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‘Vatican reveals sins only Pope can forgive’

January 16, 2009

The inaccurate headline in a leading Canadian newspaper today shows that the learning curve faced by the secular media in reporting on the Church can be very steep. An even more sensational headline in a British newspaper conveyed the impression that the Church would actually disclose sins confessed in secrecy. In reality, the two-day conference sponsored by the Apostolic Penitentiary involved discussion of those sins for which the canonical penalties can be lifted only by the authority of the Holy See. The sins, of course, are never made public; the conference merely discussed which sins can incur those penalties and how they can be removed.

Lost in the sensational coverage was the fundamental purpose of the Vatican conference: a bid to encourage more regular use of the sacrament of Penance.

Over a quarter century before the publication of the National Post story, Canons 1364-1399 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law discussed the offenses that merit latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See. Those whose offenses merit such a penalty include “one who throws away the consecrated species or, for a sacrilegious purpose, takes them away or keeps them”; “a person who uses physical force against the Roman Pontiff”; “both the bishop who, without a pontifical mandate, consecrates a person a bishop, and the one who receives the consecration from him”; “a confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal”; and a confessor who absolves “an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue.”

In addition, canon law provides that “a person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication,” as does “an apostate from the faith, a heretic or a schismatic,” but the lifting of these penalties, according to Canon 1356, is reserved to the Ordinary.


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