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The Minister Of The Sacrament Of Penance

July 15, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


As has been emphasized in recent weeks, three essential acts are required of the penitent for worthy reception of the Sacrament of Penance: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. To be genuine, contrition must be accompanied by a firm purpose of amendment; likewise, an entire, sincere confession presupposes a thorough examination of conscience.
The component that was examined last week, satisfaction, consists in the performance of penitential works imposed by the confessor which helps to satisfy for the temporal punishment due to sin. Penance also serves as a remedy against relapse and as a means of amendment of life.
Provided the penitent fully intends to perform his penance prior to receiving absolution, his Confession remains good even if he fails to follow through; however, a new sin is committed and many graces are forfeited.
In his 1984 apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, Pope St. John Paul II clarifies the true meaning of satisfaction that one accomplishes in performing his penance: “Certainly, it is not a price that one pays for the sin absolved and for the forgiveness obtained,” says the Holy Father. “No human price can match what is obtained, which is the fruit of Christ’s Precious Blood” (n. 31 § 12).
Rather, the humble, sincere acts of satisfaction performed by the pardoned sinner signify a personal commitment to begin a new life, acknowledge his ability to unite his spiritual and physical mortification with the Passion of Christ, and remind him that there remains within an infectious source of sin which must continually be combated (cf. ibid.).
These three personal acts of the penitent constitute the matter (or spiritual quasi-matter in theological terms) of the Sacrament of Penance. What about the form? Simply put, it consists in the words of absolution pronounced by a duly authorized priest: “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
As affirmed by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, “Only these words are essential for absolution, during which the priest imposes his hand and makes a Sign of the Cross over the penitent” (Basic Catholic Catechism Course [BCCC], p. 160). Fr. Hardon goes on to explain that the words of absolution are a declaration of fact, for the authorized priest acts in persona Christi — it is Christ “Who is the principal Minister of the Sacrament…for only God can declare sins forgiven” (ibid.).
This serves as a fitting segue to the next topic discussed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC): the minister of the sacrament. “Since Christ entrusted to his apostles the ministry of reconciliation (cf. John 20:23; 2 Cor. 5:18), bishops who are their successors, and priests, the bishops’ collaborators, continue to exercise this ministry” (CCC, n. 1461). Indeed, the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) explicitly states: “A priest alone is the minister of the sacrament of penance” (canon 965).
It is by virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders that bishops and priests have the power to forgive sins in the Sacrament of Penance through the words of absolution.
Bishops, who are “marked with the fullness of the sacrament of Orders” (Lumen Gentium [LG], n. 26 § 1), are “the moderators of penitential discipline” (LG, n. 26 § 3). In practical terms, this means that the power and ministry of reconciliation are principally enjoyed by the Roman Pontiff (as visible head of the universal Church) and by the bishop (as visible head of a particular Church or diocese).
Hence, the Pope and cardinals may hear Confessions of the Christian faithful everywhere in the world by the law itself; the same is true for bishops unless the local ordinary of a diocese has denied it in a particular case (cf. CIC, canon 967 § 1).
The Church, however, “reserves the right to determine when a priest may exercise the power to forgive sins” (BCCC, p. 165). Therefore, as summarized by Fr. Paul Haffner, “in order to hear confessions validly, a priest must be delegated with the necessary faculties, either from his bishop (or religious superior) or from the Pope (cf. CIC, canons 844, 967-969, 972)” (The Sacramental Mystery [TSM], p. 157).
Faculties, as defined by Fr. Hardon in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, are “rights granted by the Holy See to bishops and by ordinaries to their priests to enable the latter to exercise their respective powers for the faithful under their jurisdiction” (pp. 204-205). The term is most commonly used in relation to the Sacrament of Penance.
Prior to the promulgation of the 1983 Code, priests were able to hear Confessions outside the diocese of their ordinary jurisdiction only if they obtained faculties from the local bishop. For over 30 years now, however, “those who possess the faculty of hearing confessions habitually…can exercise that faculty everywhere unless the local ordinary [of another diocese] has denied it in a particular case” (CIC, canon 967 § 2).
Moreover, so solicitous is the Church for the salvation of souls that “even though a priest lacks the faculty to hear confessions, he absolves validly and licitly any penitents whatsoever in danger of death” (CIC, canon 976). This applies even for priests who have been laicized, suspended, or excommunicated.
The Catechism next addresses the situation where a penitent has incurred the ecclesiastical penalty of excommunication by committing a particularly grave sin. The Church refers to excommunication as a medicinal penalty or censure (see CIC, canon 1312 § 1 1°); it “impedes the reception of the sacraments . . . [and] absolution consequently cannot be granted, according to canon law, except by the Pope, the bishop of the place, or priests authorized by them” (CCC, n. 1463).
Literally meaning “out of full communion” with the Catholic Church, it does not mean that one is no longer a Christian or a Catholic, but rather forbids one “from engaging in certain activities in the life of the Church until the offender reforms or ceases from the offense” (Dr. Edward Peters, JD, JCD, Excommunication and the Catholic Church, p. x).
Dr. Peters goes on to enumerate offenses which are directly punishable by excommunication under the current Code: apostasy, heresy, or schism (canon 1364 § 1); desecration of the Eucharist (canon 1367); physical attack on the Pope (canon 1370 § 1); absolution of an accomplice in a sexual sin (canon 1378 § 1); simulated celebration of Mass or Confession (canon 1378 § 2); unauthorized consecration of bishops (canon 1382); direct violation of the “seal of Confession” (canon 1388 § 1); and participating in procuring an abortion (canon 1398) (cf. ibid., p. 13).
As an example, consider the sin of abortion: “Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. ‘A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae[automatically]’ (CIC, canon 1398), ‘by the very commission of the offense’ (CIC, canon 1314), and subject to the conditions provided by canon law (cf. CIC, canons 1323-1324)” (CCC, n. 2272).
As St. John Paul II stated in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, excommunication is also incurred by “those accomplices without whose help the crime would not have been committed” (n. 62 § 2). However, one is not excommunicated for an offense if, without any personal fault, he is unaware that he is violating a law or that a penalty is attached to the law.
The distinction between absolution from sin and lifting of the censure of excommunication is an important one to understand — it is the removal of the censure that is reserved to the bishop or priests that he has authorized (cf. TSM, p. 159).
Simply stated, absolution cannot occur unless the penalty of excommunication is first lifted. For decades, the bishops of the United States have granted priests under their jurisdiction the power to lift the censure incurred for procuring an abortion. The lifting of the censure for some violations, however, is reserved to the Apostolic See in Rome. Nevertheless, just as we saw earlier for the hearing of Confession, so too can any priest remove the penalty of excommunication when there is danger of death (cf. CIC, canon 976).

Absolute Secrecy

An example of an offense that is reserved for the Apostolic See is the direct violation of the “sacramental seal” of Confession (see CIC, canon 1388 § 2). “Every priest who hears confessions,” states the Catechism, “is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives” (CCC, n. 1467).
Fr. William P. Saunders provides an excellent explanation of the seriousness with which Holy Mother Church takes the inviolability of this seal.
“A priest,” says Fr. Saunders, “cannot break the seal to save his own life, to protect his good name, to refute a false accusation, to save the life of another, to aid the course of justice (like reporting a crime), or to avert a public calamity. He cannot be compelled by law to disclose a person’s confession or be bound by any oath he takes, e.g., as a witness in a court trial. A priest cannot reveal the contents of a confession either directly, by repeating the substance of what has been said, or indirectly, by some sign, suggestion, or action….[He cannot] make any use of the knowledge obtained in the confession that would ‘displease’ the penitent or reveal his identity” (Straight Answers, pp. 190-191).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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