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The dispensations of the Jubilee Year are a two-edged sword.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 04, 2015

I want to add to what Phil Lawler has already written on the special dispensations Pope Francis has announced for the Jubilee Year of Mercy (December 8, 2015 to November 20, 2015). Actually, I was prompted to do this by a friend who has heard some Catholics discussing priestly absolution of the sin of abortion as a kind of “blue light special”.

Under Canon Law, abortion can be classed as a sin or as both a sin and a crime, with the crime carrying the sanction of automatic excommunication. As Canonist Ed Peters explains, it is not always clear how this breaks down in any specific case. We can say this, however: A pregnant woman who, in her distress, resorts to abortion would ordinarily be guilty of a serious sin, but not an ecclesiastical crime resulting in excommunication; a person who dispassionately procures, assists in or performs abortions for others would ordinarily be guilty of not only the sin but the ecclesiastical crime which incurs automatic excommunication.

Now, typically the Church reserves absolution of ecclesiastical crimes—and the lifting of the resulting ecclesiastical penalties—to bishops. But this is a disciplinary matter, not at all of the essence of the Faith. Moreover, bishops can delegate to either some or all of their priests the faculties both to absolve the sin and lift the sanction for the crime. With respect to the sin of abortion, this is quite common.

What never changes in all this is the requirement that the penitent must seek forgiveness for abortion in the sacrament of Penance by confessing the sin, expressing contrition for it, receiving absolution, and giving satisfaction by performing the prescribed penance. The only change in the Jubilee Year of Mercy is that, in some places, it will be more convenient to make this confession. It seems clear that Pope Francis has taken this step for exactly the reason he stated:

The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion…. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope. The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father.

One can hardly refer to the need to repent and confess a serious sin to any representative of the Church as a “blue light special”—that is, as some sort of cheap grace which merits derision. Our Lord consistently humbles Himself to extend His mercy. Denigrating the Church’s offer of mercy, in whatever form, is a clear instance of those who regard themselves as superior objecting to the payment of a full wage to those who have not labored the whole day in the sun (Mt 20:1-16).

Confession in the Society of St. Pius X

The Pope’s offer of a special mercy to those who have been misled by the Society of St. Pius X is, I think, more interesting, because it must be part of Francis’ strategy for the healing of the rift between the SSPX and the Church. The fact that Pope Francis tends often to be perceived as a “liberal” (whatever that may mean) has led many to assume he would have little patience for what we might call the recalcitrance of the right. But this has proven not to be the case. Pope Francis is clearly very interested in restoring unity.

One of the most serious problems surrounding the SSPX is the lack of clarity which has resulted from a chronic unwillingness on the part of the Vatican to speak frankly as long as hope for reconciliation remains. Catholics who wish to judge the situation rightly have generally had to resort to curial communications, private responses to particular questions from the relevant congregations, and rigorous ecclesiastical logic to identify the severe problems that afflict the SSPX from the Catholic point of view.

Perhaps the most important of these problems is the invalidity of some of their sacraments.

I explained the invalidity of SSPX confessions more than two years ago (Warning: An SSPX Priest Is Incapable of Absolving You from Sin). [Note: I deactivated this commentary after Pope Francis gave canonical faculties to all SSPX priests to hear confessions during the Jubilee of Mercy and then made it permanent after the Jubilee closed. See also the note at the end of this article.] The point at issue is that some sacraments require more than simply a validly ordained priest. SSPX priests are ordained validly (the sacrament of Holy Orders works) but illicitly (contrary to law). The snag here is that those ordained illicitly have no canonical jurisdiction. In addition to rendering their ministry illicit (illegal) wherever it takes place, this also means that some of their sacraments are actually invalid (that is, they simply do not effect what they signify).

This is because three of the seven sacraments require ecclesiastical jurisdiction for their very validity. These are Penance, Confirmation, and Matrimony. “Faculties” (jurisdiction) are required to hear confessions, administer confirmation, and represent the Church in the witnessing of marriages (which is what makes them sacramental). Therefore, without a grant of jurisdiction (or faculties) from the Pope, SSPX priests cannot absolve penitents of their sins; they cannot confer the grace of confirmation; and any marriage vows pronounced before them constitute merely an attempted marriage, certainly not a sacramental marriage—an enormous deficit in the economy of salvation.

It is therefore a true mercy to adherents of the SSPX for Pope Francis to grant SSPX priests faculties for hearing confessions during the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Moreover, this is a sign that Pope Francis wishes to do whatever he can to heal this breach. But it is also very striking that, in making this announcement for the Jubilee Year, Pope Francis has done far more to communicate the SSPX’s native inability to forgive sins than any of his predecessors.

Mercy is always a two-edged sword. We must still repent to be healed.

Note: I am happy to add that, as of April of 2017, Pope Francis is taking rapid steps to regularize the canonical status of the SSPX. During the Jubilee of Mercy last year, the Pope gave canonical faculties to all SSPX priests for hearing confessions, and on April 4, 2017 the Pope gave SSPX priests faculties to witness marriages in the name of the Church, and directed all bishops to make provision for the same. Finally, Pope Francis’ plan (not yet complete) is to reincorporate the SSPX into the normal life of the Church by establishing the Society as a personal prelature.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Bernadette - Sep. 25, 2015 1:11 AM ET USA

    `The SSPX deny they are irregular and not canonical. However, by setting up chapels in dioceses, uninvited by the local reigning bishop, and distancing themselves from the bishop of the diocese by having their own bishop enter, uninvited, to confer Confirmations, they are themselves acknowledging their very irregularity and the juridical non-canonical nature of their status vis à vis the Church.

  • Posted by: deborahcrater8280 - Sep. 05, 2015 8:54 AM ET USA

    I am confused. it seems crazy that the SSPX priests can be legal for a year and then after that they are no longer licit??

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 04, 2015 5:46 PM ET USA

    One point Lefebvre referenced was the quandry of setting obedience (in many cases) against the virtue of religion. With so many abuses in so many places- including questionable matter, form and intent- things became difficult. Millions who obeyed have ultimately either defied, become ambivalent, become confused, or left as recent surveys clearly indicate. Further most who have left have indicated they can't imagine returning. So in reality who are actually the worst off? It's contentious.