This is the first in a series of reflections by Cardinal Müller on questions of present importance in the life of the Church.
Many are suggesting today that sacramental absolution can be given to penitents who, on account of mitigating circumstances, can be said to be free of subjective culpability before God, despite the fact that they continue living in an objective state of grave sin. The distinction between an objective state of sin and subjective culpability is generally acknowledged by the Catholic theological tradition. What is more controversial is its application to the sacramental order. Is it possible to use the probable absence of subjective culpability as a criterion for granting absolution? Would this not mean turning the sacraments into subjective realities, which is contrary to their very nature as effective, visible—and thus objective—signs of grace?
In order to answer this question, it is necessary to go to the roots of the sacrament of reconciliation. In his love for us, God takes us human beings so seriously as to surrender his only-begotten Son to a most dreadful and shameful death on the Cross (Joh 3:16), so that our sins may be forgiven and we may be reconciled with him (2 Cor 5:19). If such is the price of our salvation, then bishops and priests cannot take lightly the authority they have received from Christ himself (Mt 18:18; Joh 20:22) to forgive those sins that a penitent has confessed and of which he or she has repented.
For it is with divine authority that the Apostle speaks the word of reconciliation to the faithful (2 Cor 5:20). The sacrament of reconciliation with God and with the Church as the body of Christ requires the confession of all one’s grave sins in their entirety. This necessity derives from a concern for eternal salvation and is as such of greater importance than a Christian’s transient sense of comfort, which a confessor may be afraid of disturbing. In order to be able to judge whether to forgive or to retain the sins of any (Joh 20:23), the priest must know which grave sins the penitent has committed. These are both the open and the secret sins committed in one’s thoughts, words, deeds, and omissions, violating God’s commandments, which are the revelation of his holy and sanctifying design of love for us.
It is not enough simply to call oneself a sinner in general. This could easily be an excuse: One is subject to human weakness, just like everyone else. Sins are then relativized as ever-present human shortcomings. In reality, however, the baptized Christian is not caught up in Luther’s dialectic of the simul iustus et peccator, (“at the same time a righteous person and a sinner”). Through baptism we have been truly changed. We are no longer slaves to sin but have become the friends and children of God. We are in the state of sanctifying grace. It is not with necessity that sin follows from the remaining weakness (concupiscence). Rather, sin is the result of a conscious and deliberate act against the holiness of God and the love of Christ who shed his blood on the Cross for the forgiveness of sins. It was by freely accepting faith and grace that we became children of God. In the same way, we need to cooperate with the coming of the Kingdom into this world, serving the fulfillment of God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. The Christian’s whole life is a continuous imitation of the crucified and risen Lord. Through grave sins, we separate ourselves from God and exclude ourselves from the inheritance of eternal life.
Love does not make unnecessary the fulfillment of God’s commandments, but is their deepest form of fulfillment. The commandments are not external prescriptions, which promise reward to those who fulfill them and threaten punishment to those who fail to observe them. Instead, they are the revelation of God’s salvific design, indicating to us the way of his love. Every mortal sin is a conscious and deliberate contradiction of God’s will. This is the formal aspect that turns an evil act into a mortal sin, the material aspect of which is the deed’s content. Hence the Apostle Paul can categorically say: “Neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, . . . will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10).
The Council of Trent (1551) teaches that mortal sins make us enemies of God and hand us over to eternal damnation unless we repent, confess our sins, and, with works of reparation, obtain absolution and the restoration to the state of sanctifying grace. The penitent, therefore, has to confess to his confessor all public and secret mortal sins of which he is aware after a serious examination of conscience (DH 1680). He or she also needs to indicate those circumstances that are apt to change the nature of the sin (DH 1681). What is referred to here are not the mitigating circumstances that reduce the severity of the guilt and make us deserve less punishment. Rather what is meant are those circumstances that change the species of the act and thus demand a different kind of penance and punishment, which must be determined by the confessor acting as a judge. It is important to underline that the confessor’s motivation is the salvation of the penitent.
Therefore, the Council is quite right in rejecting the Protestant polemic that sees in the requirement of a complete confession of one’s sins a kind of “torture of conscience” in the confessional (DH 1682). What if the penitent is not accountable for his or her sins, because of a lack of knowledge or responsibility? A person’s freedom may be impaired due to ignorance. God alone is able to judge a person’s subjective culpability. All the confessor can do is carefully assist the penitent in his or her examination of conscience. But not even the penitent him- or herself can decide to what extent God holds him or her accountable for the sin. Trying to do so would simply mean to justify oneself.
Even if I am not conscious of any guilt, I cannot be absolutely certain of my salvation and must always entrust myself with confidence to the judgment of God’s grace. The Church cannot preempt or even intervene in God’s judgment. The apostles and thus the bishops and priests are only servants of Christ and stewards of his sacraments. They can administer the sacraments as a means of grace only in accordance with the way in which Christ has instituted them and in accordance with his mandate to the Church.
We also need to take into account the possibility that ignorance is itself culpable, as when it serves as a way of excusing oneself from having to change one’s way of life. Recall the teaching of the Council of Sens, according to which one can sin, even if one acts with ignorance (DH 730). Even if a confessor is able to find reasons that speak in favor of a penitent’s diminished responsibility, the confessor should not forget that these very reasons hinder the person from discerning his or her situation before God in the right way. In any event, to say “I absolve you” in these cases would amount to confirming the error in which the person lives, an error that is profoundly damaging to his or her capacity to live according to God’s loving plan.
It is crucial to remember that the sacraments are not private interior encounters of the faithful with God, but visible expressions of the Church’s faith. This is why the ecclesial discipline governing the admission to the sacraments has always required that the faithful do not find themselves in contradiction with the Christian form of life. St. Thomas says that to admit someone to the sacraments who continues to live in sin means to introduce “a falsehood into the sacramental signs” (S.Th. III q. 68 a. 4 co.). Thus one could be without culpability before God because of invincible ignorance and still not be able to receive absolution.
The words “I absolve you from your sins” do not ratify the penitent’s lack of accountability before God. Rather, they express and bring about his or her reconciliation with God, his or her reincorporation into the visible body Christ, which is the Church. Thus, for these words to be meaningful, the penitent has to make the firm resolution to live according to the way of life that Christ has taught us and that the Church witnesses to the world. To do otherwise would be to “subjectivize” the Church’s sacramental economy, making it a function of our invisible relationship with God. It would mean to disincarnate the sacraments from the visible flesh of Christ and from his body, which is the Church.
A case of a completely different nature exists if, for external reasons, it was impossible to clarify the status of a given union canonically, and, say, a man has proofs that his purported marriage with a woman was invalid, though for whatever reason he is unable to adduce these proofs in the ecclesial forum. This case is wholly different from that of a validly married person who asks for the sacrament of Penance without wanting to abandon a stable sexual relationship with someone else, whether as a concubinage or as a civil “marriage,” which is not valid before God and the Church. Whereas in the latter situation there is a contradiction with the sacramental practice of the Church (a matter of divine law), in the former the discussion centers on the way of determining whether or not a marriage was null (a matter of ecclesiastical law).
Theologically, things are very clear. The words of Christ, the teaching of the Apostles, and thus the dogma of the Church, constitute a clear guideline for any pastoral endeavor to sustain the individual Christian on his or her pilgrimage to God. It was the old Pharisees (whose name nowadays is all too often used as a disparaging term) who tried to put Jesus on the spot with regard to the indissolubility of marriage. For on the one hand, everyone wants to hold on to marital indissolubility as part of the Creator’s plan for the marriage between man and woman. On the other hand, some seek to circumvent Christ’s commandment. Their pretext is that apart from the “strict Christ” as the legislator of the New Covenant, there is also the “merciful Jesus” of the Gospel, familiar with the fact that the ideal is confronted with humanity’s concrete lived reality that is disrupted by the sin of Adam. Jesus responds not as a Pharisee but against the Pharisees—and even against the objection of the apostles who claim to know human praxis and reality better than Jesus himself—that “whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery,” which he also applies to the woman who marries a man who is not unmarried or a widower (Mk 10:11–12).
According to the Apostle Paul, if the spouses have separated, they should strive to get reconciled. If reconciliation is not possible, they need to remain single until the death of the legitimate partner (1 Cor 7:11, 39). It is true for everyone that the sacramental reception of Holy Communion is only fruitful when one is in the state of sanctifying grace. But even independent of the question of one’s subjective state of grace—of which ultimately only God is the judge—it is necessary that those who live in an objective contradiction to the commandments of God and the sacramental order of the Church take the resolve to change their way of life in order to receive reconciliation with God and the Church in the sacrament of Penance.
In many complicated situations, in the face of ideologies hostile to marriage, and in a context in which the transmission of the faith has all too often been superficial, the wise steward of divine grace will gently guide Christians, who seriously seek a life of faith, to come to see their familial situation in the light of Christ’s Gospel. In cases where there are grave reasons not to dissolve the new union and where a declaration of nullity of the first union could not be obtained, the goal of this often difficult and long journey is for the partners to come to live together as brother and sister and thus also to have access to Holy Communion.
Moreover, we must not forget that the Catholic faith does not reduce the mystery of the Eucharist to the reception of Holy Communion. What is decisive is first and foremost the participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Of primary concern for the Church’s pastors must be the faithfuls’ fulfillment of their Sunday obligation. God will certainly not deny his love to those, who, despite repeated failures, humbly ask him for his grace, so that they can fulfill the commandments. Not least of all in view of our own sins, we should respect and lovingly assist in our common pilgrimage those of our brothers and sisters who feel they are in a dilemma when it comes to their familial situations and find that despite their goodwill, they do not always manage to live according to God’s commandments. It is true that confessors are also judges. But they perform this role not out of human pride, so as to condemn the sinner. Rather, their judgment is like the diagnosis of a wise physician, who seeks to know the nature of the illness and then pours oil and wine on the wounds as did the merciful Samaritan, returning people to the shelter of Holy Mother Church.
Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller is former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.