|A More Open-minded Papacy|
Pope Francis’ recent pastoral directive extending to all priests, even those of the semi-schismatic Society of Saint Pius X, the faculty to absolve the sin of abortion has created a remarkable stir on several levels.
I must admit that I am not sure quite why this was seen to be such a huge step as, at least here in the United States and I presume through much of the world, the reservation of absolution to the bishop or his authorized confessor was largely bypassed for sound pastoral reasons. The minor flap associated with this “temporary provision” for the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy is how many people didn’t know that there are sins beyond the authority of the priest to absolve. I am going to use the word “absolve” here rather than “forgive” to differentiate between God’s forgiveness of sins and the Church’s authority to absolve sinners from their sin. God’s power to forgive is not limited to the Church’s sacramental system which is not to say that we should not avail ourselves of Sacramental absolution.
So much of the Second Vatican Council has been overlooked and allowed to lie somewhat dormant and unexplored. One of these facets of our faith towards which the Council took a radically different stance than had the theologians of the previous four or five previous centuries is about the sacrament of Penance or, as some call it today, Reconciliation. Due heavily to the work of Bartolomé Xiberta, a Catalonian Carmelite professor of moral theology teaching in Rome and a peritus at the Council, there was a return to the Patristic understanding that the Sacrament of Penance reconciles the sinner to the Church. The Church, that is the Christian community itself through the ministry of the Bishop—and by extension the ministry of the priests to whom he gives “faculties” for absolving the people entrusted to his (the Bishop’s) care, forgives sin in the Name of Christ and restores the penitent to the community of the Church from which the sin had separated him (or her). The Church is the Body of Christ and thus to be reconciled to Christ means also to be reconciled to the Church. Perhaps even more accurate is to say that in being reconciled to his Body, the Church, we are reconciled to Christ. Christ and his Church cannot be separated; they are indissolubly united. This puts the sacrament in a whole different context than the popular ideas created by the good Father Simplicius O’Finnegan when he came into Sister Mary Winged Seraph’s fifth grade class at Our Lady of Perpetual Suffering Academy sixty some years ago and told us of his various “magic powers.” The priest does not—and never did—“forgive” sins in his own name or by his own authority but always as an extension of the Bishop as chief pastor of the local Church.
When a bishop gives faculties to a priest to absolve the faithful he can hold back certain cases to himself should there be good reason. Historically it was seen wise for the bishop to “reserve” such sins as abortion, renouncing the faith, or going into schism to himself or to a priest whom he specifically named to deal with more complicated cases. Frankly this was done because no few priests were too ignorant to deal with the complexity of these issues and the fear that they might be too harsh on the one hand or too cavalier on the other.
In fact, many priests have always had the faculties to absolve reserved sins. The Holy See has granted priests of the Mendicant Orders and some other religious communities known for their work in the confessional, in particular the Jesuits, the faculties to absolve most of the sins reserved to the bishop, including abortion. In addition, any priest—sensing that the person might not return a second time for the absolution from either him (once he had permission from the bishop to absolve the penitent) or from a designated confessor, could presume the faculty so that the sin would not go unabsolved. This really is not such a big deal.
There are sins reserved to the Holy See, absolution for which is not granted to priests but which must be referred to Rome for special faculties of absolution. These are mostly sins by priests: breaking the seal of the confessional or attempting to absolve one’s accomplice in a sexual sin are two such examples. A bishop who consecrates another bishop without the proper authorization from the Holy See or the bishop who receives such an illicit consecration are other examples. Desecration of the Blessed Sacrament is also a sin reserved to the Holy See. A physical attack on the person of the Pope is still another. These sins have to be referred to Rome as there is never permission granted to any priest, or even a bishop, to absolve them except in danger of death of the penitent.
What might be more interesting then than this extending a faculty already widely extended and even more widely presumed, is that the Pope also gave this faculty to priests of the semi-schismatic Society of Saint Pius X—the Lefebvre group that rejects the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. This certainly makes it easier for the faithful from that movement who have had or procured for another an abortion to be given absolution. But it also is an olive branch to the Society itself in the hopes of reconciling them to the Church. It is, however, a blind alley as Francis can’t integrate them back into the Church unless they accept the teachings of the Church and that would require an acceptance of certain doctrines—most notably those in the Vatican II Decrees Nostra Aetate and Unitatis Reintegratio and that is most unlikely. But where there is charity there is hope.