Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
Pope Francis has just released a letter in which he made several announcements concerning the upcoming Year of Mercy.
This includes absolution for those who have procured abortion and the ability to go to priests of the Society of St. Pius X for confession.
These have raised a lot of questions, so here are 12 things to know and share . . .
1) What is the Year of Mercy?
Popes periodically dedicate a year to a particular theme. For example, Benedict XVI dedicated 2010 to priests and 2013 as a Year of Faith. Now, Pope Francis has devoted 2016 to the theme of mercy.
Designating such years are one of the ways that the popes call attention to particular themes and help people understand and live their faith more deeply.
The upcoming Year of Mercy runs from December 8, 2015 to November 20, 2016.
It doesn’t coincide with the calendar year because it’s based on the Church’s liturgical year (which begins with Advent rather than January 1) and because it’s adjusted to begin and end with certain special days on the Church’s calendar (December 8 is the Immaculate Conception and, in 2016, November 20 is Christ the King).
2) What has Pope Francis said about the year and what are we supposed to do during it?
Pope Francis discussed the year at length when he announced it. You can read what he had to say here.
Pope Francis also discusses the year in a new apostolic letter, released on September 1, which you can read here.
In the new letter, Pope Francis talks about several opportunities for celebrating the Year of Mercy, including doing a pilgrimage in your diocese to gain an indulgence, performing corporal and spiritual works of mercy, praying for the departed, etc.
He also talks about priests absolving those who have procured abortion and going to priests of the Society of St. Pius X for confession.
3) What does “procuring” an abortion mean?
In ordinary speech, procuring means obtaining, but here the term is used in a somewhat special way.
In canonical terms, it is generally taken to mean cooperating in an abortion in such a way that, if you hadn’t done your part, the abortion would not have taken place.
It is generally understood that only those immediately involved can be guilty of procuring an abortion in the canonical sense.
Those more remotely involved (e.g., workers at the electrical plant that supplies the abortion clinic with power, politicians and judges who make bad abortion laws) are not involved in this way.
4) Can’t priests just absolve people who have procured abortions?
Not without something else happening. Here’s why:
Step 1: The Code of Canon Law provides an automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication for those who procure abortion.
Can. 1398 A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.
Step 2: Excommunication prevents a person from receiving the sacraments.
Can. 1331 §1. An excommunicated person is forbidden:
2/ to celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals and to receive the sacraments;
Step 3: The bishop (local ordinary) is the one empowered to remit the excommunication that procuring an abortion causes.
§2. If the penalty has not been reserved to the Apostolic See, an ordinary can remit a latae sententiae penalty established by law but not yet declared for his subjects and those who are present in his territory or who committed the offense there; any bishop can also do this in the act of sacramental confession.
Therefore, a person who procures an abortion incurs an automatic excommunication which prevents them from receiving the sacraments. Confession is a sacrament, therefore, they cannot be absolved in confession until the excommunication is lifted. The bishop (or a bishop) is the one who needs to get involved in order to lift the excommunication and allow the person to be sacramentally absolved.
Except . . .
5) Except what?
First, the Code of Canon Law provides a long list of things that can stop an automatic excommunication from taking effect. See here for more on that.
Of special note are these provisions:
Can. 1323 The following are not subject to a penalty when they have violated a law or precept:
1° a person who has not yet completed the sixteenth year of age;
2° a person who without negligence was ignorant that he or she violated a law or precept; inadvertence and error are equivalent to ignorance;
4° a person who acted coerced by grave fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity or grave inconvenience unless the act is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls;
§1. The perpetrator of a violation is not exempt from a penalty, but the penalty established by law or precept must be tempered or a penance employed in its place if the delict was committed:
4/ by a minor who has completed the age of sixteen years;
5/ by a person who was coerced by grave fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity or grave inconvenience if the delict is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls;
8/ by a person who thought in culpable error that one of the circumstances mentioned in ⇒ can. 1323, nn. 4 or 5 was present;
9/ by a person who without negligence did not know that a penalty was attached to a law or precept;
§3. In the circumstances mentioned in §1, the accused is not bound by a latae sententiae penalty.
Since many who procure abortions are under sixteen, very fearful, and do not know that there is an automatic excommunication for procuring an abortion, this canon provides multiple grounds on which many who commit the act do not incur the penalty attached to it.
In such circumstances, they can be absolved in confession without the involvement of the bishop.
Second, I am informed that—due to how widespread abortion is in America—most American bishops have given their priests ability to remit the abortion excommunication in confession, without having to consult the bishop first.
6) What should a person who thinks they may have incurred an excommunication by procuring an abortion do?
If they did incur the penalty (which includes knowing that the penalty existed and procuring the abortion anyway) then they should go to confession.
If the priest needs to consult with the bishop, he will let you know. Otherwise, he will be able to absolve you immediately upon determining that you have repented of procuring the abortion.
Or, because of what Pope Francis has done, go to any priest during the Year of Mercy.
7) What has Pope Francis done?
In his apostolic letter, Pope Francis states:
I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it. May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.
By his apostolic authority, Pope Francis has thus granted ordinary priests the ability to deal with this situation in confession, without having to involve the bishop, during the Year of Mercy—as a special sign of God’s mercy and as an encouragement of those who have procured an abortion to repent and return to the practice of their faith.
8) Can priests of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) validly absolve people under normal circumstances?
No. According to the Code of Canon Law:
Can. 966 §1. The valid absolution of sins requires that the minister have, in addition to the power of orders, the faculty of exercising it for the faithful to whom he imparts absolution.
§2. A priest can be given this faculty either by the law itself or by a grant made by the competent authority according to the norm of can. 969.
Can. 969 §1. The local ordinary alone is competent to confer upon any presbyters whatsoever the faculty to hear the confessions of any of the faithful. . . .
So under normal circumstances, the bishop (local ordinary) must give a priest the faculty to hear the confessions of the faithful and validly absolve them. Without this faculty, he hears their confessions illicitly (contrary to the law) and absolves them invalidly.
The problem is that the priests of the SSPX are operating independently of the diocesan bishops and so have not been granted the faculty of hearing confessions. As a result, under ordinary circumstances, any absolutions they impart are invalid.
But, because of what Pope Francis has done, not during the Year of Mercy.
9) What has Pope Francis done regarding the priests of the SSPX?
In his apostolic letter, he writes:
A final consideration concerns those faithful who for various reasons choose to attend churches officiated by priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X. This Jubilee Year of Mercy excludes no one. From various quarters, several Brother Bishops have told me of their good faith and sacramental practice, combined however with an uneasy situation from the pastoral standpoint.
I trust that in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the Fraternity.
In the meantime, motivated by the need to respond to the good of these faithful, through my own disposition, I establish that those who during the Holy Year of Mercy approach these priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins.
Pope Francis has thus used his apostolic authority to grant the faculty of hearing confessions to SSPX priests during the Year of Mercy. Therefore, during that time, the faithful are both licitly (lawfully) and validly absolved by them.
10) Is Pope Francis usurping the authority of the local bishops by doing this?
No. As the legislator of the Code of Canon Law, Pope Francis has full authority here.
A local bishop might like or dislike Pope Francis doing this, but the pope has the legal authority to do it. There is no usurpation. It’s simply an exercise of the pope’s legitimate authority.
11) What does the pope mean by referring to restoring “full communion” with the SSPX? Does that mean that they are in schism?
No. Schism also incurs an automatic excommunication (canon 1364 §1), which the SSPX bishops did incur back in 1988 (see John Paul II’s document Ecclesia Dei).
However, in 2009 Benedict XVI remitted the excommunication the bishops had incurred. They are, therefore, no longer in a state of schism.
They are, however, operating in an illicit (contrary to the law) manner, which is why their priests ordinarily cannot validly absolve people in confession.
Their communion thus is impaired by their irregular status. While they are not in schism, they are in a state of impaired communion, and Pope Francis hopes that they will be restored to full communion in the future.
(Note that we are talking about ecclesiastical communion, not Eucharistic Communion. The first refers to the bonds that unite people in the Church; the second refers to the administration of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.)
12) Is Pope Francis doing this because he wants to restore full communion with the SSPX?
You bet! He expressly states his desire to find solutions “in the near future” to restore the SSPX to full ecclesiastical communion.
Granting the SSPX priests faculties for the Year of Mercy is a profound gesture in that regard.
It is also motivated—as Pope Francis states—by his concern for the good of the faithful who attend SSPX chapels.
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