Thursday, January 15, 2009

When Only the Pope Can Absolve

A fascinating article about a Vatican department I never knew existed.

ROME - One of the Vatican's most secrecy shrouded tribunals, which handles confessions of sins so grave only the pope can grant absolution, is giving the faithful a peek into its workings for the first time in its 830-year history.

The Vatican has long lamented that fewer and fewer Catholics are going to confession, the sacrament in which the faithful can receive forgiveness if they sincerely confess their sins to a priest.

To combat the decline, the so-called "tribunal of conscience" invited the public into the frescoed halls of its imposing 16th-century palazzo for a two-day conference that ended Wednesday.

Read the rest here.


orrologion said...

In "Fr. Arseny" - or its follow-up - mention was made of sins that only a bishop could absolve. I always wondered about that and the rationale behind it. Is it just a Russian tradition? Is it common to all Orthodoxy? modern or ancient? I guess I should be glad I haven't confessed anything (yet) that my spiritual father had to refer to the bishop before the prayer of absolution was given. Any info on what looks like may be an ancient practice of the undivided Church?

Saint Brian the Godless said...

The doctrine of absolution is just another way that the Church tries to be needed in people's lives. There's nothing holy about confessing your sins and being absolved. It's just a way to not feel guilty about things that you should be feeling guilty about. It's a licence for many to sin as they like, since they know they'll be magically absolved of them later on...

John (Ad Orientem) said...

Ummm OK And you know this because?

The Bible told you so? The Fathers of the Church maybe? Or was it your college Psych professor?

orrologion said...

I debated whether or not to respond to your comment, but I got a sense that your comment was more than the stereotypical soapbox flyby. Perhaps I am wrong.

An interesting similarity of argument is made in N. Leskov's "On the Edge of the World" where pagan natives of Siberia tended not to trust Orthodox natives as they could sin however they wanted and simply receive forgiveness. St. Paul has a good deal to say about this, as has just about every Christian thinker and pastor over the past 2000 years, so I wouldn't assume you have made a new charge - or one that is not readily answered.

St. Silouan the Athonite also has a section in his biography (SVS Press) where he discusses that while one's sins may be forgiven, we are not to forget them. In fact, the saints weep over their sins - including the ones that have been absolved.

I think you are also mistaking a certain understanding of absolution and what it is for, what it does, for the Orthodox understanding of Confession. As you can readily find, Orthodoxy views Confession (and the related revelation of thoughts in monastic contexts [e.g., The Philokalia, 'Way of a Pilgrim', etc.] in healing and hospital metaphors rather than in the juridical/guilt language you are using. One of the images I have often seen is the idea of airing out one's soul or the ancient idea of exposing the bedding and clothing of the sick to the sun to kill germs - confession exposes sickness so that the healing of it can begin rather than letting it fester hiddenly.

Steve said...

For those that do not understand they lack substance in the point they attempt to make. The point of using it as an automatic ticket to sin even more is the farthest from the truth. I suggest that party go to confession. It take immense courage to do so. Especially for those of the gravest sins. It is true contrition. It is those within the protestant faiths that have an easy ticket out. They just raise their hands and say...."i'm sorry." That is a cop out. Where does it say in the bible that it only requires you to directly confess to God alone. There is no contrition in this method if not sincere and a moral attempt to never syn again. The priest doesn't forgive the sin. He is only an instrument with the absolution of Christ proxied through him alone.

orrologion said...

I found the answer to my own question, at least regarding this department of the Vatican:

The ApoPen's main work is to deal with sins whose absolution, if sought, must ordinarily come from the pope—which, according to the story, include defiling the Eucharist, breaking the seal of the confessional, or offering absolution in exchange for sex. A fourth type of case considered by the ApoPen is that of men who, having once formally cooperated in abortion, seek ordination." (from Sacramentum Vitae, 'Two peeks that obscure')

Anyone have info on the Orthodox reasons, if there are any?

Matthew Bellisario said...

I don't think there is a substantial difference between the Sacrament of Confession in the Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches. Sure the West can over-emphasize certain elements as well as the East can. The Sacrament of confession in the Catholic Church is looked at as a hospital for the soul as well. But no one would reject the idea that sins are being forgiven in the Sacrament, and that those who do not confess their sins obstinately will not receive their eternal reward. So there is an element of Divine Justice here. It however must not be over-emphasized since God in His mercy wants to heal us from our afflictions and deify us to our supernatural end.

As far as the Pope absolving certain sins, I think sins in the past such as a priest leaving the active priesthood etc could only be dispensed by the Pope himself. Heinous crimes against humanity used to have to be absolved by bishops themselves. That has changed in modern times. But this is the first I have heard of this type of thing being re instituted. I am curious as to the Orthodox understanding of this since I believe I have read that bishops used to absolve certain heinous sins in the Orthodox Church in the past as well.

MO said...

For anyone interested, I asked one of my professors about the origins of the Apostolic Penitentiary and he responded:

The earliest delineations of such an "office", or privilegius, can be found after the Pontificate of Gregory Vii ( 1073). It seems to be implied or presumed in the Dictatus Papae of 1073. The full chancery office of the Apostolic "Penitentiary" was not so named until the Pontificate of Innocent III, whose reign marks the high point of Papal bureaucracy.
The formalization of the office was directly related to the Crusades and the rise of local heresies in the middle ages.....regional reflections of the increasing bitterness toward the wealth and secular power of the church.... eg. the Poverati, the Waldensians, the Humiliati, etc.