|Photo credit: Giampiero Sposito/Reuters.|
In this case, the normal amount of mainstream-media misinformation is compounded by what Edward Peters calls “the pervasive ignorance of canon law among rank-and-file faithful brought about by fifty years of ecclesiastical antinomianism.”[*] Abortion is not only a sin in traditional Christian moral doctrine; in the Code of Canon Law it’s also a delict, analogous to a tort in civil law, with a defined punishment. Per Canon 1398, “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”[†]
The confusing part of Pope Francis’ letter is his stated decision “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.” Boston archbishop Cdl. Seán O’Malley reinforces the bewilderment when he tells us, “Under the provisions of canon law, absolution of certain serious sins, including abortion, was reserved to the diocesan bishop. For many years in the United States, including in the Archdiocese of Boston, diocesan bishops have granted their priests the faculty to absolve the sin of abortion.” [Bold type mine.—ASL] In all fairness, canon law is a recondite subject, and neither Francis nor Cdl. O’Malley were educated as canon lawyers.
What’s being muddled here is the distinction between the absolution of a sin and the remission of a canonical penalty. Under the 1917 Code of Canon Law (here in Latin), absolution and remission were yoked together; certain sins, then, could only be validly absolved by bishops or the pope. Most priests and canon lawyers hold that the 1983 revision unyoked absolution from remission. Any validly and licitly ordained priest with the proper faculties can absolve virtually any sin “within the sacramental forum”. However, the remission of certain canonical penalties is still reserved; in other words, absolution doesn’t necessarily lift an excommunication.
The association between absolution and remission is still strong. Thus, Basilian priest Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, labors to explain the distinction, yet falls apart again when trying to elaborate what Francis’ provision means: “Although church law generally requires priests to have special permission, called faculties, from his bishop to grant absolution to a person who has procured or helped another to procure an abortion ….” Fr. Rosica obviously meant “to remit the latae sententiae excommunication of” such persons, since priests only require the ordinary faculties of the diocese (Canon 966) to hear confession or grant absolution.
Further complications: A change in language from the 1917 Code to the 1983 revision, according to Dr. Peters, created a “powerful argument” that the excommunication isn’t incurred by the mother herself, but rather solely by the abortionist or abortion provider. As well, Canon 1323 provides a long list of conditions that prevent an automatic penalty from kicking in. Father Roscia alludes to this: “If the sin of abortion is confessed, the priest should first consider whether the automatic censure actually applies. In many cases, … we could reasonably conclude that the penitent probably did not incur an automatic excommunication;” one possible example is when the mother is compelled to have an abortion against her will.
Says Dr. Peters, by no means an ecclesial liberal, “I have long held that the automatic character of certain sanctions in the Church does more juridic and pastoral harm than good these days.” Indeed, as Msgr. Charles King says, echoing Cdl. O’Malley, “… in most American dioceses, bishops have for decades been routinely delegating this faculty [of lifting the undeclared sanction] to priests upon their ordination. My written faculties specifically authorize me to do this. I don’t know a single brother priest who does not have the faculty delegated to him.”
So after all the fluff and fiddle-faddle is cleared away, what does Francis’ “concession” really mean to Jane Schmuckatelli?
Well, from December 8 this year to November 30 next year, priests throughout the world who aren’t regularly given the faculty of remitting excommunication for abortion will be able to do so by papal indult. Moreover, Francis has created a year-long “teaching moment” concerning the relationship of repentance to mercy. Just the announcement itself has had the salutary effect of reminding others that repentance is still required for the absolution of sins; it’s given us bloggers another chance to go in-depth on Catholic teachings concerning sin, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Most of all, the indult is a signal from the Church to women suffering from the spiritual wounds of abortion that abortion is not unforgivable, that they can find absolution in the Sacrament of Confession. The gospel message is ultimately about repentance, forgiveness, and return to friendship with God; by condemnation and judgmentalism, we Christians contribute to the cultural barriers which denies post-abortive women the ability to acknowledge their fault and grieve their loss. As Francis himself says:
I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope. The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father.
If, as a result of this indult, more women enter the confessional to repair their relationship with God, it’s worth all the misunderstandings the letter has created.
[†] For our purposes, latae sententiae simply means the sentence obtains the moment you commit the delict; such undeclared sentences are as valid as those imposed by an ecclesial court.