A Deacon Discouraged a Dying Woman from Confessing

A Deacon Discouraged a Dying Woman from Confessing November 7, 2020

There have been different bad pastoral ideas. But I think recently I may have seen one of the worst. During COVID, a dying woman wanted to confess before she died. Then the Deacon attending her suggested she shouldn’t confess. What!?! Really, this unfortunate thing is reality. I now offer a translation of the piece with the author’s permission.

For months, many have discussed the pastoral response of the Church during the COVID pandemic. I can’t agree with complaints that there is too little guidance, closeness to people or resistance to liturgical restrictions. I have experienced a creative church which on the one hand has lived up to its duty to protect life and to show solidarity in its sacrifice, but on the other hand has realized what is reasonably possible in worship and pastoral care and has participated in the social-ethical debate in many statements and publications.

The confession of the Giaour. Painting by Eugène Delacroix
The confession of the Giaour. Painting by Eugène Delacroix (c. 1825-1840) (CC BY-SA 4.0)

One incident, however, has alarmed me. It has nothing to do with Corona. I was speaking to a good friend over the phone about his elderly mother, who was suffering from cancer and facing imminent death. He devotedly took care that she could stay at home and die in dignity with good medical and nursing care. For her, as a Catholic, this also included the spiritual preparation for her death. She expressed her desire to confess [with a priest] to the deacon of the parish. But this was not easy: He said that sins are no longer seen as so serious today, so she should not worry. The seriously ill woman no longer had the strength to insist. Her children were too perplexed – and in any case, emotionally unable to stand up to the official representative of her church. At least they could still arrange the anointing of the sick.

One should not generalize individual cases. But I wonder whether this incident has anything symptomatic for the condition of our Church [in Germany]. For a supposedly humane trivialization of sin and guilt. For a selective appreciation of the sacraments. For a lack of respect for traditional piety. For theological urgency in the church office. Perhaps also for competitive thinking about who may do what with church authority.

Fr. Alfred Delp, SJ, [a priest involved in Nazi resistance and executed by them on false charges] suggested to the Church that it should seek “spiritual encounter as genuine dialogue, not as a monologue.” Especially for a dying person one would have to read every wish from the lips, instead of paternalistically instructing them that their sins were insignificant – without knowing which sins they were. Talking her out of her desire for the sacrament of penance and reconciliation is encroaching and abuse of authority. Even Fr. Delp outraged such “presumption. The diligence and reliability that technical life forces the majority of people today also gives them an eye for the sloppiness and mess with which we in the Church perform our ‘functions’ in the broadest sense of the word.” It is precisely in the sacramental ministries of the Church, which are still accepted today, that conscientiousness, empathy, and quality are required.

This was written by Andreas Püttmann, a political scientist and freelance publicist in Bonn.

I will add only two comments. First, this is an absolute disregard for the sacraments as the ordinary channels of grace. This deacon will probably incur all the purgatory intended for this woman as his words meant she did not go to confession on her deathbed.

Second, we need to pray for the Catholic Church in Germany. Issues of sacramental discipline like this exist, but they also have many other issues with very low attendance, a disconnect from younger generations, etc.

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