In rare cases, priests can withhold absolution from the penitent if they refuse to cease…
Question: If a person commits a capital crime, isn’t absolution dependent upon the penitent turning themselves in to the police? Referring to the clergy who committed abuse over the years, would not absolution be dependent upon turning himself in to the police?
— Ed Siering, Muscatine, Iowa
Answer: Requiring penitents to turn themselves in to authorities is not something that a confessor can require before granting absolution.
To do so would amount to a kind of indirect violation of the seal of confession, since absolution would be withheld if the penitent did not make public his sins. A confessor is required to ascertain that a penitent is truly sorry for what he has done and has a firm purpose of amendment. A confessor will often advise a penitent to ponder how real his contrition is if he refuses to accept due penalties for his crimes in the legal forum. However, he cannot require the penitent to assure him he will take such a course of action if necessary.
There may be times that third parties may be harmed. Not every victim of sexual abuse wants matters adjudicated in the courts. Not every place in the world has a judicial system that is just or effective. So, turning oneself in may be unwise or cause further crimes and retribution. Hence, absolutions in such cases were not invalid, though one may legitimately ponder how fruitful such confessions would be if a person crassly refuses to face any external consequences.
Recall too, not every confessor knows the penitent to whom he speaks. Sometimes a penitent confesses behind a screen; at other times he or she is a person unknown to the confessor. Thus, priests cannot reasonably act as enforcers in most cases. Further, priests are not allowed to retain knowledge acquired in confession and act upon it later. They cannot even bring up things with the same person in a later confession. The best that priests can do is to determine a person’s contrition in a current confession, give advice and grant absolution if there is sufficient contrition in that moment, not based on later actions or previous behaviors.
What constitutes purity?
Question: With all of the talk about “purity,” I realize I don’t have clear guidelines. For example, must I skip R-rated movies, or does it depend on the movie? Do I have to avert my eyes every time I see someone in tight jeans? Is it alright to paint nudes? Does “purity” apply to anything other than sex?
— Name withheld via email
Answer: Purity can be used in a wide or narrow sense. For example, the beatitude “Blessed are the pure in heart” refers to where our love for God is pure because it’s not admixed or usurped by lesser loves. In the narrower sense, purity usually refers to sexual matters where our sexual passions are directed to sinful ends.
R-rated movies can get this rating due to violence, language or sexual content. Most people are more immediately affected by sexual content than violence and language, so it is less appropriate to view R-rated movies with strong sexual content than for other reasons. Averting your eyes is not always possible, but we should try not to dwell on sexual thoughts and fantasies.
Many of your questions also beg the opposite questions: Why put strong sexual content in movies? Why wear tight jeans? Why paint nudes? Something to consider, anyway.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. He is also the recent author of “Catholic and Curious: Your Questions Answered” (OSV, $18.95). Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.