The Vatican has announced that it has granted blanket forgiveness for sins by anyone struck with the coronavirus as well as healthcare workers and those who pray for healthcare workers. Relatives of the sick are also forgiven. I must admit that, as a lawyer raised Catholic, I am surprised by the use of general absolution on this scale. I am also struck by the specificity, including that those who want to take advantage of the option for those who pray must also pray, doing so “for at least half an hour.”
General absolution is not unprecedented. It can be used where there is a widespread catastrophe or danger with no time for a priest to administer confessions. It is also considered warranted when the numbers of those affected are so large as to exceed the capabilities of the Church.
The penitent must still be contrite and agree to seek confession at the soonest possible time.
This order was issued by the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican tribunal that deals with matters of conscience, including confession. It decided that the “grave necessity” of the situation justified the action.
As a lawyer, this seems like quite a potential loophole for the licentious in times of crisis. However, the
devil divinity is in the details. The matter is left to local bishops to determine the necessity for general absolution while “taking into account the supreme good of the salvation of souls.”
The use of general absolution has been controversial in countries like Australia where it was commonly invoked.
The tribunal gives specific instructions for absolution in places like “the entrance to hospital wards where faithful in danger of death are hospitalized, using — within the limits of what is possible and with appropriate precautions — means for amplifying the voice so that the absolution is heard.”