Gahl’s argument does not convince me. Substantially, Gahl says: In the moment in which the penitent confesses a behavior that constitutes gravely sinful matter, committed without full consciousness and deliberate consent, the confessor will explain to him the doctrine of the Church regarding his particular problem and will refuse to impart absolution if the penitent will not commit himself in the future to avoid that behavior. In a certain sense, there would not be any difference when compared with a sin committed with full awareness and deliberate consent. It seems to me that this response does not consider adequately the doctrine of St. Pius V, which has always been the doctrine of the Church.
In the first place, it seems that Gahl does not consider adequately the role of conscience. Is it sufficient that the confessor enunciates a principle such that it can be assumed that the conscience has been sufficiently enlightened? Perhaps not. Cardinal Newman made an illuminating distinction between a merely notional assent and a real assent of the conscience. It is possible that the penitent does not understand or does not accept the confessor’s admonition and refuses to promise that, in the same situation, he will not act once again in the same manner. The conscience will be enlightened only in the moment in which it has given real assent. What should be done if the penitent does not give real assent to the confessor’s admonition?
It is clear that in this case the penitent could be in the grace of God, even if the confessor refuses him absolution. The confessor can, however, refuse the absolution if he thinks that this refusal could be an instrument that urges the penitent toward a more profound reflection that brings him to the recognition of objective truth. This is a legitimate pastoral strategy. But it can be just as legitimate a pastoral strategy to give absolution, obliging the penitent to continue a common reflection, naturally after having confirmed that the penitent’s objection of conscience is honest and not artificial. Would there be a sacrilege if the penitent that receives absolution in this condition receives Communion? No, because the penitent is judged by his own conscience and therefore, in the case in question, he is in the grace of God.
In the second place, Gahl does not consider at all the second part of the subjective conditions of sin: deliberate consent. It is possible that a person recognizes that that which he did is wrong and nonetheless find himself in a situation of dependence psychologically, economically, physically or of another nature that does not allow him to promise truthfully that in the future he will avoid a particular immoral behavior. Think of a person who suffers from a grave form of neurosis or, worse, of psychosis. Think of a woman, together with her children, totally dependent economically upon a man who is not her husband. Think of a woman who has formed with a man who is not her husband an affective and emotional bond of love and of reciprocal support in which children grow and flourish. Will we tell this woman to leave her companion? She has a moral obligation to avoid sexual relations outside of marriage, but she also has the obligation not to thrust her children (and also a man she loves, perhaps in a misguided manner) into despair and misery.
The confessor will not say to her that her situation is all right, but perhaps he will not refuse her absolution if she commits herself to find a way out of the situation of sin in which she finds herself. Maybe he will invite her to confront the problem with her companion, saying to him that she wants to get married and constitute a regular family. If her companion is already married, perhaps the confessor will invite her to face the problem with him, explaining to him that she loves him, but believes that God is calling them to a particularly difficult form of love in which there is no room for sexual relations. It will not be easy and it will not happen overnight.
We are not saying that there are situations in which there is only the choice between one sin and another. With the help of God’s grace, there is always a way out in order to observe completely God’s law. However, we often need time to find the solution. What should the confessor do in the meantime? Here also he will have the choice between two equally legitimate pastoral strategies. If the situation is such that it truly compromises in an irresistible way the liberty of the person, then he is in the grace of God, since the subjective elements for mortal sin are lacking. That does not mean to say that the refusal of absolution might not be an efficacious means to encourage the penitent on the path of liberation from the chains in which he finds himself. Is the first or second pastoral strategy preferable? I do not know. I know that the legitimate authority should decide: the priest, the bishop, the pope. Neither the theology of matrimony nor that of the sacrament are in discussion. It is a pastoral question and a question of ecclesiastical discipline. In any case, let us not forget that the law is for man and not man for the law. A father knows he should be at times severe and at times merciful, if he wants to educate his son and accompany him toward full human and Christian maturity. Every so often he asks himself whether has chosen justly or chosen wrongly, whether he was severe when he should have been merciful or merciful when he should have been severe. Fortunately, in the family there is father and a mother who can divide the roles and intervene. It is even more difficult for the confessor, because he must be both father and mother at the same time. He has, however, a special assistance of the Holy Sprit through the sacrament of Holy Orders. Fortunately, because he really needs it.
Forgive me if I allow myself to give some advice to confessors, being only a poor layman. I have, however, studied my St. Thomas and I have a certain experience of Confession, obviously as a penitent.
Rocco Buttiglione is John Paul II Professor of Philosophy and the History of European Institutions at the Lateran University in Rome.
Translated from the Italian by Br. Michael Baggot.