AP article on the Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary

Each year the Church’s special tribunal for matters of the internal forum and issues of indulgences, the Sacra Penitenzieria Apostolica, holds courses during Lent for seminarians and priests.  I have been through the course several times.  Repetita iuvant after all.

Now I read this from the AP:

Vatican secret confession tribunal opens up [A bit sensational, but… okay…]

By NICOLE WINFIELD – 9 hours ago

ROME (AP) — One of the Vatican’s most secrecy shrouded tribunals, which handles confessions of sins so grave only the pope can grant absolution, is giving the faithful a peek into its workings for the first time in its 830-year history.  [Problem: There are some sins that are so grave that they incur censures which not every priest can absolve.  Only the Holy See can absolve the censures that come from certain acts.  However, the SPA also handles any matter of conscience.  A Catholic always has recourse to the Holy See.]

The Vatican has long lamented that fewer and fewer Catholics are going to confession, the sacrament in which the faithful can receive forgiveness if they sincerely confess their sins to a priest.

To combat the decline, the so-called "tribunal of conscience" invited the public into the frescoed halls of its imposing 16th-century palazzo for a two-day conference that ended Wednesday.

The aim was to explain what the Apostolic Penitentiary actually does, and thereby encourage more of the faithful to go to confession, said Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti, the tribunal’s No. 2 official.

"Even though it’s the oldest department of the Holy See, it’s very little known — specifically because by its nature it deals with secret things," he said. "We want to relaunch the sacrament of penance."  [Excellent!]

By lifting the veil of secrecy surrounding the tribunal’s work, the Vatican hopes to emphasize the fundamental role the sacrament plays in saving souls, the Vatican’s No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said in a paper delivered at the conference.

"Today it seems as though the sense of sin has been forgotten," he said.  [Not a new insight … but accurate all the same.]

Confessions of even the most heinous of crimes and sins — such as genocide or mass murder — are handled at the local level by priests and their bishops and are not heard by the tribunal.

Its work involves those sins that are reserved for the pope — considered so serious that a local priest or bishop is not qualified to grant absolution, [of the censure] said Cardinal James Francis Stafford, an American who heads the Apostolic Penitentiary[TRIVIA NOTE: When a Pope dies, all but a very few curial appointments automatically cease until a new Pope makes decisions about who will fill them.  One of those which does not cease is the Major Penitentiary, the head of this tribunal.  So important is the need for the exercise of the Church’s ministry of binding and loosing, of forgiveness, that this office continues even during the sede vacante period.]

These include defiling the Eucharist, [or selling, or stealing to be able to give it to someone to defile, as happened by that jerk at the University of Minnesota, etc…] which Catholics believe is the body and blood of Christ. Stafford said this offense is occurring with more and more frequency, not just in satanic rites but by ordinary faithful who receive Communion and then remove the host from their mouths and spit it out or otherwise desecrate it. [Remember: To incur a censure you have to commit a mortal sin.]

Others include a priest breaking the seal of the confessional by revealing the nature of the sin and the person who sought penance, or a priest who has sex with someone and then offered forgiveness for the act.

These sins bring automatic excommunication from the church. Once absolution is granted, the excommunication is lifted, Stafford said.  [But the one who does this must have faculties from the Holy See… from this office… to do it.]

A fourth type of case that comes to the tribunal involves a man who directly caused an abortion — such as by paying for it — who then seeks to become a priest or deacon, Stafford said.

"That is an irregularity and it means he should not receive the ordination without a dispensation from the pope," he said.  [In the moment of his ordination, he would be automatically suspended.  He is validly ordained, but under suspension, which has various consequences.]

Vatican officials frequently point to a study carried out by Italy’s Sacred Heart University that found that 47 percent of people in Italy — a majority Roman Catholic country — never went to confession or did so a long time ago.

"We cannot hide that the sacrament of penance is threatened in this time of secularization," Girotti said. But he stressed that it remained "fundamental for salvation and the sanctification of souls."

For the most part, clerical sex abuse cases are handled by another Vatican office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with more public issues of discipline and orthodoxy.

What makes the Apostolic Penitentiary unusual by Vatican standards is the speed with which it dispenses decisions, Girotti said — very often within 24 hours, or two to three days maximum.

The palazzo where it operates, in the heart of Rome’s historic center, also houses two of the Vatican’s other main tribunals, the Roman Rota, which decides marriage annulments, and the Apostolic Segnatura, the Holy See’s highest court. [Where Archbishop Burke is Prefect.]

Taking up nearly an entire city block, it is just steps away from one of Rome’s most profane piazzas — Campo dei Fiori, filled with bars catering to tourists and college-age Americans studying abroad.

We need a revival of the sacrament of penance.

Raise awareness and use it yourselves!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Robin says:

    If a person were to commit a sin of this nature, or believed they had based on their intentions to commit such a sin at the time they thought they were committing it (since the intention to commit a sin is as bad as if the sin was actually committed, whether or not it actually was), and later confessed those sins in Confession, does this mean that those sins are not actually forgiven, the penitent remains in mortal sin, and must go the the Holy See to have the sins forgiven or the censure lifted? If so, how would a person go about this?

  2. A very interesting article, Father Z.

    Out of curiosity, how is this normally handled in the initial confession?

    Let us just say that someone who is not in a life or death situation confesses a matter which brought about a canonical censure. Obviously the priest or bishop hearing the confession cannot take action without the risk of incurring a penalty himself! Does he simply indicate to the penitent his own limitations to absolve and then ask him or her to discuss it outside of the seal?

    I’m sure that there are procedures in place which respect the integrity of the seal (and of the confessor’s priesthood!). I’m just curious what those might be…

    God bless,

    Fr. Deacon Daniel

  3. Prof. Basto says:

    I’m curious too.

    In this case, what is the procedure:

    (i) sacramental absolution is to be withheld while removal of the canonical censure has not yet been obtained from the Holy See


    (ii) sacramental absolution is to be given, thus removing the sin, but without affecting the canonical sanction, that remains in place until removed by the Holy See?

  4. Flabellum says:

    Don\’t forget that every diocese has a Canon Penitentiary with faculties to absolve all undeclared latae sententiae censures not reserved to the Holy See.

    Can. 508 §1. By virtue of office, the canon penitentiary of a cathedral church and of a collegial church has the ordinary faculty, which he cannot delegate to others, of absolving in the sacramental forum outsiders within the diocese and members of the diocese even outside the territory of the diocese from undeclared latae sentential censures not reserved to the Apostolic See.

    §2. Where there is no chapter, the diocesan bishop is to appoint a priest to fulfill the same function.

  5. opey124 says:

    So exactly, what will we “see” and “hear”? Surely not names of the offenders. Will it be something like, case number 124, diocese of X, matter of X.
    Plus, those that break the seal of confession, aren’t other penalties put on them, such as they may never be able to hear confessions again?
    This is very interesting.

  6. Anything reserved to the Apostolic See is strictly reserved according to the law itself. No absolution can be provided until the O.K. is provided by Rome, but that O.K. can be given even in the same day, even within a very short time indeed.

  7. There is no breaking of any seal of confession. Zero unnecessary details are provided. You wouldn’t know what you were looking at if you saw or overheard such a referral.

    Also, penalties are provided according to the exegencies of every case, which is as different from the next as a rock is different to an angel.

  8. I removed a comment all in CAPS. The content was fine, but all CAPS is considered “shouting”.

    Please use normal orthography, please.


  9. PMcGrath says:

    What makes the Apostolic Penitentiary unusual by Vatican standards is the speed with which it dispenses decisions, Girotti said — very often within 24 hours, or two to three days maximum.

    Father, given your Roman experience, could you comment on that? I would have thought, given the Penitentiary’s necessary insistence on confidentiality, that it would have a very slow turnaround. Plus, it’s in Rome, where things tend to be … not prompt.

    Also, again given the Penitentiary’s confidentiality, I understood that it did not use e-mail and other such modern means of communication — it doesn’t want to be hacked.

    Evidently this is not correct — could you please clarify? Grazie.

  10. opey124 says:

    So the penitent is told to contact Rome? The confessor contacts them on behalf of the penitent? They contact their diocese to do this? If it still remains secret, then no paper work would be need….only that there were 100 of this type and 100 of this type forgiven?

  11. M. A. Labeo says:

    A question:

    I was told about a year ago by a Carmelite Priest that members of beggar orders may absolve any sin.

    Does anybody know whether this is correct? Perhaps only for sins whose absolution is reserved to local Bishop?

    Thank you in advance

  12. depeccatoradvitam says:

    Can someone validate or deny the two items below?

    I was wondering if Canon Law directly states anything about matters brought to the Major Penitentiary as necessarily being under the “seal” of confession. The concern would be secular attack to weasel out information truly not privy to them. Any crack is prone to attack.

    It was my understanding that for some latae sentiae penalties, in cases where private conversion and secret in nature the individual has sought sacramental confession that the local ordinary has faculty to convey to any and/or all priests under his jursidiction the faculty to forgive and remove the excommunication in the confessional. This would leave the remaining penalty of irregularity to be bound and adressable only by the Holy See should one seek clerical status.

  13. When a priest confessor encounters a penitent seeking absolution for a sin which incurred (or may have incurred) a reserved censure, he should a) know he doesn’t have the faculty to lift the censure and b), write to the SPA.

    When the priest in the confessional realizes what the situation is, he should make an appointment with the penitent to return in, say, ten days to two weeks or so.

    The priest must immediately write to the SPA describing the situation, providing just enough information so as to be clear what the circumstances are without revealing the person’s identity. He can write in Latin or any major modern language.

    He can send by fax or post or leave the letter personally at the offices of the SPA.

    The SPA will usually issue a response within 24 hours and send it by post. It will come in an sealed envelope within a sealed envelope.

    The response will give a judgment about the situation (remember.. the SPA is tribunal), and then either give the faculty to the priest to lift the censure, or not, together with advice and a proposal for a penance.

    In the meantime, with the exception of very rare cases useful for future reference and study, from which they carefully expunge all concrete references, requests for help from the SPA are destroyed.

    Do not imagine for a moment that the letter which comes back from the SPA is stern or harsh in any way. I have as a confessor used the SPA several times to help penitents. The responses are informed with amazing insight and compassion. In Rome I dropped the letter off at the office and got the response back the next day. From the USA I sent by fax and the letter came back by post with amazing speed.

    Again… the “turn around” time is very swift! It would be a rare and complicated situation for them not to respond in a very short period.

    These folks do not fool around when it comes to the spiritual well-being of a penitent, whose soul is in the balance. Holy Church handles the internal forum with grave focus and speed. This all has to do with the highest law, the salvation of souls.

  14. Massachusetts Catholic says:

    This may be off topic… so please delete. I have a question about the “seal” of confession. I once arrived at the stated confession time. The priests wasn’t around. When he showed up he told me he was busy and asked me to follow him to the sacristy while he prepared things for Mass. He told me to go ahead with confession. I started, but people came in and out. He gave me absolution at the end. Was his setting up circumstances so that others were likely to be within earshot — and in fact went in and out of the room — violating the seal? [I don’t want this entry to become a venue for individual questions about their own concrete situations. I will delete all subsequent examples. If you did your best, you were absolved. However, I would make a complete confession in the proper manner as soon as possible. Also, that priest really should not have done that, IMO. He probably didn’t want to say no, which is commendable. But that wasn’t the way to do it.]

  15. chironomo says:

    “These folks do not fool around when it comes to the spiritual well-being of a penitent, whose soul is in the balance. Holy Church handles the internal forum with grave focus and speed. This all has to do with the highest law, the salvation of souls.”

    Hmm???… is there any way that we can pitch the deplorable music in most parishes as a matter of salvation of souls… would be nice to have a one-day turn around time on some other issues as well…

  16. Roland de Chanson says:

    I am confused by the case of one who procures an abortion and then seeks to become ordained. It is my understanding that the local ordinary generally delegates the power to lift a latae sententiae excommunication to the priest-confessor. If that is the case, and a man has been absolved and the excommunication lifted, what is the implication if he should later decide to enter the seminary? Does the matter have to be referred to the SPA before he is ordained? (i.e. does he confess the sin again under a different canonical process?)

  17. Ed says:

    Father Z –

    Thank you for including this:

    “The responses are informed with amazing insight and compassion.”


    “We need a revival of the sacrament of penance.”

    Taken together, I’m reminded of Fr. Michael Scanlan’s “revival” pamphlet, “The Power in Penance” (Ave Maria Press 1975), which speaks convincingly about the healing that can come through this sacrament, through the Power of our Creator’s Spirit.

    Also, thank you, Father, for saying YES to your own call to the priesthood, and for this powerful, informative online ministry.

  18. Roland: Yes. In the case you describe, the local ordinary does not have the ability to give that faculty to a confessor. Nor does he have the faculty to absolve the irregularity incurred. The Holy See must give faculties to tidy up that irregularity. This is done by a confessor through the SPA.

  19. opey124 says:

    Thank you so much Fr. Z. That clears up a lot. It will still be interesting to see what we are actually going to “see” and “hear” from this being open.

  20. Christopher says:

    Is there a circumstance where a sin can only be forgiven by the Pope? Does this office act on his behalf? If a penitent is denied absolution due to censure, is that person still in a state of mortal sin in while waiting for a reply? Does final absolution as part of the “last rites” still count in the person is under censure?

  21. Maureen says:

    Chironomo, you know perfectly well that you’re talking apples and oranges;
    and the apple in question is the one Eve and Adam ate, while the orange is just an ordinary Sunkist one.

    There’s a lot of difference between “lousy music is a bad influence or at least not helpful” and “really horrible mortal sin done in a really horrible way”. If I die in the middle of hearing “On Eagles’ Wings”, I am not in serious danger of going to Hell unless I myself take it that way (and spend my listening time plotting the composer’s horrific death with full intention to carry it out). Some of this other stuff is Go Directly to Hell, Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200 — and might drag other people along, too.

    So yeah, I’m thinking that if there’s any place in the Vatican with a sense
    of urgency, I’m glad this was the place they chose. I might wish for a bit more elsewhere, but it’s not total spiritual life and death, and this is.

  22. Is there a list somewhere of these types of sins and their corresponding penalties?

  23. Sieber says:

    Situation posed to students at the sem.

    The Holy Father enters your confessional, admits to profanation of the Blessed Sacrament and asks for absolution.
    Answ. Certainly Your Holiness, if you will grant me the faculty.

  24. Prof. Basto says:


    Since the censure in question (procured abortion) is reserved to the Apostolic See, the local Ordinary (and his delegated priest-confessor or Canon Penitentiary) cannot grant absolution; it must be sought from the Apostolic Penitentiary, which is a Tribunal of the Apostolic See.

  25. People expect to hear and see something, but there’s nothing except the opening and seeing of a volume of canon law, and hearing the explanation. One can buy a copy at a book store or find it in a library.

  26. opey: from this being open

    No… the SPA won’t be “open”. This was day to help people understand the SPA.

  27. ordinary faithful who receive Communion and then remove the host from their mouths and spit it out or otherwise desecrate it

    Excuse me?!

  28. Roland de Chanson says:

    Fr. Zuhlsdorf, thanks for your reply. I am not sure I understand however. I am under the impression that a layman who procures an abortion (a) commits a mortal sin and (b) incurs a latae sententiae excommunication. The local ordinary may (and generally does) empower his priests to grant absolution and to lift the excommunication. In other words, the matter is not referred to the SPA. Am I wrong in this? (Professor Basto seems to think so.)

    If the above is correct, then it is only if the penitent at a later time seeks to be ordained that the matter must be referred to the SPA? (i.e. despite the ordinand’s previously having been absolved, the censure lifted and a plenary indulgence possibly earned.) Is there a “second” confession of some sort before ordination where previously forgiven sins are “reconfessed”? (not sure of the terminology here.)

  29. Jason Keener says:


    A man may have the sin of assisting with a completed abortion forgiven in the confessional. The excommunication due to that sin may also be lifted in the confessional.

    Even after the sin is forgiven and the excommunication is lifted, the fact that man had assisted with an abortion remains a perpetual impediment to the reception of Holy Orders. Only the Holy See can lift this perpetual impediment or irregularity.

    Canon 1041 lists other perpetual impediments to the reception of Holy Orders: insanity, heresy, wilful homicide, attempted suicide, carrying out priestly acts without really being a priest, etc.

    Hope this helps.

  30. Roland de Chanson says:

    Jason Keener,

    Thanks very much. Yes it does. It was the implication for Holy Orders that I was unsure of.

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