Had a discussion today about the rite of reconciliation. As Bp Dan Martins taught me, I make a special effort to promote the rite during Advent and late Lent. In planning that today, a question arose about absolution. My interlocutor proposed that absolution is only proclaimed if there is evidence of real repentance. She was troubled by the idea of an unconditional absolution.

Thought I’d share a note I sent to her afterwards. I wonder how this compares to your own thinking about the rite and absolution. This is my first time articulating my own understanding of the matter and I would love to learn from others on this.

Dear friend,

I thought I’d make an effort to clarify our discussion earlier because I could tell you were concerned about the claim made that absolution is not conditioned upon contrition.


The point is that we are very careful not to suggest that salvation is a result of our own action or that we earn it in any way. We want to preserve the understanding that salvation is entirely God’s will, the result of which is the bestowal of unmerited grace. It’s pure gift from God, not our work in any way.

The declaration of absolution is an assurance of pardon based entirely upon God’s act on the Cross. When we pronounce it, we are not stating a new fact, but rather re-stating the meaning of the Cross.

Your concern, rightly, is that such absolution is vulnerable to abuse if it is not conditioned upon real repentance.

I would respond: God’s decision to be with us is based on God’s nature alone, and not on our faithfulness or goodness. We don’t add to that divine decision with our behavior. We can only receive.

And if we, in our freedom (that God honors), refuse to accept God’s gracious acceptance of us by responding to such grace as divine command, then our refusal is nothing other than a rejection of grace.

And the name which describes the life of those who reject grace is Hell.

So if one hears the word of God’s gracious act (the absolution) but does not in fact respond with repentance, then the free choice one makes is (a still revocable) life called Hell.

Therefore it is neither necessary nor appropriate for a priest to withhold absolution short of clear evidence that the rite itself is entered into disrespectfully or fraudulently. We don’t have windows into people’s souls, so we have to presuppose the truthfulness of their words of confession.

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10 years ago

Thanks for this, Father. This question about if and when withholding absolution is required is one that I’ve also discussed with other priests friends. Two comments: 1) Salvation is a result of our own action (though an act made possible by grace) at least to the extent that we must receive that salvation. The Sacrament is a way by which I choose to reach out and receive the free gift that is offered. Jesus is quite clear that the refusal to forgive another is, in fact, a choice to cut oneself off from being able to receive the forgiveness of… Read more »

10 years ago

That’s a very interesting way to put it. Not entirely traditional… but maybe more pastorally useful than talk of matter and form. In terms of traditional (Thomistic) sacramental mechanics, absolution is only half of the equation. The matter of the sacrament is “penance,” i.e. contrition, which is why it is normally called the sacrament of penance. (“Reconciliation” is the effect, and “confession” is the outwards appearance: penance is what receives grace through the form of absolution.) I don’t think it’s accurate to say that we do not earn salvation “in any way.” That is too extrinsic. We can be /… Read more »

10 years ago

Also, just so we’re clear (or maybe this is complicating; I don’t know), when Fr Olver and I speak of some action on our part that results in grace, I don’t think we should characterize that as the kind of “do what is within you” of late medieval semi-pelagianism against which Luther reacted so strongly, and against which Craig implicitly speaks above. (Whether or not his characterization of that theology or ours is accurate!) All of this — confession, absolution, true penitence — comes within the life of grace following baptism. It presupposes the divine election, in a sense; any… Read more »