Priests/confessors at WYD given authority to lift excommunication for abortion

Via Catholic World News:

Priests hearing confessions at World Youth Day have been given the authority to lift the excommunication of penitents who have been involved in abortions.

Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela of Madrid granted that authority to all the priests at this week’s WYD events. Ordinarily only a limited number of priests in each diocese have the authority to remove the excommunication that is the automatic penalty for participating in an abortion.

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  1. RichR says:

    Deo gratias! May souls flock to Christ’s mercy that he freely gives to all who seek him with pure hearts.

  2. Lynne says:

    Father! I went to confession 6 years ago, having truly come back to the faith after being a Christmas & Easter Catholic for many years. I specifically asked at least two priests about this and they didn’t know what I was talking about. This is disturbing. I will have to make calls tomorrow.

  3. wlinden says:

    The story in the Guardian reported on this special privilege by putting sneer quotes on “special”. It also had a headline depicting the Pope (not the Archbishop, since TheVatican is a hive mind) “dangling” absolution.
    As Chesterton wrote, “What Do They Think?”

  4. Igne says:

    I welcome this development and fervently hope that this authority is bestowed on all priests generally. The effect of the canon would seem to make reconciliation with the church for penitent mothers and others involved harder rather than easier. Repentance, absolution and penance should be enough. How old is this canon?

  5. Elizabeth D says:

    I think the situation is that absolving this sin is canonically reserved to the bishop, and he can delegate other priests (or even all his priests of his diocese) to absolve this sin. I THINK I recall hearing from my pastor that in my diocese the bishop has granted all priests permission absolve penitents of the sin of abortion.

    I think nobody should hesitate to approach the confessional if they need to confess abortion, if the situation was that that priest did not have the required permission to absolve, he would at least know what to do.

  6. pbewig says:

    What kind of penance would be incurred for confessing an abortion? Or is that an inappropriate question to ask?

    No, I am not in need of such a thing. Just curious

    [It is better to leave that one be. Not a good question for curiosity’s sake. Each situation is unique.]

  7. Philangelus says:

    I think it’s wonderful that he did this (not wonderful that it needs to happen) and may God in His mercy grant the grace to anyone who needs it, that they can return to Him in their need.

  8. Stephen Matthew says:

    Would a priest without proper faculties for this be able to absolve in case of necessity but be unable to lift the excommunication?

  9. Nan says:

    @pbewig, contrition for the abortion is far more important than the penance.

  10. JohnMa says:

    I am going to have to dissent from the general consensus here. I think it’s very important that a priest be able to properly counsel a person who is confessing the sin of abortion. It is impossible for every priest there to be so trained. [?!? Gee, thanks.] Why not grant the authority to one bishop (or priest if needed) who speaks each language to absolve the sin. Then, tell all priests hearing confessions that if someone confesses the sin to immediately text a number and that said bishop/priest would be there within minutes.

  11. MyBrokenFiat says:

    I am so confused.

    I thought ANY ordained priest had the power to forgive ANY sin when approached by a member of the faithful with a truly contrite heart?

    Why would any “special” authority be needed?

    And if excommunication were AUTOMATIC for those participating in abortion, how come there is any discussion at all revolving politicians who are Pro-Choice that wish to take part in Communion? Shouldn’t they all, as Pro-Choicers, be automatically excommunicated?

    I apologize – I really am confused now. Anyone care to enlighten my confuzzlement?

  12. pinoytraddie says:

    Does The Bishop have The Power to Give Faculties to All Priests on Occasions Like the WYD?

  13. Johnna, among other problems, I would think that would violate the seal of the confessional.

  14. Joseph-Mary says:

    I also thought that all priests now are able to dissolve this sin. But just today I learned of a woman denied absolution. She had been away from the church for some time due to her guilt and finally got the courage to confess and was denied!!!! How awful. It is not like it is easy access to a bishop.

    Situations of denial of absolution for this common sin (it is!) should not happen.

  15. Tim Ferguson says:


    A clear problem with your proposal is that it would involve violating the seal of the confessional. Imagine a group from one parish or a diocese lining up for confession to a priest at World Youth Day. All of a sudden, the priest hearing the confession of a young man pulls out his blackberry and texts the authorized absolver. Young man confessing sheepishly stands to the side, waiting for the absolver to arrive, then meets with him for absolution and counseling. Everyone nearby witnesses this – even if the confessions are being heard in private confessionals.

    This is yet another example of the Church extending copious mercy to the faithful – in imitation of Our Divine Master. The confessional – the tribunal of mercy – is being opened at this time to young people – many of whom have been so poorly evangelized, let alone catechized – and the grace of sacramental confession (which is in no way dependent upon the counseling skills of the confessor, but rather on their sacerdotal authority) will be a tremendous source of life changes.

    Yes, pinoytraddie, the bishop has the power to grant these faculties to all priests who will be administering this sacrament in his territory. He need not use an occasion like WYD to motivate this exercise of his authority, but it’s certainly a great way to draw attention to this – and hopefully, to encourage some young people who might have been afraid to approach the throne of grace and mercy to overcome their fear and make solid and forthright confessions.

  16. The point is not to deny anyone absolution. The point is that some sins involve the Church as a whole, as well as the individual member. These more complex sins entail more complex ways of dealing with them. Since the person presumably would understand the seriousness of an excommunication-type sin, confessing to a senior priest with special training and faculties to get absolved and un-excommunicated is probably comforting to many. I mean, there’s nothing more worrying than wondering whether the priest took your sin seriously enough. Big mortal sins, you need all the peace of mind you can get.

    However, since the numbers of abortions are so large these days, I think a lot of bishops do give faculties to practically every priest now.

  17. nola catholic says:


    Yes, any priest has the authority to forgive the sin of abortion. You are correct about that. No special authority is needed to forgive the sin. However, involvement in the procurement of an abortion results in excommunication latae sententiae (i.e. automatically). Excommunication, however, are not sins to be absolved, but juridical status resulting from certain sins. As such they require proper authority, typically from a bishop or bishop’s designate, to be lifted. Hence the special authorization to lift the excommunication. It is not to allow them to absolve the sin of abortion. That is a different matter, which any priest could already do as you originally understood.

    As for pro-abortion politicians, this is perhaps a more complicated matter. The real issue that most bishops seem to be concerned about is that pro-abortion politicians cause scandal, a grave sin, to others (especially constituents) by making it seem okay to ignore the Church’s teachings on abortion. Since one should not receive the Eucharist in a state of grave sin, many bishops (Cardinal Burke a leading one) argue that these politicians should not receive the Eucharist.

    This, however, is a different matter from excommunication. Excommunication does not result necessarily result automatically from holding a pro-abortion position or advocating a pro-abortion position to the best of my knowledge. Automatic excommunication would only occur if the result of holding that position was in some way specifically relevant to an individual’s procurement of an abortion (for example, if one were pro-abortion and convinced someone to procure an abortion, or helped them to). I suppose this could also happen if one passed a statute or law permitting wider access to abortions. Since such laws haven’t been passed (at least at the federal level) in many years, I would think that this issue is not nearly as prevalent as the sin of scandal.

    As bad as being pro-abortion may be, simply having a pro-abortion stance does not mean that politicians are participating in abortions and thus auto-excommunicated. In essence – excommunication typically isn’t the issue with not allowing politicians to receive communion. I hope that helps to clear things up.

  18. Random Friar says:

    In danger of death of the penitent, the priest is given every faculty and jurisdiction necessary for the salvation of the soul.

    Most dioceses, in my experience out West, seem to give all priests working within its boundary the general authority to absolve from the sin of abortion. WYD is a great opportunity. Think how many young men and women throughout the world, even Catholic or many nominally Catholic, have fallen into the lie that abortion is about choice, and that the fetus is but tissue. Somehow, guided by the Spirit or pushed into it by parents or friends, they go to WYD. They are stirred. They are afraid. The Holy Father and bishops beckon all to Confession. They go. The prodigal child who once was dead is alive again!

    I have *never* heard a Confession of the sin of abortion with anything but joy at the lost child returning to the Father. I cannot undo one tragedy, but oh, to yank back a soul from the gaping maw of the Enemy!

  19. Jerry says:


    I thought ANY ordained priest had the power to forgive ANY sin when approached by a member of the faithful with a truly contrite heart?

    One notable exception is an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment, except in danger of death (c. 977). There are several canons which restrict religious superiors from hearing the confessions of those under them unless the penitent freely requests to do so.

  20. Supertradmum says:

    Need clarification. When did the excommunication come into effect? Was that in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, where I have read this? Counseling women and working with priests, I was never under the impression that after receiving absolution, a woman would need to approach a bishop. This is serious and thousands, if not millions, of women who have come back to the Church need to know what is the proper procedure here. Please clarify as to pre-1983 abortions as well, as I talk to many women who were wild in the 60s and 70s and came back to the Church, but not with any idea of a need for excommunications to be lifted. Even traditional priests in teaching, such as the FSSPs and others have not stated that women need to go the the local bishop. Please clarify and thanks…

  21. Philangelus says:

    JohnMa, I don’t think the point of Confession is counseling. Part of the person’s penance could well be to seek out spiritual counseling, but the purpose of Confession is to receive absolution.

  22. Supertradmum says:

    Agree with Philangelus, as to getting a spiritual director, or a very regular confessor for direction. Many people complain to me, however, about not getting counseling in Confession. Priest shortage has something to do with this–a time and access problem.

  23. Supertradmum — Probably your bishop is one of the ones that gives all his priests faculties to get rid of the abortion excommunication thing. I suppose there’s nothing stopping you from asking about it in the various archdioceses in your area. It would definitely be worth knowing which bishops don’t do this, so that mothers (or others involved with abortion providing) could be routed to relevant priests in that area.

    I suspect the point of the Pope doing this was so that there’d be no worry about it for any priest at WYD, no matter what his bishop’s policy was, and so that no priest would have to bother to ask the Madrid archbishop. Just make a sweeping announcement from the top.

  24. MyBrokenFiat says:

    Nola Catholic, you’re getting a special shout out in my Divine Mercy Chaplet tonight. Thank you for so graciously (and logically) explaining this to me. I appreciate it more than you know. May blessings be rained upon you always for your kindness. :)

    @ Jerry – you taught me something new. Honestly, though, I guess any penitent who finds himself / herself in a confessional is giving his/her free consent, right? Doubtful many Catholics are even aware that these stricter rules are in place. I’d like to think I’m a relatively learned Catholic, but shoot… there are some nuances of our wonderful faith that make me feel like I’ve never set foot in a Church I’m so lost. Ha ha ha.

  25. Joe in Canada says:

    Does it make a difference if the sin was occult? In other words, would the ‘level’ of reconciliation depend on the level of public knowledge of the abortion?

  26. Philangelus says:

    MyBrokenFiat, I’ve heard one other time when a priest is forbidden to absolve, and that’s when the priest himself was a party to the sin committed. That way you can’t have two priests who (for example) rob a bank together, and then they confess to each other, say their three Our Fathers, and go on a nice vacation with the money.

    I don’t have anything from canon law to back that up. It was told me by my parish priest.

  27. MJ says:

    Deo Gratias! This is good. Hopefully it will encourage more confessions, if this was hindering some before.

  28. “the excommunication that is the automatic penalty for participating in an abortion.”

    Perhaps I am wrong, but I thought it was a little inaccurate to call excommunication latae sententiae, which is what I believe is the category that applies to abortion, automatic. For one, I thought one condition for incurring such an excommunication is that one is aware at the time of committing the act that it is an excommunicable offence. As such, it is surely not really automatic in all cases. However, I guess it might be little bit fiddly to include that condition in every shorthand, and perhaps I have also misunderstood something along the way. But, on the other hand, it is possible to imagine that someone who has participated in an abortion and is certainly in a state of mortal sin may be discouraged from going to confession due to this circumstance even if they are not indeed under excommunication.

    That also brings up the question of how a priest can be certain that the excommunication has been incurred. I guess asking what the penitent knew at the time is one way, but it would seem difficult to be absolutely certain. I don’t mean that as criticism for the nature of the excommunication as I perceive it, but rather something I am puzzled by. Do priests generally assume that the penalty applies and act accordingy? Or is it handled in a different manner?

  29. I guess from my understanding of things at the moment, I take the opposite view of JohnMa and would think it a good thing if all bishops gave authority to all their priests to absolve from this particular excommunication. It is my understanding that a bishop can choose to do so if he wishes and that some in fact do. Is that correct?

    Then again, it is difficult for an average lay person to know all the considerations that go into these decisions, so it is very possible that it would not be a good thing after all even if it seems to me that it would be.

  30. Joseph-Mary says:

    I had someone just last evening tell me that a friend of his was refused absolution for abortion at my parish by the previous priest. So I asked my own confessor this morning about this. In the Archdiocese of Denver, the priests have the permission of the Archbishop to absolve this sin but they report the number of times they absolve it.

    I am going to contact my friend to contact his friend to let her know that the confessional is indeed open to her.

  31. Random Friar says:

    Believe it or not, people come into the confessional once in a while who are not at all contrite for their sins, be they as petty as taking office supplies, or as grave as abortion. The “I don’t think it’s a sin, but I was told to confess it, so here I am” attitude pops in, once in a while.

    I look for any sliver of contrition in the penitent, but if I do not see it, I cannot absolve what one has no contrition for.

  32. MyBrokenFiat says:

    Philangelus, that certainly does make a lot of sense. Heh.

  33. Jason Keener says:

    In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, where I live, it is my understanding that every priest has been given permission by the local ordinary to lift an excommunication incurred by those involved in procuring a completed abortion. Some do not know this, but any formal conspirators who make access to the abortion possible (doctors, nurses, parents, husbands, or boyfriends who encourage it, etc.) can incur the excommunication as well; however, for either the woman or the formal conspirators to actually incur the excommunication, they must know that this grave sin of a procured abortion is an excommunicable offense at the time of the abortion.

  34. MyBrokenFiat says:

    Random Friar, that thought never occured to me. I don’t see a point of going to Confession if you’re not sorry for your sins. It never occured to me that someone might actually enter for the sake of going through the motions. I dunno why that’s surprising. Catholics partake of the Eucharist with the same lack of reverence / understanding. Now I’m depressed.

    I’m also confused again. This particular post has REALLY brought up a lot of confusion for me. Can someone be excommunicated without their knowledge? As I was thinking about this more, I stumbled upon that thought. Apparently there are things that can be done (ex – abortion) that are grounds for an automatic excommunication. I didn’t know that, and I’m sure other Catholics (even those who have committed the sin) don’t know that. I mean, if a mortal sin is a mortal sin only if you KNOW it’s a mortal sin when you do it, wouldn’t something of the same lines need to be true for excommunication?

    Sorry for my constant posts, but this one really threw me a little loopy.

  35. Jerry says:

    @MyBrokenFiat – “I guess any penitent who finds himself / herself in a confessional is giving his/her free consent, right?”

    I believe the restrictions regarding religious superiors hearing confessions are intended to avoid situations where the superiors are the only confessors available. If the choice is confessing to the superior or not confessing, that’s not free consent.

    @Philangelus – “I’ve heard one other time when a priest is forbidden to absolve, and that’s when the priest himself was a party to the sin committed.”

    This seems reasonable, but canon 977 applies only to accomplices to sins against the sixth commandment. I did not see any canons with a similar restriction of broader scope, nor did the commentary make note of any.

  36. eulogos says:

    Background: I was baptized Episcopalian at the age of 20 in 1972. Nine months later I was received into the Catholic Church, and went to confession after making my profession of faith, which was done privately, just me to the priest, kneeling at the altar rail. Abortion was one of the sins I confessed, and the priest said that he would say the absolution from excommunication in Latin, since he didn’t know it in English. I objected that I had been baptised since the abortions, and that should have forgiven everything. I also said I couldn’t have been excommunicated before I even belonged to the church in any sense. He agreed, so I didn’t get to hear the Latin.

    But obviously 1. this automatic excommunication for abortion was in force before the new Canon law, and 2. priests in that diocese had permission to absolve for it.

    Nothing, though, takes away the lifelong sorrow and regret at the memory.

    Susan Peterson

  37. Joe in Canada says:

    interesting point Susan Peterson. In 1972 Episcopalians possibly were pro-life, but certainly not now. Would a Protestant baptism today, which might be valid, wash away sins that the Protestant communion or group did not believe were sins? A general confession is always prudent, I think, where possible. You yourself brought up the abortion, even though it had occurred before your baptism, and I think that was a genuine prompting of the Spirit of Christ awakened in you, even if it (the sin of the abortion) had been washed away by your Protestant baptism. ” ‘Seven times?’ ‘Seventy times seven times!’ “

  38. Jerry says:


    The latae sententiae excommunication for procuring a completed abortion (1983 c. 1398) was also present in the 1917 code (c. 2350), then called “an automatic excommunication reserved to the Ordinary”.

    Under the 1983 code (c. 1324 sec. 3), a latae sententiae penalty is not binding if any of a number of conditions listed in c. 1324 sec. 1 are present. These include age < 16 years, a person coerced by grave fear, and a person who without negligence was not aware of the penalty. Canons 1323-1326 list factors exempting from a penalty, factors diminishing imputability, factors not mitigating imputability, and factors aggravating imputability. Needless to say, it’s a complex area of law best read with a commentary (or, better yet, a canon lawyer) at hand. Also, I don’t know if these same exclusions were present in the 1917 code.

    I think it’s safe to say that many, if not most, Catholics were not aware of the automatic excommunication years ago. I never heard of it before I started participating in Catholic Internet forums. What constitutes negligent vs. non-negligent ignorance, especially back when information was not so readily available to the masses, I don’t know…

  39. Jerry says:

    re: absolution for abortion and lifting of the related latae sententiae excommunication

    As several have noted, absolution for a sin and lifting of an excommunication are two different acts. However, one who is under excommunication or inderdict is generally not permitted to receive the sacraments, including penance, before the censure is remitted (New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, pg. 1570, commentary for c. 1357). Canon 1357 sec. 1 permits a confessor to remit an undeclared (i.e., automatic) latae sententiae excommunication for “pressing pastoral reasons” provided the penitent makes recourse through the normal channels within one month. (Keep in mind this is a VERY brief summary of a very complex topic. It’s best to talk to an expert if you have questions or concerns regarding a real-life situation.)

  40. MJ says:

    Supertradmum, you said “Even traditional priests in teaching, such as the FSSPs and others have not stated that women need to go the the local bishop. Please clarify and thanks…”

    One of the FSSP priests at my parish had a homily not to long ago in which he said from the pulpit that if abortion was involved the individual had to go to the Bishop…I don’t remember whether he said anything else, but I just wanted to mention it since you said you didn’t think traditional priests have not stated that women need to go to the Bishop. Our priest did.

  41. I’ll leave the combox open, but I caution people who don’t really know what they are talking about not to offer advice to others on matters of confession and absolution. Better to get it right. It is never wrong, however, to urge people to use the sacrament of penance regularly and to make a good confession of all their unconfessed mortal sins in both kind and number

  42. wlinden says:

    The penalty can not be that new, as it is mentioned in Walter Miller’s classic SF novel A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ (1961). “If you are trying to say you’re guilty of abortion, absolution is reserved to the bishop.” Granted, this is a priest several centuries in the future, but Miller had no reason to just make this up.

  43. “These include age < 16 years, a person coerced by grave fear, and a person who without negligence was not aware of the penalty."

    The vagueness of 'grave fear' and 'without negligence' seems to make the matter of a priest's deciding whether someone has incurred the penalty even more complex. However, I'm assuming that regardless of whether the priest has delegated authority to lift the censure, he will have been instructed on how to handle that assessment and what to do to help the penitent obtain the lifting of the censure in a manner that is not overwhelmingly difficult.

  44. “I’ll leave the combox open, but I caution people who don’t really know what they are talking about not to offer advice to others on matters of confession and absolution. Better to get it right. It is never wrong, however, to urge people to use the sacrament of penance regularly and to make a good confession of all their unconfessed mortal sins in both kind and number.”

    Fr. Z., I’m assuming that if someone were to ask me or anyone else for advice on what to do if they have committed the sin of abortion, the only proper thing to do would be to advice them to go to confession and the priest would simply know what to do with that whether he has delegated authority to absolve or not.

    I do wonder how these things work, but it wouldn’t affect the matter of giving people advice in such a situation because it would seem as simple as directing them to the priest.

  45. eulogos says:

    Joe in Canada- It isn’t “Protestant baptism” , it is just baptism, so long as it is done with water which flows, with the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” pouring the water with each Name, and so long as the intent is in the most general way, to do what the Church does. All of these were fulfilled when I was baptised. And it washes away all sin, no matter what the participants actually believe is sinful. It isn’t dependent on what members of that Christian group believe. It is something God does.

    As for my bringing it up, since I had not known that day that I would be making my profession of faith (I had been supposed to do so publically with two other people two weeks previously, but chickened out, and finally worked myself up to it that day. Thank God the priest accepted that this was real despite my hesitation.) I was not ready to confess and the priest “examined my conscience” by asking me questions. After I reminded him of my rather recent baptism, he asked me with each question, whether it were before or after my baptism that I had done something.

    The sins before baptism didn’t really need to be confessed, but it was important for me, I think, to go through that, as it made me really admit what sort of things I had done in my life, and hear what that sounded like when spoken. It made me much more grateful that God chose to make such an effort to reach down and haul me out of that mess and convert me.
    Susan Peterson

  46. Preferably a priest one knows to be solid and knowledgeable, of course, but one would prefer to think that this is the kind of thing most priests would take seriously.

  47. Oops, intervening post, but that was obviously meant to be a qualification to my last post/part question which Fr. Z has actually answered in another post, I guess.

  48. Joe in Canada says:

    Susan Paterson, sorry, no offence meant, it was short hand for “Baptism as a Protestant”.

    And I agree with your main point of course, that real baptism washes away our sins, which we can never truly plumb the depth of.

  49. catholicmidwest says:

    This is a good thing. There are a very large number of young people, both male & female, who have experienced this sin first hand in some way, all over the world, and may not know how to come back to the Church without this help. Some of them may not even know how much spiritual trouble they are in because of all the parental & peer pressure on pregnant young women, and all the prevailing misinformation about this sin.

  50. Supertradmum says:

    If someone asks me, therefore, should they go to their bishop in their present diocese, or where they lived when they were excommunicated? Also, are all those years of Masses, Holy Communions, sacraments of all sorts, including marriage, null and void and even sacrilegious? Must they confess sacrilege? As I have worked in several dioceses under different bishops, with trad and non-trad priests, I again re-iterate that the excommunication having to come from the bishop is not common knowledge. As to the priests being able to do this, again, does one ask the Bishop if all the priests in his diocese have the power to remove excommunications? As one involved in the past in RCIA, this issue, of past abortions, was not uncommon. However, the priests would want those involved or aiding and abetting an abortion to go to Confession. Nothing was ever recommended regarding going to a bishop. One cannot assume all priests have the power to remove the excommunication. Having worked in sacramental prep in Canada, America, and England, I am surprised this issue is not more directly addressed. What the Pope has clarified, should apply for all dioceses and people should know whether they must go to a bishop or to their local priest for such help. Again, as many women who have returned to the Church were involved in abortions, this entire problem must be addressed by the local ordinaries in a more public manner. Can one imagine a bishop even being available for such liftings of excommunications? My current bishop has passed away and we are without one. As to my former bishop, he was very hard to make an appointment with. God help all those women who have not been taught correctly. We must rely on his mercy in some cases. As to priests involved in sacramental prep and marriage prep, this issue must be raised. No wonder the people in the Church in some cases are floundering-as they are separated from the Body of Christ.

  51. Supertradmum says:

    In case anyone is interested. I talked to a priest today in England who has the faculties for removing the excommunication as a consequence of an abortion. The Bishop gave him this as part of his faculties in the diocese where he, the priest, works. It is not clear whether all priests are given this faculty, and in fact, he knows of some priests who do not have the ability to lift the excommunication. The bishop is the one who determines this and it seems to be on a priest to priest basis. However, the priest did say, that some dioceses will give all the priests this faculty and those who have it know, as it is actually written in their letter of faculties. I hope this helps. As to individual women, they should contact the priest in their diocese first, to find out the status, and then if the individual priests do not have this ability, the bishop must be contacted. I am relieved as to have found someone who has recently been in touch with a canon lawyer, as the priest said that what the Pope has said has created much interested in this fact. God bless. I may be repeating what some have said, but it is good having this from the authority, instead of conjecture.

  52. Supertradmum says:

    PS the removal of the excommunication does not have to be in Latin.

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