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Rev. Fr. Angelo,

I would ask you some questions about Confession and Hell.

God alone can forgive sins.

‘The Son of God, Jesus says of himself, “The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” and exercises this divine power: “Your sins are forgiven.” Further, by virtue of his divine authority he gives this power to men to exercise in his name’ (CCC 1441).

Right yesterday, during the H. Mass, the Gospel of John told that Jesus gave His apostles (and, implicitly, to their successors) this power: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:23).

Furthermore, Jesus also said, addressing Peter (and, beside Peter, the following applies also to His successors and to the Shepherds in communion with them): “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19).

Now, correct me if I’m wrong: the forgiveness of grave sins can be obtained only by Confession (or, at least, an act of perfect contrition, which must necessarily include, even if only implicit, the determination to confess).

The Priest must evaluate the repentance of the faithful, and, deny or postpone absolution when necessary.

However, the minister of God (except very rare cases, think of Fr. Pio) cannot read one’s heart, and he has to trust what the penitent tells him.

Therefore, he might pronounce an absolution following a false, invented, or intentionally incomplete confession (and so not only invalid, but also sacrilegious).

You don’t know if the penitent told the truth!

Now, this could also happen: that a Priest deferred or decisively denies absolution to someone who instead is repentant for his sins.

What would happen in this case?

Apart from the case of a false, invented or intentionally incomplete confession where the Priest would have no fault (which would be only on the “penitent”), what would happen in the event of deferral or denial of absolution by the Minister of God?

Would it be the priest’s fault?

And what would happen to the penitent’s soul?

I give a practical example: I read that Savonarola denied the absolution when called by the dying Lorenzo the Magnificent.

So, what happened to the soul of Lorenzo the Magnificent?

Dead without absolution after the denial by Savonarola, he should have gone to Hell.

And if he is in Hell, why doesn’t the Church proclaim that?

Then, those who cannot receive sacramental absolution (I am thinking, for example, about separated and divorced persons who have contracted new unions), how could they obtain the forgiveness of grave sins?

If Confession is necessary for the forgiveness of grave sins, and they cannot have it, they will go to Hell.

And, if so, why doesn’t the Church proclaim that?

It must be said that the Church, among other things, never asserted with certainty that one person is in Hell.

It is not even stated about Judas Iscariot. The same could even be empty, according to some.

But if it were so, it would certainly be due to Divine Mercy. But, in this case, where would the Divine Justice end?

And then (at least I have always been taught so), God is greater than His Sacraments.

They are certainly the ordinary ways by which He transmits His grace to us, but He could do that in other ways as well.

Excuse me if I have been a bit prolix, and I hope I clearly explained myself!

Thank you for your attention.


The answer of the priest

Dear Emiliano,

1. In the first half of your email you summarized the doctrine of the Church in the right way. Well done!

I now come to your many questions:

2. The first: whether the priest is required to give absolution.

If the penitent manifests the necessary dispositions, especially the repentance of sins and the resolution not to commit them anymore, the priest must give absolution.

Denying absolution to a well-disposed penitent, causing him to remain in mortal sin, constitutes a grave sin for the priest.

3. Therefore, before reaching the point of denying absolution, the priest must examine whether the penitent has the necessary dispositions.

If he is in doubt and needs to deepen some issues related to the accused sins, he can postpone and ask the penitent to return within a short time.

4. The due dispositions of the penitent can be of two types: perfect contrition (regret for having offended God) or imperfect contrition (regret of going to hell).

If the necessary dispositions are expressed with perfect contrition, the penitent is already reached by the grace of God.

And although one is deprived of sacramental grace and cannot yet receive Holy Communion because not absolved by the Church, yet he or she is in grace and, if one dies in such a situation, he or she is saved.

5. If, on the other hand, the necessary dispositions were expressed only with an imperfect contrition, although it is sufficient to approach confession and receive absolution, he does not immediately return to the grace of God.

In this case, when absolution is denied, the penitent remains in mortal sin.

6. You bring me the case of Lorenzo the Magnificent, whom Savonarola allegedly denied absolution on the verge of his death.

What you wrote is not true.

I read in a book by Tito Centi: [tr.] “In one of those last days, also Fra Girolamo was called to his bedside, he comforted and blessed him (ed. note: Lorenzo) as Christian charity dictated to his priestly heart. But his contemporaries, a few years later, manipulated that last “in extremis” meeting, weaving around the legend of the missed absolution. Lorenzo died on April 8th, reconciled with God and with men, as far as eyewitnesses know of his passing. The Piagnoni (ed. note: faction that sided with Savonarola), who a few years later outlined the above legend, did not realize that – so doing – they deformed the moral figure of their teacher” (Girolamo Savonarola, il frate che sconvolse Firenze [tr.: the friar who upset Florence], p. 58-59).

7. Assuming instead that absolution was denied to Lorenzo the Magnificent, you can certainly say he died without receiving the sacraments, which are the ordinary means of salvation.

But beside the ordinary means, God also possesses extraordinary ones because Gratia non alligatur Sacramentis (Grace is not tied to sacraments).

Therefore, even assuming a denied absolution, Lorenzo could have expressed an act of perfect contrition. And that contrition is always driven and assisted by grace.

So, he still had this way to save himself.

This is the reason why the Church cannot solemnly decree the presence of a particular person in hell.

The Church sees the outside, but only the Lord sees the inside.

Lastly, who knows how many people can be converted. And we hope they do.

8. In case the absolution is postponed because the priest must consult better, he will try to incite the penitent to acts of perfect contrition, which already bring back to grace and give the confidence in salvation.

I greet you and I bless you.

Father Angelo

2016, January 31st | A priest answers – Dogmatic Theology – Sacraments