On Tuesday 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. Yesterday we wrote about one of those concessions, the permission of the faithful or receive the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation from priests belonging to SSPX. Today we consider the other, namely the granting of the faculty to all priests to absolve those who confess the sin of abortion.
Many people expressed confusion at the announcements of this in the popular press. It seemed to suggest that there are some sins that confessors are able to forgive and others that they are not. That is incorrect. A confessor with the faculty to administer the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation can absolve any appropriately contrite penitent of any sin he or she confesses – provided that the penitent is able to celebrate the sacrament at all. It is on this point that the situation turns. Understanding it requires a brief examination of canon law.
Canon law, like all legal codes, includes prohibitions against certain actions. Violating these prohibitions is what canon law calls a “delict” and corresponds to what we would typically call a “crime” in civil law. Canon law outlines some of the sanctions that are to be imposed on people guilty of various delicts. One of the most serious sanctions that the law envisions is the penalty of excommunication. Among other things, a person laboring under that penalty is prohibited from participating in any of the sacraments. In most cases there has to be either an administrative or judicial process to impose punishments after the guilt of the individual is established. There are some delicts, however, that are considered so serious that the punishment is imposed by the law itself simply by the very fact of the commission of the delict. A penalty like this is called latae sententiae. Some of the delicts that the law itself imposes the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae include: violating the Eucharistic species, using physical force against the Pope, a priest attempting to absolve someone with whom he himself had committed an illicit sexual act, a priest violating the seal of confession, a bishop consecrating someone else a bishop without a papal mandate to do so, and procuring an abortion. Therefore, a person who procures an abortion is immediately and automatically excommunicated by the law itself without any need for an administrative or judicial process.
Thus, the situation exists that if a person comes to confession and confesses the guilt of having procured an abortion, the confessor is not able to absolve without first dealing with the fact of excommunication since by virtue of the excommunication the person is not able to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
The person who the law gives the power to remove a penalty – like excommunication – is normally the diocesan bishop. Thus the situation could exist that a penitent comes to confession only to be told that she needs to go to the diocesan bishop and leaves without absolution. What Pope Francis is doing with this special concession during the Year of Mercy is giving all confessors the power to remit the penalty of excommunication for a procured abortion and therefore to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation with that person. This is another instance of the Pope attempting to remove potential barriers that would keep a person from encountering the healing mercy of God.
This concession will have little to no practical effect in the United States. The reason is that nearly every diocesan bishop in the United States already routinely delegates the faculty to remit the penalty of excommunication for a procured abortion to every priest to whom he grants the faculty to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. In effect, Pope Francis is extending to the entire world the pastoral practice that has already been in place in the United States for many years.