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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Pope: SSPX Priests Absolve Validly & Licitly During Year of Mercy Featured

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Pope: SSPX Priests Absolve Validly & Licitly During Year of Mercy
Today the following document was released to the public: “Letter of the Holy Father Francis to the President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization at the beginning of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.” The relevant portion is quoted below as seen on the website Rorate Caeli, emphasis added:

A final consideration concerns those faithful who for various reasons choose to attend churches officiated by priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X. This Jubilee Year of Mercy excludes no one. From various quarters, several Brother Bishops have told me of their good faith and sacramental practice, combined however with an uneasy situation from the pastoral standpoint. I trust that in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the Fraternity. In the meantime, motivated by the need to respond to the good of these faithful, through my own disposition, I establish that those who during the Holy Year of Mercy approach these priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins.

The ink was hardly dry on this letter before Fr. Z provided a confusing and contradictory analysis of it on his blog. I will now attempt to give my own initial thoughts on the matter to clarify what the letter did and did not say, what we know and what we don’t know. I will also attempt to update this piece should new information become available.

Readers should be aware that I have penned two lengthy articles on the validity of SSPX Confessions. The first was “Are SSPX Confessions Valid” written on May 13, 2013. It examines the matter based on objective readings of canon law including commentaries written before the existence of the SSPX, opinions from non-SSPX canonists and even a Catholic Cardinal. In a follow-up article, “Are the SSPX Confessions Valid?: A Response to Father Z and Jeff Mirus” written on June 3, 2013, I answer objections from Neo-Catholic commentators plus I add more in depth analysis of certain arguments I laid out in the first article.

The first thing to notice about the quoted paragraph from the pope is that, like many other post-conciliar documents, it is not clear and precise. The paragraph basically tells us what the result of the Pope’s action is, without going into detail about the action itself. Thus, all that we know for certain is that during the upcoming Year of Mercy, those Catholics who go to confession with SSPX priests do so validly and licitly. Anything beyond this is guesswork.

That said, until we receive further information or clarification on this letter, my own analysis is as follows. I see two possible interpretations. One more likely and one less likely.

The more likely interpretation is that the Pope’s use of the language, “through my own disposition” and “I establish” seem to indicate that he is taking a certain positive action as opposed to simply giving an interpretation of existing canon law. Reinforcing this interpretation is the apparent time limitation placed on the act, namely “during the Holy Year of Mercy.”

Canon 972 of the Code of Canon Law provides that, “The faculty to hear confessions may be given by the competent authority mentioned in can. 969, for either an indeterminate or a determinate period of time.” In this case, the most logical conclusion is that the Pope is granting faculties to hear confessions to the priests of the SSPX for the Holy Year of Mercy. Thus, during this year, SSPX priests would have ordinary jurisdiction to hear confessions of the faithful both validly and licitly.

If this is the case, then the granting of these faculties would in no way effect the condition of SSPX confessions before or after the Year of Mercy. As of yet, there still has been no official legally binding public decision made by Rome as to the validity of SSPX confessions as they are currently administered, (i.e. without faculties and therefore without ordinary jurisdiction).

Therefore, outside the Year of Mercy, the exact same canonical arguments for the validity of SSPX confessions through supplied jurisdiction, as I explain in great detail in "Are SSPX Confessions Valid" and "Are the SSPX Confessions Valid?: A Response to Father Z and Jeff Mirus" still apply. 

A second interpretation, though less likely, is that the Pope is being extremely coy and savvy with his language. If the Pope believes, as previous Catholic canonists and at least one Cardinal have, that Society priests already absolve validly and licitly under Canon Law, then his statement in the letter becomes more of a public affirmation of this fact.

After all, the Pope has to know, or should know, of the existence of Canon 1335 which states:

If a censure prohibits the celebration of sacraments or sacramentals or the placing of an act of governance, the prohibition is suspended whenever it is necessary to care for the faithful in danger of death. If a latae sententiae censure has not been declared, the prohibition is also suspended whenever a member of the faithful requests a sacrament or sacramental or an act of governance; a person is permitted to request this for any just cause.

In the case of SSPX priests, their censure has not been canonically declared. This idea is even expressed in a canon law commentary before the canon law was even codified under Pius X, though it was later expressed in that code as well. Professor of Canon Law, Rev. Sebastian Bach Smith, in 1888 wrote the following in his work “Elements of Ecclesiastical Law: Ecclesiastical Punishments”:

…for if he [a suspended priest] is tolerated, i.e., not published as suspended, his acts of jurisdiction are valid, though illicit, unless performed at the request, tacit or express, of the faithful.

Therefore, under this canon, when the faithful request absolution from an SSPX “for any just cause” the absolution is not only valid, but licit. Under this interpretation, the words “during the Holy Year of Mercy” become a red herring. Though this statement of the Pope would still be entirely true, it would give the faithful the impression that it is only true during the Year of Mercy, when in reality it is always true since it is the canon law of the Church.

*UPDATE: Vatican Radio just reported the following:

The letter of Pope Francis was addressed to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.

He said Pope Francis is “sensitive to the discomfort” of many of the faithful, including those who “do not have the certainty of obtaining forgiveness.”

“The Pope assures them: those who come near to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation with the priests of the Fraternity of St. Pius X will have to be certain that they were absolved from their sins,” Archbishop Fisichella told Vatican Radio.

Comment: First, this is an informal interview with an Archbishop, so we have here nothing binding or definitive from an official Vatican office. We instead, only have Archbishop Fisichella’s opinion as to what the Pope’s intention was. By the way, this is the same Archbishop Fisichella who, in 2009 penned an article in L’Osservatore Romano blasting Brazilian Archbishop José Cardoso Sobrinho for excommunicating two doctors who aborted the twin babies of a young pregnant Catholic girl called “Carmen.”

Second, the reason many Catholics “do not have the certainty of obtaining forgiveness” from SSPX priests is that the Vatican is to this day, still officially silent as to the validity of SSPX confessions. In addition, most Catholics do not have the level of familiarity with canon law to understand, as did certain Catholic canonists and one Cardinal, that SSPX confessions are valid due to supplied jurisdiction. But regardless, canon law provides that even if one holds a positive and probable doubt that SSPX confessions are valid they are. For canon 144 states: “…in positive and probable doubt of law or of fact, the Church supplies executive power of governance [jurisdiction] for both the external and internal forum.” And what is a positive or probable doubt?

A Practical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law of 1962 states:

Generally speaking, a negative doubt means that one has no reason to serve as a basis for deciding a question, and it is about equal to ignorance on that question. A positive doubt means that one has a good reason for deciding a question one way, but that there is also a reason in favor of a contrary decision of the question. For example, the reasons for and against the existence of jurisdiction in a certain case create a positive doubt; and if the reasons on both sides are of such weight so as to create a bona fide doubt, the Church supplies the jurisdiction, even though actually the person did not possess it.

Thus “certainty” on behalf of the faithful that the SSPX priests forgive sins validly, is, ironically, not required for the sacrament's validity.

Third, as a matter of common sense, faithful who currently go to confession with SSPX priests must already believe, at least a moral certainty, that these confessions are valid. Otherwise they would not be confessing to SSPX priests in the first place.

*UPDATE 2: Communique of the SSPX General House:

Communique of the General House of the Society of St. Pius X on the letter of Pope Francis at the approach of the Holy Year (September 1, 2015)

The Society of St. Pius X learned, through the press, of the provisions taken by Pope Francis on the occasion of the upcoming Holy Year. In the last paragraph of his letter addressed September 1, 2015, to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, the Holy Father writes:  

I establish that those who during the Holy Year of Mercy approach these priests of the Society of St Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins."

The Society of St. Pius X expresses its gratitude to the Sovereign Pontiff for this fatherly gesture. In the ministry of the sacrament of penance, we have always relied, with all certainty, on the extraordinary jurisdiction conferred by the Normae generales of the Code of Canon Law. On the occasion of this Holy Year,  Pope Francis wants all the faithful who wish to confess to the priests of the Society of St. Pius X to be able to do so without being worried.

During this year of conversion, the priests of the Society of St. Pius X will have at heart to exercise with renewed generosity their ministry in the confessional, following the example of tireless dedication which the holy Cure of Ars gave to all priests.

Menzingen, September 1, 2015

*UPDATE 3: Just saw a Neo-Catholic news report on the SSPX Confession story choc full of basic and elementary errors. Unsure what journalistic standards (if any) are being used there. The piece is so egregious it is not worthy of being linked to, however here is a summary of corrections in case you come across these points in your discussions on the issue:

1.) Even if a valid priest does not have faculties from a bishop he can absolve sins in confession through supplied jurisdiction as laid out in canon law. No credible canonist would ever make the statement that no faculties = no absolution, period.

2.) Excommunication is a sanction of Church law that ends with the death of the person excommunicated. It is no way means that the soul of the excommunicated person is definitely in Hell or is somehow "excommunicated" in the afterlife. Thus even if the 1988 excommunication of ABL was valid, (I believe it was invalid as is obvious from canon law) it ended upon his death and thus ABL is not still excommunicated.

3.) Lay Catholic reporters have no competence to declare that SSPX marriages are per se invalid. Rome has not officially and publicly ruled on the validity of SSPX marriages and there are many canonical reasons to believe they are vaild. For any reporter to nonchalantly make a public statement that implies hundreds of thousands of Catholics married by SSPX priests are really living in sin is completely irresponsible.

4.) To still claim in 2015 that the SSPX is in "schism" is absurd and, in my opinion, shows either immense and embarassing ignorance as to what a schism is, or else a personal animus against the SSPX not based on reality. Cardinal Hoyos shut down talk of schism once and for all as head of the PCED by publicly stating, repeatedly, that the SSPX was not in schism. He even did so way back in 2007 even before the remitting of the excommunications. If the SSPX were truly in schism they would necessarily have to reject the authority of the papacy in principle. Since the SSPX are constantly talking with the Pope and his representatives to reconcile their irregular canonical status, they obviously believe he is the head of the Catholic Church and has authority to remedy that status. Disobedience, no matter to what degree, does not equal schism.


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Last modified on Tuesday, September 1, 2015