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As I understand it, in Roman Catholic practice, people regularly confess their sins to a priest, who then instructs them what they must do in order to be forgiven. However, it is apparently possible for a priest to deny someone forgiveness.

So, according to Catholic doctrine or practice, what are the specific circumstances under which a priest should withhold forgiveness from someone?

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Probably better to use the word "absolution" here, not "forgiveness". Catholics believe that God can forgive anyone who is repentant, at any time -- but the ordinary means of approaching God's forgiveness is through sacramental absolution, which is given (or, potentially, withheld) by a priest or bishop. –  Ben Dunlap Nov 28 '12 at 23:11
    
Btw John 20:23 is universally understood by Catholics to document Christ's delegation of this authority to his ministers. –  Ben Dunlap Nov 28 '12 at 23:12
    
Oh gosh, just noticed another misunderstanding. You said the priest "then instructs them what they must do in order to be forgiven". Presumably you're referring to an assigned penance. This is not a condition of absolution -- the absolution occurs when the priest absolves, right then and there. Whether the penitent goes on to do his assigned penance has no bearing on the immediacy and efficacy of the absolution (although deliberately skipping out on an assigned penance for no good reason might be a sin in itself). –  Ben Dunlap Nov 28 '12 at 23:14
    
One instance appears in an earlier answer of mine: "...It would be possible for a priest to withhold absolution from a penitent until she has reported any crime to the authorities herself. The priest may legitimately have doubts about the penitent's penitence until she accepts the consequences of her actions." –  Andrew Leach Nov 29 '12 at 8:53
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up vote 4 down vote accepted

For ordinary sins, the priest is supposed to deny absolution if there's no sign of contrition (see 1451-1454 here), especially when the sins are grave (mortal).

In case of excommunication, some can be lifted by any priest, some by an Ordinary (usually a bishop) or a priest appointed by an Ordinary, and some only by the pope or some priest appointed by him. I have found some canon lawyery on this here. I can't confess I understand it fully, but I'll try to translate it: if the excommunication was explicitly declared, it can be lifted by the bishop who declared it (or someone appointed by him). If it's latae sententiae (strarted by a sin, not declared like abortion), it's under authority of the Ordinary of the diocesis where the excommunicated person lives. Priests without special authority can lift latae sententiae excommunication temporarily "if it is burdensome for the penitent to remain in the state of grave sin during the time necessary for the competent superior to make provision." I don't know what qualifies for "burdensome" here, whether it's almost automatic or just in rare situations like some known danger of death.

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Worth mentioning here that excommunication is not a sin but a canonical penalty (which can be incurred automatically by certain extremely serious sins). Thus the complex rules surrounding it. –  Ben Dunlap Nov 28 '12 at 23:02
    
Danger of death is definitely one of those times a priest can absolves the sins of someone excommunicated, I don't think it's one of those "all priest have the ability, but we say the authority still resides in the Bishop" thing. Last year, for instance, during the world youth days, the pope permitted any priest to absolve anyone who confesses abortion. That's probably the most pragmatic thing his holiness could do seeing as the local Bishop might be 4000 miles away, but it must be something priests, in general, know an take seriously. –  Peter Turner Nov 29 '12 at 3:19
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