ASK FATHER: I’m haunted. Was I not really absolved? Am I still excommunicated?

Excommunication ceremony (British Library Royal, 6 E VI f216v)

Excommunication ceremony (British Library Royal, 6 E VI f216v)

Fathers and seminarians, pay attention!

From a reader…

The Pope is sending out special priests who can absolve abortion. Does this mean that priests are giving absolution for something they cannot? Is the absolution then invalid? What does that mean for reception of sacraments until valid absolution (once one knows that’s a possibility)? Thank you, Father. I confessed a very sinful past three years ago and reformed my life but it seems it’s back to haunt me.

We have to be careful when listening to the news these days. Many things are said in a slipshod manner without the least understanding of what is truly going on.

In many dioceses, in every diocese in these United States that I’m aware of (if someone has clear and documented evidence to the contrary, I would be interested), bishops have given to priests the authority to absolve from the automatic excommunication that occurs when someone culpably completes an abortion.

If you went to confession to a Latin Church priest in good standing in these United States, and if you confessed your sins freely and without reserve, and if the priest gave you absolution, you are absolved not only from the sin of abortion, but also the automatic excommunication you may have incurred.

I say “may have” because there are many situations and circumstances that might have lessened your culpability and therefore eliminated the possibility of an automatic excommunication (for example, being bullied into it).

What has been granted to priests in every diocese of these United States (and many elsewhere), that is, the ability to lift the penalty of abortion, is being granted to these “Missionaries of Mercy” designated by the Holy Father. They may be going to places where not all priests have been given this faculty.

Another thing, above, I wrote that “if the priest gave you absolution, you are absolved not only from the sin of abortion, but also the automatic excommunication you may have incurred.”   Let’s drill into this a bit more.

Sins are one thing and censures (like excommunication) are another.  The absolution of a sin and the absolution of a censure are different acts.  If a person comes to a confessor (a priest with proper faculties) to have a censure lifted, the confessor uses a special formula (in the Ordinary Form, “By the power granted to me, I absolve you from the bond of excommunication (or suspension or interdict). In the name of the Father…”).

However, in keeping with the law, if a penitent comes to the confessor and the penitent confesses something that incurred a censure (such as the excommunication incurred through sinfully procuring an abortion), it is enough that the priest confessor intend also to absolve from the censure when he gives absolution for sins (“I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father…”.  If the confessor chooses, before absolving the penitent’s sins, he could separately absolve from the censure (with that form I gave above) and then, after lifting the censure, absolve from the sins (with the usual form of absolution).

So, there are two ways the confessor can handle this situation.  In the case of confession of sins that incurred censures, Father can simply intend to lift the censure and pronounce just the form of absolution for sins, or he can in two distinct stages first lift the censure and then absolve the sins.

It might seem as if I am going into the weeds with these details, but some people might be nervous that they didn’t hear the priest make any reference to the excommunication when he absolved the sins.  He doesn’t always have to!  It can be included in the absolution of sins.

I’ve been, so far, explaining the Ordinary, post-Conciliar way of doing this.  If you go to a priest confessor who uses the older, traditional formulas of absolution, this is what he says (usually in Latin).  Attend to the order of elements in this form:

May Almighty God have mercy on thee, forgive thee thy sins, and bring thee to everlasting life. Amen. [A wonderful prayer…]

May the almighty and merciful Lord grant thee pardon, absolution and remission of thy sins. [Another wonderful prayer…]

[And now we get down to business…] May Our Lord Jesus Christ absolve thee, and I by His authority do absolve thee [from what?] from every bond of excommunication, or interdict (or suspension) as far as I am able and thou art needful.  [And, having lifted the censure(s)…] I absolve thee from thy sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.

[And now a wonderful prayer…] May the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the Saints, whatever good thou shalt have done or evil endured, be for thee unto the remission of thy sins, the increase of grace, and the reward of everlasting life. Amen.

As you can see, the same elements I explained above are present.  The priest lifts any censures that need to be lifted to the extent that he is empowered to do by his faculties, and then he absolves the sins.   According to the old form, the business about censures is always explicitly mentioned.  If you don’t need any censure lifted, no harm no foul.  But if you do, it is taken care of before you are absolved of your sins.  The newer form accomplishes this too, but in a less explicit way unless the confessor opts for the two stage method.

In my opinion, the older form is more pastorally sensitive, in that it is always explicit in what it can accomplish.

Therefore, in my opinion, priest confessors who habitually use the newer form, once they discern that a censure they can lift has been incurred, should always use the two stage method, to make the lifting of the censure explicit for the sake of the penitent’s peace of mind.

And, Fathers, always always always use the proper formula without embellishments!



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, Emanations from Penumbras, GO TO CONFESSION, Hard-Identity Catholicism, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Our Catholic Identity, Priests and Priesthood, Seminarians and Seminaries and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. APX says:

    [And now a wonderful prayer…] May the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ[…]

    My confessor always leaves this prayer out (even when there aren’t many people going to confession) and it really bothers me that I am missing out on something extra for my soul.

  2. ReginaMarie says:

    I am wondering why you specified confessing to a Latin Church priest in good standing in the US, versus simply any Catholic priest (such as those of one of the Eastern Catholic Churches) in good standing in the US? Can you clarify, please? Thanks. [I know about Latin Church priests and bishops. I don’t know what faculties Eparchs give to Eastern priests.]

  3. wolfeken says:

    One of the (many, many, many) strong points of the pre-Vatican II sacraments and blessings is the use of verbs and commands. “May the…”, “and I by His authority do absolve thee”, etc. The traditional rite of baptism commands exorcisms. The house blessings actually address the house to be blessed, not just the homeless in the world. The sacrament of confirmation uses the word “confirm” with “I confirm thee…”

    I will never understand why EVERYTHING had to be changed following Vatican II, including the form of absolution in the sacrament of penance. Does telling a story at the beginning of the revised rite (God the Father of Mercies…) really add value, enough to change the entire ritual?

    On the positive side, it is terrific to see (hear?) so many priests beginning (or continuing) to use the pre-Vatican II form of absolution for the sacrament of penance, as permitted by any priest thanks to Benedict XVI and Summorum Pontificum.

  4. Matt R says:

    There is no category of excommunications latae sententiae in the Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Churches, so the situation, if procured abortion is even excommunicable under that code, would be different. In the Latin Church, in a place where the absolution of excommunication is still reserved to the Ordinary, it seems that the priest would have to presume the excommunication LS was incurred and receive the faculty to lift the censure. On the other hand, there would be no censure to be lifted for an Eastern Catholic. Now, the Eastern priest could always hear the confession of a Latin Catholic. I suppose if his Ordinary is also the local Latin bishop, the Latin law could be followed without any problems…I would have no idea what to do if the Ordinary is an Eastern bishop, whether here or in the Old World.

    I know that there are some Irish dioceses where the faculty has not been given to priests. There are also sins that can carry censures reserved to the Apostolic See. Among them are profanation of the Eucharist and sexual abuse.

  5. Matt R says:

    My last sentence is incomplete. I believe sexual abuse by clerics is reserved to the Apostolic See. It certainly is if Confession is used either as the means or if he tries to absolve someone who he involved in sin (abusive or not, actually).

  6. MattH says:

    I have heard that the list of things that are reserved to the Apostolic See are limited to the following (the last three of which, only priest or bishops can commit).
    Canon 1367: A person who throws away the consecrated species or takes or retains them for a sacrilegious purpose incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See….
    Canon 1370 §1. A person who uses physical force against the Roman Pontiff incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See….
    Canon 1378 §1. A priest who acts against the prescript of Canon 977 incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See…. (Canon 977 provides “The absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue is invalid except in danger of death.”).
    Canon 1382 A bishop who consecrates some one a bishop without a pontifical mandate and the person who receives the consecration from him incur a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.
    Canon 1388 §1. A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See….

    So unless you have attacked the Pope, I think the only thing a lay person can really do to get an latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See would be the first one: “throws away the consecrated species or takes or retains them for a sacrilegious purpose.” There’s plenty of other ways to end up with ecclesiastical censures, but all the other ones can be resolved within your own diocese.

    Interestingly, here is what my Archdiocese says about faculties to lift censures:
    “A priest incardinated into the Archdiocese of -, or who is entrusted with pastoral responsibilities in the Archdiocese by the Archbishop, may hear confessions habitually and give absolution …. Priests who have been given these faculties may absolve from the censures reserved to the Ordinary … This includes the power to absolve, for the first time only, a person who has incurred the censure for procuring an abortion. When exercising this faculty, the penitent is to be instructed that an excommunication is incurred when an abortion is knowingly and freely procured. For all subsequent abortions, special permission from the Archbishop is needed to absolve from the censure….”

  7. eulogos says:

    When I first became a Catholic in 1971 and went to confession, the priest asked me questions about my whole life. (I was not really prepared for confession as I had spent all my mental energy working up the courage to take the step and make the profession of faith.) When I said I had had two abortions, he said he would say the lifting of the excommunication in Latin because he didn’t know it in English. I pointed out that I had been baptized since I committed that sin (I was baptized in an Episcopal church-with the right words, it was before the Episcopalians went nuts- 9 months before I became a Catholic) and I thought baptism took care of all that? He agreed and didn’t say it. After that for each thing he asked me he asked if it was before or after I was baptized. I think I was right but every time you post about this I more and more regret that I didn’t just let him say those words in Latin. Just to be really really sure it was all taken care of, because that is a really difficult thing to live with.
    Susan Peterson

  8. Suburbanbanshee says:

    I just realized today, when I looked on the Vatican site, that teeeeeechnically, this coming year is a a year of misericordia, or to use the Hebrew term, chesed. The Spanish version says it’s a jubilee year of “misericordia” (which in Spanish is usually “compassion” or “pity”), not a jubilee of “merced.” (which is specifically “mercy”). So they’re Missionaries of a bunch of stuff.

    Obviously “misericordia” includes mercy as one of its many translations (which differ a lot depending on the use of “chesed” in the OT), but it’s kinda weird that our bishops, or the Vatican’s translation office, went with such a limited translation of the name.

    Some of the things in Vatican announcements do sound less squishy if they’re saying “compassion” instead of “mercy.”

  9. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Susan – I know you know this. But by definition, you can’t excommunicate a unbaptized person. He’s not part of the communion yet.

    I understand the urge to have extra forms of absolution and release, but that way lays scruples, and scruples are no fun at all! So ignore the urge!

  10. Navarricano says:

    Hi suburbanbanshee,

    “Misericordia” is the correct, contemporary translation from the Latin. Since you brought it up, presuming you read Spanish, the relevant entries for the definition of “misericordia” from the 22nd edition of the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española read as follows:

    misericordia. (Del lat. misericord?a).

    1. f. Virtud que inclina el ánimo a compadecerse de los trabajos y miserias ajenos…

    4. f. Rel. Atributo de Dios, en cuya virtud perdona los pecados y miserias de sus criaturas.

    merced. (Del lat. merces, -?dis).

    7. f. ant. Misericordia, perdón

    Additionally, in civil society “merced” was used as a courtesy for treating with people who, while possessing some position or degree of authority, did not possess a noble title or some other condition which might require the use of other, more noble titles of respect. Vuestra (o Su) merced was often used to address the clergy, for example.

  11. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Navarricano – Then I will update my Spanish dictionary! But 4 is still pretty low on the meaning list, so I expect it is affecting how it’s being viewed.

    When I hear “mercy,” I don’t think of “compassion” as included at all. I think, “one person did something bad, the local forces of law have him, but the judge has decided not to punish him as much as he could, or at all.” Compassion could cause mercy to occur, but they’re not the same things. Mercy is more a legal or political act that stems from justice.

  12. Suburbanbanshee says:

    I just thought of a good example. There’s a kid’s game where one kid twists another kid’s arm, or tickles him, or does something else annoying. If you want the kid to stop, the other kid yells, “Mercy!”

    So yeah, the English word “mercy” is associated with the just exercise of power.

  13. Navarricano says:


    I wouldn’t agree that compassion isn’t a part of mercy, but I understand what you’re driving at in your points above.

    “Merced” and “misericordia” have always been synonyms in Spanish, but “merced” has become antiquated and fallen out of use. It’s seldom seen outside of historical and literary texts. It is, of course, the origin of the Spanish name “Mercedes”, which is given to girls in honour of the Virgin Mary, under the title La Vigen de la Merced, a devotion which spread from Cataluña to the rest of Spain (and from here to the New World–she is the patroness of the Domincan Republic, for example). The images associated with her devotion are referred to interchangeably as “La Virgen de la Misericordia” or “La Virgen de la Merced”.

    Then of course there is the Order of Mercedarians, a religious order founded here in Spain in 1218 by St. Peter Nolasco to redeem Christian captives from their Muslim captors.

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