Apostolic Penitentiary, Instruction Giving Advice Concerning the Solution of Cases in Accordance with Canon 1357 of the Code of Canon Law, 29 June 1990.


With the publication in 1983 of the new Code of Canon Law, which had been adapted to the needs of the present day, the Canonical Legislator reserved to the Highest Authority of the Church the sanctions imposed on certain graver sins and absolutions from them, together with certain permanent impediments (irregularities) and their dispensation. At the same time most sanctions and impediments were referred to the competence of Bishops and other Ordinaries. And this rightly so, because the fact that her most important spiritual values are hurt by these graver sins or must be protected by impediments to assure their proper use requires a uniform policy throughout the whole Church (because these values are inseparably bound to the very structure of the Catholic Church). Other sins, however, and other impediments, though concerned with the first principles of dogma and morals, which demand the same respect, allow for and indeed require a flexible discipline according to the particular circumstances of each case.

Before a year had elapsed after the new Code of Canon Law had come into effect, this Apostolic Penitentiary, which has exclusive authority in the internal forum to deal with the matters of major concern already mentioned, sent a circular letter to all Bishops and General Superiors of clerical institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life. The letter began with the words Suprema Ecclesiae bona. For your convenience a copy is attached to the present Instruction. Its purpose was to help priests, especially those engaged in administering the sacrament of penance, to deal with such cases and to know how to have the necessary recourse to this Penitentiary. Experience has shown that this letter has proved useful in the exercise of the sacred ministry.

Seven years have now passed since the new Code of Canon Law came into effect, and the Apostolic Penitentiary is pleased to issue the present summary in response to the wishes expressed by many pastors responsible for souls, who believe that even in matters of the internal forum not reserved to the Apostolic See it would be of great help to priests administering the sacrament of penance and to Bishops, to whom they have recourse in matters within their competence (where c. 1357 is applied in urgent cases), if a similar instruction were issued to Bishops and other Ordinaries. The latter should communicate this with great prudence to their priests who hear confessions.

A. THE CORRECT PROCEDURE IN CASES WHICH ARISE IN THE INTERNAL FORUM RELEVANT TO CANON 1357

Great wisdom lies behind the formulation of c. 1357 of the Code of Canon Law. In fact, the salvation of souls must be and is the supreme law in the pastoral

pg. 587

pg. 588
ministry of the Church and every delay in obtaining it is to be avoided (the words of St. Augustine Timeo Iesum transeuntem are apropos). By means of c. 1357 sanctifying grace is restored to souls and at the same time the common good is safeguarded, for on the one hand sacramental absolution is not delayed, and on the other recourse to a legitimate Superior provides for the removal of the harm done to the community. Regarding the correct application of the canon, the following should be noted:

“Each case submitted to the authority of the Keys of the Church in the sacrament of Penance is unique. Consequently, there can be no fixed and universal rule to determine whether in fact a penitent who has confessed a sin to which a censure is attached and for which the confessor does not have the necessary faculty should be given immediate absolution, or whether it is better for absolution to be delayed until the competent Superior grants the faculty. The Apostolic Penitentiary suggests that the following criterion be adopted: if in fact the circumstances of the penitent are such as foreseen in c. 1357, §1, namely, if the penitent has truly supernatural sorrow for his sins, it goes without saying that the confessor should exercise the faculty accorded by c. 1357 and grant absolution. It will be better to postpone absolution only if a readiness to grant it is likely to make the penitent feel less guilty and disregard the serious nature of his sins or the immensity of grace, the gift of our Heavenly Father bestowed through the ministry of the Church; this holds true also when absolution might take away the incentive for amendment, especially in the case of those who relapse into the same sin. Given the uniqueness of each case, which the confessor himself must judge in the sight of God, if there is uncertainty whether to grant absolution immediately or to postpone it, it is preferable to grant absolution immediately.”

B. CONCERNING THE CONFESSOR WHO HAS THE TASK OF DEALING WITH THE CASE AND REFERRING IT TO HIGHER AUTHORITY

1. The confessor should give the penitent correct instructions about the need for recourse: to whom the petition should be directed, how it could be formulated, and so on. The penitent can himself make the recourse, though generally it will be better for the confessor to offer his services in the matter. For this purpose the confessor should make an appointment with the penitent (place, day, time) for conveying to him the reply of the competent Superior, or alternatively fix an address to which a written reply may be sent, if the penitent cannot come back in person.

2. In having recourse, the confessor should not give the name of the penitent nor any detail from which the identity of the person concerned might logically

pg. 588

pg. 589
be deduced. It is always best that strict anonymity be preserved even when the penitent gives permission for his identity to be revealed to the Superior.

3. As determined in canon law, the case must always be referred to the higher Superior within a month; but if for some reason it has not been referred to within that time, it should be done as soon as possible.

4. As for time and place, the case can be presented either in writing or by contacting the competent Superior in person. By “competent Superior” (whether the Bishop, or someone delegated by him, or the major religious Superior, etc.) is meant a physical person; therefore the case must not be presented in a “bureaucratic” fashion, by sending a letter, for example, “To the Diocesan Curia.” The reason is obvious: secrets concerned with the confessional, even if the penitent’s name is not revealed, should be kept as closely guarded as possible.

5. If the case is presented in writing, it should be expressed clearly, indicating the nature of the offence, the number of times committed, and any significant circumstances. The case should be presented as concisely as possible, avoiding unnecessary details which do not affect the issue. For example, in the case of abortion, the number of times the offence was committed, what kind of cooperation there was (persuasion, financial help, physical participation), whether the offender was himself the father of the child whose life was taken, should be stated. It is irrelevant to add where the abortion took place, or the technical details of the operation. Likewise, if someone committed the sin of apostasy: when having recourse, the name of the sect or other church the penitent transferred his allegiance to should be stated and whether this was done secretly or with cause for scandal and so on. Particular details of the rites involved in any ceremony of initiation, however, are not needed and do not help.

6. The confessor should bear in mind that, for censures which are not reserved to the Apostolic See, apart from the Ordinary, the Canon Penitentiary (whether of a cathedral or a collegiate church) has faculties to absolve in the internal forum, in accordance with c. 508. Consequently, the confessor can refer a penitent to him, if he is willing to go and no difficulty would be involved. It should also be remembered that religious confessors of the mendicant Orders and certain other Institutes of consecrated life have the privilege of absolving from the censure attached to the sin of abortion.

7. The confessor should note carefully that in c. 1357 the faculty is granted to absolve from undeclared censures of excommunication and interdict, but not from the censure of suspension; the reason is obvious: absolution from excommunication and interdict is necessary in order to recover grace through the sacraments, whereas absolution from suspension is necessary for the administration of the sacraments, not for their reception.

8. If a penitent is the object of a declared censure, the confessor cannot absolve him by virtue of c. 1357; but he can have recourse to the Apostolic Penitentiary on behalf of the penitent.

pg. 589

pg. 590
9. To help a penitent priest, the confessor should bear in mind cc. 1048 and 1335 by virtue of which a priest who is irregular or suspended (as long as the suspension is undeclared) may exercise his sacred ministry not only for the faithful who are in danger of death, but also in response to a reasonable request of the faithful (because, among other reasons, by refusing his ministry in a case of occult irregularity or suspension the priest might expose himself to a loss of reputation, and the rule holds that in normal circumstances no one is bound to betray himself). To help a penitent priest the expression has been used. “The confessor should bear in mind,” because in the cases mentioned no absolution or dispensation is given by the confessor, but the law itself grants permission to exercise the ministry for the purpose stated.

10. In the cases discussed in the Instruction which refer to sins which are in themselves of a more serious nature, the confessor should above all hold as sacred the words of c. 978: “In hearing confession the priest should remember that he exercises the role of judge and doctor alike, and that he has been appointed by God as the minister of divine justice and mercy to give honor to God and bring salvation to souls.”

11. According to the clear prescription in the second paragraph of c. 1357, the confessor who grants absolution by virtue of this canon must not only inform the penitent, as already stated, of the obligation to have recourse, but must make him aware of the need to put aright any scandal caused or harm done and impose a suitable penance. As for putting aright the scandal and harm, the confessor should bear in mind the teaching of moral theology on these matters, making a clear distinction between obligations which arise from both charity and justice, and those arising from charity alone. Justice obliges strictly even when it involves notable inconvenience, whereas charity alone does not oblige strictly with notable inconvenience. Given the weakness of human nature, generally speaking, for the purpose of reparation obligations should not be imposed which are likely to cause serious psychological repugnance: for this could turn people away from the sacraments. The confessor should impose a suitable penance as the canon prescribes, and the following remarks may help to illustrate what is suitable in this context, always bearing in mind the criterion given above concerning the uniqueness of cases of conscience: no universal model for procedure to be applied almost automatically can be given.

The confessor therefore should first of all ask God’s help to treat the penitent wisely and with great charity; he should consider the intellectual capacity of the penitent, the level of culture (whether educated or not), the psychological state (whether of a timid or violent nature, strong or weak-willed, irascible or slow to react, and so on; whether he is well-balanced or suffers from some psychological disorder or malaise), his attitude to religion (whether of a pious disposition or indifferent, well-instructed catechetically or ignorant of religious matters; the victim of error but ready to be corrected, or suffering from invincible ignorance)

pg. 590

pg. 591
and other personal characteristics. Guided by these considerations the confessor should impose a penance likely to encourage the virtues directly opposed to the sin committed and for which the penitent has incurred the censure.

For example, in the case of abortion he might impose a form of generosity towards children in need, or some help for mothers in distress, or some medical work concerned with saving life. In the case of apostasy, heresy, or schism he could impose some missionary activity, catechetical work, etc. As for prayers which can be given as a penance the experience of the Apostolic Penitentiary shows that visiting the Most Blessed Sacrament and praying the Marian Rosary devoutly is of great value, for example, once or twice a week for a month, six months or a year, according to the gravity of the sin and the number of times it has been committed. In having recourse, the confessor should tell the Superior what penance he imposed.

C. CONCERNING THE BISHOP OR OTHER COMPETENT SUPERIOR WHO RECEIVES THE PETITION

1. The Bishop or other competent Superior who received the petition by word of mouth will easily be able to ask the petitioner for necessary explanations. If he receives the petition in writing he should consider whether it has been presented adequately enough to explain the nature and gravity of the offence committed and to assess the dispositions of the penitent; whether enough provision was made for repairing damage and scandal; whether an adequate penance was imposed.

If anything necessary for making a judgment is lacking, he should write to the confessor asking him to provide the explanation needed, indicating a time limit within which the response should be given. Until the penitent receives a reply, he is bound to follow the instructions given to him by the confessor. Meanwhile, he benefits from the absolution given. When the competent Superior has formed his conclusions, he should reply either confirming the absolution and penance, or alternatively increasing or diminishing the penance, or, if the case demands it, adding conditions which must be fulfilled by the penitent under pain or incurring the censure anew. Particular attention should be given to the case of a penitent whose offenses are a matter of public knowledge: e.g., a doctor who has been responsible for a large number of abortions over a long period. In such a case some public reparation may be necessary. But every effort must be made to avoid letting it be known in public that such reparation is the result of a sacramental penance. Revealing the reason for the reparation would involve breaking the seal of confession.

2. Sins which have come to light in the course of confession and have been absolved by virtue of c. 1357 and referred to a Superior must never in any way become the object or source of statistics or of research in pastoral sociology and

pg. 591

pg. 592
similar disciplines. For this reason no record of them should be kept in curial archives, not even in an entirely anonymous manner.

D. CONCERNING IRREGULARITIES WHICH COME TO LIGHT IN THE INTERNAL FORUM

The procedure for dealing with irregularities revealed in the course of sacramental confession is determined by analogy with what has been said about censures. If such irregularities stem from matters of public knowledge, the confessor should refer the penitent for dispensation to the competent authorities in the external forum (i.e., either the Apostolic See through the Congregation responsible for the external government of the Church or the Bishop or religious Superior with similar external authority). If the irregularities derive from something which is not of public knowledge, the Apostolic Penitentiary or the Bishop, etc., should be approached to obtain the dispensation for the penitent. The circumstances of the case should describe anonymously, in the manner stated above concerning censures. Confessors should remember that the irregularity derived from abortion and homicide is always reserved to the Apostolic See. In the case of abortion, if the perpetrator is someone in sacred orders, it is a matter of both excommunication and an irregularity preventing the exercise of Orders; for someone else of the male sex there is both an excommunication and an irregularity preventing the reception of orders. The excommunication can be lifted independently from the dispensation from an irregularity.

Rome, from the Apostolic Penitentiary, on the solemnity of the holy apostles Peter and Paul, 1990.




Apostolic Penitentiary, 29 June 1990, Instruction, unpublished.