Reconciliation
Part 6 Theological and Pastoral Issues

Chapter r63 Canon Law and Reconciliation

Preliminary Questions

Bibliography

The Canonical Context of the Canons on Reconciliation

Title 4   The Sacrament of Penance

Restrictions on Rite Three

The Place for Reconciliation

Faculties

Pastor or Judge?

False Denunciation

The Sacramental Seal

Indulgences

Remission of Censures

Abortion

To Think About

Note regarding copyright:  The text of the Codex juris canonici 1983  quoted here in English is the new, 1999, translation of the Canon Law Society of America approved by the USCCB.  It is reprinted here under the "fair use" laws, presuming that those who read this chapter of the notes have each purchased their own copy of the text from the Canon Law Society of America and have the text before them as they use these notes.

Preliminary Questions

All that is stated in the Code of Canon Law, and all that is said here in these notes, must be understood in the light of the final line of the code: "The salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church." Canon 1752  Salute animarum, quae in Ecclesia suprema semper lex esse debet.  "...the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one's eyes.  When interpreting liturgical law, the first and most important of the General Principles is the salvation of souls.

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Bibliography

Code of Canon Law. The Sacrament of Penance. Canons 959 through 997. CLSA Commentary, pp 683 - 688.

John Huels. Pastoral Companion, Second Edition, 1997, pp 123-150.

John M. Huels, "Assessing the Weight of Documents on the Liturgy," Worship 74:2 (March 2000), pp 117-135.]

Ellen O'Hara, "Penance and Canon Law" in Kennedy, Robert J. (editor). Reconciliation: The Continuing Agenda. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1987, pp 238-253.

Donna Krier Ioppolo, Marie Breitenbeck, Elissa Rinere, Ronald Stake. Confidentiality in the United States: A Legal and Canonical Study. Canon Law Society of America. 1988.

William Wood (Editor). Indiana Pastors' Legal Handbook. The Indiana Catholic conference, Inc. 1400 North Meridian Street, Indianapolis IN 46206. 1988. $7.99.

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The Canonical Context of the Canons on Reconciliation

Review the placement of the sacraments in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Book 4.  The Office of Sanctifying in the Church 834-1253
    Part 1.  The Sacraments  850-1165
        Title 1.  Baptism -- Canons 849-878 [30 canons]
        Title 2.  Confirmation -- Canons 879-896 [18 canons]
        Title 3.  Eucharist -- Canons 897-958 [62 canons]
       
Title 4.  Penance - canons 959-997 [38 canons]
            Chapter 1 -- The celebration of the sacrament  960-964 [5 canons]
            Chapter 2 -- The minister of the sacrament  965-986 [21 canons]
            Chapter 3 -- The penitent  987-991 [5 canons]
            Chapter 4 -- Indulgences  992-997 [6 canons]

        Title 5. Anointing the Sick
        Title 6. Orders
        Title 7. Marriage

Title 4 contains one theological introductory canon and 37 additional canons.   As would be expected, over half of the canons are instructions to the priest.  Note that the "liturgical laws" governing the celebration of the sacrament are found in the primarily in the Rite, not in the Code.  Review Canon 2.

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Title 4  The Sacrament of Penance

Canon 959.  In the sacrament of penance the faithful who confess their sins to a legitimate minister, are sorry for them, and intend to reform themselves obtain from God through the absolution imparted by the same minister forgiveness for the sins they have committed after baptism and, at the same, time are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by sinning.

This first canon is an Introductory, Theological canon. [Review:  Literary Forms In The Code]  It defines the sacrament.  The first part of the canon repeats the Council of Trent which stated that the four essential parts of the sacrament are:  1. confession, 2. contrition, 3. purpose of amendment, and 4. absolution.  The second part of the canon is new:  the sacrament effects reconciliation "with the Church which they have wounded by sinning."   This theology of the ecclesial and social aspect of sin and reconciliation are new to the code.

Note that the word "reconciled" appears in the canon in the new part; however, the sacrament is not called "reconciliation" in the Code.  It is referred to as "penance" and "confession."

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Chapter I -- The Celebration of the Sacrament  (960-964)

Canon 960.  Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary means by which a member of the faithful conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and the Church. Only physical or moral impossibility excuses from confession of this type; in such a case reconciliation can be obtained by other means.

1.  Rite One and Rite Two are the "ordinary" forms -- Rite Three is excluded as an "ordinary" form. Some read the canon incorrectly and understand that it refers only to Rite One.

2.  The Sacrament is required by law only for 1) Catholics, 2) conscious of grave sin, 3) who are not excused by physical impossibility or 4)  who are not excused by moral impossibility.

3.  Note that the code speaks of "grave" sin.  The Rite speaks of "serious" sin.  Neither speaks of "mortal" sin.

4.  If the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the ordinary means for the reconciliation of those conscious of grave sin, and (depending on your understanding of grave sin, and the frequency of grave sin among Catholics) if grave sin is a rare occurrence, most celebrations of the Sacrament of Reconciliation are not required by law.  In preaching and catechesis we cannot motivate people to celebrate the sacrament by telling them that they "have to" beyond what the law requires.

5.  Physical impossibility -- e.g. too sick to get to a priest; e.g. I work on Saturday and confessions are only scheduled on Saturday. I am in jail and a lay minister brings Holy Communion and I need the grace of the Eucharist. 

6.  Moral impossibility -- e.g. The person had a past experience in confession with a priest who abused the sacrament and the person is now too scared to try it again [and therefore the person is excused by canon 960 from auricular confession].  e.g. The pastor's secretary in a one priest parish.  Telling sins to one with whom must work day by day complicates the forums [and therefore the person is excused by canon 960 from auricular confession]. 

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Restrictions on Rite Three

Canon 961 §1.  Absolution cannot be imparted in a general manner to many penitents at once without previous individual confession unless:

1º danger of death is imminent and there is insufficient time for the priest or priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents;

2º there is grave necessity, that is when in view of the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors available to hear the confessions of individuals properly within a suitable period of time in such a way that the penitents are forced to be deprived for a long while of sacramental grace or holy communion through no fault of their own. Sufficient necessity is not considered to exist when confessors cannot be present due only to the large number of penitents such as can occur on some great feast or pilgrimage.

Note regarding "within a suitable period."  The Latin of the RP and the Code, [translated literally in the original ICEL text], is intra congruum tempus. The amended ICEL text has "reasonable time," which is misleading: what is otherwise "reasonable" may not be "suitable" in a liturgical celebration. The celebration should not be so long as to inconvenience seriously the participants or cause some to leave after their confession and absolution or break the rhythm of the celebration. (James Dallen. The Reconciling Community, page 404, note 14.)

Canon 961 §2. It belongs to the diocesan bishop to judge whether the conditions required according to the norm of §1, n. 2 are present. He can determine the cases of such necessity, attentive to the criteria agreed upon with the other members of the conference of bishops.

Canon 962 §1. For a member of the Christian faithful validly to receive sacramental absolution given to many at one time, it is required not only that the person is properly disposed but also at the same time intends to confess within a suitable period of time each grave sin which at the present time cannot be so confessed.

§2. Insofar as it can be done even on the occasion of the reception of general absolution, the Christian faithful are to be instructed about the requirements of the norm of §1. An exhortation that each person take care to make an act of contrition is to precede general absolution even in the case of danger of death, if there is time.

Canon 963 Without prejudice to the obligation mentioned in can. 989, a person whose grave sins are remitted by general absolution is to approach individual confession as soon as possible, given the opportunity, before receiving another general absolution, unless a just cause intervenes.

This condition [to tell sins already forgiven by general absolution] was added to take care of the possibility that auricular confession of every grave sin is required by divine law and not merely Church law.

This does not have to be in confession.  Note that this sin is forgiven by the general absolution and does not "come back." 

Msgr. Jounel told us in class at the ISL that when he asked the CDW if he was to write some prayer or formula or ritual for this, he was told "don't bother."

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The Place for Reconciliation

See my commentary in Chapter 62 of these notes:  The Place for the Sacrament

Canon 964 §1. The proper place to hear sacramental confessions is a church or oratory.

§2. The conference of bishops is to establish norms regarding the confessional; it is to take care, however, that there are always confessionals with a fixed grate between the penitent and the confessor in an open place so that the faithful who wish to can use them freely.

§3. Confessions are not to be heard outside a confessional without a just cause.

These place for reconciliation is determined by the paradigm:  are you thinking "Eucharist" or "Scholastic Confession."

When working from the paradigm "eucharist"  the screen is not of the same importance.  The canon does not speak of the positive value of the congregation being strengthened and encouraged by seeing the other members of the assembly approach the minister (as for Communion), admit their need for reconciliation, and returning to their places.  This is relevant to the "just cause" in 964 §3.  Liturgical reasons can be "just cause"  as was the case with Eucharist.  When the faithful began receiving Holy Communion as Mass in the late 1960's and the Communion Rite took an unbecoming amount of time, the Church allowed non-ordained Christians to minister Communion [even though the Catechism of Trent said this was forbidden by divine law.]

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Chapter II.  The Minister of the Sacrament of Penance (965-986)

Canon 965 --A priest alone is the minister of the sacrament of penance.

Faculties

Canon 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.

1.  This whole matter of "faculties" is immensely simplified in the current Code from what it was in the 1917 Code.  Formerly, each time you entered a new jurisdiction you needed new faculties.  This caused a lot of problems when traveling, helping at a parish when on vacation, etc.  Now the whole procedure is "reversed" -- If you have faculties for one diocese, you have them everywhere [unless refused in a particular place.]
2.  To understand this change in the legislation it is helpful to make reference to the history grid for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  In the scholastic period, when the paradigm was "juridical trial" there is, naturally, an emphasis on the power of jurisdiction of the minister (the judge).  In the Vatican II period, when the paradigm is "eucharist" there is a return to the emphasis on sanctification (the power of Orders).  While we still can speak of "power of Orders" (the "power" to call people to holiness) and the "power of jurisdiction" (faculties), most priests are more concerned about the former.
3.  Ordinarily, you will automatically be given faculties by your bishop on your Ordination day (or they will come in the mail shortly thereafter) and that is about all you need to know about canons 965-978.)  See: 
CLSA Commentary, pp 683 - 688; and see Huels, Pastoral Companion, pp 121-128.

Canon 967 -- §1. In addition to the Roman Pontiff, cardinals have the faculty of hearing the confessions of the Christian faithful everywhere in the world by the law itself.  Bishops likewise have this faculty and use it licitly everywhere unless the diocesan bishop has denied it in a particular case.

When you become a cardinal click here for further comments on this canon, until then you don't need to worry about it. 

§2.  Those who possess the faculty of hearing confessions habitually whether by virtue of office or by virtue of the grant of an ordinary of the places of incardination or of the place in which they have a domicile can exercise that faculty everywhere unless the local ordinary has denied it in a particular case, without prejudice to the prescripts of can. 974, §§2 and 3.

Once your ordinary grants you faculties at your ordination you can exercise them everywhere.  It's real simple.

§3. Those who are provided with the faculty of hearing confessions by reason or office or grant of a competent superior according to the norm of can. 968, §2 and 969, §2 possess the same faculty everywhere by the law itself as regards members and others living day and night in the house of the institute or society; they also use the faculty licitly unless some major superior has denied it in a particular case as regards his own subjects.

Canon 968  §1. In virtue of office, a local ordinary, canon penitentiary, a pastor, and those who take the place of a pastor possess the faculty of hearing confessions, each within his jurisdiction.

§2.  In virtue of their office, superiors of religious institutes or societies of apostolic life that are clerical and of pontifical right, who have executive power of governance according to the norm of their constitutions, possess the faculty of hearing the confessions of their subjects and of others living day and night in the house, without prejudice to the prescript of can. 630, §4.

Canon 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.  Presbyters who are members of religious institutes, however, are not to use the faculty without at least the presumed permission of their superior.

For example:  I am an exempt religious in Solemn Vows.  At my ordination, my Franciscan Ordinary (the Provincial Minister) granted me faculties.  With these faculties I can, for example, hear the confessions of other friars.  When my ordinary signed a contract with the Archabbot of Saint Meinrad's to have me serve the Archabbey,  my Franciscan Ordinary wrote  the Local Ordinary of the territory where Saint Meinrad is located.  The Chancellor wrote my Provincial:  "Dear Father Jeremy,  Archbishop O'Meara grants the faculties of the Archdiocese to Father Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M. on the occasion of his coming to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to join the faculty of Saint Meinrad to teach Systematics and Liturgy.  These faculties will become effective May 30, 1984 and will remain in effect for the duration of Father Thomas' stay.  With every good wish, I am, Rev. Msgr. Gerald A. Gettelfinger, Chancellor."  By this letter I have the faculties of Indianapolis (in addition to the faculties I have as a Franciscan) and should I travel to Cincinnati [or anywhere else], I have faculties there because I have faculties in Indianapolis.  [The Chancellor sent a copy to Saint Meinrad to inform them of this fact.  e.g. so that they know I can preach and celebrate the sacraments here at the seminary and Archabbey.]

§2.  The superior of a religious institute or society of apostolic life mentioned in can. 968, §2 is competent to confer upon any presbyters whatsoever the faculty to hear the confessions of their subjects and of others living day and night in the house.

Canon 970 -- The faculty to hear confessions is not to be granted except to presbyters who are found to be suitable through an examination or whose suitability is otherwise evident.

Today your M. Div. is ordinarily the sign that you are suitably examined.  In the "olden days" there was a special "cura" exam (usually by an outside board, covering the entire course of theology) which one had to pass before being given "cura animarum" and the power of jurisdiction.  Sometimes priests were ordained before this cura exam and were called "simplex" priests.  These "simple" priests only had the power of orders and could merely celebrate the eucharist. 

Canon 971--The local ordinary is not to grant the faculty of hearing confessions habitually to a presbyter, even one having a domicile or quasi-domicile in his jurisdiction, unless he has first heard the ordinary of the same presbyter insofar as possible.

If, when I came to Saint Meinrad, I wrote the local ordinary for faculties, the archbishop is first to check with my Provincial.  Is this not common sense? 

Canon 972  The competent authority mentioned in can. 969 can grant the faculty to hear confessions for either an indefinite or a definite period of time.

For example, in my case, (see comment on 969 above)  the faculties are granted for a definite period, they "remain in effect for the duration of Father Thomas' stay."  If my religious Ordinary decides not to renew the contract with the Archabbot and moves me to CTU in Chicago my faculties cease when I leave the archdiocese.

Canon 973 The faculty to hear confessions habitually is to be granted in writing.

Canon 974 §1.  The local ordinary and the competent superior are not to revoke the faculty to hear confessions habitually except for a grave cause.

§2.  When the faculty to hear confessions has been revoked by the local ordinary who granted it as mentioned in can. 967, §2, a presbyter loses the faculty everywhere.  If some other local ordinary has revoked the faculty, the presbyter loses it only in the territory of the one who revokes it.

E.g. say you are incardinated in the archdiocese of Indianapolis.  You can go to Jasper and have faculties.  Say that the Bishop Gettelfinger has received reports of crimes you committed last time you helped out in Jasper and revokes your faculties.  You don't have faculties in Jasper, but you still have faculties every else in the world except the diocese of Evansville.  But if the archbishop of Indianapolis revokes your faculties, you are simply without faculties.  And if you asked any other ordinary for faculties that Ordinary would first ask the archbishop of Indianapolis about you.  And if your own Ordinary has denied you faculties, there is small chance he will recommend you to another Ordinary.

§3. Any local ordinary who has revoked the faculty of some presbyter to hear confessions is to inform the proper ordinary of incardination of the presbyter or, if he is a member of a religious institute, his competent superior. 

E.g. in the example above, Bishop Gettelfinger of Evansville would write the Archbishop of Indianapolis. 

§4.  If the proper major superior of a presbyter has revoked the faculty to hear confessions, the presbyter loses the faculty to hear the confessions of members of the institute everywhere.  If some other competent superior has revoked the faculty, however, the presbyter loses it only with regard to the subjects in the jurisdiction of that superior.

Canon 975 --  Besides by revocation, the faculty mentioned in can. 967 §2 ceases by loss of office, excardination, or loss of domicile.

Canon 976 -- Even though a priest lacks the faculty to hear confessions, he absolves validly and licitly any penitents whatsoever in danger of death from any censures and sins, even if an approved priest is present.

The Church always cares for the "little ones" and those in need.  If you are dying and in need of reconciliation any priest -- even a non-active priest or a priest who's faculties have been taken away -- can celebrate the sacrament.  

Absolution of an Accomplice

Canon 977 The absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue is invalid except in danger of death.  

Think about it!  Father George tells Margaret: "Margaret, don't worry about sleeping with me; if you think that you have done anything wrong, I will absolve you from the sin and you'll still be in God's love.  I am a priest after all; and I can even absolve the sin of abortion."   Common sense makes this seriously wrong; canon law makes it invalid.

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Pastor or Judge?

Canon 978 -- §1. In hearing confessions the priest is to remember that he is equally a judge and a physician and has been established by God as a minister of divine justice and mercy, so that he has regard for the divine honor and the salvation of souls.

§2. In administering the sacrament, the confessor as a minister of the Church is to adhere faithfully to the doctrine of the doctrine of the magisterium and the norms issued by competent authority.

Canon 979-- In posing question, the priest is to proceed with prudence and discretion, attentive tot he condition and age of the penitent, and is to refrain from asking the name of an accomplice.

Canon 980--If the confessor has no doubt about the disposition of the penitent, and the penitent seeks absolution, absolution is to be neither refused nor deferred.

Saint Leonard of Port Maurice (1676-1751), patron of parish missions and one of the Church's all time great confessors once said:  "If the Lord at the moment of my death reproves me for being too kind to sinners, I will answer, 'My dear Jesus, if it is a fault to be too kind to sinners, it is a fault I learned from you, for you never scolded anyone who come to you seeking mercy'" (Fr. Leonard Foley, Saint of the Day, for November 26,  p. 9)

Canon 981-- The confessor is to impose salutary and suitable penances in accord with the quality and number of sins, taking into account the condition of the penitent.  The penitent is obliged to fulfill these personally.

For a commentary on "Penances" see Chapter 42 of these notes Acts of Satisfaction / Penance

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) gave priests this advice regarding the severity of penances: "It seems quite right that the priest not burden a penitent with the weight of a heavy penance. A small fire would be quickly put out if many logs were piled onto it; so too it might happen that the small spark of contrition just kindled in a penitent would be put out because of the heaviness of a penance and the sinner might fall into complete despair. Thus it is better for the priest to point out to the penitent what a heavy penance ought to be imposed for his sins, but then in fact to impose something that the penitent is capable of bearing. From performing this the penitent may learn to perform the greater works of penance that the priest would not attempt to impose. The expiation of the penitent over and above what has been expressly enjoined acquires greater value in atoning for past sins by reason of that general charge the priest expresses in the words: 'May whatever good you do profit you for the remission of sins.' Thus it is a praiseworthy practice that many priests use these words of the longer form of absolution."

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False Denunciation

Canon 982--Whoever confesses to have denounced falsely an innocent confessor to ecclesiastical authority concerning the crime of solicitation to sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue is not to be absolved unless the person has first formally retracted the false denunciation and is prepared to repair damages if there are any.

Note:  Be sure you understand the reason for this law so that a false compassion for the sinner does not move you to absolve without thinking of the consequences.  E.g.  Father George, a newly ordained associate pastor,  has been having sexual intercourse with a married woman in the parish and confess his sin to Father Henry, who happens to be his pastor.  Henry gives George some hard advice and George gets angry with Henry and to get even George tells their bishop that he (George), young and innocent,  was seeking advice from his pastor and mentor Father Henry. And while they were alone in Father Henry's office and Fr. George was going to confession and asking for absolution, the pastor came on to him and ask George to have sex with him.  The bishop immediately takes away old Father Henry's faculties and places him on administrative leave.  Henry has no defense.  He is bound by the seal not to discuss anything he heard during the sacrament.  Now, a week later, George comes to you for reconciliation and he is sorry that he lied to the Bishop and wants to be absolved from lying (as in, not telling the truth).  NOTE:  If you absolve George without his retracting his false denunciation of Henry, Henry is on administrative leave forever!  George will have his sin forgiven and never needs mention it to anyone in any forum ever again.  His retraction is Fr. Henry's one and only hope!   Canon 982 reminds you that you only have one chance to save Father Henry.  Don't let the chance slip by.

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The Sacramental Seal

Canon 983  §1. The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.

I think that it is both helpful and important to read the legislation regarding the Seal of the Sacrament in the light of the principles embodied in the following story which Father Bernard Häring told us one day in class: 

One day during the Great War the Gestapo came to Saint Aloysius Orphanage and ask Mother Mary Daniela, the Religious Superior, "How many Jewish orphans do you have here? I am going to take them and kill them and render their fat into soap." Mother Mary Daniela said: "I know what you are doing is terribly wrong, but I cannot tell a lie, we have seventeen Jewish orphans." The Gestapo took them, killed them, and rendered them into soap. The Gestapo came to Saint Joseph's Orphanage and ask Mother Heinrich Bernadette, the Religious Superior, "How many Jewish orphans do you have here? I am going to take them and kill them and render their fat into soap." Mother Heinrich Bernadette said: "O, I'm sorry, I know the nation needs soap, but we have no Jewish orphans here." And twenty-four Jewish children lived another day. Which person preserved the values necessary for human communication, Mother Mary Daniela, or Mother Heinrich Bernadette?

When discussing the seal of the sacrament the underlying principle is this:  If the Church requires that all serious sins be submitted to the seal, the Church promises that the seal is inviolable.  The issue is not "breaking the seal" so much as "harming the Sacrament".   Without the assurance of the seal, who would tell their sins? 

This story was originally told as a joke (ending with the moral: "never be late!") but it is a good example of what moral theologians refer to as indirect violation of the seal.  The priest does not say the sin confessed and the name of the person confessing it, but from the context, others can infer this information, and thus the seal has been broken indirectly. 

A priest was being honored at his retirement dinner after 25 years in the parish. A leading local politician and member of the congregation was chosen to make the presentation and give a little speech at the dinner. He was delayed, so the priest decided to say his own few words while they waited. "I got my first impression of the parish from the first confession I heard here. I thought I had been assigned to a terrible place. The very first person who entered my confessional told me he had stolen a television set and, when questioned by the police, was able to lie his way out of it. He had stolen money from his parents, embezzled from his employer, had an affair with his boss's wife, taken illegal drugs, and gave VD to his sister. I was appalled. But as the days went on I knew that my people were not all like that and I had, indeed, come to a fine parish full of good and loving people."

Just as the priest finished his talk, the politician arrived full of apologies at being late. He immediately began to make the presentation and gave his talk. "I'll never forget the first day our parish priest arrived," said the politician. "In fact, I had the honor of being the first one to go to him in confession."  

2. The interpreter, if there is one, and all others who in any way have knowledge of sins from confession are also obliged to observe secrecy.

Book Four of the Code "Sanctions in the Church"  Title 3 "Usurpation of Ecclesiastical Functions and Delicts in their Exercise" sanctions two crimes related to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in canons 1387 and 1388.

Canon 1387  A person who in the act, on the occasion, or under the pretext of confession solicits a penitent to sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict, by suspension, prohibitions, and privations; in graver cases he is to be dismissed from the clerical state.

1388 §1. A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae  excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict.

§2. An interpreter and the others mentioned in can. 983, §2 who violate the secret are to be punished with a just penalty, not excluding excommunication.

See: Huels, The Pastoral Companion, pp 136-137.

Comment  #1.  This law can be broken in various ways.  They are usually divided into two:  Directly breaking the seal, and indirectly breaking the seal.

A direct violation -- you deliberately reveal the sin you heard and reveal the person who committed it.   
An indirect violation -- you say or do something that would help someone figure out something someone said to you in confession. 

A "direct violation" is not just:  "I know Martha Jones has had an abortion, she told me so Last Saturday in confession."  But also:  [In your Saturday evening homily, after hearing confessions for an hour you say]  "This parish has less respect for life than any parish I have ever seen.  Why the first three people who went to confession this evening each had an abortion!" [and two dozen people who came early to Mass were sitting there and saw who was in line to go to confession.]

The problem is usually when you think you are being "safe" but step over the line.  e.g. On the day of your "First Mass" as you are hurrying from the sacristy to your reception/banquet, your Aunt Sara stops you and asks to you to "hear her confession."  You do, of course.  Then later, at your little speech after the banquet you mention how wonderful it is to be a priest.  "Why already after Mass on the way here I heard my first confession, and wow! was it a big one:  adultery, abortion, the works!  How wonderful it is to bring God's healing and forgiveness to the sinner."  And, unknown to you, during the reception Aunt Sara has been tilling everyone:  "Isn't he wonderful.  He is going to be such a good priest.  I already was his "first confession" and he was wonderful!." 

The point:  You can NEVER NEVER NEVER reveal a sin you heard in confession.  THEREFORE, "fence it in" [Genesis:  we are not to eat the fruit, or even touch it] don't talk about what went on or might have gone on in the sacrament.

Comment #2.  There are various kinds of "secrecy":
1.  There are things you might learn in the Sacrament of Reconciliation
    You are bound by the sacramental seal.
2.  There are things you might learn while you are doing pastoral counseling.
    You are bound by the (divine and civil) laws governing professional secrecy.
3.  There are things you might learn while giving spiritual direction.
    You are bound by the laws governing the internal / external forum.
4.  There are things you might learn in ordinary conversation.
    You are bound by the laws of Christian love. 

A pedophile priest explained how he easily dealt with his crimes against children: the Confessional. He said that after each Confession -- he went to 30 different fellow priests over a 20 year period -- he felt "like a magic wand had been waved over me." It happened more than 1500 times, he said.  The priest, Father Michael McArdle, an Australian, was recently sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty to molesting 14 boys and two girls. Earlier the diocese paid out $500,000 to just nine of his male victims.  ...  McArdle's bishop, in commenting on the case, upheld the need for the absolute secrecy of the Confessional.  (from "NCR clergy abuse tracker" 2004)

 

The sacramental seal is different from all the others. Therefore:
2.1.  Learn as little as you can in this context.  For example, recall the scene in
The Name of the Rose:  "Master, I have something I must tell you. Would you hear my confession?"  "Well, I'd rather you first tell me as a friend." ...
2.2.  What do you do when you want to remember something --e.g. something important you learn in class?  Do you write it down?  Repeat it to yourself several times?  Associate it with the person who said it?  Associate it with other knowledge?  Imagine ways in which you can use it?  Because you cannot use information gained in the Sacrament of Reconciliation in any way, try to do the very opposite with this information:  do not write it down, repeat it to yourself, associate it with the person who said it, etc.  "In one ear and out the other..." [Remember it only long enough so that you can bring the "Good News" of next Sunday's
Lectionary readings to it.]
2.3.  My generation was taught that "in the confessional, you are
not telling your sins to the priest, you are telling your sins directly to God [Jesus].  For people catechized in this theology of the sacrament, anything that breaks that illusion is upsetting:  e.g. seeing the priest, being called by name by the priest,  hearing a reference to something other than the issues at hand [e.g. From behind the screen the voice of the minister says "By the way George, before you go, tell your wife that I will be late for dinner after Mass tonight; I have to make a quick run to the hospital.]
2.3a.  Note:  Some priests who were trained in this theology insist that the penitent confess anonymously behind a screen and refuse to speak to a penitent face to face. 

Canon 984  §1.  A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded. 

§2.  A person who has been placed in authority cannot use in any manner for external governance the knowledge about sins which he has received in confession at any time.

Canon 984  §2 is the reason for canon 285 which follows

Canon 985  The director of novices and his associate and the rector of a seminary or other institute of education are not to hear the sacramental confessions of their students residing in the same house unless the students freely request it in particular cases.  

Canon 985 safeguards the superior's authority and freedom to discipline (or dismiss) a person without conflict of internal and external forum information. E.g.:  "You threw me out because you learned about my sexual relationships from what I told you in confession!"  Even though the superior learned of the relationship from a legitimate source, now that he has heard the person's confession his actions are open to discredit the inviolability of the seal.

The secrecy of a confession is maintained so seriously and completely by the Catholic Church that a priest would be excommunicated for revealing the contents of a confession when ordered to testify by a court or even after the penitent dies, Vatican officials said. "No confessor can be dispensed from it, even if he would want to reveal the contents of a confession in order to prevent a serious and imminent evil," said Msgr. Krzysztof Nykiel, regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court dealing with matters of conscience. The penitentiary sponsored a conference at the Vatican Nov. 12-13 on "the confessional seal and pastoral privacy." According to the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, conference participants heard that since the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 spelled out the penalties in church law for violating the secret of the confessional, "the discipline of the church in this matter has remained substantially the same," with the exception of additional protections. One of those additions, the newspaper said, was a 1988 church law explicitly stating that using an "electronic apparatus" to record, broadcast or otherwise share the contents of a confession also is an excommunicable offense.

The Time for Reconciliation

See my commentary in Chapter 61 of these notes:  The Frequency of Reconciliation

Canon 986  §1.  All to whom the care of souls has been entrusted in virtue of some function are obliged to make provision so that the confessions of the faithful entrusted to them are heard when they reasonably seek to be heard and that they have the opportunity to approach individual confession on days and at times established for their convenience.

When a priest is removed from active ministry he still remains a priest; and in cases when the faithful require ordained ministry, he can and must function as a priest (e.g. granting sacramental absolution to a person in danger of death) even if he is married, or even if he no longer is active in the Christian religion.  

§2.  In urgent necessity, any confessor is obliged to hear the confessions of the Christian faithful, and in danger of death, any priest is so obliged.

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Chapter III. The Penitent

CAN. 987 To receive the salvific remedy of the sacrament of penance, a member of the Christian faithful must be disposed in such a way that, rejecting sins committed and having a purpose of amendment, the person is turned back to God.

CAN. 988 §1. A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which the person has knowledge after diligent examination of conscience.

§2. It is recommended to the Christian faithful that they also confess venial sins.

CAN. 989 After having reached the age of discretion, each member of the faithful is obliged to confess faithfully his or her grave sins at least once a year.

CAN. 990 No one is prohibited from confessing through an interpreter as long as abuses and scandals are avoided and without prejudice to the prescript of can. 983, §2.

CAN. 991 Every member of the Christian faithful is free to confess sins to a legitimately approved confessor of his or her choice, even to one of another rite.

Chapter IV -- Indulgences 992-997

See Chapter 64 of these notes, Indulgences.

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Remission of Censures

See: Huels, Pastoral Companion, pp 131-147.

1.  The category "reserved sins" is no longer in the [Roman] Code.  However, there are reserved censures.

2,  There are 3 kinds of censure:  Excommunication, interdict, suspension.

Excommunication.  A censure which forbids a person from having any ministerial participation in the celebration of the liturgy; receiving the sacraments; discharging any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions; and placing acts of governance.  There are further effects if the excommunication has been imposed or declared.  (Canon 1331)  [Huels, p 402]

Interdict.  A censure which prohibits a person from having any ministerial participation in the liturgy or receiving the sacraments.  (Canon 1332)  [Huels, p 404]

Suspension.  A censure affecting only clergy that forbids the exercise of one or more of their powers, rights, or functions.    (Canon 1333)  [Huels, p 410]

3.  Most penalties have to be imposed.  Some are automatic once the crime is committed.

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Abortion

See: Huels, Pastoral Companion, pp 148-150.

1.  This is the censure most often encountered in confession. Note:  "most often" is a relative term; in your parish practice you will post probably encounter this situation rarely.  And rarer still will be the cases where the automatic excommunication is actually incurred.

2.  Note carefully the questions Huels would have you ask to see if the excommunication was incurred.  "If the answer is yes to any of the following questions, then the crime was not committed and the sin can be handled as usual."  Remember:  laws that restrict freedom or impose a penalty are to be interpreted strictly.  Strict laws strictly; liberal laws liberally. 

3.  Diocesan faculties vary from one diocese to another.  Most give the faculty to remit the excommunication incurred by procuring an abortion.

4.  If the censure has been incurred, and if you do not have power to remove it:
    a.  Tell the penitent of the situation.
    b.  Remove the penalty temporarily (e.g. a month)
    c.  Ask the penitent to return (anonymously in the confessional or they can return at another time).
    c.  Absolve the sin in the normal way.

5.  The penalty is imposed not only because of the crime but the "times."   For example, a abortion is not a bigger sin than homicide (e.g. abortion is punished with excommunication; homicide is not) but it is seen to be a particular evil "in these times."

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To Think About

Write guidelines for your diocese in the light of what you have learned in this course.

Discuss: It is better to have no guidelines at all and to let each priest make pastoral decisions based on the particular parish situation.

Do your (arch)diocesan faculties give you the delegated faculty to absolve from the censure of abortion?  What is included in your (arch)diocesan faculties?

What is the seal of confession? What is its history? Why does it exist? What would you have to do in order to break the seal of confession? What are the penalties for breaking the seal of confession?

What gives you jurisdiction to hear confession? How would you loose it?

Do your (arch)diocesan faculties give you the delegated faculty to absolve from the censure of abortion? What is included in your (arch)diocesan faculties?

What gives you jurisdiction to hear confession? How would you loose it?

Do your (arch)diocesan faculties give you the delegated faculty to absolve from the censure of abortion? What is included in your (arch)diocesan faculties?

***

A pedophile priest explained how he easily dealt with his crimes against children: the Confessional. He said that after each Confession -- he went to 30 different fellow priests over a 20 year period -- he felt "like a magic wand had been waved over me." It happened more than 1500 times, he said. 

The priest, Father Michael McArdle, an Australian, was recently sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty to molesting 14 boys and two girls. Earlier the diocese paid out $500,000 to just nine of his male victims.  ...  McArdle's bishop, in commenting on the case, upheld the need for the absolute secrecy of the Confessional.  (from "NCR clergy abuse tracker" 2004)

Can. 960 Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the sole ordinary means by which a member of the faithful who is conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and with the Church. Physical or moral impossibility alone excuses from such confession, in which case reconciliation may be attained by other means also.

Can. 983 §1 The sacramental seal is inviolable. Accordingly, it is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion.

§2 An interpreter, if there is one, is also obliged to observe this secret, as are all others who in any way whatever have come to a knowledge of sins from a confession.

Can. 984 §1 The confessor is wholly forbidden to use knowledge acquired in confession to the detriment of the penitent, even when all danger of disclosure is excluded.

§2 A person who is in authority may not in any way, for the purpose of external governance, use knowledge about sins which has at any time come to him from the hearing of confession.

 Can. 1388 §1 A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal [reveals the name of the person and the sin confessed], incurs a latae sententiae [= automatic] excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter.  All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 11/16/14.  Your comments on this site are welcome at trichstatter@franciscan.org