Q: Many young ladies have approached me with this question: they were taught that a woman who breaks the 6th commandment with a Catholic priest, if she goes to confession to the priest, that her sins will never be forgiven and that she will always face problems the rest of her life.
Then they asked, what about the priest? If he goes to confess his sin to his fellow priests is he forgiven, or does he have to go to the bishop or the pope to forgive him that sin of the 6th commandment? –Father A.
A: This question comes to us from Africa, where Father A. is engaged in ministry. Yet it seems a pretty safe bet that it will stump most Catholics (including many clergy) on other continents as well! Everybody knows that priests can forgive sins in the sacrament of Penance, but what happens if a penitent confesses a sexual sin in which the priest himself was involved? This scenario is nothing new—it has been with us for many centuries, and so it should surprise no one that canon law addresses the issue specifically. Let’s take a look, and in the process we’ll see whether or not these young ladies have identified an inequality in the law.
First and foremost, we should identify the precise sort of situation that we’re addressing here. At issue is a sexual sin committed between a priest and another person, male or female. The other person subsequently regrets the sin, and wants to go to confession and receive absolution. The question is, can he/she confess the sin to the same priest with whom it was committed?
Canon 977 is quite clear. It says that the absolution of a partner in a sin against the Sixth Commandment is invalid, except in danger of death. (When you hear “Sixth Commandment,” think “sex.” This law applies not only to adultery—sex with a married woman—but to sexual activity in general.) So if Father John slept with Mary or with Tom, Father John cannot validly absolve Mary or Tom of this sin if she/he later comes to his confessional and confesses it. Why not?
Well, one big reason is that if Father John tries to seduce Mary or Tom, he can’t use the argument that it’s okay, because he’ll just hear her/his confession later, and nobody else ever needs to know. A more general reason is that this would constitute an egregious abuse of the sacrament of Penance, and of the priest’s power to forgive sins in the confessional. If a sex-offender/priest were to routinely absolve his sexual partners of this sin, it would make a mockery not only of the sacrament of Penance, but also of the priesthood itself.
If any readers are thinking that this canon must have been promulgated in response to all the scandals in recent decades regarding clerical sexual abuse… think again. This law already existed in the 1917 code (which was abrogated when the current Code of Canon Law took force in 1983), and the 1917 canon was in turn based on an Apostolic Constitution written by Pope Benedict XIV, way back in 1741. Entitled Sacramentum Poenitentiae, it didn’t mince words when it came to this sort of abuse of the confessional:
Let care be taken lest any priests, nefariously abusing the Sacrament of Penance, offer penitents a wound instead of healing, a stone instead of bread, a serpent instead of a fish, or poison instead of medicine; but reflecting in their minds, supervised by Christ the Lord, and appointed as judges of souls, let them see to it that they administer such a venerable Sacrament with that sanctity which befits the loftiness and dignity of their office. (SP 1, my translation.)
So if someone engages in sexual activity with a priest, that priest can’t later give him/her absolution for this sin. As Benedict XIV observed elsewhere in the same Apostolic Constitution, in this case it’s as if the priest has no confessional faculties at all (see “Can All Priests Always Hear Confessions?” for more on how confessional faculties work). The only exception to this rule is if the priest’s sexual partner—referred to in the law as an accomplice—is in danger of death. As was discussed in the post just mentioned, when a Catholic is dying, any priest can validly and licitly grant him/her absolution, as per canon 986.2.
So, to return to the young ladies who are questioning Father A., we can see that their understanding of the situation is only partly correct. They believe that if the accomplice “goes to confession to the priest, that her sins will never be forgiven and that she will always face problems the rest of her life.” Well, as we’ve just seen, it’s true that the priest himself can’t forgive that sin, but does the accomplice have an alternative? Of course: he/she simply needs to confess that sin to a different priest, who had nothing to do with it! Any other priest on earth, so long as he has the required confessional faculties, can hear the accomplice’s confession and grant him/her absolution. Problem solved.
As for the priest who commits a sexual sin, his options are basically the same as those of the accomplice. Obviously he can’t grant absolution to himself under any circumstances, so he needs to confess to another priest. The rules about confession and absolution are, therefore, basically the same for both priest and accomplice.
There’s a twist, though, which applies only to the priest and not to the accomplice. If the priest does absolve the accomplice of this sin in the confessional—invalidly—he incurs excommunication latae sententiae, as per canon 1378.1. (The little understood concept of latae sententiae penalties was discussed at length in “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?”) And canon 1378.1 adds that the lifting of this excommunication is reserved to the Apostolic See, so unlike many other excommunicable offenses, the bishop cannot remit the sanction—only Rome can do that.
(As we saw in “Excommunication and Bad-Mouthing the Pope,” during the recent Jubilee Year of Mercy, this and several other excommunications that are normally reserved to the Apostolic See could be remitted by the Pope’s “Missionaries of Mercy.” But regardless of who has the power to lift the excommunication, the fact remains that a priest who knowingly attempts to absolve an accomplice incurs it.)
This is, incidentally, the technical legal reason why a complaint was originally lodged in the 1990’s against the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Fr. Marcial Maciel. As most readers probably know, Maciel was accused of molesting numerous seminarians under his authority. At the time the accusations were made, however, the Church’s statute of limitations on this crime had already expired. But Maciel had also told some of his victims that there was nothing sinful about what they were doing—yet he offered to absolve them anyway. It was a clear violation of canon 977, and canon 1378.1 obviously applied.
What’s supposed to happen, if the accomplice shows up in the priest’s confessional one day, and confesses the sin? Let’s say the priest didn’t volunteer to grant the accomplice absolution, and didn’t know he/she would come to confession that day—but now, in the course of the actual confession, the priest recognizes the penitent and understands perfectly which sexual sin(s) the penitent is confessing. What is the priest supposed to do?
It’s actually very straightforward: he has to refuse to absolve the person (which he can’t validly do anyway!), and tell him/her to confess the sin to another priest. Note that the accomplice doesn’t incur excommunication by confessing to the priest with whom he/she sinned—the potential for excommunication only applies to the priest. So if the priest correctly tells the accomplice/penitent that he can’t grant absolution, and that the accomplice has to confess the sin to another priest, no crime is committed here at all.
At this point it’s worth observing that in the future, once Tom or Mary has already been absolved of the sexual sin(s) with Father John by a different priest, Tom or Mary could conceivably confess other sins to Father John, and receive absolution from him. (You’d have to honestly wonder, though, why Tom or Mary would knowingly do that. Wouldn’t it be more prudent for a priest and his erstwhile accomplice to keep their distance?) The issues we have just been discussing pertain only to the confession of the sexual sin(s) committed with the priest—and not to other, unrelated sins.
We can see that the young ladies of Father A.’s parish got it only partly right. It cannot be said that canon law in this sad scenario is harder on the accomplice than on the priest. On the contrary, with regard to possible sanctions, the law can be extremely tough on the priest, while the accomplice faces no sanction at all! The law is intended to protect the sacrament of Penance from abuse, while at the same time ensuring that any repentant sinner can, without having to jump through lots of hoops, obtain the forgiveness he seeks.