The note explains that individual confession and absolution, according to the normal form, remains the ordinary way in which Catholics should receive the sacrament during this time.
As dioceses in the United States have closed churches and suspended regular times for confessions to be heard in church, to avoid crowds gathering, many bishops and priests have adapted to the changed circumstances, offering confession through windows or behind screens outdoors.
The penitentiary’s note recommends that similar measures be adopted as appropriate in other places.
“In the present pandemic emergency, it is therefore up to the diocesan bishop to indicate to priests and penitents the prudent measures to be adopted in the individual celebration of sacramental reconciliation, such as the celebration in a ventilated place outside the confessional, the adoption of a convenient distance, the use of protective masks without prejudice to the absolute attention paid to safeguarding the sacramental seal and to the necessary discretion.”
However, the note explains, the possibility for general absolution does exist in canon law for truly extraordinary circumstances.
“This Apostolic Penitentiary believes that, especially in the places most affected by the pandemic contagion and until the phenomenon recedes, cases of grave necessity are occurring” that meet the legal criteria.
“Collective [general] absolution, without prior individual confession, cannot be imparted except where the imminent danger of death occurs, [there is not] enough time to listen to the confessions of individual penitents, or there is a serious need,” the note says.
The cardinal emphasized that while the diocesan bishop has the authority under law to evaluate local circumstances, he must do so having taken into consideration guidelines already agreed by the bishops’ conference.
In 1988, the U.S. bishops’ conference adopted a policy saying that, outside the imminent danger of death, general absolution can only be imparted to a group of the faithful if they would otherwise be unable to go to confession within a month.
Piacenza also stressed that anyone receiving general absolution would still need to go to individual confession as soon as possible, and this must be explained to them.
Piacenza said that “it is always up to the diocesan bishop to determine, in the territory of his ecclesiastical jurisdiction and in relation to the level of pandemic contagion, the cases of serious need in which it is permissible to impart collective absolution.”
The cardinal’s note reminded bishops that any use of general absolution has to conform to the norm of law.
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Priests giving general absolution in particular cases must explain the conditions of general absolution and be physically present to those receiving it, at least to the point of penitents being able to hear the priest’s voice.
The cardinal offered a hypothetical example to illustrate the severe circumstances which would warrant general absolution.
“For example,” Piacenza said, priests could absolve those in medical isolation by standing “at the entrance of hospital wards, where there are hospitalized members of the faithful who are infected and in danger of death.”
Piacenza said that the priest could, if necessary, absolve the Catholics on the ward by “using the means of amplification of the voice as far as possible and with appropriate precautions, so that absolution may be heard.”
The cardinal also urged bishops to consider “where necessary, [and] in agreement with the health authorities,” setting up “groups of ‘extraordinary hospital chaplains,’” using volunteers if necessary, to guarantee the necessary spiritual assistance to sick and dying.
Cardinal Piacenza also said that, given the extraordinary circumstances in many dioceses affected by coronavirus, Catholics need to be aware that the mercy of God was always accessible to them.