Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The Confessional. Part 23.

Theory and practice of the confessional by Caspar Erich Schieler, Richard Frederick Clarke

8. Conditional Absolution.

It is the unanimous teaching of all theologians that in certain cases, for weighty reasons, the Sacraments may be administered conditionally, and, what is more, must be so administered. With regard to Baptism and Extreme Unction this is prescribed by the Roman Ritual, with regard to Confirmation by Benedict XIV, with regard to the Holy Eucharist, where a doubt exists as to the validity of the consecration, by the Rubrics of the Mass, and with regard to Orders by the S. Congregatio Concilii.

The question now under consideration is whether the Sacrament of Penance given conditionally is valid.

Many theologians were of opinion that a conditional absolution was opposed to the judicial character of this Sacrament. They argued that the conditional form was not judicial, and in particular would not admit a condition with regard to law (conditio juris), on which the confessor was bound to pronounce judgment (e.g. if thou art prepared, disposed, etc.), whereas they permitted a condition with regard to the fact (conditio facti) (e.g. if thou art alive). This distinction is, however, irrelevant ; for even though the question of the penitent's disposition be left undecided, still the priest judges (1) of the sins which have been confessed, and (2) gives his sentence on the apparent worthiness and preparation of the penitent and the penance to be imposed; and (3) judges on the advisability of conferring conditional absolution or not, according to the effect it will have on the penitent. In any case, the argument from the difference which a conditional sentence would create between a human court and the sacramental tribunal proves nothing, since the two courts differ in many points. It is to be particularly noted that the sentence of an earthly court is always carried out; while the effect of the sentence which the priest pronounces in the divine tribunal always depends on conditions known only to God, so that the priest's sentence is always conditional even when it is pronounced in an absolute form. A conditional sentence is in no way inconsistent with the nature of a judicial judgment either in general or in the Sacrament of Penance.

Lehmkuhl enlarges on this point:  "It is not repugnant in a civil tribunal for a judge to give sentence with a condition like the following, for instance: 'If payment be not made by a certain date or to grant a hearing to a plaintiff 'provided that such or such document be found among his papers which document, of course, he will order to be searched for by trustworthy men. Indeed, every sentence of a human tribunal, whether in civil or in criminal causes, is seldom pronounced without the implicit condition 'if the evidence of the witnesses be true'; for unless it rested upon this supposition and condition, the sentence would be unjust and consequently null, more especially if pronounced by any but the supreme authority."

Thus the sacramental sentence always presupposes that the penitent is telling the truth and has real sorrow; under such circumstances the confessor may be mistaking even when he thinks he is certain, all the more so as the sacramental sentence is pronounced always ministerially, and, in order to be efficacious, must be in accordance with the sentence of God. This, however, is no impediment to the absolution being for the most part pronounced absolutely both as to form and intention. This the confessor must observe as long as he has no solid ground for thinking that his judgment is not in accordance with God's; for a condition which rests only on a possibility or on a groundless suspicion is practically not worth considering and ought not to be acted upon; in reality it is quite sufficiently implied in the nature of the case.

If, however, for some good reason it is to be feared that the judgment of the confessor is different from that of God, while the pressing necessity of the case, or the good of the penitent requires that absolution be given even though doubtful, reverence for the Sacrament demands that the condition be added explicitly in word, or at least in the mind, so that it amounts to a protest on the part of the priest that where the condition is in default he withdraws his intention of pronouncing the sacred words of absolution in the person of Christ.

The opponents of conditional absolution urge in favor of their view the proposition that in doubt about the validity of the Sacraments the safer opinion must be followed. With regard to the validity of conditional absolution there is no doubt, since the views of its opponents have no probability either intrinsic or extrinsic. Moreover, it is not true that the safer opinion with regard to the validity of the Sacraments is always to be followed; for, since the Sacraments were instituted for man's benefit, cases occur in which the Sacraments must be exposed to the danger of nullity, in order to help one who is in extreme spiritual necessity. An instance in point would be the case of a dying man whose dispositions are doubtful. To let him die without absolution would surely expose him to the certain danger of damnation. Supposing he were in good dispositions, whatever misgivings I might have on the subject, should I not be responsible for his damnation ? I might have opened the gates of heaven to him and I have not done it! Am I then to absolve him without any condition ? But supposing he is not disposed ; even if the Sacrament were not nullified, I should be guilty of having exposed it to the danger of invalidity. From such a dilemma the only escape is the use of conditional absolution; by it I can help the dying man if he is in good dispositions, and I insure the Sacrament against nullity when I have the intention of not conferring it unless the man be disposed.