Jesus said to the apostles: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”. What are the situations which would call for retention of sins and does this have anything to do with excommunicating the person?
Just to remind ourselves, the words you quote are from Our Lord in the upper room on the evening of his Resurrection. St John relates the scene:
“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them … ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (Jn 20:19-23).
By these words, Jesus gave the Church the great sacrament of mercy as the fruit of his death and Resurrection.
It is worth noting the role of the Holy Spirit in the forgiveness of sins. Not for nothing did Jesus first say, “Receive the Holy Spirit”.
The Holy Spirit is the paraclete, the advocate who pleads our cause before the Father and, as the spirit of love, wants all souls to be united with God.
For this reason, the priest says in the prayer before the absolution of our sins that God “sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins”.
Since the apostles, and their successors, the priests in the ministry of reconciliation, had to judge whether they could forgive the sins or had to retain them, it is clear that they must first hear the sins of each person in a private confession.
Only in exceptional circumstances, which I can describe in another column, can the priest absolve sins without first having heard the person’s confession.
What is meant by “retaining” sins, as distinct from forgiving them? To retain in this context means not to forgive the sins. Under what circumstances would the priest not forgive someone’s sins?
Could it be that there are some sins that are so serious that they simply cannot be forgiven? No, there are no such sins. All sins, no matter how serious or how frequent, can be forgiven, provided the person is sorry for them.
Therefore, what determines whether penitents can be forgiven or not is whether they are sorry for their sins.
There are some people who, for a variety of reasons, are not sorry and have no intention of changing their behaviour.
Ordinarily these people know that because they are not sorry they cannot be forgiven either by God or by the priest, and so they do not go to confession.
When someone does go to confession, this usually implies that they are sorry for their sins and they wish to be forgiven.
For this reason it is very rare that a person who goes to confession is not forgiven. Why might this happen?
One possibility is that the person is falling repeatedly into serious sin and is making no serious effort to avoid it.
They are taking advantage of the sacrament to cleanse their soul, perhaps to be able to receive Communion, and then they go back to their habit of sin.
This is an attitude which non-Catholics sometimes attribute to Catholics and we must be very careful to avoid it.
If the confessor knows that the penitent is repeatedly confessing the same sins and he suspects that he/she is not really trying to improve, he will usually ask some questions to clarify to what extent he/she is really struggling to overcome the habit of sin.
He will also give practical advice on how to struggle more effectively. As long as the person shows that he/she is sincerely sorry and struggling, albeit unsuccessfully, he/she can be forgiven.
What is necessary for absolution is the determination and effort to struggle to overcome the sinful habit, not success in the struggle (cf J Flader, Question Time 2).
A person may take years to overcome a habit of sin, or may never fully overcome it, but as long as he/she is sincerely struggling, he/she can be forgiven.
Our Lord knows our weakness and he has given us the sacraments for that reason.
The sacraments are not rewards for virtue but help for the weak.
Another situation where sins cannot be forgiven is when the person has gone to confession simply to please a mother or spouse or some other person, and is not really sorry for his/her sins.
This will usually become clear to the priest and he will explain that he cannot forgive him/her until he/she is truly sorry.
And no, retaining sins has nothing to do with excommunication, which is imposed either by the law itself or by a bishop. A priest cannot excommunicate anyone.