An attempt to summarize the changes regarding the Catholic Church's use of the "Third Rite of Penance" or General Absolutions brought about by the Motu Proprio of John Paul II Misericordia Dei.


About John Lilburne



1310 K Sat 4 May 2002

I have been reading the Motu Proprio of Pope John Paul II of 7 April 2002, Misericordia Dei, meaning "By the mercy of God".

Near the end he wrote: "I decree that everything I have set down in this Apostolic Letter issued Motu Propiro shall have full and lasting force and be observed from this day forth, notwithstanding any provisions to the contary." So I have been trying to work out what changes have been made.

I believe this sentence is important:

... Since, therefore, the integral confession of serious sins is by divine decree a constitutive part of the Sacrament, it is in no way subject to the discretion of pastors (dispensation, interpretation, local customs, etc.) ...

So I doubt Cardinal George would write today what he wrote in his column of 3 March 2002:

... Confessing one's sins in the context of communal support and prayer is an acknowledgement that everything we do has an impact on the spiritual life of everyone else. This true insight has led some parishes to the regular practice of communal penance and general absolution without individual confession of sins. Over the past 30 years, the Holy See has made it clear that the regular use of general absolution is not consistent with the discipline of the Sacrament. Conversation around the use of general absolution in the Archdiocese has been going on for some months and will continue until we can see our way clear to being both faithful to the discipline of the Sacrament and respectful of practice in the Archdiocese. The Vicariate penance services open up such a path. ...

I think the need to be "respectful of practice in the Archdiocese" has become less important.

Here is my summary of the decrees:

1. Ordinaries (i.e. bishops) are to remind priests who minister the sacrament of the laws.

2. Ordinaries (i.e. bishops), parish priests and rectors of churches are to "periodically verify" that priests are available for confession.

3. "... any practice which restricts confession to a generic accusation of sin or of only one or two sins judged to be more important is to be reproved. ...".

4. The "grave necessity" required for the use of general absolution has been clarified. It is where:

"the priest can visit only once or very few times a year, or when war or weather conditions or similar factors permit."

In judging if the people will be deprived of the sacrament too long, "a period of less than a month" should not be considered "a long time".

5. The judgement of whether there should be a General Absolution "... is not a matter for the confessor but for "the diocesan Bishop ...".

6. Bishops' Conferences "shall send as soon as possible to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments the text of the norms which they intend to issue or update on the application of Can. 961". This "Can. 961" is the canon on General Absolutions.

Diocesan Bishops are to inform their "Bishops' Conferences whether or not cases of grave necessity have occurred in their jurisdictions. It will then be the task of each Conference to inform the above-mentioned Congregation about the real situation in their regions and about any changes subsequently taking place."

I think those are the substantial changes. There is also considerable emphasis on the fact that the priest does not automatically absolve the person:

... In order that the minister of the Sacrament may know the dispositions of penitents with a view to granting or withholding absolution ...

7. ... it should be reiterated ...
c) It is clear that penitents living in a habitual state of serious sin who do not intend to change their situation cannot validly receive absolution.

I see this Motu Proprio as providing specific directions towards bringing about the purification of the Catholic Church which the Pope spoke about in his speech to the US Cardinals on 23 April 2002.

Copyright J.R. Lilburne, 4 May 2002.

Other sites:

The Motu Proprio "Misericordia Dei"

Cardinal George's Column of 3 March 2002