ASK FATHER: Validity of absolution of accomplices in sexual sins and the censures – revisited in light of Amoris laetitia fn. 351

Today I had a somewhat protracted session of texting concerning censures for certain sins against the 6th Commandment of the Decalogue. For example, what happens to a priest who in the context of the Sacrament of Penance (and by extension internal forum counsel) would “sollicit” from the penitent sins against the 6th (sexual sins). Also, what would happen were a priest to absolve an “accomplice” of a sin against the 6th.

As it turns out, I wrote something about this some years ago.

What is really disturbing about this are the implications for those priests who, because of their liberal, modernist interpretation of infamous footnote 351 in Amoris laetitia, have in fact themselves incurred censures because they advised penitents that they could have sexual relations in an objectively adulterous relationship.   As below…

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.

So, if – in the context of the 15 minutes on the 4th Saturday of the month scheduled confession time – Fr. “Just call me Bruce” Hugalot at St. Idealia (part of the “Engendering Togetherness Community of Welcome” cluster of the Diocese of Libville) tells Cindy Lou, now shacked up with Thing 2 after leaving her legitimate husband Thing 1, that she can have sex with Thing 2, he could incur the censure foreseen in can. 1378 because it involves absolution of an “accomplice” in a sin contra sextum (can. 977).

It doesn’t pay to be a modernist.  As a matter of fact, it’s spiritually dangerous.

Here is my old post.  In the comments under that post, by the way, I got approbation from canonist Ed Peters, who also posted a link to something pertinent that he wrote.

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

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  1. roma247 says:

    I have a clarification question.

    Obviously all this applies when we are talking about sins against the sixth commandment of a serious nature, i.e. mortal sins.

    Does the same apply for sins of a less serious nature–so for example, a priest falls in love with a woman and it’s mutual and they are both aware of that, but they do the right thing, avoid occasions of sin, etc. and never act on it… However, once in a while they suffer temptations that lead them to impure thoughts, venial sins against the sixth commandment. As long as she is careful to maintain anonymity in the confessional (not opening the door to obvious further problems), can she confess these sins to that priest, or does the woman have to go find another confessor, simply because the attraction is mutual?

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  3. Hidden One says:

    Given that confessors do not necessarily know who the penitent is and that the pentitent might not know who the confessor is (or who one or more male accomplices in a relevant sexual sin were), what exactly happens if neither penitent nor confessor knows that the sin against the 6th Commandment that the penitent is confessing is one in which the confessor was an accomplice?

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