It was years ago, but the memory is very fresh. I was walking through a hospital, having visited several patients, when a woman stopped me and asked if I would see her husband, who was dying.
I went to his room, and the man and his wife told me that he had left the Church many years before. (She had never been a Catholic.) Many problems in terms of Catholic canon law had occurred over the years.
They also told me that he was not expected to survive the next 24 hours. He desperately wanted to die in the good graces of the Church. She wanted this for him. I heard his confession, and under Church law, since he was near death, I had faculties to absolve him from everything, as he was truly sorry. I gave him the anointing of the sick. I witnessed their marriage in the Church. Then I hurried back to the parish, got the Blessed Sacrament and returned to the hospital and gave him holy Communion and then the papal blessing for the dying.
At dinner that night, I told my pastor about it. He smiled and said that this is what the Church is all about.
Several news stories reporting Pope Francis’ recent statement regarding sacramental absolution after abortion bothered me. Many of these stories were atrociously misinformed.
For starters, very many American dioceses have had in place for decades practices, conferred by their bishops, everything fully in step with Church law, that allow priests to absolve from what the Church calls “reserved” sins, meaning that a priest must have special authority from his bishop, or in rare cases from the pope, to absolve.
Why is anything “reserved”? First, it is not to make life difficult for anybody seeking God’s forgiveness. Always keep this in mind. The practice serves two purposes. It teaches. It indicates to people, in particular the penitent, that the offense was gravely wrong and must not be repeated.
Also, it is a way to inform the Church authority, namely the bishop or in those rare cases the pope, that immoral activity is occurring. Is it part of a pattern of behavior in a local community or even worldwide? Do people understand the gravity of certain sins? It then alerts the authority that more teaching is needed or more direct attention to the matter in whatever ways are appropriate.
Remember the parable of the prodigal son? The father welcomes with outstretched arms his wayward son. In no way does the Gospel imply that the father accepted, or even tolerated, his son’s immoral behavior. The son turned away from his immoral behavior and returned to his father (cf. Lk 15:11-32).
Forgiveness is what the Church is all about. When a person seeks sacramental absolution, and when it is granted, it does not in the least indicate that the Church is compromising its moral teachings, but that the penitent has seen the error of his or her ways and wishes again to be at peace with God.
God bless Pope Francis. God grant that the Year of Mercy will enrich us all, but forgiving sins, indeed the Church’s eagerness to forgive sins, is nothing new.
Many of the greatest stories in the ancient Catholic history of faith are about people who turned away from sin. Many of them are saints.
A very prominent Catholic family in this country had a daughter who ran away with a man and was married by a justice of peace.
She told her furious father and mother that God would forgive her. Her mother replied, “God may forgive you, but I never shall forgive you.”
In no way did the mother give a Catholic response. If anyone admits fault and is sorry, God forgives. So should we.
The first step, so badly needed today, is for us to be frank about sin.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.