Yesterday Pope Francis sent a letter to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, the person in charge of preparing for the upcoming Extraordinary Year of Mercy. That letter contained the declared intention of the pope to make two special concessions during the Year of Mercy. This have been widely reported but also widely misunderstood. We will provide some context and explanation of one today and the other tomorrow.
The Catholic Church recognizes that many sacraments are validly celebrated outside the visible communion of the Catholic Church. Baptisms celebrated in just about every mainline Protestant community are, for example, regarded as valid and individuals who received the sacrament in those communities are not re-baptized if they seek to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. The Eastern Orthodox Churches, among others, though separated from the Catholic Church, retain other valid sacraments, including the Eucharist, Penance and Reconciliation, and Anointing of the Sick. Despite the fact that these sacraments validly exist outside the Catholic Church, generally speaking Catholics are obliged to receive the sacraments from Catholic ministers. Canon law itself, however, provides an exception. Catholics can receive the Sacraments of Eucharist, Penance and Reconciliation, anointing of the Sick from non-Catholic ministers provided that the following four conditions are met: 1) either necessity or genuine spiritual advantage suggests it; 2) physical or moral impossibility of approaching a Catholic minister; 3) the absence of the danger of indifferentism; 4) the validity of the sacrament. This concession by the law itself is clearly designed for the spiritual benefit of the faithful, ensuring that in cases of genuine need the faithful are not deprived of the sacraments when no Catholic ministers are available but other ministers are.
The situation of the Society of St. Pius X (abbreviated SSPX and known colloquially as the Lefebvrites, after Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, its founder) is a strange one. Certainly it is recognized that the bishops of this group are valid bishops and the priests validly ordained priests. The sacraments, especially the Eucharist, are valid. Yet, the group is not recognized as a Church (like, for example the Greek Orthodox Church is) and therefore the concession to Catholics that would allow access to their priests in exceptional circumstances does not hold.
In light of this situation, and desiring that during the Year of Mercy nothing stand in the way of the faithful from fruitfully receiving the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, Pope Francis intends to grant to the Catholic faithful the concession to allow them, should they choose, to approach ministers of the Society of St. Pius X to receive the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. This concession should therefore be viewed from the context of extending to this group some of the same practices already in existence for other organized groups of Christians who retain valid sacraments and doing so, not as a grant to the ministers but as a concession to the faithful for their spiritual benefit.
Tomorrow we will look at the question of penitents confessing the sin of abortion.