Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Unforgivable Sins

Even though I am a priest there are sins that I do not have the authority to absolve a person of in the confessional. Canon Law has defined those sins as, until recently,

1) desecrating the Eucharist (basically anything other than consuming the Host immediately after receiving it
2) I can not absolve a fellow priest who says that he absolved someone that he had sex with
3) Someone who has planned or carried out an attack on the life of the Holy Father
4) Anyone who has participated in any way in an abortion
5) A priest who has broken the seal of confession

All of these sins carry with them an immediate removal from the Church (excommunication), and in order to get their sins absolved and in order to become a Catholic once again, the person who has sinned must go to a designated Vatican confessor. In the case of number 4, abortion is one of the sins that the Bishop can choose to allow the priests in his diocese to absolve, if he so chooses, and most in the U.S. have given that power to their priests. The other 4 sins above are non-negotiably referred to a Vatican confessor.

Recently, the Vatican released an updated list. Two of the notable additions to the list are these:

6) A regular priest can not absolve another priest of child sexual misconduct and
7) A regular priest can not absolve someone who has attempted to ordain a woman.

The New York Times and others are of course appalled as the media has generally been saying that the Church sees ordaining a woman as being on par with child sexual abuse.

This is dumb for two reasons: a) making a list of grave offenses doesn’t mean they are all equal in every way. Some crimes are always more heinous to us than others, but nobody complains about the variance in things that our society considers to be felonies. b) It is also important to realize that on a theological level the ordaining of women, or desecrating the Eucharist or breaking the seal of confession are HUGE HUGE HUGE issues! Certainly to our mind the abuse of a child by a priest is horrible, and no one would argue otherwise, but it is very important to realize that if a person really believes the Church is what it says it is and that the Eucharist is what the Church says it is, then all of the offenses need to be punished in a way that conveys the true damage that is done to the Church through any of these actions.


  1. The Vatican may have made a public relations mistake in including the norms on the ordination of women with those for sexual misconduct in the same document, but I think we have to look at the Holy Father's intent with this document. And that was to protect the SACRAMENT of Holy Orders from all of those grave crimes which harm it. As such, the inclusion of both #6 and #7 in the same document was both necessary and courageous.

  2. Well stated Mike and Fr. John!