Correcting something in The Telegraph about the Apostolic Penitentiary and grave sins

I must correct something I read in the UK’s The Telegraph.

In an article on the recent open day with the Sacra Penitenzieria Apostolica, which handles issues of the internal forum, indulgences, etc., the Telegraph article said.. [my emphases and comments].

The Apostolic Penitentiary, or "tribunal of conscience", has been shrouded in secrecy ever since it was established by Pope Alexander III in 1179 and until now has never provided details of the cases it scrutinises.

They [the "cases" apparently] are considered so heinous [It seems as if the writer is trying to set up something that sounds ridiculous to the average reader by using such a strong word…] by the Catholic Church that only the Pope can grant absolution to those who perpetrate them.  ["perpetrating" is worse than "sinning" these days…]

While priests and bishops can deal with confessions of sins as grave as murder or even genocide, the tribunal is reserved for crimes which are viewed by the Church as even more serious[… and here it comes…. and won’t the Church seem silly once you get to the punch line…]

They include attempting to assassinate the Pope, a priest abusing the confidentiality of the confessional by revealing the nature of the sin and the person who admitted to it, or a priest who has sex with someone and then offers forgiveness for the act.

A third type of case that comes before the tribunal involves a man who directly participates in an abortion – even by paying for it – who then seeks to become a priest or deacon. …


What is going on here?

The writer is trying to say, I think, that the silly old Church is so self-important that she thinks that trying to belt the Pope or violate the Eucharist is more serious than genocide.   And no one really thinks abortion is so bad.  Therefore….

Let’s try to understand what the Church is really doing by saying that some sins are so grave that only the Holy See can lift the censures they incur.

The idea is this:

Some sins strike at the very heart of who and what the Church is

The role of Peter in the Church is so important for the life and nature of the Church that there is a special gravity in sins having to do with harming the person or name of the Roman Pontiff. 

The sacrament of Penance and the Seal of Confession is so important for the life of the Church that there is a special gravity when priests break it.

The sacrament of Penance and the ministerial priesthood which exercises forgiveness of sins are so important to the life of the Church that special penalties are imposed on priests who harm the faithful by attempting to absolve accomplices in sins against the Sixth Commandment.

Some sins strike at the very nature of the Church.  Therefore the Church requires that extra steps be taken in being reconciled with the Church after committing those sins.

This does not mean that the Church thinks that genocide is less "serious" than violating the Eucharist (although sins that offend GOD directly are graver in nature than those that offend man).  Of course the Church thinks genocide is serious!  

The point is that some sins receive special attention because of how they harm the Church, which is the means through which Christ desires that all people be saved.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Thank you for the explanation Father. I have to say that when I was away from the Church I was quite ignorant of it. I did not hold any malice towards the Church however when I was young(the 70’s) I was poorly catechized which resulted in my falling away. Through the grace of God and an honest search for the Truth I came back. It was because of Priests like you that I learned the true nature and mission of the Catholic Church. I thank God and pray for Priests every day. Thank You!

  2. Paule says:

    Great clarification! Thank you.

  3. Fr. Z :
    Thanks for setting the record straight —your comments in red are great, they really get to the heart of the matter (Unless the writer is so abstruse as to decieve your well-trained eye…doesn’t happen often… I’ve been following the blog since Spring of 2008).

  4. Allena says:

    You know, this strikes me as just another attempt to make us look bad/stupid. The fact is, that these sins (and I wonder if it was wise to open this can of worms for the public to see frankly) are different. Not in that they are always graver, but that they are more dangerous to the CHURCH! Therefore, the Pope needs to address them personally.

    All I can say is that what is the difference between abortion and genocide? It’s just a different term for the same thing. If abortion isn’t a form of genocide, then why does planned parenthood have a history steeped in it? If abortion isn’t a form of genocide, then how come over 50% of Black pregnancies in the US end in abortion? If abortion isn’t genocide, then where are all the down syndrome babies?

    Just my two cents. ok, maybe four.

  5. r7blue1pink says:

    I read this article before I saw your post. I was sitting thre mumbling to myself…

    So glad you clarified…

  6. Good catch, Father Z,

    Chesterton has a great line somewhere about cannibalism, saying that people do this not because they think that it is O.K., but because they know it is not, which is what sets us apart from animals.

    I’m thinking that, yes, this fellow does seem to be trying to make the Church look ridiculous, not because in his heart of hearts he thinks he is right, but because he knows he is wrong, and takes glee in this. He seems to be set apart from the animal kingdom, though there are other ways in which we are set apart from the animals!

    In the confessional, I always treat crimes against the very nature of the Church, especially as wrought by a priest or bishop, more seriously than, say, genocide, though that is also a persecution of the least of the brethren for whom Christ died.

    Many of our ecclesiastical laws and procedures are based directly on philosophical and theological principles, and on such a long experience. There is an understanding of what happens in society (things like genocide) when the general population loses all hope in salvation because Judas-priests strike again and again at the very Heart of our Salvation. There is nothing more dismissable by society than the Church when, say, Judas-priests desecrate the Blessed Sacrament, or mock penitents, or betray their fatherhood in the Church by thinking that this is consonant with abortion, and so on. This kind of thing spreads like the wild-fires of hell, and people instantly lose all hope.

    Actually, whatever his intention, the journalist got it right in his own strange way. These sins strike not only the nature of the Church, but kill off the hope of the world.

    Fr Z, you clearly see all this and say it in the end (with my emphasis):

    The point is that some sins receive special attention because of how they harm the Church, which is the means through which Christ desires that all people be saved.

    Again, good catch.

  7. Eric says:

    Fr. Z,

    Just a quick question – you seem to draw a distinction between sins that offend God and those that offend man. Surely all sin offends God? Otherwise, why would it be a sin?

  8. Christ is the Head of the Body.

    We are the members of that Body.

    If we sin, we sin against the whole Body, Head and members.

    If we are reconciled, we are reconciled with the whole Body, Head and members.

    That is why a priest, who by way of his ordination represents the other members of the Body of Christ, pronounces the absolution in the first person singular, acting in Persona Christi, in the Person of Christ.

  9. leutgeb says:

    Due to a certain King in the 16thC there is a big big problem in England with the authority of the Papacy. It runs through the English establishment. The old anti-Catholic sentiments are alive and well at the top, now of course in addition to the secular onslaught.

    Reporting on anything to do with the Pope therefore tends to focus on taking a swipe at his authority. The Pope is all about arbitary, unjust rules with big nasty punishments, all carried out far, far away in Rome, by, gulp, foreigners.

    Thank you for all those clarifications, Father, it is very valuable to have it all put into its true context.

  10. James II says:

    “Due to a certain King in the 16thC there is a big big problem in England with the authority of the Papacy”

    That’s more to do with a certain Queen….

  11. leutgeb says:

    Not disputing that Queen Elizabeth I was terrible. I was making a general point about the Deformation in England. It was Henry VIII who married against the Pope’s wishes, martyred SS John Fisher, Thomas More, the Carthusians et al and dissolved the monasteries starting with one about 5 miles from where I live. That would seem to have set the ball rolling for what happened under Edward VI and Elizabeth I to the present day.

    Or do you mean Queen Elizabeth II who of course gave royal assent to the 1967 Abortion Act and is Supreme Governor of the Church of England?

  12. leutgeb says:

    Sorry, that all sounds rather ranty and I’m certainly not trying to start a spat with anyone, just that I think that English history has a big effect on how Catholics are viewed and treated today :-)

  13. That’s all part of it, but there are always much deeper currents going on than anything which, for instance, even the brainwashing of the media can accomplish.

    Whether anyone likes it or not, for a believer or an “atheist”, our souls are before God and the grace of Redemption. This makes people nervous and they have to do something about it, such as this reporter has done. The trappings are different from country to country, from politics to politics, from political correctness to political correctness, but the basic reality remains the same.

    I’m very American, but I have visited the Tower of London. The non-Catholic Brits left me with the deep impression that they have a dread fear of mentioning anything Catholic. If a mention of anything Catholic is finally made by the time you get to the tombs of the great saints down below, an utterly flabbergasted attitude is also expressed as to why anyone would choose to do something in accordance with conscience and die, that is, when someone could play politics instead. The arguments are so silly that it is clear they are trying to run from the Truth which, deep down, they know to be staring them in the face.

  14. James II says:

    I think Henry VIII is given too much credit for the English Reformation. He was no doctrinaire Reformer and I would certainly not class the Henrician Church in either England or Ireland as ‘Protestant’. He ordered the monasteries and the chantry chapels to be destroyed out of opportunism, to create a more loyal aristocracy and to replenish the royal coffers for war with Scotland. It was not really a denial of purgatory. Indeed he left a very substantial amount of money in his will (in which he specifically invoked Our Lady) for masses to be said for his soul.

    Unlike Henry, Edward VI was certainly a Protestant King. Cranmer’s liturgy, and the replacement of the divinity board at Oxbridge was perhaps the Reformation’s greatest success during his reign but even when Queen Mary came to the throne most of England was still Catholic. The Elizabethean Settlement and the propaganda after Mary’s death was responsible for much of the anti-popery nonsense that afflicted the English people for centuries.

  15. Well said Leutgeb. Absolutely on the button with the History!

    I’ve been a Telegraph reader all my adult life and now as a senior citizen, I am distressed by its increasingly anti-Catholic, anti-Pope Benedict stance, which cheaply appeals to traits in the English character that you have explained so well. First we had the mischief made by the distorion of the latter’s pre-Christmas address to the Curia, and now this.

    However, I detect another factor at work in the Media at large, vis a vis the Holy Father.

    JPII can hardly be said to have done anything to rock the ‘liberal’ boat in the UK, or anywhere else for that matter. Therefore he was a ‘good guy’ and could be ‘loved’ while he lived and ‘mourned’ when he died. Popes are OK so long as they don’t try to do their job in earnest. But Benedict, ah well, he’s different…..They must have been sharpening their knives ever since his election. The secular and the ‘liberal’ Catholic media were largely responsible for the creation of the Panzerkardinal, the previous Pope’s rottweiler etc. Note the undisguised anti-German message in these titles. My, they must have been furious and dismayed when he turned out to be utterly different from their concocted portrait of him. They have not changed and will grasp every opportunity to justify their original wrong judgment of him and say to us, ‘There you are! He is the Inquisition reincarnated after all, (and you just may remember he’s GERMAN).’ They are despicable. The more they denigrate him, the more they misrepresent him, the more I know that our Bavarian Shepherd is doing and saying the right things for Christ, his Church and us, his flock. And the more I pray for him.

  16. dcs says:

    Wouldn’t it be more correct to say that genocide isn’t “a” sin, but many sins of murder?

  17. dcs…

    The intention to commit genocide is even more dehumanized than utterly evil murder.

    Jane Fulthorpe: “I detect another factor at work in the Media at large”…

    And that factor is based on another, more basic factor, a reaction for or against the grace of redemption which is held out to all, but which only the many accept. It’s the same more basic factor which enables people not to be brainwashed by the media, and to go the other way.

    What is most urgent is that we never get on the pendulum of reaction of left or right, for the truth is never the mere center of two extremes. The truth is simply the truth, and we must have a union of Charity with Him, no matter what the left or right have become for the moment.

  18. Father George,

    I entirely agree and am glad that my comment cued your remarks.
    But are you equating my ‘orthodox’ and ‘liberal’ with ‘left’ and right’? Pelerin recommended your blog to me. I think I’ll visit it now!

  19. You’re right (ahem!), of course… what is orthodox cannot ever be left or right!

    —Thanks, Pelerin!

  20. William A. Anderson says:

    The UK Telegraph article springs from Cardinal Stafford’s widely reported initiative to encourage more Catholics to go to confession on a regular basis — to “re-launch the sacrament of Penance” in the words of the Apostolic Penitentiary’s Msgr. Gianfranco Griotti.

    The “news event” was a two-day conference in the “frescoed halls” of the Tribunal’s “imposing 16th century palazzo.” Unfortunately, the news media glossed over the essential purpose of the conference and, instead, focused on the reportedly unprecedented revelation of the inner workings of this 830-year-old “secrecy shrouded” tribunal. The articles (especially the headlines) sounded a lot like Dan Brown — one or two parts truth for credibility and at least one part titillating and corrosive propaganda.

    It turns out that the unprecedented “revelations” are to be found in a thinly sourced Absolutions and Dispensations section of a Wikipedia entry for the Apostolic Penitentiary, which discusses sins which are “reserved for the pope” in many of the same words (e.g. heinous) as are used in the newspaper articles.

    What bothered me most about these articles was the implication that a secretive body within the Vatican controls the forgiveness of certain sins. I am not a canon lawyer, but it seems to me that there is probably a distinction between sacramental absolution (reconciliation with God) and the lifting of an excommunication (reconciliation with the Church).

    As I understand it, one of the primary functions of the Apostolic Penitentiary was to handle penitents’ (especially public figures’) appeals from allegedly harsh sacramental penances. Surely absolution (reconciliation with God) was not withheld pending resolution of their appeals.

    I can certainly understand that the lifting of an excommunication, whether latae sentiatiae or ferendae sententiae, might call for high level administrative action, but I am doubtful that the Church imposes a secret bureaucracy on an individual’s personal relationship with God. Please correct me if I have got it all wrong.

    — Bill Anderson

  21. Paul J. B. says:

    I’m a little surprised anyone would John-Paul II “didn’t try to do his job in earnest.” Certain traditionalists might not agree with the way he approached certain problems, I’ll grant you, but the reason why he was more respected than Pope Benedict by the mainstream press is not because he didn’t “rock the liberal boat,” but because he was able to “pin down” liberals on their own territory more effectively than our current Holy Father is. They were deeply afraid of JP II’s mass popularity, which surprised them in a man they regarded, actually, as reactionary. In some respects too, JPII had a greater talent for speaking to the wider world. They think it safe to hold Benedict XVI in the open contempt they reserved JPII in private. This is nothing at all against our current Holy Father, of course–he just sees his pastoral emphases differently, and times change. He’s stressing the internal mission more than the external. I agree certainly that he bears a heavy burden, and we must pray for him very earnestly!

  22. And here I thought that the media were screaming in uncontrolable tantrums that our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, was reaching out to the world way too much, as with his words about Islam in a certain University in Germany…

  23. William,

    Some latae sententiae excommunications are reserved strictly: no absolution except with the lifting of the excommunication.

    The person brought this upon himself, excluding himself from unity with the Church, excluding himself from receiving the sacraments of the Church, including, and, to the point, the sacrament of Reconciliation. The Church repects the free will of people, though the Church is distressed that some use their free will in such a horrific manner, hurting themselves, the Church and the world.

    Although your concern is commendable, it is misplaced. When a would be penitent sees what is going on more clearly (with the medicinal effects of the excommunication hitting home), they are opened up to true repentance, and are very much willing to participate in the discipline of the Church, which is acting with the loving governance of a father. Only a father who loves his son will disciplines his son. Only a son who wants to be a son submits to the loving discipline of the father. The father is, of course, in great anguish until reconciliation is effected.

    There is a danger of taking scandal from such poorly written articles, a danger of falling into a Dan Brown style of understanding the Roman Curia as effectively being an uncaring bureaucracy keeping the person away from Christ, a bureaucracy from hell. That is not the case. The sacraments are for those who are in union with the Church. Again, no absolution except with the lifting of the excommunication.

    Because it is true that not absolutely all those who have been ordained have provided strong examples of good, fatherly governance, of a father who is willing to provide medicinal discipline because he loves his children, it may come as a shock to see discipline in action, and think of that as even more uncharitable that the very crimes committed. But that is not the case.

    Go back to the original treatment of Fr Z to read about the greatness of the charity of those who work in the “bureaucracy”.

    Prayers and blessings.

  24. Hermann says:

    As usual, the article illustrated the core-problem of all journalism round the world: Journalists do not report what has happened or what is likely to happen; they report what they have understood about what has happened or is likely to happen. Quite often, there is a difference, sometimes it is larger, sometimes smaller. – Of course, the old adage of “think first, post later” also applies concerning the published opinion …

  25. Jojo says:


    Thank you lots.

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