ASK FATHER: Validity of absolution of accomplices in sexual sins

confessional print adjustedFrom a reader…


I have two questions about c. 977, which bars a priest from absolving an accomplice in sins against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue except in danger of death (on pain of excommunication, per c. 1378).

First, is the term “accomplice” to be understood as referring strictly to those who have taken part in impure acts with the priest, or does it extend to those who have been accomplices in other ways, such as a wingman or pimp, or a brother priest who has learned of what he’s done and responded with a high five?

Second, the canon mentions absolving the accomplice, not strictly absolving the sins[For example, absolving a censure and not a sin?] Is a priest barred, except in danger of death, from absolving someone with whom he has ever sinned against chastity?

This is a disgusting topic.  However, in light of some of the antics of certain infamous priests reported recently in the media, we need some straight talk.

Canon 977 says:

The absolution of a partner in a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue [Absolutio complicis in peccato contra sextum Decalogi] is invalid, except in danger of death.

That’s pretty straight forward on one level.

In just one scenario, say a priest tells a person, “It’s okay. I’ll give you absolution afterward”, that absolution would be invalid.  In another scenario, say a priest has some sexual contact with a person and then, later, sees that person on the pavement bleeding out after having been struck down by a flying shark from one of those shark-filled tornadoes. He could give absolution validly because there is danger of death.  In another scenario, the priest’s accomplice winds up days later in the priest’s confessional and confesses the sin, the priest does not validly absolve.

Let’s also make a distinction.  There are ways in which we can participate in the sin of another person.  You suggest some in your question.  The ways in which we can also share in the guilt of another person’s sin are:

  1. By counsel (to give advice, one’s opinion or instructions.)
  2. By command (to demand, to order, such as in the military.)
  3. By consent (to give permission, to approve, to agree to.)
  4. By provocation (to dare.)
  5. By praise or flattery (to cheer, to applaud, to commend.)
  6. By concealment (to hide the action, to cover-up.)
  7. By partaking (to take part, to participate.)
  8. By silence (by playing dumb, by remaining quiet.)
  9. By defense of the ill done (to justify, to argue in favour.)

So, say a priest – this is so disgusting – gets set up by another person, a “middleman” with someone for sins against the Sixth Commandment.  Can the priest absolve the “middleman” validly?  I would say that the absolution would be invalid.  Even though the priest would have sinned with a different person, the middleman was also an accomplice.  The middleman was certainly a participant in the sin of the priest and other person by providing #1 in the list above.

One of the reasons why I conclude in this way is because of a situation that arose in the wake of dissent from Humanae vitae back in the 60s and which is surely revving up against in light of the confusion caused by Amoris laetitia.

Let’s consider can. 1378:

Can. 1378 §1. A priest who acts against the prescript of can. 977 [above] incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.

§2. The following incur a latae sententiae penalty of interdict or, if a cleric, a latae sententiae penalty of suspension:


2/ apart from the case mentioned in §1, a person who, though unable to give sacramental absolution validly, attempts to impart it or who hears sacramental confession.


So, unless there is danger of death (when a priest can validly absolve), if a priest tries to absolve an accomplice, the absolution is not only invalid, he automatically incurs an excommunication (the lifting of which is reserved to someone with faculties from the Holy See), and he is automatically suspended from the exercise of Holy Orders.

Let’s move to the next step.

In the wake of Amoris laetitia, which is objectively ambiguous, some priests hold – probably as they did before Amoris – that the civilly divorced and civilly remarried, or indeed those who are living together in some arrangement or other outside of true marriage, can have sexual relations and also receive Communion.

If a priest suggests to someone in the confessional that she can have sexual relations with a person who is not truly her husband, the the priest become an accomplice in a sin against the Sixth Commandment!  The priest is an accomplice by facilitating, approving of, the sin that the woman would soon commit upon his advice in the confessional.  The priest, an accomplice in this case, a kind of “middleman”, would incur the suspension.  The priest didn’t do the deed, as it were, but his advice was a key element.

Working our way back, I think that were a priest to try to absolve a “middleman” who arranged for the same priest someone with whom he might sin against the Sixth, the priest could not validly absolve that “middleman”, who is a key accomplice in the sin.

How about someone, a “cheerleader” if you will, who were to give such a priest the “high five” afterward?  I am a little less certain about that.

Being a “middleman” is concrete and before the fact, without whom the sin would not have happened.  A “high five” from the “cheerleader” would certainly be sinful, because he participates in the sin of another through praising the sin and sinner (#5, above).  That “high five” is after the fact.  The sin took place with or without the “high five”.  However, were that cheerleader to prompt and lead the priest to do it again, that’s another matter.

This is an unpleasant topic.  However, it is also an opportunity to make some distinctions about how we can participate in the sin of another.  It is also a good warning to priests out there who think that, because of Amoris laetitia they can tell people that they can have sexual relations with those to whom they are not truly married.

Fathers… you are in BIG TROUBLE.

Lastly, if I understand your final question, can a such a priest validly absolve an accomplice from a censure without himself incurring a censure?  I don’t know.

I think the canon intends absolution of sins not absolution of censures.

In general, lifting or absolution of censures can be together with the absolution of sins.  However, there are specific formulas of absolution of censures before giving absolution for sins.  For example, this morning, after celebration of the TLM, I heard confessions and gave absolution in the older, traditional form.  First, the priest absolves any censures to the extent that the absolution is needed and his (my) faculties allow.  Only after the lifting of censures does the priest (me) then absolve the sins.  It’s a two-step process.

Furthermore, the post-Conciliar book published by the Holy See for the Order of the Sacrament of Penance includes specific forms for absolution of censures.  So, in the normal and orderly way of doing things, a priest should absolve the censure before absolving sins.  In my own work as a confessor, I have on several occasions had recourse to the Holy See to obtain the faculty to absolve some censure or other.  In those cases, I was given the faculty and I absolved the censure, independent from absolution of sins.  

That said, I think that the canons we have dealt with concern absolution of sins.

The moderation queue is ON.  Canonists and priests, especially, are welcome.  Otherwise, I may be restrictive.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I recall reading a commentary on the 1917 Code in my old seminary. It said that the equivalent canon in the old Code meant that if a priest absolved an accomplice of the sins they committed together (even if they were committed prior to his ordination) the absolution was invalid. [Interesting. The canon does not specify a “when”.] It does not refer to a situation, for example, where a former accomplice confesses totally different sins to the priest years later, presumably having been absolved in the meantime by a different priest of the sexual sins this canon is concerned with. [It would be helpful to have a well-informed canonist jump in.]

  2. tho says:

    Father, what a coincidence, I just finished reading Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. The protagonist is a priest in southern Mexico, where Catholicism is forbidden under pain of death. He admits how unworthy he is to be a martyr or even a holy man because he is a whiskey priest and he has fathered a child. The fornication was a single event but the whiskey is an ongoing need He has a great desire for confession, but the only priest in the area is married, which he entered into to save his life. After all, the authorities figured, a married man cannot be a priest, ipso facto. He could save his life by crossing the border into a state that is more tolerant of religion, also his conscience would be cleared by being able to go to confession, but he is compelled to stay. You will have to read the book yourself to find out how it ends.
    P.S. It is a novel. [Indeed.]

  3. gracie says:

    I was wondering if c. 977 is limited to the sixth commandment. [That’s what the canon says.] It would seem that a priest should be barred from being an accomplice to the breaking of any of the commandments. What came to mind reading this post was a priest who told my friend to “follow your conscience” – he didn’t bother to tell her it had to be an informed conscience – when she asked him if it’s okay to be pro-choice. She had “priest- shopped” around, going from one to another, until she found a priest that gave her the answer she wanted to hear. The woman then used this seal of approval to support pro-choice candidates. Hopefully, there’s a c.-something that addresses other situations.

  4. THREEHEARTS says:

    I once was told by a priest for example that a member of ab association, a member of a society, a member of a college, the priesthood, any catholic group of what-evers if one of them sins, then any member of that group that does not correct that member of their/his/her group is guilty too.
    Let us see how the keepers of the keys will say about this comment. [No. Of course not. Our actual sins are not collective, as was the Original Sin.]

  5. Good analysis, Pater. See also this, from yours truly, “When bad advice in confession becomes a crime”, Homiletic & Pastoral Review 101/9 (Jun-Jul 2011) 18-23, in PDF here:

    [Thanks for that (whew!) and thanks for that link.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  6. Andrew_81 says:

    Fr. PJ is correct … at least as long as my Canon Law notes and professor are to be trusted.

    The invalidity of absolution refers to the initial absolution. Should the priest in question hear a general confession later, there is no issue (at least a regards validity, but probably not as regards prudence).

    I don’t have my Moral manuals nearby this weekend, but my recollection is that application of this prohibition (under pain of invalidity and excommunication) of absolution of an accomplice in re turpi would be limited as you suggest to an antecedent formal condition, and probably a condition sine qua non. This because of Canon 18 — “Laws which establish a penalty, restrict the free exercise of rights, or contain an exception from the law are subject to strict interpretation.” Strictly speaking, an “accomplice” is one who is tied to the sin as formal antecedent condition. That seems to accord with a very similar Canon 1329.2.

    The priest in question would also need to be aware of the penalty, and also that his absolution in that particular case is invalid and penalized with excommunication. Should he mistakenly absolve either unawares that the person is his accomplice, or thinking that the person probably already confessed this sin, he could not incur the penalty. This from Canons 1321ff. The absolution, however, would still be invalid, outside of danger of death, again because of Canon 18, since Canon 1378 must be interpreted strictly, and provides no exceptions for the validity of absolution outside of danger of death.

  7. robtbrown says:

    Fr Z says,

     No. Of course not. Our actual sins are not collective, as was the Original Sin.

    The penalty (poena) is collective. The culpability (culpa) is not. The Grace of Original Innocence was given to First Man as representative of the entire human race. First Man then lost it for the Human Race. This is like the grandson who takes over a very rich company, and he runs it into the ground–no heirs will receive a dollar.

    In like manner, we all share the penalty–which is death and all its consequences.

    The question then is how we receive the penalty without having committed the sin.

    NB: Culpability is in the will. There can be culpability even though no evil (malum) was produced. For example, a man fires a weapon into bushes intending to murder another man, who in fact is not present. The first man is culpable of murder even though no evil has been produced.

    St Thomas provides the foundation–he considered the Grace of Original Innocence to have been Sanctifying Grace, which elevates the soul, orienting it toward God. Now what happens when people sin mortally who had been in a state of Grace? They lose Sanctifying Grace. Thus. we can see how culpability is in the will of those not yet Baptised.

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  9. Aquinas Gal says:

    This is an important topic; what about all those priests who support same-sex “marriage,” at least with a wink and a nod? What are they telling people in the confessional? A certain Jesuit comes to mind….

  10. Massachusetts Catholic says:

    This question comes from an actual ongoing situation in my area. There is a pastor who attended and blessed the same-sex marriage of two parishioners. The two men now have adopted children, and are parents of a prominent family in the town and parish. They attend services and receive communion. Their children are in religious ed and received First Communion and Baptism. Question: Can this pastor validly hear the confessions of 1) these men 2) their children?

    BTW, this situation was reported to the chancery, which sent the priest into therapy but did not change the situation at the parish.

  11. tonesing says:

    Where does the material cooperation cease? Is there a proximate cause analysis available in canon law? Given the objectively ambiguous nature of Amoris laetitia and particularly in light of the warnings given by the “Dubia Cardinals” and others, where does the culpability end?

  12. Fr. John says:

    Question from an outsider: How do canons like this apply if the confession is done anonymously, like in a confession booth? If neither the priest nor the penitent knew who the other was during the confession itself, would it be valid?

    [I don’t see anything in the canon about anonymity. That said, if a penitent is sincere, surely God takes that into account. I don’t know how, exactly, but God is not bound by canon law and forgive sins regardless. From our perspective, however, it seems to me that the priest’s absolution would be invalid. On a side note, the priest’s name should always be on the confessional: people should know which priest is in there.]

  13. Fr. John says:

    That’s interesting. I didn’t know that. In Orthodoxy, we use the name of the person receiving the sacrament when administering it and so we have no anonymity. I have extended family members that are Catholic, though, and i always assumed the anonymity went both ways.

    Theoretically, then, if the penitent knew, her actions would be sinful both objectively and subjectively, while if the priest were unaware of who was confessing, his actions might be objectively sinful but not subjectively so?

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