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insincere contrition and absolution in Catholic theology and practice
robert_huff wrote in little_details
When/where: real life+current day

searched: Wikipedia articles on "confession", "absolution", "contrition", and "penance"


You're a Catholic priest (in English-speaking North America), at least halfway through your career.

A elderly parishioner you've known for years is dying of cancer and has at most a week to live.
They've come to you for Extreme Unction.

In the course of their confession they admit to a (previously unconfessed) grave sin. More accurately, a series of grave sins which spanned decades but which they ceased committing some years back. These acts have serious, potentially even life-threatening, consequences.

Exploring the matter, you come to the conclusion they're not really sorry but are trying to find something which complies with the (minimal) letter of the law without satisifying the spirit.

What are you required, forbidden, and most likely to do?

EDIT: thanks, everyone - I have enough to gnaw on.

Technically, if the "penitent" is not in fact penitent, they can't be granted absolution. The priest can try to persuade his parishioner to repent, and he could choose to grant conditional absolution, along the lines of "If you have repented of these sins, I absolve you", which would allow him to grant the parishioner extreme unction/last rites, but means that if he isn't penitent, they don't count. This page should help.

It's not called Extreme Unction any more, it's the Sacrament of the Sick, and you don't have to be dying to receive it. (I received the Sacrament last week while recovering in hospital from a severe nosebleed.)

You most likely give absolution and advise dealing with the matter properly.

Not sure what the specifics are, since I haven't read the page, but the info on reconciliation in the Catechism of the Catholic Church might be helpful.

(Deleted comment)
In close inspection, that seems to be one person's opinion. It's not over either episcopal or papal signature, or from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Edited at 2013-02-12 05:59 am (UTC)

1) It's still a secret of the confessional, I believe, and protected speech, so you don't tell anyone.

2) It is not your job to judge your parishioners. God does that. And in this guy's case, he will be doing it very soon. God will know if his heart is truly contrite, and deliver judgement based on His omnipotence. I may make that particular point to the man as I forgive him so that he has time to reflect on his true feelings and understands he's in peril of damnation if his confession isn't true. Perhaps have a prolonged period of questioning him about his activities so that we can both understand how and why he sinned as part of providing him with guidance. But being myself a fail-able human being, I'd still grant him last rites because if I'm wrong, denying him would be a graver sin on my part.

This addresses one of my two questions, with the follow-up being "how many follow this principle?".

If the answer is "most", then my guy will grant absolution, pray it's the right choice, and brace for the fallout when the truth comes out.

I think the answer is pretty much all.

Certainly the sanctity of the confessional is something that's been fought and won in the courts on numerous occasions. If it were something like "where bodies are buried" I could see the priest waiting until the person died and leaving an anonymous tip in order to possible end the struggles of grieving families.

And in terms of absolution, yes, none of the priests should hold themselves as a better judge of a person's heart than God. If they do, then they're in the wrong line of work. And God grants forgiveness and mercy so long as an honest heart asks for it. Even if said honest heart needs longer than a lifetime to work out all of its mistakes. As one of the earlier responders mentioned, if the priest is truly doubtful, he can be careful how he phrases things as well as counseling the dying person that absolution only works if he really means it.

1) whatever is said is confidential - always
2) Not being convinced of contrition does not affect sacrament of the sick (used to be known as last rites) - reconcilliation is a different sacrament
3) a priest would have to be REALLY certain there was no true repentance to refuse to grant absolution - and if someone is dying, they tend to get given the benefit of the doubt. It's also possible to give absolution for a less than perfect confession - a perfect confession is one that is because the penitent truely regrests for all the good reasons, but it's recognised that often there may be a confession at least in part motivated by fear - although not ideal, isn't entirely invalid.

Also, if they are seeking reconcilliation, at least part of them wants to make their peace with God, and it's your job to help them along this path.

And (3) is my other question. In this case, there's no certainty but there is enough suspicion to make this is a quite serious factual question.

A priest is not a mindreader - unless he is absolutely certain, especially if person is dying, they'll be given the benefit of the doubt. He would trust that God would be able to make his own judgement on the matter - remember that the priest is channelling God's forgiveness, not doing the forgiving himself.

I also can't stress enough that no matter what, even if he is 100% convinced the repentance is not genuine, what is said in a confessional stays in a confessional.

There's a reason _I_ haven't been the one raising confidentiality as a point. :-)

True :-) I got a bit mixed up about who was saying what, and didn't mean to suggest that you had :)

If you watch the Hitchcock film "I confess" it gives a pretty good depiction of it :)

I think that "the letter of the law" is, in fact, the spirit--if the priest is hearing confession and is convinced the person is not truly penitent, he can refuse absolution, or give a conditional absolution. But it should all be under the seal, so he should not tell anyone anything about them.

But "reconciliation" is a separate sacrament from "the anointing of the sick." (Sorry, I was brought up with the old names, so I still think in terms of Confession and Exteme Unction.) I don't think I've ever heard of someone coming to the priest for Extreme Unction--generally the priest comes to you because, well, you're supposed to be really really sick, if not actually at death's door. (I seem to remember a kerfuffle at one time about whether a priest could administer Extreme Unction to a prisoner on death row. Can't remember what the resolution was, but this was a long time ago, and the answer is probably different now.)

What a priest does in regard to sacraments etc. may depend rather a lot on his personal attitude towards their church's rules - that is, whether he puts individual people's needs above the letter of the law. Particularly with something where he doesn't have to have records (like with a baptism or wedding) and where there aren't any witnesses, the ultimate result may well depend a lot more on the priest's character than on canonical law.

Our local Catholic priest routinely gives Communion to his neighbours, whom he knows to be Protestant (and when they asked him if he would be OK with them going to Communion, he specifically told them they were always welcome). In his priesthood anniversary service, the first two people he gave communion to were our two Protestant reverends - one of them is a woman, both of them are divorced, and the whole thing was both extremely public and against church law. He has been reprimanded several times regarding his stance towards Communion etc. by the diocese's Cardinal, who is an ultra-conservative bigot, but I don't think he cares at all beyond doing what he things is right and moral.

off topic, but I love your priest.

You should understand that the Church has closed communion not because of bigotry, but because the Catholic Church's teaching is that the Eucharist is the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ. The sacrament of Communion or Eucharist is not just about sharing a symbolic meal as a community or a symbolic commemoration of Christ's sacrifice of himself. If you receive the Eucharist in the Catholic Church you are meant to be agreeing with the Church's teaching on the nature of communion, hence why members of Christian denominations that have different understanding on the sacramental nature of sharing bread and wine in a liturgical setting are asked not to receive.

I am aware of that. I do however hold to my statement that this particular Cardinal is a bigot, as he has proved this time and again by making atrocious statements on a number of issues.

So, quite apart from your take on the law versus people's needs, what exactly are you suggesting a "conservative" versus a "liberal" priest would do in this situation? Would a good liberal priest put the dying penitent's needs above the need for obvious genuine contrition, or his victims' needs above his need for deathbed absolution?

The crime component is certainly a complicating factor here. But it's not as if denying the person their request would help the victims in any way, so who knows... All in all, I'd suspect that the author could make the priest do just about anything that would help the storyline, as long as they portray his motivations and any potentially arising conflicts he has with his actions convincingly. The main point I was trying to make was really that priests do not invariably follow canon law.

I don't even think it's about a priest being conservative or liberal - I can certainly imagine that there might be priests who would, say, give communion to people whom they know are "living in sin" in some way, while at the same time being against women being ordained or supporting the celibate or what have you. As soon as one has a priest acting as an independent human being rather than as a functionary who just follows and enforces laws, things can get just as complicated and variable as with other human beings.

Thanks. Some of what you were implying wasn't clear before.

And I agree that -- if only because of the confessor aspect -- the author has a lot of plausible options here.

Mhm, I wasn't very precise, now that I reread it.

Yeah, I'd agree about priests bending canon law from time to time :-) depending on the priest and how far it gets bent. Confession/reconcilliation is one that I can't see any bending on too much though - it's a BIG thing.

I remember in the first Cracker episode, there was a call received from the killer trying to put suspicion on the suspect in custody (who had amnesia) - basically said "I can't give you my name and I am having tremendous problems of conscience with this... I'm a priest, and we can't do this, but that man confessed to me he had killed and would kill again... we are really banned from saying anything so I can't give you any of my details, and I feel so guilty, but I have to save people's lives."

The police bought it and went on a wild goose chase - Fitz when he heard said that must have been the kller, because a priest would never make such a call. He said

"It's worse than buggering the Pope!"

... and he was right! It is way up there on things you do not do :-)

I can imagine that about the secret of the confessional. Technically, at least my branch of Protestantism has it too, although it's named something different and is less formalised than in Catholicism. It is protected under the law, and a reverend who broke it for whatever reason would get into considerable trouble with the church. I don't think it's invoked that often, but I know that responsible reverends are aware of it.

Interestingly it isn't all catholicism that has it afaik - this is my understanding from a friend so disclaimers abound, but aparently Roman Catholics do the whole secrecy thing, while Greek Orthodox beleive in public confessions on occasion.

I'm not sure what you mean by putting the victim's needs first? Would it be a "need" of the victim for the culprit not to be forgiven? That would never be regarded as a genuine need.

I don't see any way that the victim would be affected or otherwise directly by the priest's actions here - granting absolution or not is between the priest, the penitent and God. The victims would never even know (*CANNOT* even know) whether or not absolution was given - indeed, unless they are there or a third party tells them, can't even know that there was a confession (or attempted confession) made - the priest can't even say "X came to confession".

This is one of the places where conservative vs liberal isn't really an issue, you may be glad to know :-)

There is also never a need for "obvious" genuine contrition. Probable or even maybe is good enough.

This is one of the places where conservative vs liberal isn't really an issue, you may be glad to know :-)

I didn't think so either, which is why I was asking for clarification on lied_ohne_worte's stance. ;)

I think that almost all priests tend to get a bit fundamentalist when asked to betray the confidence of the confessional ;-) which is the way I like it!

A priest told a deeply weird personal reminiscence to a British newspaper about a year ago. He said he had been abused by his parish priest as a boy, and many years later, just as the whole clerical abuse thing was starting to break surface, he encountered that man again, still working with young people. He was just making up his mind that for the sake of those young people he really ought to go to the police about that man’s abuse of him, but before he could do so the man turned up in his confessional box one day and confessed it to him. Which he said, made it impossible to go to the police without ‘betraying the secrets of the confessional’. And I just can’t see how that was true. He didn’t have to tell the police anything about what this guy had said in the confessional, only what he himself had experienced all those years ago.

And surely, the Catholic Church must have some kind of principle on how to deal with people who confess crimes to specific priests precisely so as to stop them telling what they know! That must have happened often enough to need an entry in the rule book. I’d have thought.

Hmmm.. I don't know about that one! If a priest had prior knowledge, then would someone confessing make it not able to be divulged, based only on prior knowledge?

I *think* that the priest would be allowed to talk about any prior knowledge, but not anything releaveld (or that there had been such an event at all) but would have to research or ask someone better versed in canon law!

A non-Christian's question. Could the priest insist, or at least strongly suggest, that the parishioner act to ameliorate these consequences, if only by writing a letter or something?

Edited at 2013-02-12 03:58 am (UTC)

Yes. The priest is not allowed, under any circumstances, allowed to actually tell someone about what they've heard in Confession, even if there's a trail of bodies from NY to CA all courtesy of them. However, the priest can encourage them to come forward to the authorities as part of their contrition.

Yep - they can even go so far as to make it part of the penitence that is done (usually along lines of "say 10 hail Marys") to "go to the police and tell them".

(I meant contrition not penitence!)

More accurately, a series of grave sins which spanned decades but which they ceased committing some years back. These acts have serious, potentially even life-threatening, consequences.

This is for a fiction story, right?

Whose life is being potentially threatened?

I seem to recall that trope being used in a movie, and in a Father Brown story. Iirc the solution was for the priest to keep quiet till he had conducted his own investigation and found evidence separate from what the penitent had told him in confidence.

Whether or not that would satisfy your priest, readers may remember those stories, so it might be good for you to read them. Then your priest could think to himself, "Unfortunately Father Brown's solution would not work here", or whatever.

I think they could take direct action to prevent a death, but not say why... eg

My take on a situation - this would be borderline...

death bed confession - I poisoned the wine my wife is going to drink tonight.

The priest could break into house and dispose of the wine, but not warn the wife that the wine were poisoned. If he were caught breaking & entering, would not be able to say why he had actually been there. (The fact that he may be facing criminal charges doesn't affect the inability to explain either, and that part is not borderline!)

One would like to think any police who couldn't figure this out within a few minutes souldn't have a badge to begin with.

by the way... I'd really love to read this when it's done :-)

That is, for better or worse, unlikely. Sorry.

I might be mixing up my 80s melodramas, but I think that A Prayer For The Dying was the one about a murderer who confesses to a priest who witnessed the murder so that the priest can't go to the police with what he knows. It might be worth watching for the sake of research, though I can't guarantee that it's worth watching on its own merits :)

I've seen this used a number of times. One of the little details the writers missed, or chose to ignore, is that those in the confessor role are trained to watch for this, and terminate the session _immediately_ if they think it's being abused.

I'll also point out people have been assuming a fact not in evidence: the prior sins involved criminal activity.

Edited at 2013-02-13 05:28 am (UTC)


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