General Absolution – False Mercy

It seems one result of this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is an increased chatter about General Absolution.  I have heard this discussed in two different deaneries. It is not just a Diocese of Joliet (in USA) discussion; immediately after the announcement of the Year of Mercy the internet was buzzing with the idea. In a nutshell General Absolution is ‘absolution without confession of all mortal sins[1].  It is allowed, but only in extraordinary cases. As far as I can tell the last time it was validly used in the U.S. was on ‘March 29, 1979, when the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was in danger of exploding… Bishop Keeler of Harrisburg granted general absolution to the faithful since every individual person would not have had the chance to go to private confession’.[2] The core of these discussions seems to be this: since it is the Year of Mercy the bishop should offer General Absolution as part of the Church’s enthusiastic participation in God’s gift to His people.

There are many reasons (ecclesial, sacramental, canonical, psychological, and on and on) why this desire to offer General Absolution is misguided, even detrimental; I will leave these discussions to the experts. I, however, want to reflect on one misguided scriptural reasoning. One of the parables I have heard used to discuss the idea of General Absolution in this Year of Mercy is the Parable of the Prodigal Son[3].

‘It is wrongly named’, this logic goes; ‘it would be better named the Parable of the Merciful Father because it shows how the Father is always looking for the return of his son and accepts him back immediately with no conditions. In light of this parable this is what Holy Mother Church should do in this all-important year. Let’s show the world we follow what our Lord taught – mercy for all and what better way than to just forgive all sins’.

But is that what the Lord taught us in this parable. To a certain degree this is what the parable relates to us: the Father is always waiting for us. But what is incorrect is that there are no conditions for the Fathers acceptance – there are (as far as I can tell) at least 3 of them in this beautiful parable.

  • The son has to realize his errors.
    But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger![4]  It is the son who makes the first move at a homecoming.  The father is, as was stated, continually on the watch for his son; but the first move is the son’s – his realization that he alone is the cause of his suffering and alienation; he alone had removed himself from the joy of his father and this is not where he wants to be.
  • The son has to return to the Father.
    I will arise and go to my father…’[5]  It doesn’t matter that the son has realized the reason for his misery, his isolation and loneliness if he doesn’t move to remedy it. The son puts his realization into action; he moves from where he is back to his father.
  • The son puts himself at the discretion of his father.
    “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”[6] He submits himself up to whatever his father will do to him, and there is no guarantee of a positive outcome. Indeed, the son is hoping only to be able to abide near his father, not resume his old place as if nothing had happened. A servant is what he hopes to be; and this is enough; because he understands now what the psalmist sings: ‘I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.[7]

And of course, we see that with these conditions met, the son receives the fullness of his father’s mercy – he is made whole again.

What we see are two understandings of the same parable. One emphasizes only the merciful father to highlight His great love and mercy, but in doing so it strips away the dynamic of relationship and our responsibility in it. It speaks of an almost exclusively top down action with overtones of our right to, and expectation of, His forgiveness.

However, when the parable is viewed in its entirety we see a dynamic of relationship, indeed, a family relationship. There is upward action as well as top-down action.  Forgiveness is given to us from above, but it is desired by us as we look upward to repair our relationship with our loving Father. No expectation of, or an attitude of, ‘a right to’ forgiveness – it is a humble search for healing and mending. Viewed in its entirety Jesus’ parable is an explanation of the normal, individual method of Reconciliation.

Maybe our time would be better spent in helping those we know come to appreciate and participate in the fullness of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and God’s Mercy instead of trying to come up with quick fixes that appeal to the sentimentality of our minds instead of the totality of our hearts.


[3] LK 15: 11-32 (RSV)
[4] LK 15:17 (RSV)
[5] LK 15:18 (RSV)
[6] LK 15:18-19 (RSV)
[7] PS 84:10 (RSV)