QUAERITUR: Help! I don’t know if I was absolved of helping with an abortion.

From a reader:

Father, back in a “former life” I committed the grave sin of assisting a young lady I knew in grad school to commit an abortion. I regretted it from the start and within a year I had gone to confession to confess that heinous sin.

As I recall (this was almost 20 years ago), at the time I knew it was an “auto-excommunicable” offense so I asked Father what was involved in receiving absolution. I recall him saying that his absolution was sufficient.

Since then I have become much more aware of laxity among clergy, but at the time I was not. So now I question whether the priest really had the authority to absolve me of that sin and whether I carry it to this day.

Should I mention this to my current confessor? Am I being scrupulous? Should I abstain from receiving the Lord in the Eucharist?

Some canonists think that the whole issue of latae sententiae penalties should be rethought.  This is one of those situations which suggest that they may be right.  These penalties can leave people with doubts about their status.  I understand that there is a revision of Book VI currently underway.  The Eastern Code doesn’t have latae sententiae penalties, by the way.

The Ordo Penitentiae states,

“The form of absolution is not to be changed when a priest, in keeping with the provision of law, absolves a properly disposed penitent within the sacramental forum from a censure latae sententiae. It is enough that the confessor intend to absolve also from the censures.”

The confessor may use, but is not required to use, the formula for lifting a censure which is used in the external forum:

“By the power granted to me, I absolve you from the bond of excommunication (or suspension or interdict). In the name of the Father, and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.”

So, you were absolved and you are not under the penalty of excommunication. There is no need to mention it again, unless you decide to make a general confession, or unless you are trying to fill a confessor/spiritual director in on your past history.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in SESSIUNCULA and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. C. says:

    Latae sententiae penalties are an ancient tradition of the Western church. I would hate to see them done away with on account of a lack of catechesis about the proper form of absolution, or for widespread lack of knowledge about the faculties granted to individual confessors.

    If people want to remove the penalty of excommunication for abortion, let them be so bold as to state so. But who really can argue against the wisdom of having a latae sententiae interdict against those who use physical force against bishops?

    One thing is clear in modern times–despite the reigning Pontiff’s lament about the decline of penal law, the hierarchy and the canon courts still have no appetite or ability for decreeing ferendae sententiae censures as needed. All the decreed penalties of recent memory have merely been decrees stating that a latae sententiae penalty has been incurred, and even these decrees are nearly extinct. Removing the latae sententiae punishments for canonical crimes will effectively eliminate the last vestiges of Church discipline.

    A Church which doesn’t excommunicate, will appear to have lost its roots (e.g., I Cor. 5).

  2. Supertradmum says:

    When we discussed this in an earlier blog, the priest I discussed the issue with said clearly that not all priests in the dioceses of England and Wales are given the right to lift the excommunication, only some priests. He was one and spoke of the faculties from his bishop as clearly stating the above words, when the excommunication is being lifted. He also added that going to Confession is not enough, and that the woman must either seek out a priest, like himself, who can lift the excommunication, or phone the bishop’s office for clarity in the diocese. Some bishops want to deal with each case themselves. How many women actually know this?

    More teaching from priests must be done on this matter.

  3. Supertradmum says:

    sorry important PS–the priest said that the laxity of the priests in the 70s and on has contributed to this confusion.

  4. mpolo says:

    Certainly faculties differ from diocese to diocese. Most Mexican priests can forgive the sin of abortion three times, and then have to renew their faculties with the bishop. German priests are instructed to be generous with application of canon 1248, which permits any priest to absolve a reserved sin if the penitent would suffer unduly by having to wait for absolution (with most dioceses explicitly waiving the requirement to inform the bishop afterwards). Priests of the diocese of Rome are automatically granted faculties to forgive the sin of abortion. Priests of the Franciscan Order have a privilege from time immemorial that allows them to forgive any sin reserved to the Bishop.

    Of course the average penitent doesn’t know this. If the priest didn’t have faculties in the cited example, this would be a case where the Church supplies the missing faculties, I believe, since the penitent would have no way of knowing that the priest lacked these faculties.

  5. Been here before… when all the press came out over World Youth Day about all of the Priests being given special “powers” to absolve abortion (i.e., life any excommunication) it sent me and some other postabortive women into a tizzy for sure. The media of course explained most of it incorrectly. Thankfully I have a kind and patient Priest available to answer my questions and put my mind and heart at ease. But, I wondered the same thing for a while – the priest I first confessed my abortion too all those years ago – did he have these “special powers?” Was I really absolved? Am I going to hell now in spite of all that I’ve done since then and on and on. But, I think this particular kind of despair is categorically a clear symptom of what abortion does to every person invovled with it – whether you have had an abortion, encouraged someone to have an abortion, failed to stop someone if you had the power to do so, etc. No matter what you express externally about it – in one’s heart there remains an eternal feeling of what have I done.

  6. Ralph says:

    “But, I think this particular kind of despair is categorically a clear symptom of what abortion does to every person invovled with it – whether you have had an abortion, encouraged someone to have an abortion, failed to stop someone if you had the power to do so, etc. No matter what you express externally about it – in one’s heart there remains an eternal feeling of what have I done.”

    What a powerful testimony. Thank you for sharing this. Stories like yours help to steel my resolve to continue to fight against abortion. Not only for the poor unborn, but for the mothers as well.

  7. wanda says:

    Infinite Grace, Thank you for sharing your story. Your witness has power to change hearts and to strengthen the resolve of others to continue the effort to bring an end to abortion. With all respect for you, have you looked into the healing ministry of Rachel’s Vineyard? You would also be a powerful voice for the Silent No More Awareness campaign. Pray about it and again, thank you for sharing your innermost heart. May God bless you.

  8. Speravi says:

    As I recall, priests in most dioceses of the USA have the authority to LIFT the excommunication one time, and the second time, they must get permission. Therefore, if you committed the sin of abortion, and at the time you did it, you knew that the penalty of excommunication was attached to it, the priest has the authority to lift the excommunication and to absolve the sin. The next time that you committed the sin, he would need to get the faculty to lift the excommunication before absolving. However, if you DID NOT KNOW at the time that you committed the crime of abortion that there was a canonical penalty attached (over and above the sinfulness of the act), then you did not incur the penalty of excommunication, even though you committed both the crime and the grave sin. Then the priest can absolve the sin and there is no excommunication to lift. During that confession, the priest should find a gentle way to make you aware of the canonical penalty. Then if you commit the sin again, having been absolved once (but not having incurred the penalty), and you are now aware of the penalty, then you incur that penalty for the first time (even though this is the second time you have committed the crime and sin). Since it is the first time that you have actually incurred the canonical penalty (even though you have already been absolved once of the same sin), the priest does NOT need permission of the bishop to lift the excommunication and absolve the sin. Then, if you were to commit the sin a third time (God forbid) and thus incur the canonical penalty a second time (because you did not incur the penalty the first time on account of ignorance), the priest would need to get permission from the bishop.

  9. Speravi says:

    P.S. The process of the priest getting permission from the bishop is ENTIRELY confidential and your name will not be shared. It generally would involve going to confession and explaining the situation. Then you take a pseudonym and return in one month. During that month the priest does the paperwork in an anonymous way and receives the permission. When you return, your pseudonym makes him aware that you are the same person, and he lifts the penalty and absolves.

  10. Tom says:

    So I’m still confused. If the priest might not have the faculty to life an excommunication, is absolution actually efficacious?

  11. Joshua08 says:

    Maybe we need to use the old words again

    Dominus noster Jesus Christus te absolvat; et ego auctoritate ipsius te absolvo ab omni vinculo excommunicationis (suspensionis) et interdicti in quantum possum et tu indiges. Deinde, ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, + et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

    May the Lord Jesus Christ absolve you, and I, by his authority, absolve you from every chain of excommunication (suspension) and interdict as far as I am able and you require. Then, I absolve you of your sins, in the name…

  12. Tim Ferguson says:

    Tom, if the priest does not have the faculty to lift a penalty, then the penalty is not lifted. The absolution of the sin would still be valid and efficacious, but the penalty would remain. In such a case, the priest should refer the penitent to someone capable of lifting the penalty, and that person would do so utilizing the external forum form of lifting a penalty.

    While there has indeed been a history of latae sententiae penalties in the West, there has been a lot of imprecision on the matter – and law should be precise. Penal law, especially, should give the faithful a clear sense of where they stand. While it is true that there has been a lamentable laxity on the part of many dioceses to impose penalties, I don’t think that continuing the murky and unclear practice of automatic penalties is the best solution to that problem, especially since they so often end in quandaries like the one Fr. Z’s interlocutor presents.

  13. Nicole says:

    I had a latae sententiae excommunication lifted back in 2008, not for abortion, but for apostasy. It was pretty rough going. The parish priest I saw about the matter when I first started examination of my conscience (back in 2006) to come back to the Church, absolutely refused to look at Canon Law when I brought it to him. He manifested what to me seemed to be a refusal to believe that anyone could possibly be excommunicated…and that Canon Law was something evil or in the way. :( He explicitly stated that he would not lift an excommunication (whether or not he had the jurisdiction) because he did not believe I was excommunicated.

    Anyway, I moved to another parish in another state about a six months to a year later… I had a friend who had serious misgivings about my spiritual condition and had spoken to my new parish priest about the possibility that I was excommunicated by apostasy (cans 751 & 1364). The parish priest said he highly doubted it, but wanted to know some particulars of what might lead my friend to believe that such was possibly the case. The friend told the priest that I had professed and believed that Christ was not God…anyway, the priest apparently perked his ears up at that and said he believed that I absolutely was excommunicated by can. 1364 if that were the case. He said he’d consult with the bishop immediately to see what it would take to lift the excommunication. Needless to say, I finally got the excommunication lifted…and my life has turned around so drastically, it’s hard to imagine it was even possible. Praise Jesus Christ for His mercy on those who forsake, abuse and despise Him!

  14. Supertradmum says:

    Thanks for your input as your information squares with what a priest high in the hierarchy told me. I feel we need teaching and counseling on this.

  15. Supertradmum says:

    Can you clarify as to whether the apostasy excommunication applies to fallen away Catholics and if 1323.2 mitigates the excommunication. The reason I am asking is that so many fallen away Catholics come back via RCIA and only go to Confession, without having the excommunication of no longer believing that Christ is God being removed. The lack of teaching on this is appalling and I feel partly responsible for the confusion, as I worked in RCIA for so many years, bringing back fallen away Catholics who had become agnostics or even atheists for awhile, before returning. Can you help with this?

  16. Joshua08 says:

    The excommunications for schism, apostasy, heresy apply only to public and formal acts of schism, apostasy and heresy, and not to occult acts.

    If I lose the faith and stop going to Church, that is one thing. If I publicly renounce the faith, quite another. While the formal act of apostasy is a grave sin in either case, it obtains punishment as a crime only when it is public. This is why an occult heretic would be, for instance, treated as juridically in the Church but a public heretic isn’t.

  17. C. says:

    Imprecision and doubtful judgments, while regrettable, are part and parcel of any legal system. Thus we find many well-meaning, devout, orthodox Catholic penitents in various stages of doubt as to the state of their own soul–i.e., the meaning and application of the divine moral law to their own actions. If such is the case with law written by God and interpreted by men, then how can we hope to eliminate imprecision and doubt for laws written by mere men?

    It would be a very grave mistake for us to eliminate law entirely because of our inherent imperfections. The highest purpose of penal law is not precision but prevention, and the effective method of prevention that penal law attempts to use–fear–is frequently a fellow traveller with uncertainty and doubt.

    The present penal law system allows for two very effective methods of clarifying doubtful latae sententiae cases–the first is absolution, and the second is a decree. You don’t have to be morally certain that you’ve committed an act with full knowledge and consent in order to seek absolution from censures. In the end, it doesn’t really matter that much if you don’t know whether you have been excommunicated or not, as long as absolution is readily and conveniently available in the sacristy before Mass. It is the availability of absolution which most needs improvement–We need priests with faculties staffing the confessionals, with their faculties publicly known, making their intention to absolve clear to the penitents, and using the proper form.

  18. Nicole says:

    Joshua08 –

    I think you’re confusing the penalty by which clerics lose their ecclesiatical office for a public defection from the Catholic faith or from the communion with the Church (can 194 n.1 nn.2) with how can. 1364 applies in general….which is described in cans. 1321 through 1328. It does not take a public act for a person to be under the penalty of a latae sententiae excommunication for heresy, apostasy or schism. It only takes a public act of defection from the Catholic faith or from the communion with the Church for one to lose his ecclesiastical office.

  19. Tim Ferguson says:

    Among the things we need to keep in mind here are canon 18, informing us that “laws which establish a penalty…are subject to strict interpretation,” and canon 751, defining heresy (“the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith.”) apostasy (“the total repudiation of the Christian faith”) and schism (“the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him”).

    With that in mind, we read canon 1364 declaring apostates, heretics and schismatics to be excommunicated latae sententiae. Canons 1323 and 1323 explain various factors by which a person could be exempt from the penalty, or his imputability diminished (with an accompanying tempering of the penance employed).

    I would suspect that few of those Catholics who have fallen away and later seek reconciliation have actually incurred the penalty of excommunication. That’s not to say that none have – and it would be imprudent for an RCIA coordinator to simply excuse everyone from the possibility of having been excommunicated simply because most have not been. Especially if someone, after ceasing the practice of the Catholic faith, has taken up the practice of another faith – Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc. – there is quite likely the case of apostasy. Each circumstance would be different, and should be very carefully probed with great pastoral attentiveness. It might be best to be done in the context of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to ensure the confidentiality of the penitent. That’s not to say that trying to determine the exact status of a person can only be done within the Sacrament, but it makes a certain amount of sense to have it done within the Sacrament.

    Canon 508 says that, in dioceses which have chapters of canons (there are no such dioceses in the United States), one of the canons is to be appointed Canon Penitentiary. In all other dioceses, the diocesan bishop is to appoint a priest to fulfill the function of a Canon Penitentiary (I am only aware of one diocese in the US which has done so, I would like to find that I am wrong). A Canon Penitentiary or his equivalent in law has the faculty to absolving folks from undeclared latae sententiae penalties that are not reserved to the Holy See. Such a priest could also be a great resource for priests and RCIA coordinators and other parochial persons – when dealing with someone and unsure of his or her status, that person could be referred to the CP, who would presumably be a priest well versed in the law and known for his confessional skills, who could determine if any penalties need lifting, lift those he can lift and refer the case to the Apostolic Penitentiary if necessary. I think dioceses are missing the boat (and violating the law!) by not having named and well-known Canons Penitentiary or their equivalent.

  20. Supertradmum says:

    Thanks for the excellent answer:but what about a person, such as many university students,who leave the Church, become temporary, public agnostics, even atheists,and then come back? A canon lawyer priest told me that if such a person did not know of the excommunication,it didnt hold…confusion?

  21. Tim Ferguson says:

    Yes, that’s part of the confusion – as you correctly point out, canon 1323, article 2 says that “a person who without negligence was ignorant that he violated a law or precept – inadvertence and error are equivalent to ignorance” is not subject to a penalty. Partially because of a generation of poor catechesis and lax homiletics, a large percentage of the Catholic population is ignorant of the seriousness of the impact of their actions. This law is, in my opinion, designed to ensure that those who, in former days, would have been referred to as “the simple” are not subject to penalties beyond their ability to grasp, and to make a strong point about the Church’s mercy (patterned after that of Her Master).

  22. Supertradmum says:

    Thanks Tim, and I like very much your suggestion as to the appointment of CPs, as more priests are needed. I suppose we have been dealing with an ignorant Catholic populace for over fifty years.

Comments are closed.