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Vatican reaffirms need for penance, but says some habitual sinners cannot be absolved
By Nicole Winfield, Associated Press, 05/02/02
VATICAN CITY -- Amid the intensifying American clerical abuse scandal, the Vatican on Thursday stressed the need for Catholics to confess their sins -- but said some "habitual" sinners could never be forgiven.
The Vatican didn't identify who these sinners were, but theological experts said Pope John Paul II was referring to homosexuals and divorced Catholics who remarry. The pope said last week priests implicated in the sex abuse scandal can be forgiven.
"It is clear that penitents living in a habitual state of serious sin and who do not intend to change their situation cannot validly receive absolution," the pope said in the apostolic letter released Thursday.
The letter didn't say what should be done with priests who sin, and it made no reference to the American scandal, in which priests have been accused of sexually abusing children and teen-agers and higher-ups have been blamed for covering up the crimes.
The scandal took a new twist Thursday with the arrest of a priest at the center of the allegations, the Rev. Paul Shanley, on three counts of child rape.
Theological experts said the pope's letter made no changes in Vatican thinking on the sacrament of penance -- but acknowledged the timing of its release was strange considering the crisis in the American church.
"It might strike some as odd in the current climate that the church is calling for those who are in sin to reconcile, but generally (the pope's letter) might have been greeted with a yawn were it not for the scandal," said Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls tried at a news conference to steer reporters away from questioning the Vatican's top theological watchdog, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, about the scandal and the extraordinary meeting of American cardinals and bishops he attended at the Vatican last week.
Ratzinger said he found the meetings "opportune and fraternal" and that they allowed Vatican officials and the American clergymen to exchange views. He said the American bishops were working on a "national standard" that envisaged a judicial process to deal with offenders.
Ratzinger was asked if the pope meant homosexuals and divorcees who remarry when he spoke of habitual sinners, and he said the pontiff did not mention specific groups.
The Vatican condemns homosexual activity. The Roman Catholic Church does not recognize divorce, only annulment, and divorced Catholics who remarry are not permitted to take communion.
The Italian gay rights group Arcigay condemned the Vatican letter for offering homosexuals and divorced Catholic who remarry less hope of forgiveness than abusive priests.
"Any isolated sexual act, even violent or with a minor, can be absolved if it's accompanied by a declaration of penance," said Sergio Lo Giudice, Arcigay's president.
"The choice of having loving, stable, responsible and conscious relations with a person of the same sex falls, instead, under the implacable hatchet of papal condemnation."
Last week in a speech to the cardinals, the pope left the door open for errant priests to be forgiven, saying, "we cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person's soul and can work extraordinary change."
The pope's apostolic letter was designed to counter what Ratzinger called a "crisis" in the sacrament of penance -- the process by which Catholics confess their sins to priests and receive forgiveness.
Only about 20 percent of American Catholics go to confession, Gillis said. And there has been a trend in the United States and elsewhere toward group rather than individual confession. The document said general absolutions are for use only in "grave necessity," when an individual confession is not possible.
The Rev. Richard McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, said the call to revive the practice of private confessions was "doomed to failure."
"The overwhelming majority of Catholics have made up their minds: private confession is no longer a part of their devotional life," he said.
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