Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the Sacrament of Penance

Thursday, 2 May 2002

The fact that humanity needs purification and forgiveness is something that is most evident at this historical moment. For this very reason the Holy Father in his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio ineunte placed among the priorities of the mission of the Church for the new millennium “a renewed pastoral courage in proposing in an attractive and effective way the practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation” (n. 37).

Personalist nature of Christian life
The new Motu Proprio Misericordia Dei is linked to this invitation and makes theologically, pastorally, and juridically concrete a few important aspects of the practice of this sacrament. Above all, the Motu Proprio emphasizes the personalist nature of the Sacrament of Penance: as the sin, despite all our bonds with the human community, is ultimately something totally personal, so also our healing with forgiveness has to be something that is totally personal. God does not treat us as part of a collectivity. He knows each one by name, he calls him/her personally and saves him if he has fallen into sin. Even if in all the sacraments, the Lord addresses the person as an individual, the personalist nature of the Christian life is manifested in a particularly clear way in the Sacrament of Penance. That means that the personal confession and the forgiveness directed to this person are constitutive parts of the sacrament. Collective absolution is an extraordinary form that is possible only in strictly determined cases of necessity; it also supposes, as something that belongs to the nature of the sacrament, the will to make the personal confession of sins, as soon as it will be possible to do so. The strongly personalist nature of the Sacrament of Penance was overshadowed in the last decade by the ever more frequent recourse to general absolution which was increasingly considered as a normal form of the Sacrament of Penance, an abuse that contributed to the gradual disappearance of this sacrament in some parts of the Church.

Trent understands that the power to forgive sins given to the Apostles and their successors requires a judgement
If the Pope now reduces again the extent of this possibility, the objection might be made: but has not the Sacrament of Penance undergone many transformations in history, why not this one? In this regard one needs to say that, in reality, the form manifests notable variations, but the personalist component was always essential.

The Church had and has the consciousness that only God can forgive sins (cf. Mk 2,7). For that reason she had to learn to discern carefully and almost with reverent awe what powers the Lord transmitted to her and which he did not. After a long journey of historical maturation, the Council of Trent expounded in an organic form the ecclesial doctrine on the Sacrament of Penance (DS 1667-1693; 1701-1715).

The Fathers of the Council of Trent understood the words of the Risen One to his disciples in Jn 20,22f as the specific words of the institution of the sacament: “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them, whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (DS 1670; 1703; 1710). Starting with Jn 20 they interpreted Mt 16,19 and 18,18 and understood the power of the keys of the Church as the power for the remission of sins (DS 1692; 1710). They were fully conscious of the problems of the interpretation of these texts and established their interpretation in terms of the Sacrament of Penance with the help of “the understanding of the Church” that is expressed in the universal consensus of the Fathers (1670; 1679; 1683; important for this 1703).

The decisive point in these words of institution lies in the fact that the Lord entrusts to the disciples the choice between loosing and binding, retaining or forgiving: the disciples are not simply a neutral instrument of divine forgiveness, but rather a power of discernment is entrusted to them and with it a duty of discernment for individual cases. The Fathers saw in this the judicial nature of the sacrament. Two aspects belong essentially to the Sacrament of Penance: on the one hand the sacramental aspect, namely the mandate of the Lord, that goes beyond the real power of the disciples and of the community of disciples of the Church; on the other hand, the commission to make the decision that must be founded objectively and, therefore, must be just and in this sense has a judicial nature. “Jurisdiction” belongs to the sacrament and it requires a juridical order in the Church, that is always directed to the essence of the sacrament, to the saving will of God (1686f).

Trent is clearly differing from the position of the Reformers, in which the Sacrament of Penance signifies only the manifestation of a forgiveness already granted through faith, and so does not do anything new, but only announces what always already exists in faith.

The judicial nature of the Sacrament implies the necessity to confess each mortal sin
This juridical-sacramental character of the sacrament has two important implications: if this is the reality, we must speak of a sacrament that is different from Baptism, of a specific sacrament, that supposes a special sacramental power, that is linked with the Sacrament of Orders (1684). If however, there is also a judicial evaluation, then it is clear that the judge has to know the facts of the case on which he is to judge. The necessity of the personal confession with the telling of the sins, for which one must ask pardon of God and of the Church because they have broken the unity of love with God that is given by baptism, is implicit in the juridical aspect. At this point the Council can say that it is necessary iure divino (by divine law) to confess each and every mortal sin (can. 7, 1707). So the Council teaches that the duty of confession was instituted by the Lord himself and is constitutive of the sacrament, and so not left to the disposition of the Church.

Church does not have the power to replace personal confession with general absolution
Therefore It is not in the power of the Church to replace personal confession with general absolution: the Pope reminds us of this in the new Motu Proprio, that expresses the Church’s consciousness of the limits of her power; it expresses the bond with the word of the Lord that is binding even on the Pope. Only in situations of necessity, in which the human being’s final salvation is at stake, can the absolution be anticipated and the confession left for a time in which it will be possible to make it. This is the true meaning of what in a rather obscure way is meant by the word collective absolution. Now it is also the mission of the Church to define when one is in the presence of such a situation of necessity. After, as we said, experiencing in the last decades expansive, and for many reasons unsustainable, interpretations of the concept of necessity, in this document the Pope gives precise determinations that must be applied in their particulars by the Bishops.

Confession offers experience of liberation by God from the past weight of sins
Does this document place a new burden on the backs of Christians? It is precisely the contrary: the totally personal character of Christian life is defended. Of course, the confession of one’s own sin can seem to be something heavy for the person, because it humbles his pride and confronts him with his poverty. It is this that we need: we suffer exactly for this reason: we shut ourselves up in our delirium of guiltlessness and for this reason we are closed to others and to any comparison with them. In psychotherapeutic treatments a person is made to bear the burden of profound and often dangerous revelations of his inner self. In the Sacrament of Penance, the simple confession of one’s guilt is presented with confidence in God’s merciful goodness. It is important to do this without falling into scruples, with the spirit of trust proper to the children of God. In this way confession can become an experience of deliverance, in which the weight of the past is removed from us and we can feel rejuvenated by the merit of the grace of God who each time gives back the youthfulness of the heart.

Joseph Ratzinger, Cardinal

The biography of Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, begins, of course, with his birth in Bavaria, Germany, on April 16, 1927, Holy Saturday, and baptized the very same day, in the newly blessed Easter water. This special baptism was seen from the beginning of his life as a very special blessing of Divine Providence.

Though he and the Ratzinger family saw Naziism as the spirit of Anti-Christ, Joseph was forced into the German army near the end of World War II. He escaped, surrendered to the US forces, and spent a few months in a POW camp. Upon his release, he and his brother Georg entered the seminary and were ordained priests together on June 29, 1951. After receiving his doctorate in theology from the University of Munich in 1953, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger became a professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Bonn. When Vatican Council II began in 1962, Fr. Ratzinger, only 35 years old at the time, was named chief “peritus” or theological advisor to the Archbishop of Cologne, Joseph Cardinal Frings and accompanied him to all four sessions of the council, having input on the writing of several of the Council Documents. From 1969 until 1977 Fr. Ratzinger taught theology at the University of Regensburg and, from 1969 until 1980, he was a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. In 1972, together with French theologian Henri de Lubac and the Swiss priest Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ratzinger founded the theological journal Communion which now has editions in 14 countries. It is notable that the Polish edition of Communio was brought about by the archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla.

Fr. Joseph Ratzinger was ordained archbishop of Munich-Freising on May 28, 1977 and was created a cardinal priest by Pope Paul VI on June 27, 1977, his titular church in Rome being St. Mary of Consolation (in Tiburtina).

On April 5, 1993 Cardinal Ratzinger was transferred by Pope John Paul II to the order of cardinal bishops as titular bishop of the suburbicarian see of Velletri-Signi. In 1981 Cardinal Ratzinger became the Prefect (head) of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department in charge of protecting the sacred deposit of the faith handed on from the apostles. As such, he was Pope John Paul II’s chief assistant in the formulation of the Pope’s teaching and writing. There is perhaps no one who worked more closely with Pope John Paul II during the course of his pontificate. Cardinal Ratzinger would generally have lengthy private meetings with the Pope twice per week. Before his election as Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger also served president of the Pontifical Biblical and Theological Commissions.

On November 6, 1998, Cardinal Ratzinger was appointed Vice-dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals. Prior to the death of Pope John Paul II, he served as a member of the Congregation of Bishops, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, the Council for Christian Unity, the Council for Culture, the Commission Ecclesia Dei, and the Commission for Latin America. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger had a decisive role in the writing of the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” signed in October 1999 by the Holy See and the World Lutheran Federation in Augsburg, Germany. The declaration, one of the most important ecumenical steps since Martin Luther’s split with the Catholic Church in the 16th century, took place thanks to the dialogue held in November 1998 between Cardinal Ratzinger and Lutheran Bishop Johannes Hanselman in Munich.

As he approached his mid-seventies, Cardinal Ratzinger attempted to retire several times, but Pope John Paul II would not accept his resignation.

It seems Pope John Paul II knew God had other plans for the German Cardinal. At 78, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected as Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005, only the second day of the conclave. This speedy election demonstrates a remarkable consensus on the part of the 115 Cardinals who elected him by a two-thirds majority. Their vote was for a defender of the truth, a man of prayer, a humble servant of the servants of God.


Besides his academic articles and official Church documents, the new Pope Benedict XVI provides us with a window into his mind and heart through several books, the Ratzinger Report (1996), The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000), God and the World (2002) and Introduction to Christianity. Joseph Ratzinger is the oldest cardinal to be named pope since Clement XII, who was also 78 when he became pope in 1730. He is the first German pope since Victor II (1055-1057).