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The Papal Letter of September 1:
What, if anything, is it all about?

by Christopher A. Ferrara
September 11, 2015

It seems as if Pope Francis has a public relations strategy that calls for no less than one splashy gesture per week designed to capture the news cycle.  Last week (September 1) it was his letter to the head of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, made available on the Vatican website in no fewer than seven languages.  The letter contains two seeming bombshells — I say seeming advisedly: 

For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it….
A final consideration concerns those faithful who for various reasons choose to attend churches officiated by priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X…. 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.

First of all, as even the neo-Catholic flagship publication, National Catholic Register (NCR), notes, priests of the Latin Rite, comprising some 95% of the Church, already have the “discretion to absolve the sin of abortion,” whereas under the Code of Canons of the Eastern churches the sin is reserved to the bishop, who can delegate absolution to the parish priest. 

Moreover, Francis’ letter says nothing about the penalty of latae sententiae excommunication that falls upon those who, being aware of the penalty, procure or assist in procuring an abortion. See Canons 1398 (abortion) and 1329 (accomplices). So what happens to the penalty?  Who knows?  Under both the 1917 Code (explicitly) and the 1983 Code (implicitly as no one else is given the authority) the local bishop must remit the penalty even after the sin is absolved in the confessional.

In sum, as NCR notes: “Francis’ ‘letter of mercy’ is not granting them [Latin Rite priests] anything new, and they are still not able to lift the penalty of excommunication if they are not able to do so by grant of their own bishop.”  The end result is, essentially, an illusion, although the press, playing along with the game, now declares that Francis the First Merciful Pope has authorized the forgiveness of abortion for the first time.

As for the provision regarding the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), it certainly makes it clear that Francis does not view the SSPX as schismatics.  He would hardly grant schismatics the authority to hear the confessions of the Catholic faithful. That much is good news. But what exactly has Francis done here?  Has he granted SSPX priests a faculty to hear confessions during the Year of Mercy, which commences on December 8?  The letter does not mention the canonical legal term “faculty,” which signifies the jurisdictional grant of authority to hear confessions by a competent superior.  This leads Father Zuhlsdorf to speculate that Francis, acting “in a way that is beyond (praeter) or contrary (contra) the law”, has granted the SSPX clergy some sort of vague “privilege” to hear confessions for a year, after which “it stops.”

It just “stops”? Really? So whoever confesses a mortal sin to an SSPX priest receives no absolution if the sin is confessed one second after the expiration of the one-year “privilege”? Where does the letter say that? Where does it even mention the word “privilege”? Francis simply declares: “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.”

And what does “establish” mean? Does it mean “confirm” — i.e. that Francis makes it clear that SSPX can absolve validly and licitly during the coming Year of Mercy and that he is making certain everyone knows this until a permanent canonical arrangement can be found?  Or is it merely that Francis has, as if by waving a magic wand, simply declared ex vacuo that priests who — according to the Vatican — are under suspension and thus cannot absolve sins are partially un-suspended, but only for a year?

Even NCR finds this utter vagueness troubling: “This does seem to imply a couple of things. First, that the priests of the SSPX are not in full communion with the Church, and, second, that the priests of the SSPX in fact have not had and currently do not have the faculty to absolve sins validly and licitly in confession and will not have it until the beginning of the Year of Mercy on Dec. 8.”

Putting aside the nonsensical “full communion” canard — Catholics cannot be in “partial communion” with their own Church! — as NCR sees it, Francis has created the appearance of Limited Time Only Absolution, which, like a department store sale, will end on a certain date.  So get yours while supplies last! But that sounds awfully like the kind of Pharisaical legalism Francis is always denouncing, although he never indicates what exactly is the legalism he is talking about.  Meanwhile, Catholic faithful have been confessing their sins to SSPX priests for decades, with the Vatican never once declaring those confessions invalid or even illicit.

The end result of this letter? A lot of nothing. Or nothing but more confusion in a Church already in the worst state of confusion since the Arian heresy.  The “letter of mercy” is little more than a publicity stunt. But we haven’t seen anything yet. The Synod of Doom fast approaches.