Pope Francis, Canon Law, and The Missionaries of Mercy


A couple weeks back, I excerpted a post from Oakes Spalding at his blog, Mahound’s Paradise, in which he questioned the purpose of Pope Francis’s proposed “Missionaries of Mercy”:

Now, according to the Bull, the Mercy Squads will have additional powers that standard priests do not have, “the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See.”

What sins are those?

Actually, there aren’t any. (This bizarre mistake was first noted byRorate Caeli.)

There used to be five such sins:

  1. Throwing away or stealing a consecrated host.
  2. Assaulting a pope.
  3. As a priest, absolving someone of sexual sin who you just had sex with.
  4. Consecrating a bishop, illegally.
  5. As a priest, violating the seal of confession (tattling on a confessee).

But the 1983 Code of Cannon Law granted all priests the ability to pardon even those.

That’s right, in 2015, I can punch the Pope in the nose and then walk into my local church, confess it, and be in the free and clear.

Does Francis even know this?

A dispute arose in the comments on that post about whether such reserved sins even exist.

Today, I read a post by Father Pius Pietrzyk, a Dominican priest who was formerly a civil attorney and is currently pursuing a degree in Canon Law at the Angelicum in Rome. He writes:

Once in a while I post something on canon law, usually to correct some major error I see.  It is odd now to write a post to correct a rather major error from the Holy See on Canon Law, and even from the Pope himself.

So what is the mistake.  A bit back, Pope Francis announced an extraordinary jubilee to begin this year.  He has called this a Year of Mercy.  As is typical, he has issued a Bull of Indiction, Misericordiae Vultus (the Face of Mercy), listing the spiritual benefits to accrue to the faithful in this Jubilee Year.  In that document he makes the following statement in paragraph 18:

During Lent of this Holy Year, I intend to send out Missionaries of Mercy. They will be a sign of the Church’s maternal solicitude for the People of God, enabling them to enter the profound richness of this mystery so fundamental to the faith. There will be priests to whom I will grant the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See, so that the breadth of their mandate as confessors will be even clearer.

A bit of background here.  Most Catholics are under the impression that any priest may hear a confession at any time.  This is not true.  While the sacrament of Order (i.e., just being a priest) gives the priest sacramental power. that is not sufficient for him to absolve sins during confession.  He also needs something called jurisdictional power, or the executive power of governance.  The Code usually calls this faculties.  Basically, he needs to be given permission by his local Bishop to hear confessions.  (Although pastors of parishes and some others have the power by the law itself.)  Without that granting of authority, he has no power to absolve sins.

The point in question here is about the “authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See”.  That refers to sins that the Pope has reserved to himself (or one of the Apostolic Penitentiaries) alone to absolve — no other priest or bishop would have the power to absolve those sins.

So what’s the problem?  In the Latin Church, the law has eliminated all of these reserved sins since 1983 — more than 30 years.  In other words, there are no sins reserved to the Holy See in the Latin Church.  So, it’s not clear at all what these “Missionaries of Mercy” will be doing.

Father goes on to make the distinction between canonical penalties (delicts) which only the Holy See can lift, and the sins which can incur those penalties (ie., violating the seal of confession, desecrating the Eucharist, etc.) which can be absolved by any priest.

Father wonders along the same lines as Mr. Spalding and some of our commenters did: “Perhaps the Pope means to assign these “Missionaries of Mercy” to these reserved penalties.  If so, it does not seem to me that there are all that many of these, or why the usual process through the Holy See would not suffice.”

What we are left with is legitimate confusion on this issue. As is often the case when any criticism of a papal initiative comes up, admonishments get thrown around and Catholics like to argue with each other about what true papistry demands in such situations. Some objected to Mr. Spalding’s sarcastic tone. But Father Pius — in a post completely free of apparent bias or irony — shows that from the standpoint of the Church’s law, the questions being asked are valid.

The answers, it seems, we will have to wait for.

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