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Cdl. Mauro PiacenzaScreenshot/YouTube

VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) — In yet further evidence of the tumult of Pope Francis’ Vatican, a rift in teaching on confession was recently highlighted when the head of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary warned against false “mercy” with regard to forgiving sins, indirectly condemning a rhetoric of “mercy” commonly espoused by Francis.

The comments were delivered by Cardinal Mauro Piacenza last week, as part of the 33rd Course on the Internal Forum promoted by the Apostolic Penitentiary. The 78-year-old cardinal leads the Vatican body dealing with forgiveness of sins, particularly serious or complicated cases.  

Delivering a conference on indulgences to begin the week’s proceedings, Piacenza outlined dangers in practice for confessors, particularly with regard to misconceptions and false teaching about the concept of mercy.

“It is neither doctrinally nor pastorally to be believed that equivocation about the judgment of sinful acts and their clear identification can bear any positive fruit,” stated Piacenza.

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Continuing, he attacked a false perception of mercy, warning that true mercy requires teaching the truth about sin.

It is not mercy to lie about sin, much less is it to leave the faithful in a state of sin because of the confessor’s fearfulness in speaking to the faithful as an authoritative father and caring physician. Only a misunderstood mercy, devoid of Christian realism, can abdicate the very serious task of judge and physician that Christ entrusts to the Apostles and their successors. Which Christ entrusts to every confessor! 

Piacenza noted that priests have “the grave duty to admonish the sinner about the seriousness of his condition,” warning that if such a duty is reneged on, then the priest “himself would answer for it before God.”

Using all the means of fraternal dialogue, authentic spiritual paternity and helping the faithful to perceive the infinite goodness of God and the Lord’s permanent readiness to cover and destroy, with the fire of His Mercy, every sin, the individual priest has the grave duty to admonish the sinner about the seriousness of his condition and, if he did not do so, he himself would answer for it before God.

He also took aim at a false concept of “pastoral” care, stating that the word is “widely abused” and is used to refer to an “ineffective closeness to people,” rather than true care for souls.

And if even this term – ‘pastoral’ – has been and is widely abused, attributing to it every possible unjustified subjective creativity, in the name of an alleged, as much as ineffective closeness to people, we well know that all that is pastoral can only refer back to the one Good Shepherd.

Even in 2011, Piacenza warned that there was a doctrinal effort underway “to justify sin, not entrusting oneself to mercy, but trusting in a dangerous autonomy that has the odor of practical atheism.”

Piacenza formerly led the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy under Pope Benedict XVI, and was described as having a “traditionalist ecclesiastical line of thought” by Vatican journalist Marco Tosatti. 

Cardinal vs. Pontiff

The cardinal’s words appear to contrast those of Pope Francis, who has notably been more lax with regard to his pronouncements on confession and the granting of forgiveness. In a December meeting with seminarians from Barcelona, the Pope reportedly told the assembled priests and seminarians to forgive everything.

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He told them “not to be clerical, to forgive everything,” and that this must occur even if the person confessing has no intention of repentance. Francis reportedly said that “if we see that there is no intention to repent, we must forgive all. We can never deny absolution, because we become a vehicle for an evil, unjust, and moralistic judgement.”

His remarks echo those made only weeks prior, when in November he attacked priests who withheld absolution as being “delinquents.” Presenting an imaginary situation, Francis said: “‘And I can’t absolve you, I can’t because you are in mortal sin, I have to ask permission from the bishop.’”

“This happens, please!” Francis continued. “Our people cannot be in the hands of criminals! And a priest who behaves like this is a delinquent, in every word. Whether you like it or not.”

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This was subsequently repeated during his meeting with bishops in the Congo, when he instructed them to “always forgive,” while suggesting that priests sidestep the Code of Canon Law. “Take a risk on the side of forgiveness,” he said. “Always. Always forgive in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this way, you will sow forgiveness for society as a whole.”

Indeed, even at the Apostolic Penitentiary meeting last week, Francis appeared to present a more relaxed view regarding confession than that taught by Piacenza only days before at the same event. Warning priests against “dialogue” with the devil, Francis said that confessors would only be concerned with thinking “about forgiveness and how to ‘make do’ to bring in forgiveness.”

He presented a hypothetical conversation to make his point, appearing to suggest that priests offer absolution even when it is not sought: 

‘Are you repentant?’ – ‘No’ – ‘But doesn’t that weigh you down?’ – ‘No’ – ‘But would you even feel like being repentant?’ – ‘I wish.’ There is a door, always must be sought for the door to enter with forgiveness. And when one cannot enter by the door, one enters by the window: but always one must seek to enter with forgiveness. With magnanimous forgiveness; ‘let it be the last time, next time I won’t forgive you’: no, that won’t do.

Catholic teaching on confession

Despite Pope Francis’ instruction that confessors should “always forgive” the Catholic Church does not teach such on the manner. 

The Code of Canon Law outlines the elements required in order for a confessor to be able to impart absolution: “If the confessor has no doubt about the disposition of the penitent, and the penitent seeks absolution, absolution is to be neither refused nor deferred.” (Can 980).

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The Catechism of the Council of Trent outlines that:

Above all, priests should be very careful not to give absolution to any penitent, whose confession they have heard, without obliging him to make full satisfaction for any injury to his neighbor’s goods or character for which he seems responsible. No person is to be absolved until he has first faithfully promised to restore all that belongs to others.

That same catechism further instructs priests on when a penitent should be sent away without absolution, not due to a deliberate lack of repentance, but due to being “entirely unprepared.”

The much-loved Baltimore Catechism also notes the instruction to refuse absolution, stating:

The priest must and does refuse absolution to a penitent when he thinks the penitent is not rightly disposed for the Sacrament. He sometimes postpones the absolution till the next confession, either for the good of the penitent or for the sake of better preparation – especially when the person has been a long time from confession.