priest may choose to release a penitent (the person confessing his sins) in the confessional of his sins –or– the priest may choose to retain the penitent’s sins upon that penitent himself. This is also called “denying absolution.”
The above assertions might read as arbitrary to the non-Catholic reader, but it makes perfect sense both sacramentally and psychologically: When a priest “releases” the persons sins (gives absolution) or “binds” those sins still upon the penitent (denying absolution to the penitent) the priest’s goal is not to make someone happy or sad. The priest’s goal is to render absolution (or refrain from it) based on whether or not the penitent is sorry. Remember that “sorrow for sin” is more than an emotion. The Church, when looking for sorrow, is actually looking for “firm resolution of amendment.” Firm resolution of amendment is simply when you have sorrow, which is usually tantamount to having a decent plan to never commit the confessed sins again. (Notice I wrote “decent plan” not “guaranteed plan.” That will come in later on priests that are too harsh in denying absolution.)
A priest denies absolution mainly when he realizes the confession would be invalid whether or not he says the words of absolution. Why would a confession be invalid? Because the penitent doesn’t have contrition (or sorrow) for his sins. Why is this so serious? Because contrition is one of the four aspects of confession: Contrition, confession, absolution, penance. The Magisterium has always taught that the most important of those four is contrition. Therefore, the Church has interpreted John 20 (see quote at top) as a directive to priests to deny absolution mainly (but not exclusively) when the priest hears a lack of contrition from the penitent. By hears, you will see later in this blog that lack-of-contrition is not so much lack-of-crying as lack-of-a-plan to end serious sins.
So how does a priest tell if a penitent has contrition or not? These days, most penitents will admit it! That will be the entire point of part II of this blog post.
When a priest gives absolution, it is truly Jesus Christ forgiving the penitent through His priest when he says, Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis, in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. That is why the priest’s decision to absolve (or not-absolve) must coordinate with reality, not the emotions coming from the priest or the emotions coming from the penitent. (Still, tears is often a great sign of perfect contrition, so emotions aren’t totally to be ignored by a priest.) But I mention reality more than emotions because the point is this: If a priest were to give absolution to someone who was not sorry, that priest would be “shooting blanks,” so to speak. That means that the penitent leaves the confessional unforgiven, but erroneously believing he is forgiven. Can you imagine the objective damage done to such a soul? That is why it is of supreme importance that the priest do his very best to only give absolution to someone he has judged as “truly sorry.” People love to talk about the priest as a “physician of souls” but it currently very unpopular to remember that the Church officially teaches that the confessing priest is also a “judge of souls.” At least, he is a judge of actions, including sometimes measuring the level of contrition in the penitent.
On the other hand, if a priest refrains from giving absolution (also called “denying absolution” or from the Greek above “retaining” that person’s sins upon the penitent) then that priest better be absolutely sure he has judged that person “not sorry.” Why? Because denying absolution to someone who was—in fact—truly sorry—would also do enormous damage to a Catholic soul. I fear many people have left traditional parishes (and even the Catholic Church) because of young traditional priests in certain congregations denying absolution too rapidly, thinking they are the next Padre Pio.
What are examples from history? I usually look at Church history to see if what people claim is the Holy Ghost’s gift of counsel has any precedent before the 20th century. If no saint has been led to do x or y or z before 1950, I tend to think it’s a bogus claim of the work of God. On the other hand, it’s quite hard to discern the exact practice of the saints through history with the confessional. Firstly, it’s a secret sacrament. But secondly, there is great diversity in Church history on what the Holy Ghost seems to have inspired. For example, in the time of St. Ambrose (4th century) Catholics were allowed only one confession per lifetime. (I think the early Church believed that if a Catholic needed a second confession for mortal sins in his lifetime after baptism, he weren’t serious enough to stay in the Church!) Perhaps we need to return to those days of the early Church, and the rest of my blog post is objectively “lax” towards repeat-sinners (also called “recidivists.”) On the other hand, some saints after Trent apparently went to confession every day (albeit with venial sins, not mortal sins.) So, frequent confession probably should not be prohibited as an absolute rule, as found in the early Church.
In any case, what is a priest to do in the 21st century with so much confusion on the topic of confession—not to mention the topic of denied absolution? It is true Padre Pio denied absolution to many penitents because he read their hearts and saw they were not sorry. Many of these men and women (originally denied absolution by Padre Pio) later became great disciples of Padre Pio precisely because of that denied absolution. However, when other Franciscan priests in Pio’s monastery started hearing of these conversion, they too started to imitate Padre Pio in denying absolution more and more! Amazingly, Padre Pio corrected them. Apparently, in all humility, he explained to the other friars that they didn’t exactly have the same gifts as him. So, he advised them to stop denying absolution to so many people. At least with as much frequency as him.
All of us priests know of times in the confessional when we are given a special insight into the soul of a penitent. To my brother priests who know what I am talking about, please ask yourself: Were all of these gifts of counsel of the Holy Ghost for the salvation of the penitent? Of course they were. Indeed, all spiritual insights into the souls of our penitents flow from Jesus Christ’s overwhelming love for anyone on this planet, but especially these gifts overflow for anyone who has humbled himself in these dark-days of the Church to still come to the confessional in humility. Yes, even on those rare times that we experience the gift of counsel of the Holy Ghost telling us to deny absolution, we priests have a sense that that insight too flows from the overwhelming charity of Christ Himself, not harshness or anger.
But if the average Novus Ordo priest (who has never denied absolution in his life) has been shocked at how rigorous this blog post was up to this point, many traditional priests might find the rest of this blog post too progressive or even liberal going forward. Whereas I do believe that great conversions can indeed come from denying absolution, I believe that with modern sensitivities, social-media-induced isolation and post-lockdown suicide rates, we priests have a better chance of making someone leave the Church forever (if we deny absolution without a well-founded reason) than we do being too generous in giving out absolution when it is not due. Granted, we priests will be guilty before God for either of these errors, but it is mostly traditional priests reading my blog. So, we’re going to go a little deeper into some admonitions on how to deny absolution more infrequently and also how to do it in a more efficient way. We’ll start with the latter.
Part II: The Dialogue
Because we live in a “confessional culture” (beginning with Jerry Springer but culminating in Generation Z who confesses their worst sins or temptations on social media) we have an advantage to our current era where we can use Gen X and Y and Z sincerity to our benefit in a way that priests could not do for the WWI or WWII generation 70 years ago. So, when you suspect a lack of firm resolution of amendment in the soul of your penitent, my suggestion is that instead of denying absolution, simply make your penitent recognize his or her lack of sincerity in attempting to confess sins they’re not really sorry for. I’m truly making up the following account, not accessing past confessions (which I forget anyway) but a real conversation between a priest and a University-aged co-ed might go like this…
Fictional Event in the Confessional:
Penitent: [starts confessing sins.] Yeah, I got drunk twice. Oh and I live with my boyfriend but Msgr. O’Sullivan back at my home parish said I can keep having sex with him as long as I plan on marrying him. Oh, and I lied to my Mom. Oh, and I kicked my brother’s cat when I was home for vacation.
Priest: Did you say you live with your boyfriend?
Penitent: Yeah, but another priest said it’s not a big deal.
Priest: So, can you imagine being in a relationship with someone you love and apologizing for an action, but then doing that action again… but then apologizing again? What would you say about such a relationship?
Penitent: I’d probably say that person was a liar, or at least not sincere in the relationship.
Priest: So, how can you tell God you’re sorry for something you won’t change at all?
Penitent: But Msgr. O’Sullivan said it’s cool.
Priest: But if you really believed that, you wouldn’t have brought it up in this confession with me again, would you?
Penitent: I guess not.
Priest: So back to my question: Why confess something you aren’t sorry for?
Penitent: Because I’m going home this weekend and I don’t want to explain in front of my Mom why I’m not receiving Communion on Sunday.
Priest: I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you a plan for all these sacramental conundrums. First of all, anytime anyone asks you after Mass why you didn’t receive Communion, just gently tell them “It’s none of your business.” Secondly, let’s talk about confession: Don’t you think it would be better if you were able to wait to truly tell God you’re sorry for having sex before marriage than saying something when you’re not truly sorry?
Penitent: I guess so.
Priest: I don’t mean to be hard on you after such a good conversation here, but remember Our Lady of Fatima said that most souls go to hell for sexual sins, not sins of kicking a cat. I really want you to come out of that sin of sleeping with your boyfriend, but one of the only sins worse than sexual sins would be “playing God” in the confessional. I mean, it’s pretty bad to confess something you won’t change and then receive Holy Communion without a decent plan to stop living with your boyfriend.
Penitent: Yeah, but that seems harsh. Nobody ever told me I was going to hell before.
Priest: I’m not saying you’re going to hell. But why do you keep bringing that sin up again if your conscience wasn’t you bothering in the first place? Didn’t you just say old Msgr. O’Sullivan said “it was cool”?
Penitent: Yeah, that’s a good point. I guess it does still bother me.
Priest: If your conscience is still bothering you, even after another priest told you it’s okay, it’s because you know it’s wrong deep inside your own heart, which apparently was formed pretty well. So, will you stop sleeping with your boyfriend? If you move out (and promise to try your best) I can give you absolution.
Penitent: No, I’m not moving out yet. I’m definitely not ready to promise that I’m going to stop having sex with my boyfriend.
Priest: So, do you think it would be sincere before Almighty God to get absolution for something you’re not sorry for?
Penitent: No, I guess not. I guess I can’t say I’m actually sorry for something I’m not sorry for.
Priest: Trust me, you’ll feel a lot better about all these sacraments if you don’t treat this situation like you can just “game the system.” I’m going to pray and fast for you that you get out of this bad relationship with that boy. I really want you to go to heaven. But you can’t apologize to God if you’re not sorry, and you can’t go to Communion if you are not forgiven. You see how this works? So do you think I should give you absolution if you’re not sorry for your sins?
Penitent: No, I guess not. I get it. I’ll pray about if I’m going to leave this guy but I’m not ready to say “yes” to leaving him yet.
Priest: So, is it okay then if I give you a blessing instead of absolution?
Penitent: Yeah, but I hope I can come back for absolution because this sucks.
Priest: I understand this is really difficult. I’m going to pray and fast so hard you can give your fornication up because Jesus loves you and He and I both want you in heaven. But we have to wait til you’re ready to change your life a bit more to jump into these sacraments fully. The fact is that we want a relationship with Christ—not a game of hop-scotching in-and-out of grace with Christ. Sounds good?
Penitent: Yeah, but no priest has ever challenged me like this.
Priest: Lemme give you a blessing now. How about you come back in a week and try to make this confession again? May Almighty God bless you…
So, I know the above fictional account might read a little modernist to most my normal traditional readership, but notice in the above fictional account, I had the penitent (not the priest) choose the pathway of no-absolution. This way, even though she didn’t leave the confessional box in a manner super-thrilled at the experience of not getting absolution, she at least didn’t leave the Catholic Church.
Also, she left the box feeling respected in my above fictional account. She left the confessional feeling that—perhaps for the first time in her life—a priest treated her like an adult who could eventually take responsibility for her real-life decisions. Perhaps she felt like a coach talking to an athlete who believed she could reach a higher goal. Maybe, for the first time in her life, she met a spiritual father who actually believed in his spiritual daughter instead of just letting her off the hook so he can get to his 5pm golf game. Yes, in the above fictional account, the University co-ed probably left the confessional feeling a little embarrassed, but she did not leave the Catholic Church. Yes, she was denied absolution, but it didn’t break her. And she went off to go think long-and-hard about her mortal sins.
Part III: Conclusions
So, priests reading this blog post, please do learn from St. John Vianney who gave out light penances to others because he himself took on the heavy penances due his penitents. My suggestion is also that you not style yourself the next Padre Pio in reading souls and denying absolution (unless you truly have been given that gift.) I suggest you deny absolution only when you have direct audio evidence from that confession itself that your penitent has a provable lack of “firm resolution of amendment.” Then, you need only prove to him or her that both of you would be caught in a state of insincerity before God in giving him unwarranted absolution.
Also, remember what I wrote at the beginning of this blog post, that contrition is usually tantamount to having a decent plan (not necessarily a perfect plan written in blood or stone) that that penitent will never commit those confessed sins again. Why do I say decent plan instead of perfect plan? Obviously, someone with a plan to commit those sins again should be denied absolution. But St. John Vianney once marveled that God would forgive sins in the confessional that God Himself saw in His eternity would be committed again. St. John Vianney never would have said that if he took the hardest line against recidivists of his day. (Recidivism is the sin of going back to the confessional with the same sins over-and-over.) On the other hand, Padre Pio made some of his best converts by denying absolution to recidivists, so every penitent is different.)
But St. John Vianney and Padre Pio both lived before these dark-days when half of Catholics are addicted to porn or drugs. (Yes, literally half of Catholics have such addictions these days.) I can prove the math in another blog post if I’m challenged on this. So, while it is true that refused-absolution can help addicts exit their addiction in better ways than simply “hop-scotching” in-and-out of grace in the confessional, a refused-absolution will more often that not simply push such a penitent outside the Church in embarrassment.
Either way, go slowly and charitably. Due to the fact that people feel so lonely and isolated these days, they don’t need to get beat-up spiritually in the confessional, too. These are truly different days than the years of St. John Vianney or Padre Pio. A traditional priest can’t simply brush his hands after denying absolution and say to himself, “Heh, not my fault that lame guy left my box crying since he’s a modernist who never learned the faith.” Well, that is exactly why such a mean priest will answer to God for such an experience: Because his penitent has never learned the true faith!
Of course, the old moral books written on recidivism are all still true. (The whole them of my blog is that the Catholic faith can not change!) But also keep in mind that those moral-manuals were were written before these days when a Catholic can’t even drive down the road without seeing a bikini on a roadside advertisement. Consent to mental sin has become very difficult to discern from temptation for even some people who take spiritual-warfare very seriously. So, whereas sacramental theology can never change (including the old-school saints’ warnings against priest absolving “recidivist sinners”) the modern sensitivities of loneliness, addiction and confusion in the spiritual battle is quite new on the world-scene. Yes, we really do need the Holy Ghost’s gift of counsel in each case of hearing confessions in the 21st century. Dare I say that the goal is not to save your own soul, young trad priests, but to save the penitent’s soul?
Also, remember that the current Vatican-apparatus is now declaring that nearly everything is not a sin which the classic Magisterium has already defined was a sin. He has now given a green-light to same-sex civil-unions, demanded we all take the DeathVax, allowed contraception in Catholic marriages (in certain circumstances) and Amoris Laetitia even promotes remarriage and reception of Holy Communion without an annulment or confession. That confusion (nay, outright heresy) right there should be enough reason for us priests to have 1000x more patience than one of the old-school scary priestly-saints. We traditionalist priests today must go slowly when penitents are hearing from us not a different style but literally a different religion than what they currently read on the Vatican website. Any trad priest that denies this is living in cognitive dissonance probably just to be blindly harder on penitents than superiors. (That’s called “a cult,” by the way.)
So, priests, my suggestion is that you should probably refuse absolution very sparingly, especially in such confusing times that is not the fault of the penitent. Only do it when you are 99% sure that your penitent has a provable lack of firm resolution of amendment or when you are 99% sure that denying absolution will win back a soul to Christ by that long road of rehabilitation in lieu of your penitent making another poor forensic-based confession. Short of that gamble (and absent the gift of reading hearts) it’s usually not worth it to scare someone off, especially if you’re a traditional priest hearing non-traditionalists’ confessions—people who never even learned that the primary part of confession is contrition. Teach them well, for that “that recidivist soul” you may judge as “unformed” belongs not to you, dear traditional priest, but to Christ—her Creator and Redeemer.