Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 33: Third Form, Part 1: Canon Law and New Norms

We come to one of the most publicized developments of Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, the Celebration of the Sacrament with General Absolution.

33. The new liturgical regulation and, more recently, the Code of Canon Law (961-963) specify the conditions which make it lawful to use “the rite of reconciliation of a number of penitents with general confession and absolution.” The norms and regulations given on this point, which are the result of mature and balanced consideration, must be accepted and applied in such a way as to avoid any sort of arbitrary interpretation.

The decisions on form III were made, and then canon law and the governance of the liturgical rite were changed to accommodate.

It is opportune to reflect more deeply on the reasons which order the celebration of penance in one of the first two forms and permit the use of the third form. First of all, there is the reason of fidelity to the will of the Lord Jesus, transmitted by the doctrine of the church, and also the reason of obedience to the church’s laws.

Citing the “will of the Lord Jesus” is nebulous here. The sacraments underwent considerable evolution before a certain “establishment” in the past four to eight centuries. In the Gospel tradition, Jesus provides an authorization for forgiveness of sins, and the governance of Peter and the others of the Twelve. To be sure, there is trust in the link between the well-discerned law of the Church that is in harmony with God’s will. How this is carried out in liturgy and canon law is most often a matter of detail.

Confession of grave sin–traditionally murder, adultery, and apostasy–is the most ancient of practices. This was accompanied by a process overseen by bishops, and the sacrament was carried out in the presence of a community. Never privately.

How the Church approached sin in its midst has undergone an evolution, at least until the Council of Trent. To cite “most ancient tradition” here is not quite the history in fact. It is one of the oldest traditions, dating back to the early Middle Ages:

The synod repeated in one of its propositions the unchanged teaching which the church has derived from the most ancient tradition, and it repeated the law with which she has codified the ancient penitential practice: The individual and integral confession of sins with individual absolution constitutes the only ordinary way in which the faithful who are conscious of serious sin are reconciled with God and with the church. From this confirmation of the church’s teaching it is clear that every serious sin must always be stated, with its determining circumstances, in an individual confession.

To be clear, this is, ordinarily, the most optimal tradition to continue. Yet, the vast majority of individual confessions involve sins less than grave. The relativity of those sins is also important to consider: the awareness of the penitent, and also the human circumstances of certain acts.

All of these factors–the very nature of human sin and fault, coupled with the known evolution of the sacrament–help to inform best practice not as an escape into cheap grace, but as a system optimal for the times in which people find themselves. And that means the whole Church, not only those with easy access to clergy who are skilled confessors.

This document is Copyright © 1984 – Libreria Editrice Vatican. The link on the Vatican site is here.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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