Would/could a priest deny absolution to an individual during Reconciliation if they felt the person was not truly sorry? Would the priest, being a sinner
himself, be able to judge a person in this regard?
These questions point to two important realities: what is proper contrition (sorrow) for sins when going to confession and when (if ever) can a priest deny absolution.
With regards to contrition, it is a requirement of the sacrament that the person making their confession express some sorrow for their sins. While we strive for what is known as “perfect contrition,” or the sorrow for the sins committed because of the love of God, a sentiment of “imperfect contrition” or the sorrow for sins because of fear of punishment, is acceptable. Most of the time, the priest discerns contrition in the penitent simply by listening for the person to say the words “for these sins and all of the sins of my past life I am sorry,” or other similar words. If the penitent does not openly express such sorrow, the priest may ask “are you sorry for all of your sins?” hoping that the person will simply say “yes.” In this way, the priest takes a person at his/her word, without “judging” them per se. However, there are times when a person may express that they are not sorry, either by their own words wherein they express no remorse for having done wrong, or in the case of one who is “made” by a parent to go to confession does not have any intention of confessing or showing sorrow. In these cases the priest needs to work toward helping the person recognize both the destructive power of sin and the loving and generous forgiveness of the Lord. Important to note is that priests will almost always err on the side of the penitent in these matters, and thus will give absolution, even if one’s contrition is not as clearly expressed as it could and should be. Yet, if a person is obstinate and unwilling, it is best to invite them to come back again when they are ready.
Are there other times when a priest can deny absolution? While cases for denial because of a lack of contrition are rare, there can be instances when a priest can not absolve because of the penitent is not seeking to “amend” their life, that is, they are not willing to seek to “sin no more and avoid the near occasion of sin.” Obviously, this does not apply to all cases, since most of the time we strive to turn away from our sins in the future and can end up committing the same ones again. However, there are times when a person commits a sin and confesses it with no intention of changing their ways. Some real examples of such sins are sins of adultery that involve an affair that is still being lived, or when two unwed people are cohabiting. In these cases, if a person saying, “I had an affair,” or, “I am living with my fiancé,” were asked by the priest, “Has that relationship been ended?” or, “Have you separated?” if the penitent says “no,” then they have not yet “amended” their life so as to avoid the occasion of sin, and thus absolution would be ineffective—for the sin is still being committed.Thus, while there are times when absolution can be denied, such cases where the sorrow of the penitent is in question are truly rare – and easily avoidable.