A note about the necessary faculty priests must have licitly and validly to absolve sins

12_08_16_confessionI want to clear up something related to the upcoming grant from Pope Francis (I repeat… upcoming, and not yet) to SSPX priests to absolve the sins of penitents who come to them.

Some people are claiming that the SSPX already validly absolve sins because of their mystical “supplied jurisdiction”.  No.  Sorry.  They don’t.  They don’t because they do not have the faculty – under normal circumstances (that’s important) – to absolve validly.  The Church’s Lawgiver (the Pope) included a canon in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (for the Latin Church) that a priest must have (in addition to valid ordination) the faculty – the Church’s permission – to absolve.  No ticky, no laundry.

So, how does one get the “ticky”?

Can.  966 §1. The valid absolution of sins requires that the minister have, in addition to the power of orders, the faculty of exercising it for the faithful to whom he imparts absolution.

§2. A priest can be given this faculty either by the law itself or by a grant made by the competent authority according to the norm of ? can. 969 (i.e., diocesan bishops, religious superiors).

The priest can be given the faculty either by competent authority (i.e., his diocesan bishop, religious superior) or by the law itself.  How does the law give the faculty?

This is where can. 976 comes in.

Can.  976 Even though a priest lacks the faculty to hear confessions, he absolves validly and licitly any penitents whatsoever in danger of death from any censures and sins, even if an approved priest is present.

Imagine this scene:

A person is dying.  In the crowd gathered there are five priests.  One is a diocesan priest in good standing with full faculties of his diocese who is pretty conservative but doesn’t know how to say the traditional Mass.  One is a traddy diocesan priest from another diocese who has faculties in his own diocese, but here in Tall Tree Circle in the Diocese of Black Duck he does not because the local bishop wrote explicitly to tell him he may not hear confessions because he’s a trad.  One is a religious priest, the dying man’s brother-in-law, who is still on the active roles, but he is presently suspended because he is trying to figure out if he is a man or really a woman trapped in a man’s body.  One is an married ex-priest who has just gotten out of jail.  One is a priest of the SSPX.

QUAERITUR: Which priest has the faculty validly and licitly to absolve the dying fellow?

ANSWER: All of them.

Even if there is a priest in good standing with the faculty present, all of the priests there have the faculty because of the circumstance.  The law itself gives even the questioning priest and the SSPX priest the faculty in that circumstance.  It doesn’t make any difference that there is a priest in good standing there.  The dying person may, perhaps, wish to confess to the SSPXer instead of the “Novus Ordo” priest from the diocese.  The dying man may wish to confess to his brother-in-law, because he knows him.  The dying man may wish to confess to the SSPXer because he know that he knows the traditional form of absolution.  He might want the married ex-priest because he, too, is a Cubs fan.  Whatever.  All three priests present have the faculty, but for different reasons.

Imagine another scene:

A ship is sinking in the ocean.  Two priests are watching as people are drowning and being eaten by sharks.  One is a priest in good standing in his diocese with faculties to hear confessions.  The other is an ex-SSPX priest, validly but illicitly ordained but now out of the SSPX because of drug trafficking and prostitution charges.  Which one can validly absolve?

You know the answer before I ask.

In the case of a person who is dying, the law itself gives the faculty even to a “laicized” ex-priest (or an SSPX priest) even though there is a shiny clean priest in good standing present.

Another scene:

On one side of the street is St. Progressiva – aka “Jesus Our Fluffy Friend Catholic Community” where Father “Just call me ‘Bruce'” in his tie-dyed tee has finished hanging up the felt butterflies in the gym cum worship space before the illicit and probably invalid Form 3 “general absolution” service he has scheduled in advance for his faith community.  He is musing about the homily Sr. Randi gave during liturgy that morning, cherishing her insights about global warming and wishing that he weren’t part of the oppressive patriarchal which caused it.  A person comes up to him and asks him to hear her confession.  He scratches his scruffy graying beard as she hands him a card with the actual form of absolution written on it.  She asks him to use that because, the last time she was there during the 15 minutes of confession schedule last Lent, he had composed his own form of absolution.  He hesitates.  “What would Francis do?”, she asks.  He scratches his beard some more, shrugs and, since the butterflies have made him happy, hears the woman’s confession, gives her a penance and absolution… “just like the old days!”  He has a twinge as that tiny little Catholic voice in him suggests that he did it right this time, but it is soon drowned out as the pop-combo (of his contemporaries lead by Sr. Randi) starts warming up.   After all, no one believes in that anymore.

On the other side of the street, in the converted ex-Lutheran SSPX church now called St. Marcel the Courageous, newly-ordained Fr. Rocco Firm has motivated a group of happy girls and their mothers to scrape gum off the undersides of pews from 20 years ago.  He straightens his biretta and gets into the newly constructed traditional-style confessional, complete with curtains and sliding doors and fixed grates.  There is a line.  They are well-catechized and up-to-date about the issues and news of the Church and the SSPX.  None of them are in danger of death.  All of them could have walked across the street or have driven over to Msgr. Zuhlsdorf’s parish St. Ipsidipsy or over to Fr. Guido at St. Fidelia.  No one is being denied the opportunity to go to confession to a regular priest.  Fr. Firm hears one person after another and says the traditional formula of absolution.

QUAERITUR:  Which priest has validly absolved?  “Bruce” or Fr. Firm?

ANSWER:  You know the answer.

Were the people at St. Marcel validly absolved?  No.  [UPDATE – NOTA BENE! Since Pope Francis granted the faculty in the Year of Mercy, SSPX priests validly absolve!!]

Were the people at St. Marcel forgiven their sins by God? Perhaps.  We don’t know.  I’ll bet most of them made pret’near perfect Acts of Contrition after a good examination of conscience.

Was the woman who went to the aging hippy across the street validly absolved?  Yes.  She might have had to hold her nose because of the smell of the bong, but, yes.

Will the people who go to the Form Three service across the street be validly absolved?  Probably not.  General Absolution cannot be scheduled, since it can be given only in cases of grave necessity.  Can. 961 establishes that a grave necessity exists (outside of the clear case of danger of death) when…

“given the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors available properly to hear the individual’s confessions within an appropriate time, so that without fault of their own the penitents are deprived of sacramental grace or of Holy Communion for a lengthy period of time.”

All those conditions would need to be present for general absolution to be given licitly.  Telling people to “come back next week” would NOT deprive them of sacramental grace for a “lengthy period of time,” which most manualists – and we like manuals – would say is a month or more. Furthermore, the Motu proprio of 7 April 2002 Misericordia Dei, 5 clarifies that “judgment as to whether there exists the conditions required by canon 961 is [Note bene] not a matter for the confessor, but for the diocesan bishop who can determine cases of such necessity in light of the criteria agreed upon with other members of the Episcopal Conference.”  Moreover, you must make a regular confession as soon as possible after a Form 3, or the second time is invalid (except in danger of death, of course).

During the Year of Mercy the priests of the SSPX will NOT have the faculty from the law itself (as in the danger of death) to absolve validly, but the faithful will have the privilege of going to them anyway.


And go to a priest with faculties who is NOT giving general absolution.

Yes… the moderation queue is ON.

Dura lex, sed lex.

Anyway… the real point, amidst the digressions, is that in the case of the danger of death any validly ordained priest – active or inactive, in good standing or not – can validly absolve even if a priest who is canonically squared away is present.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Wouldn’t the penitents at st. Marcel, if they do not know the canonical difficulties and all these details, incur the Ecclesia supplet? [No, this isn’t a case for Ecclesia supplet. It is more a case of Deus providebit. I suspect that they were forgiven because God reads their hearts and sees their sorrow and good effort. I don’t think it is because the priests obtain a mystery faculty because of emergency powers.]

  2. rahook says:

    But what about canon #144, which states that the Church supplies the power of governance in cases of common error? The second part of this canon clearly states that it applies to canon #966, which deals with the valid absolution of sins. I have always understood this to mean that if a person who is in a state of ignorance about the faculties of the SSPX were to confess his sins to one of their priests, his sins would be forgiven, even though the priest does not have the power to validly absolve, because the Church would supply the power in this instance. [That would not give the priest the faculty. But I hope and pray that God will provide for all those penitents.]

  3. caputveritas says:

    Fr. Z.,
    A question I’ve long had: by what means/canonical process did they who were SSPX priests before the illicit consecrations which excommunicated their bishops lose their faculties to validly absolve? If a priest’s canonical superior is excommunicated, does he (the priest) automatically lose his faculties, or would it take a separate decree to remove that priest’s faculties?

    [The excommunications of 1988 aren’t the problem. Even before the excommunications the priests of the SSPX had no one over them with power of governance who could legitimately grant them any faculties. That said, Popes have been saying that priests of the SSPX don’t licitly exercise ministry in the Church. No competent authority has granted them faculties. On 6 May 1975 the Bishop of the place where the SSPX was HQ’d withdrew the SSPX’s canonical status. The SSPX’s appeal was turned down by the Apostolic Signatura. At that point, the SSPX was no longer officially recognized. Also, Archbp. Lefebvre on his own didn’t have any authority to govern. He wasn’t a diocesan bishop and he wasn’t acting as a religious superior with the authority to give faculties. On 22 July 1976 on instructions from Pope Paul VI the Congregation for Bishops suspended Archbp. Lefebvre for an indefinite time from all exercise of holy orders. That continued until Lefebvre’s death. He still could ordain validly, but he did not function licitly. However, he could not exercise any governance. Anyway, upon their valid but illicit ordination by bishops having no permission to ordain or any authority to give them faculties, these good men are suspended. I sad about it, but that’s it.]

  4. While I sometimes disagree with you, Father, I find this article well worth reading and sharing. Thank you for writing it. God Bless.

  5. A Sinner 2 says:

    So, “Bruce” the heretic, the man making a public mockery and profanation of the Church, who professes and preaches a religion that bears no resemblance to anything Catholic, can give valid absolution, yet a genuinely Catholic priest cannot because of a legal/organizational technicality. [Yes, that’s about it. And it is more than a technicality (which is a way saying that you don’t like it and therefore it shouldn’t make a difference).]

    Pharisaical, no?

    [No, in fact. It isn’t. This is how things work in the Church and for good reasons that have been worked out over the centuries. It is sometimes hard to see that when emotions and preferences are involved. As a matter of fact, there are some technicalities that I don’t especially like, but Peter didn’t consult me before exercising the authority God gave him to make the Church’s laws.]

  6. Bosco says:

    And when Francis’ Year of Mercy begins, will those who have previously confessed to an SSPX priest have to confess that they had confessed to an SSPX priest before the Year of Mercy commenced? [I don’t think that’s funny.]

  7. Bosco says:

    Just a further thought: Would the penitent have to express a firm purpose of amendment to avoid all SSPX Masses in future and not frequent the SSPX confessional after the Year of Mercy has expired? [I really don’t think that that’s funny. Not funny at all.]

  8. christulsa says:

    My wife and I attend the SSPX here in Tulsa. We are very thankful to His Holiness Pope Francis for granting this to the SSPX in the upcoming Year of Mercy. [Not quite… the favor was extended to the faithful who follow the SSPX priests, not to the priests.]

    My opinion is that the situation with the Society of St. Pius X can be rectified, IF people are of good will. The Roman theologians know (imo) the SSPX can be accepted AS IS, such that they can respectfully maintain their dubia regarding certain aspects of VII/New Mass. I believe the last 2-3 years demonstrate that Bishop Fellay and in general the SSPX District Superiors, are open to this AS IS agreement.

    I also hope that the TLM societies under the Ecclesia Dei commission will join in the doctrinal discussions. We trads all see there is a Crisis of modernism throughout the universal Church. We can all agree that there are theological issues with the Council and liturgical reform that we pray will be sorted out one day by the Vatican, by the Vicar of Christ.

    I believe we that on hand we can respectfully argue over issues that somewhat divide us at times (like the validity of confessions heard by SSPX priests); and AT THE SAME time we can, and MUST unite against the universal apostasy that has taken over the mainstream Church.

    Chris in Tulsa

  9. JimRB says:

    Father, I’m assuming the answer is “yes,” due to the fullness of orders they have received, but would the sacrament of penance received from an SSPX bishop be valid (but illicit?). And pardon my theological/canonical nitpicking, but when the faculties that Pope Francis has extended have actually been extended, confession to SSPX priests become valid – but are they licit? Thank you! My questions are out of curiosity – I think what the Holy Father has extended is a great sign of mercy and hopefully future full communion with the SSPX.

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  11. JonPatrick says:

    Chris in Tulsa, I think that the SSPX will have to be willing to accept the Ordinary Form (Mass of Paul VI) as valid as a condition of being accepted into the fold. The videos on their web site that tell Catholics they should not attend the Ordinary Form and stay home if they cannot get to a TLM does not help their cause, in my opinion.

  12. tominrichmond says:

    Well done clarification, Father, and a needed one. I would love to see Ed Peters write about the “common error” ecclesia supplet argument that I’ve seen referred to here and elsewhere. It’s confusing many of the faithful who think that the SSPX validly absolves sins.

    Another angle of difficulty is posed by the attitude of one comment above, shared by many, which is that if my “regular” priest is not (pick one:) holy enough, orthodox enough, strict enough as a confessor, I’m justified in seeking out an SSPX priest. This is a sort of quasi-Donatism whereby if the priest doesn’t meet whatever standard I’ve set for him, there’s something suspect about receiving a sacrament at his hands. It’s a denial in effect of the principle of ex opere operato.

    Again, I’d love to see Ed Peters address the whole “ecclesia supplet” nonsense vis-a-vis the situation of the SSPX.

  13. vandalia says:

    It is a manner of primarily academic interest, but the other occasion where the faculty is provided by the law itself relates to Canon 967 §1:

    In addition to the Roman Pontiff, Cardinals have the faculty of hearing the confessions of the Christian faithful everywhere in the world by the law itself. Bishops likewise have this faculty and use it licitly everywhere unless the diocesan Bishop has denied it in a particular case. [SSPX bishops are suspended a divinis.]

  14. JonPatrick, I suspect some here have seen OF Masses that, while both licit and valid, were nevertheless celebrated in such a way as to possibly challenge the faith or devotion of one who is insufficiently informed. This may be closer to what one SSPX video I saw was saying, rather than arguing that all OF Masses are inherently invalid. Of course, rather than staying home in such a case, better advice would be to find another Mass (either OF or EF) that offers proper worship to God.

  15. Ivan says:

    I am no canonist and you, Father, undoubtedly know much more about this than I do, but the second to last paragraph of this article sounds pretty convincing (and I am not involved with the SSPX!): http://canonlawmadeeasy.com/2013/08/15/are-sspx-sacraments-valid-part-ii/

    [It’s a good attempt, but it’s wrong. It misses the distinction between ignorance and error. The penitent who goes to “St. Andrew Roman Catholic Church” (I believe all the SSPX sites are called “chapels” not “churches”) might be in ignorance about the status of the SSPX, but that ignorance is not sufficient to rise to the level of a common error. The error would need to be the equivalent of one made by an ordinary, reasonably informed and educated person. Reasonably informed and educated persons are aware that the SSPX priests are not in a normalized situation with regards to the diocesan bishop and Sovereign Pontiff. While Ecclesia supplet does not apply to these situations, the more amorphous and non-canonical Deus providebit principle might. If a sinner is ignorant of the incapacity of the one to whom he turns for absolution (i.e., the priest doesn’t have faculties), and if he is ignorant that he has not received valid absolution, that does not mean that God withholds His merciful care from this sinner! One could opine that this ignorant sinner has, by confessing to someone he mistakenly thought to be a priest in good stand with the requisite faculties, made a perfect act of contrition. God’s mercy is shown through the sacramental system, but God’s mercy extends beyond it as well. God is not limited by our mistakes. Nevertheless, it remains that the penitent has not been validly absolved. It also remains that the priest himself is not ignorant of the judgment of the Roman Pontiff in his regard. The priest who lacks faculties who knowingly and willingly induces or permits the ignorance to continue should examine his conscience and then hhumbly submit to the judgment of the Holy See.]

  16. rahook says:

    I’m sorry, but I don’t follow your distinction between ignorance and common error. Could you explain it in more detail and perhaps supply some examples of both?

  17. David Zampino says:

    With respect to “Chris in Tulsa” (where I lived for more than a decade) there are TLM Masses readily available.

    This being the case, SSPX should not be an option.

  18. Tony Phillips says:

    Re: 4 Sept, 1.16 pm: Here in the UK the SSPX calls their places ‘mass centres’.

  19. Tony Phillips says:

    Oops, I clicked to quick. They also use the terms ‘chapels’ and ‘churches’. Not sure what the differences, in their view, are.

  20. Scott W. says:

    And go to a priest with faculties who is NOT giving general absolution

    Thankfully, I will likely never likely encounter a general absolution (because it is either illegal, or it means I’m about to go into battle) but just to be clear, is a general absolution given outside the parameters of Canon law valid but licit, or both invalid and illicit? Thanks.

  21. Peregrinator says:

    I am not a canonist, but I believe the distinction between common error and ignorance (which is an individual error) is that common error applies to the common folk. That is, do many laypeople in a given area think Fr. X has faculties to hear confessions even though he does not? That is “common error” and in such cases jurisdiction is supplied even when an individual knows Fr. X doesn’t have faculties, but it remains gravely sinful for Fr. X to hear confessions without faculties. That is, he may absolve validly, but he still sins by hearing confessions.

  22. Hart says:

    The interesting point was the Pope referred to those who attend the SSPX Mass as “The Faithful”.
    Confused now more than ever…

  23. Rachel K says:

    Thanks for an excellent clarification about this question Fr Z. I was delighted to see this gift of mercy, along with the extended faculty to all priests to absolve the sin of abortion, which I think is going to bear great fruit this year.
    It is sad that there is so much confusion about the whole issue of validity, faculty and legitimacy of the sacrament of penance. I see that it is complicated, but the Church gives us clear guidelines and laws about it and how much easier to follow Her teachings with docility than to labour with our own intellects and become more confused. A devoted priest I knew (sadly dead now) said often in his sermons, “we must think with the mind of the Church”. Good advice.
    I thought Bosco’s comments weren’t in jest, but raised an important issue, which is that the dispensation for the Year of Mercy will clarify the positions of lay people within the SSPX with respect to the sacraments, and the question of what they do when the dispensation for absolution is over is a serious one. Surely Pope Francis is gently steering all these good people back into the fold through his solicitude for them, which he has expressed in a very practical way. I like the way he has found practical solutions to two important issues without altering the teaching of the Church, which of course he can not do, but he has made the position clear, and pointed us all towards the sacrament of penance/confession/reconciliation.

  24. davemyers1977 says:

    Hello Father Z! Thank you for using my drawing “Miserere” which is a variant of a painting by Harry Anderson. I love your writings Father Z and always find a potent blend of wit, beautiful sarcasm, and truth here. All of that is a compliment by the way!!


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