The most important thing I will ever write on this blog

This is the most important thing I will ever write on this blog. If I get nothing else through to any reader here, long-time visitor or new, I would want it to be this.

There is no sin that we little mortal humans can commit which is so bad that our infinite and loving God will not forgive us, provided that we are sorry for our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness.

The way that our Savior Himself desired that we confess our sins and receive forgiveness is through the sacrament He instituted while still with us on earth, the sacrament of penance/reconciliation.

When you confess all the mortal sins you are aware of to a priest confessor and he gives you absolution, those sins are gone, removed, taken away. They are no more. They are not just covered over. They are not just ignored. They are no more. The sin may have been horrible, as red as blood and scarlet. You may still have the burden of the memory and other scars from that sin. You may have a lot of penance to do because of that sin. You might need additional help or counseling. But when you receive sacramental absolution, you have been washed clean in the Blood of Christ, who died for your salvation and who forgives you through the person of the priest. When you receive absolution for your good, sincere confession, you have been forgiven. And you can know that you have been forgiven and not just have to guess or wonder or hope.

Everything we have been given by Christ through Holy Church aims at bringing as many people as possible to the happiness of heaven. Nothing else is more important than that goal.

You don’t have to live in the knowledge of your unforgiven sins. You can seek reconciliation. And when you obtain it, you don’t have to doubt it.

Since I posted about the visiting priests in Spain at WYD receiving from the local bishop the faculty to lift excommunications resulting from procuring an abortion I have been getting notes in my email from people who are filled with anxiety, afraid that they are in spiritual danger or that they have not been forgiven their past sin, sometimes many years in the past. A few people are really scared about this.

It is good to be scared about sins. A little fear is healthy and pushes us to get ourselves in order. A lot of fear, too much fear, is unhealthy and can paralyze us rather than motivate us. Sometimes lack of knowledge about something makes us more afraid than we have to be. Knowledge about the Church’s teachings and laws can not only spur us to a little anxious action, but can also put us at our ease, reassure us that we didn’t actually do wrong or incur a censure we were worried about. Knowledge helps.

That said, and that was the really important part for everyone, let’s turn back to that WYD issue about excommunication and abortion.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church states in can. 1398 that there is a sanction, a penalty, a censure imposed on people who participate in the procuring of an abortion. Censures are intended to help people understand the spiritual danger they are in and seek a remedy, and also in the case of publicly known situations let other people know that there is something gravely wrong with the behavior that incurred the censure.

Excommunication is a censure that means a person cannot receive the sacraments, any sacrament, until there is reconciliation and a lifting of the excommunication by the ecclesiastical authority of the proper level. The person also cannot hold any ecclesial office while under such a censure. Some censures can be absolved by diocesan bishops or their delegates, some are reserved to the Holy See and must be absolved by the Holy Father, the Apostolic Penitentiary, or a confessor to whom the faculty to lift the censure has been given. Once the excommunication is absolved, then the person can also receive absolution for the sin which incurred the excommunication and any other sins besides.

There are those cases when the sin and the censure are not public knowledge (they are “occult” in the sense that they are not widely known and have not been formally declared) when a confessor (and by “confessor” I mean a priest who has faculties to receive sacramental confessions) can absolve a person from a censure for a period of time, while placing that person under the strict obligation to seek reconciliation from the proper authority, such as the local bishop or the Holy See. If the person doesn’t seek reconciliation in the given length of time, 30 days, then he once again falls under the censure. An example of this might be the case of a priest who does something to incur a censure which is not public knowledge or declared. However, he cannot fulfill his duties while the censure is in force.  Furthermore, scandal must be avoided, Masses must be said, confessions heard, people married, buried and baptized, etc. Therefore he can receive absolution from a confessor and fulfill his duties, but under the strict obligation to seek fuller reconciliation from the proper authority, such as the local bishop or the Holy See. In that case, the confessor and penitent priest would have an appointment set up for the near future and the confessor could then seek from the proper authority the faculty to lift the censure the next time the penitent priest returned.  The same could be applied, say to a lay man, say, a seminarian facing ordination.  It may be that many years in the past he did something that incurred a censure that has never been lifted.  He learns about this in canon law class and seeks a confessor who can lift the censure so that when he is validly ordained he would not be actually suspended a divinis from the moment of his ordination.  The ordination would be valid, but illicit because the ordinand was irregular for Holy Orders, but not irregular in a way that made the ordination invalid.  Even if no one else knew about any of this, he would know and that would scorch him from within and taint his priesthood until he was reconciled properly.

To incur an excommunication a person must be 16 years or older, aware of the gravely sinful nature of the action, aware that it incurs the censure, have the use of reason and must be acting with unimpaired free will. If a person is in state of fear or is mentally disturbed, if a person is being coerced, or is otherwise not able to exercise free will, he or she does not incur the censure.

That said, abortion is a crime/sin which incurs automatic excommunication if there are not mitigating factors. It can be hard to determine in some case the level of a person’s participation in the sin of another, but certainly the medical personnel who perform the abortion and those supplying the means and money for it, and who counseled it or provoked it would fall into that category.  If the mother herself knows it is wrong, knows there is a censure and does it anyway from free will, even if she is a little afraid, she incurs the excommunication.  A woman who is terrified, truly fearful, perhaps bullied by an angry husband, parent, boyfriend, does not incur it because her freedom is compromised.

If you are worried about yourself, seek a confessor right away and lay out the whole story, even it is painful or embarrassing.  Priests maintain the secrets of confession. They do not break the Seal of Confession.   What you say there, stays there and will not be revealed to any one on earth unless you permit it.  Even with your permission the priest will be reluctant and probably won’t say anything.  And this is something I have noted even among the most goofy liberal priests: even they protect and maintain the Seal of Confession.

It could be that the priests of a diocese, your diocese, have been granted the faculty to absolve the censure of excommunication incurred by participation in an abortion.  In most places these days that is the case for priests in their own dioceses.  This is why the bishop in Spain where WYD is gave the faculty to absolve the censure of excommunication to all the visiting priests as well as his own priests.  It may be that the priest you talk to will have to seek the faculty or that he will tell you that you must seek the bishop.  But in most cases, a priest in his own diocese will probably be able to absolve the censure.

No matter what he tells you in regard to getting that censure lifted, no matter how hard it might seem or embarrassing at the moment, it will be worth it.

If you are excommunicated you may not receive the sacraments, including the sacrament of penance. You must get that censure lifted.

NEVER NEVER NEVER omit confessing a mortal sin which you do in fact remember and know that you haven’t yet confessed. If you purposely omit confessing a mortal sin, you do not receive valid absolution or the graces of the sacrament. Just DON’T DO THAT. Always confess everything in both kind (what the sin is) and number (how many times).

If you were involved directly and in an active way in the procuring of an abortion, and if you have not confessed that to a priest confessor with the faculty to lift the excommunication or to a bishop, then you have an important task to do, as soon as you can. If you are worried about whether or not you incurred an excommunication or you were properly absolved, seek out a sound, knowledgeable confessor very soon. Don’t delay. Make a place in your oh-so-busy schedule for this soul-saving heart-healing matter.

In most places these days, at least in the USA, priests have been given by their bishops the faculty to lift the excommunication resulting from abortion.

No earthly pursuit is as important as your eternal salvation and your peace of mind.

Email isn’t really a good way to deal with these issues, friends. Most people’s situations are both very personal and also usually involve circumstances that cannot easily be related in writing because of the privacy of others.

You need a conversation with a good, knowledgeable priest confessor who can either put you at your ease or put you back on course.

Again, what follows is the most important thing I could ever write on this blog.

There is no sin we little people can commit that cannot be forgiven provided that we are truly sorry for it and ask God’s forgiveness through His priests and are willing to amend our lives.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. smad0142 says:

    Also people in doubt may want to check the Pastoral Handbook for the Archdiocese/Diocese that they live in. For example I live in Denver, and upon reading the Pastoral Handbook which is available on the Archdiocese’s website, I learned that every Priest with faculties from the Archdiocese has the authority to remove any censure not specifically reserved for removal by the Holy See. The list which accompained this statement included procuring an abortion.

  2. MyBrokenFiat says:

    … and the veil has been lifted. As always, many thanks, dear Father! :)

  3. priests wife says:

    a beautiful post, Father— you are doing a lot of good

  4. Ralph says:

    Awesome post Father.

    “Oh, What A Freind We Have in Jesus!”

  5. Thank you, Father. This is confusing to many of us, and others know nothing about this at all which seems a shame and a crime. If everyone were aware of excommunication and censure, maybe there wouldn’t be so many pro-abort Catholic politicians. The faithful are begging for more catechesis–why can’t we get it from our own dioceses?

  6. cheekypinkgirl says:

    Father Z,
    I hope this isn’t going down a rabbit hole……Why do you always emphasize confessing the number of times a sin was committed? [Why? Because that is how we are supposed to confess our sins! Kind and number. That’s how it is to be done. Aside from the myriad good manuals on sacramental theology which affirm this I direct your attention also the 1983 Code of Canon Law, Can. 988 §1: “A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which the person has knowledge after diligent examination of conscience.”]

    My catechesis is lacking here, as I’m one of those people who inwardly “celebrates” that I went to confession at all and confessed any or all mortal sins. The “number of times” stipulation seems very old-fashioned to me (and I am sorry for stating it that way, but I can’t state it any other way.) [Lots of things we do as Catholics are old fashioned. Using unleavened wheat bread and grape wine for Mass instead of pizza and Coke is old fashioned. It is also the right way to do it. We have to give ourselves and the confessor a clear idea of the frequency or number of times. Even the rough frequency since the last confession can suffice, but some indication must be given.]

    Obviously, if we’re talking murder or robbery, I can see how many times you robbed someone is helpful. But there are so many other sins, mortal or venial, that I have no legitimate idea of how many times they were committed, and quite honestly, if I tried to keep count, it would taint confession as a scrupulous, fear-mongering activity, which is stuff I already struggle with. I’m the kind of person, rather, who might say, “I gossiped about someone a bunch of times in the last 3 weeks.” [A bunch? I bought a bunch of radishes the other day and, had I taken the time, I could have counted them. Bunches vary in size… a lot. Let’s not be vague when it comes to this important sacrament and the good of our souls. This is why we should make an examination of conscience every night. Our souls are important. If we watch our pennies in our bank accounts, how much more should we keep an eye on our own behavior. We should keep tabs on ourselves so that we a) can make a good confession, and b) know who we are and what our main faults are. And confessing in kind and number also helps the priest know where there is a problem. If a person says “I stole”, that might mean once or 32 times. There is a difference between a one time act and multiple times. In any event, there are many and good reasons for the kind and number requirement which will become clearer as consideration is given our obligation in this regard. And I didn’t even mention that we can sin by omission as well, not just by commission! That is the stuff of a different discussion. Kind and number, dear, kind and number.]

  7. Gregg the Obscure says:

    Thanks for posting this Fr. Z!

    I appreciate the benefit of confessing all mortal sins that you remember in number and in kind. I am a convert who was blessed to be received into the Church in 2001 – at which point I was 37 years old. My first confession was arranged through RCIA and was with one of those “spirit of Vatican II” fellows who had a great deal of counseling to give me before I was even done. I didn’t take the chance to mention some serious sins and at some point forgot that until last month, at which point I finally did (not without difficulty) come clean. It’s made a big difference. I’m still far from perfect, but some of my most persistent and stubborn faults are much less oppressive than I remember them ever being. I have more hope than ever before too.

    BTW, any readers near there, the Catholic Center run by the Capuchin Franciscans in Colorado Springs is an outstanding place to make a thorough confession on any weekday.

  8. Sliwka says:

    If I may offer a piece of advice to cheekypinkgirl (take it or leave it), my habit in the confessional when confessing a sin I committed a “bunch of times” is, during my examination, reflect if I simply did this thing a number of times (if I can think of a number, or a frequency) or is it habitual–all the time. I think this is likely more useful for those things which are of less gravity.

    I would confess something like “I habitually take an extra 5 minute lunch”. something we do so often we begin to do it without thinking.

    Not having it work on my iPod I can only assume here, but the Confession app that received a lot of press in the past year may be an aid to daily examination remembering those things, essentially keeping a tally, for which we want to accuse ourselves once we get to confession.

  9. SylviaMB says:

    I don’t have trouble identifying kind and number when confessing, and when I have a particularly difficult sin that has been a problem through several confessions — I go at least once a month — I might say something like: 3 times in the last month and, Father, this has been the subject of past confessions over the last 6 months.
    Generally the priest will ask me further questions or give appropriate advice.
    I have in the past gone to confession weekly to help overcome difficultly with temptation to a particular sin, and I would mention how long it’s been the subject of confession and that I’m attending frequent confession in an attempt to overcome it.
    I’d like to know what you think about this. Fr. Z, that is, mentioning in this fashion a particular sin’s occurrence prior to my last confession.
    Thank you.

  10. catholicmidwest says:

    I think Fr’s advice is very good. Also, I think it’s okay to say that there is probably a lot of variation in people here. Some people aren’t very scrupulous and have to really work to keep track even when they are really convinced deep down that they are sinners, even maybe hapless and degenerate sinners; others are very conscientious and don’t have to work on number so much but may worry a great deal and “hold onto” their sins unnecessarily; and I’m sure there are other patterns too. Some people tend toward sins of commission and some more toward sins of omission; both can be very serious, even though we typically think of sins of commission as worse somehow. Priests are taught to recognize & help with these tendencies so that we can be forgiven and forgive ourselves and go on, with the grace of God.

    One thing is sure: God loves us, every one of us meaning you and me, with a bizarrely generous love, more deeply than any of us can ever imagine. And more than we could ever love him in return. There is nothing he can’t forgive if you go to him with a sincere heart. That’s what confession is for.

  11. Miriam says:

    I have been a Catholic since I was baptized into the Church at Easter Vigil 2008.

    I love how I feel after confession but, I also have scrupulous tendencies. Some of my Catholic friends only go once a year and I’m thinking, Yeah. How cool.

    Won’t work for me. Even though I tend toward scrupulosity, I know I have to go more often. When you get that feeling that you are not as nice as you should be and not nearly as good a witness for Christ, it’s definitely time to go. And sometimes I even think, wait, I got to daily Mass. That counts for venial sins.

    Have to go again this Saturday because I forgot a sin last week. You know, I just want to persevere. Make it to the end. Be there in Heaven with God.

    And those words of absolution are so amazingly wonderful.

  12. Luvadoxi says:

    I don’t want to encourage laxity, but aren’t forgotten sins forgiven? Since I tend toward scrupulosity, and also tend to forget easily, it’s a great comfort to know that when I say I’m sorry for “all the sins of my life; all the forgotten sins of omission or commission”, they are really forgiven.

  13. esiul says:

    Fr. Z that was a very important message you’ve sent out. I read about the 2000 priests being able to absolve in Madrid too, but asked my priest and where I live all the priests in the diocese are allowed as well. Looking forward to your “sins of omission” blog. One can always learn more.

  14. Catholictothecore says:

    Thank you, Fr. Z. A well written post as always. Examining ones conscience every night helps a great deal in keeping track of not only where we’ve failed/sinned but also in the progress we’ve made since our last confession. I usually then thank the Holy Spirit for helping me/improving me in that particular area of weakness.

  15. Okay. So I have an abortion as a teenager. I confess it in my 20’s. The priest tells me he will absolve me but can’t “guarantee it.”. I’m assuming this is what he meant. Fast forward 20 years. I seek out confession for other things and tell my priest about the abortion too. I go on a retreat where i don’t really confess the abortion because the priest already knows I’ve had one or I wouldn’t be on the retreat. If none of these three priests had this special permission – where am I now? How do I know if they did? The first one didn’t tell me I would have to come back. Is my marriage even valid as a sacrament because it was after the first confession and I might have been ex communicated and not even known it? Help

    [Blog comboxes are not a good forum for these questions. I suggest that you find a solid priest in your area and get everything worked out that way. Either way, the sacrament of matrimony would be be invalid because of this. Again, get thee to a solid priest with these questions. Blogs are not good for this sort of thing.]

  16. sparks1093 says:

    Thank you Father for stating so clearly what needs to be kept in mind by all of us. I was raised with an emphasis in God’s wrath and that He condemns sinners to Hell, without the balancing emphasis on God’s eternal loving mercy for us all. We need to be mindful of that balance.

  17. benedetta says:

    I appreciate the encouragement from the Church for people to receive peace, support, and real knowledge of God’s infinite goodness and love in the sacrament. It seems like so much of even what the Church offers that is so uplifting is complained about in the culture and by those who do not understand, but the logic of inviting the Church to be quiet or stop speaking of God’s love doesn’t make sense and as the credibility of those positing it in the first place could be called into question, it should not be followed. I don’t think we could ever overemphasize the availability of grace through the sacraments and the way it helps us to go forward with joy and peace of heart, in the present moment. The sacrament of confession shows that no matter what we have done, God always hopes after us, always desires to be reunited with us, never turns us away, always respects our dignity.

  18. Very good post Fr. Z. I totally agree. Could you also comment on though on the Clerical Orders of Pontifical right though (Franciscans, Capuchins, Dominicans, Jesuits etc) – I have been taught that the Holy Father has given us the privilege of always being able to absolve and lift any excommunication or censure even a papal one. For instance, here in Ireland in the early 20th century the bishops excommunicated the republicans and the republicans went to the friars and the Jesuits instead. Up to about 20 years ago, as that generation died out, there would be men dying who would see no priest but a friar. Likewise one of our friars had a battle with a bishop over abortion where the bishop wished to reserve absolution to himself – in the end the bishop had to accept that he could not stop us from absolving the sin. As i understand it this privilege stems from the Reformation where people wanted to be reconciled with the Church but this could be very difficult. Thank you for your post.

  19. benedetta says:

    I just wanted to add that in my various travels around there have been occasions when I have received absolution in the sacrament of confession from priests who might fit the bill as excessively liberal or whatever it may be from seeing the liturgy or hearing the preaching on a given day however I have received only respectful listening, compassion, concern and encouragement, and above all the absolution of sins consistently from Catholic priests, diocesan or religious no matter whether one would deem possibly liberal or conservative. That is so true.

    If I have a personal preference though I would go with Franciscan, OFM, OFM Cap., CFR, Conventual and all flavors. All great!

  20. Mario says:

    What about the sin against the Holy Spirit? What exactly is the nature of that sin and is it forgivable. The Gospel seems to indicate that it is not. Is blasphemy against the name of the Holy Spirit THE sin against the Holy Spirit, or is it something else? [What about it? That is the sin which desires no forgiveness and therefore never asks for it. Of course it won’t be forgiven.]

  21. GodSpace says:

    Fr. Z – you are a wonderful writer and a seemingly reverent priest. HOWEVER, when I pointed out last week that priests in the USA have the ability to forgive the sin and remove the censure, my post wasn’t printed.

    Your post created a great deal of disconcertion [?] among my friends who read your blog, myself included. You would be doing people of the USA a favor in telling them that the priests here can forgive the sin and lift the censure. [I did actually write about that. But I will add a line for the sake of repetition. And to my knowledge priests in most places, but I don’t believe all, have the faculty. It is good to check.]


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