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General Confession as Social Control

TRADITIONAL Catholics who live in areas with several traditionalist chapels sometimes move from chapel to chapel, either temporarily or permanently, and for a great variety of reasons.

In the Greater Cincinnati area, one of the “options” available is Immaculate Conception Church (IC) in Norwood, operated by Father William Jenkins of Bishop Clarence Kelly’s Society of St. Pius V (SSPV). During our recent difficulties here at SGG, some of our parishioners, hoping no doubt to find a peaceful refuge, temporarily ended up at IC.

We have since heard that these Catholics were puzzled because Fr. Jenkins was telling them that, before they could receive any sacraments at IC, they must first make a general confession.

What is this all about? We begin with a definition and some principles.

What is a general confession?

A general confession is one in which the penitent repeats confessing either all the sins committed during his life or those committed during a period of time that spans many confessions.

Various writers (St. Francis de Sales, St. Ignatius, Pope Benedict XIV) recommend occasionally making a general confession as a means of advancement in the spiritual life, or for motives such as obtaining greater humility, fear of God, strength, peace, etc. Normally, one makes a general confession in connection with a retreat, entering a new state of life (the priesthood, religious life, etc.) or before death.

When can a priest require a penitent to make a general confession?

A priest can never require a penitent to make a general confession unless it is truly necessary.

Catholic sacramental theologians say it is necessary only if a penitent’s previous confessions were either sacrilegious or invalid. (See Regatillo-Zalba, Theologiae Moralis Summa [Madrid: BAC 1954] 3:566)

St. Alphonsus, says the Jesuit moral theologian Cappello, warns that it is not required to repeat a confession “unless invalidity is morally certain, because the principle which applies here is: the validity of the act must be upheld.” (Tractatus Canonico-Moralis de Sacramentis [Rome: Marietti 1954] 2:211.4.

Why does Fr. Jenkins then require it of SGG parishioners?

He maintains that all the clergy at SGG, except me, are either doubtfully or invalidly ordained. Hence, our clergy must be treated as if they are not real priests, their absolutions treated as invalid, and former parishioners forced to re-confess all mortal sins to the priests at IC.

Is there any basis for his stand on the ordinations?

Nope. I have repeatedly demonstrated, citing chapter and verse from the writings of various canonists and sacramental theologians, that Fr. Jenkins’ position has no foundation whatsoever in Catholic theology.

Several years ago, I even publicly debated Fr. Jenkins on the topic. This event took place over at IC and was videotaped. I gave everyone photocopies of material from various theological treatises that supported my position, and I even handed out copies of my debate notes to those present.

While Fr. Jenkins was speaking, I looked over and noted to my amusement that the ring binder he had ceremoniously placed open on the lectern in front of him contained only blank pages!

Repeatedly over the years when I have encountered Fr. Jenkins, moreover, I have asked him to give me the number of the canon in the Code of Canon Law that he uses to justify refusing sacraments to SGG parishioners. Just the number, I tell him, would be sufficient — I have all the commentaries, and can look it up myself.

He never answers the question — because, of course, there is no such canon!

So, since there is no basis at all in Catholic theology or canon law for Fr. Jenkins’ requiring SGG parishioners to make a general confession, the rules laid down in the pre-Vatican II manuals of sacramental theology therefore forbid him from imposing it.

Are there any other theological problems with his requirement?

Lots. For one, a layman who went to SGG for many years would have trouble distinguishing sins he confessed to me (I’m the only “valid” one according the Jenkins’ system, remember?) and sins he confessed to the “doubtful” clergy (everybody else).

This difficulty alone would under the normal rules of moral theology excuse the penitent from the material integrity of confession (in the Jenkins system, re-confessing everything).

And then there is what we will politely term an “inconsistency.”

Many of the SSPX priests in the U.S and elsewhere were ordained by Bishop Williamson, whose priestly ordination (and hence, episcopal consecration) must likewise be treated as invalid according to the same principles Fr. Jenkins and SSPV have laid down for the clergy at St. Gertrude’s. As far as I know, however, Fr. Jenkins requires general confessions only from parishioners who come to him from SGG, and not those who come to him from SSPX.

This could not be because the absurdity of Fr. Jenkins’ underlying principle would become obvious to everyone if it had to be applied on such a global scale, could it?

If there is no theological basis for requiring general confession, why, then, does Fr. Jenkins force people to do it?

Purely as a means of social control.

Fr. Jenkins tells former SGG parishioners that they are not actually required to believe that the sacraments they received at SGG were doubtful or invalid, but merely conform externally to his rules on the sacraments. “I don’t look into your conscience,” Fr. Jenkins has told people.

The latter statement some people find very reassuring and appealing. Gee, awful nice of Fr. Jenkins to be so “moderate”!

Alas, it is in fact an implicit admission that he is running a cult.

Unlike Catholics who are supposed to act according to their consciences as correctly formed by Catholic moral principles, would-be parishioners at IC are required act externally against their consciences on the basis of a requirement that Fr. Jenkins invented.

Any final thoughts?

In public disputes that occasionally flare up in traditional Catholic chapels, certain souls sometimes temporarily disappear under the rubric of (I suppose), “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

Everyone needs spiritual nourishment, of course. But in the case of those who have left SGG in West Chester for IC in Norwood, the results are, “Out of the frying pan, and into the fire.”