Abortion and Excommunication
Q. There has been so much in the news about abortion and excommunication. I have been hearing a lot about Canon 1398, which talks about automatic excommunication. Why is abortion listed as a cause for automatic excommunication while murder is not? Also, when is someone not subject to it even after having an abortion?
Name withheld by request, via e-mail
A. In the wake of Pope Francis’ letter to the president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization for the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy dated Sept. 1, 2015, there has been much discussion about abortion and the penalty of excommunication. Clearly, the Pope’s intention is to promote mercy and provide hope to those who would like a second chance. It would be helpful to read that section of the letter here:
“The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails.... I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope.
“The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the sacrament of confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father. For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it. May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.”
You correctly reference Canon 1398 (“A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”), but we should also note Canon 1329, which would include the accomplices to the abortion. The penalty of “excommunication” does not mean that a person has been “kicked out of the Church” or loses their baptism; the penalty of excommunication temporarily prohibits that person from receiving the sacraments or holding office in the Church until they have repented and amended their ways.
You ask, “Why is abortion listed as a cause for automatic excommunication while murder is not?” That is a very good question, since both are mortal sins of injustice against another person. I suppose the reason is because the Church truly wants to underscore the seriousness of abortion, because it is always the case that the unborn child is completely defenseless and completely innocent. In the case of murder, those conditions are not always the case.
When does the penalty not apply to the crime?
No one can incur the penalty of excommunication unless they are at least 18 years old and have full knowledge beforehand that there is a canonical penalty for the crime, and full freedom and full consent to procure the abortion must be present.
Society of St. Piux X
Q. What is the current status of the Society of St. Pius X? It is still in schism, right? I know that Pope Francis gave the priests of SSPX the faculties to absolve sins, but what about saying Mass? How does that work, exactly? And what happens at the end of the Year of Mercy? Can you no longer go to them for confession?
Charlie, Houston, Texas
A. It is not really clear what the current status of the Society of St. Pius X is. Until Pope Francis released the Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis According to Which an Indulgence Is Granted to the Faithful on the Occasion of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy on Sept. 1, 2015, I would have stated that the Society of St. Pius X was in “quasi-schism” and that ordinary Catholics could not receive the Sacraments of Reconcilation or Matrimony validly from the priests of the SSPX.
I use the nontechnical term “quasi-schism” because clearly the leaders of the SSPX were in schism from the moment Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre consecrated four bishops in 1988 against the express permission of Pope St. John Paul II. From that moment, Archbishop Lefebvre and the four men he consecrated bishops that day incurred automatic excommunication (latae sententiae), and if there were any doubt about the matter, the Holy See publically declared it as so (ferendae sententiae). Eighteen years after Archbishop Lefebvre’s death, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the penalty of excommunication in 2009 from the four excommunicated bishops, but he did not specifically clarify at that time the status of the Society of St. Pius X. Validly ordained priests of the SSPX will have the faculty to absolve sins during the Jubilee Year of Mercy, but until further clarification their valid Masses would be illicit and I cannot encourage Catholics to attend their Masses. However, I wouldn’t lose sleep if they do, given the pastoral tone of Pope Francis who seems to be willing to “live and let live.”
As to what happens at the end of the Year of Mercy, unless Pope Francis clearly states on the record that SSPX priests no longer have the jurisdiction to absolve sins, then I would assume that they do. It may be helpful to consider the following paragraph from Pope Benedict XVI’s letter to bishops on March 19, 2009:
“The remission of the excommunication was a measure taken in the field of ecclesiastical discipline: the individuals were freed from the burden of conscience constituted by the most serious of ecclesiastical penalties. This disciplinary level needs to be distinguished from the doctrinal level. The fact that the Society of Saint Pius X does not possess a canonical status in the Church is not, in the end, based on disciplinary but on doctrinal reasons. As long as the Society does not have a canonical status in the Church, its ministers do not exercise legitimate ministries in the Church. There needs to be a distinction, then, between the disciplinary level, which deals with individuals as such, and the doctrinal level, at which ministry and institution are involved. In order to make this clear once again: until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers — even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty — do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.”
Old Mass, New Mass
Q. I was never old enough to go to the old Mass, the Tridentine Mass. I hear it was beautiful. How did it differ from the Novus Ordo? What was the structure like? And the Eucharistic prayers? Is it true the readings were in Latin and the congregation responded in Latin?
Name withheld by request, via e-mail
A. Of course the Tridentine Mass was beautiful, but if it were celebrated by a priest who lacked piety and devotion, good training and fervor, preparation and zeal, the Tridentine Mass could become very routine and tedious. At the risk of simplification, the Novus Ordo is simpler and more austere, and because it is often celebrated in the vernacular it is much easier for the faithful to understand it and participate in it.
The structure of the new Mass and old Mass (Ordinary Form and Extraordinary Form) are essentially the same: Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. However, it is my impression that the Tridentine Mass requires more preparation, attention, formation and hard work. As with any Mass — new or old, English or Latin — you get out of it what you put into it.
The liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council greatly enriched the cycle of readings now used in the Ordinary Form of the Mass. The faithful are exposed to much more variety of readings from sacred Scripture — both New Testament and Old Testament — in the new Mass than before. The fact that the readings are in the vernacular also underscores the Church’s desire that the faithful be ever more nourished by the Word of God found in the Scriptures.
The Tridentine Mass used only one Eucharistic prayer — known as the Roman Canon — because the prayer rarely changed from day to day and was used universally for close to 400 years. That Roman Canon is now our first Eucharistic prayer, but the Novus Ordo also has three other ordinary Eucharistic prayers, plus additional compositions for Masses of reconciliation and other various needs.
It is true that the prayers were in Latin and people responded in Latin, and for that matter the readings were in Latin, but the homily was in English. How did people understand the Latin? The faithful had their own “Roman Missal” (a personal prayer book) with all of the prayers and readings in Latin on one page and English on the opposite page. So, if they really wanted to know what was going on, they had to pay attention, but the reward for such attention was worth the effort.
You display a healthy curiosity to know the good things of the past. Pope Benedict XVI would call that the “hermeneutic of continuity.” You might want to find a Tridentine Mass (Extraordinary Form) in your area and attend it.
Q. There used to be deacons in the early days of the Church. Did they just disappear? If so, why? And can you explain to me the claim that there were deaconesses in the early Church? Any truth to the rumor they are coming back?
Sophie, Omaha, Neb.
A. “Deacons” are mentioned in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, so their origin can be traced to apostolic times. Deacons were chosen to assist the bishop, especially concerning the corporal works of mercy, leaving the sacramental ministry and spiritual works of mercy to the priests.
It is not clear if the deacons in the early Church were meant to be permanent, but over time the rank of deacon in the Sacrament of Holy Orders became transitional and temporary, a step in the direction of becoming a priest. So, “deacons” in the early Church did not disappear. Rather, their function was absorbed into the pathway to the priesthood. However, due to the perceived pastoral needs of the times, the Second Vatican Council recovered the role and service of permanent deacons.
Permanent deacons are not uncommon in the United States, but may be more uncommon elsewhere. Generally, a permanent deacon is a married and mature man and enters this service to the faithful with the full support of his wife. Deacons can visit the sick, distribute holy Communion, baptize, preach and witness marriages. Additionally, they are often called to organize and lead various organizations and ministries in their parishes and dioceses.
But a deacon — just as any member of the faithful — will only be as effective as he is holy. By the second century, the three distinct ranks of holy orders (deacon, priest, bishop) were made clear in the writings of the early Fathers of the Church, notably St. Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus and Origen.
There are references in the New Testament to women who rendered the service of diakonos (see Rom 16:1), but it is not clear if their role was materially different from the elevated role of “widows” held in such high regard because of their holiness and helpfulness in the early Christian community (see 1 Tm 5:3-10).
Up until the fourth century, widows and “deaconesses” supplied essential service to the Christian community and it appears this was a stable role, not much different from what the holy women in Our Lord’s entourage took care of on a daily basis.
While the service that a priest or bishop renders in persona Christi capitis is essentially different from what a deacon provides, all service to the faithful is welcome.
St. John Paul II, in 1994, and Pope Francis, already several times during his pontificate, have clarified that the Church cannot ordain women as priests. Nevertheless, by virtue of their baptism and according to canon law, women — in special circumstances — could baptize, witness marriages, instruct the faithful, visit the sick and serve as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. The only thing that a woman could not do that an ordained deacon can do, according to current canon law, would be to preach the homily after the Gospel during the Mass.
Q. I am sure you have gotten this before, but can you tell me exactly what Ecclesia supplet means? People seem to throw the term around a lot, usually in the area of penance. Any information — but more important, clarity — would be great.
Name withheld by request, via e-mail
A. In all honesty, I think the best answer to this question was penned by professor Edward N. Peters, J.D., J.C.D., as a review of an answer I wrote for this magazine back in 2007. With my editor’s forbearance, I will copy it here:
“Like every good canon lawyer, Father Francis Hoffman knows there is much more to the Catholic Church than canon law. Thus, in answering people’s questions for Our Sunday Visitor’s The Catholic Answer, Father Hoffman draws with equal facility on sacred Scriptures, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Code of Canon Law and a generally rich storehouse of ecclesiastical wisdom. I never fail to learn something by reading his column.
“One of the things I like most is Father Hoffman’s lawyer-like, straight-talk approach. He answers the question posed, and then sometimes elaborates, qualifies or goes beyond the surface to comment on other things. A recent example (TCA, March/April 2007, p. 22) was Father Hoffman’s correct response to a reader who wondered whether the absolution he received was valid, given that the confessor changed the words of absolution from ‘I absolve you from your sins’ to ‘May God ... absolve you from your sins.’ Father Hoffman told the reader that such an absolution was invalid. Now, who wants to tell people that their submission to the authority of the Church was invalid through no fault of their own? No one. But Father Hoffman had to give the correct answer, and he did.
“My concern is not with Father Hoffman’s answer, but with an additional comment he offered at the end: ‘Nevertheless, the penitent’s sins are forgiven because it was no fault of his own the priest used an invalid formula.’ Hmmm. Careful here. Continuing: ‘In this case, as sacramental theologians point out, Ecclesia supplet, that is, the Church provides, out of her treasury of grace, the proper remedy for the defect of the minister’s actions.’ Maybe this is a quibble between canonists, but I’m not so sure.
“I understand the concept of Ecclesia supplet (1983 Code of Canona Law 144.1) to describe the Church’s power to supply, under limited circumstances, jurisdiction for an act. But there is no question in this case about whether the confessor had jurisdiction; rather, what was missing were sacramental words, that is, some of the words which the Church holds to be necessary for validity of the sacrament.
“Since what was defective was sacramental form, I don’t see how the Church’s ability to supply jurisdiction helps our penitent. To adapt a phrase, Ecclesia non supplet quod Ecclesia non habet; the Church cannot supply what the Church does not have, and the Church does not have the ability to supply sacramental form to a minister’s deficient utterance. Many historical examples of invalid baptisms, confirmations or ordinations would seem to bear this out. Ecclesia supplet does not remedy those cases wherein innocent persons bore the consequences of ministers making invalidating changes in sacramental form, and I don’t think it does so for confession, either.
“So where does that leave our penitent? Well, even though Ecclesia supplet seems of no avail here, nevertheless, we may hold that, in some way, Deus providet, that is, God provides, or God foresees.
“If tragedy were to befall a hapless penitent, I think, like Father Hoffman, that one’s efforts to seek absolution for sins in this life would somehow be rewarded by God in the next. But short of that, God provides in other ways, too, right here and right now. He provides by giving us priests like Father Hoffman who will tell it like it is and alert penitents that such absolutions are invalid; he provides by telling these penitents that, while he knows these mistakes were not their fault, he still expects them to act on their knowledge of the invalidity of such absolutions and return to confession (assuming we’re talking about grave sins, etc.); and I even think he provides by giving the faithful the confidence to contact their confessors, and if necessary their bishops, to inform them of serious violations of the gift that is sacramental confession. Meanwhile, the rest of us need to be wary lest we assume too quickly that Ecclesia supplet will remedy serious mistakes in ministry just because they were not the fault of the faithful. Salvo sapientiorum iudicio.”
Q. During the Easter season, we are supposed to go to Mass at least once for our Easter duty, right? I have two questions. The first is whether it is a mortal sin to miss it (and is it a mortal sin to miss Easter Mass)? Second, are there any sacraments that cannot be celebrated during Lent and Easter? Can you hold weddings during Lent? What about infant baptisms, etc.?
Name withheld by request, via e-mail
A. Your question refers to the Precepts of the Church, a catechetical device to teach Catholics about their fundamental obligations with respect to God. The third precept of the Church indicates that the faithful should humbly receive holy Communion during the Easter season (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2042). Broadly understood, the Easter season runs from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost Sunday, which is close to three months long. The second precept tells us that we should go to confession at least once a year. Traditionally, the faithful have understood these precepts as connected to each other: simply put, we should make a good confession in Lent so we can receive holy Communion worthily and fruitfully on Easter Sunday or during the Easter season.
So the duty you refer to is more than going to Mass. We already have the obligation to attend Mass on every Sunday and holy day of obligation, but we only have the duty to receive holy Communion once a year, and we should only do so in the state of grace. That’s why the Church teaches us to go to confession at least once a year.
It is a mortal sin to deliberately miss Mass on a Sunday or holy day of obligation, but there can be extenuating circumstances that excuse you from the obligation, such as the moral or physical impossibility of attending. Finally, your local pastor has the authority — on a given occasion — to dispense you from the obligation of attending Sunday Mass.
All sacraments can be celebrated during the Lenten and Easter Season, except on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. On that day, there is no Mass. The only sacraments that can be celebrated on Good Friday and Holy Saturday are the Sacrament of Penance and the Anointing of the Sick. If a funeral is held on Good Friday, it is only the Liturgy of the Word, and without singing, music or bells.
While weddings are not strictly prohibited during the Lenten season, the case against weddings is obvious: Lent is a penitential season, while weddings are full of celebration (music, dancing, drinking, etc.). During the Easter Vigil, several sacraments are celebrated: baptism, confirmation and holy Eucharist. The faithful have the right to go to confession, to receive the anointing of the sick and to receive viaticum on any day of the year. Finally, keeping with a long tradition of the faithful of the Church, infants should be baptized within the first weeks of their birth, which normally means within the month. Infant baptism should not be delayed, because baptism is necessary for salvation by “necessity of precept.”
Q. We recently moved into a new city for work and were not sure what our parish is supposed to be. We looked online and found a nice parish, but after going for a few months, we decided to start attending a parish across town where the music is better and, frankly, the pastor gives better homilies. What are the rules for how parish boundaries are set? And is it OK to live in one part of town and attend a parish somewhere else?
Susan, via e-mail
A. Generally speaking, parish boundaries are geographical. In some circumstances, the parish is personal and not geographical, such as a Hungarian parish or a Lithuanian parish, but these days such specialty pastoral arrangements are usually called “missions” and not parishes.
The Code of Canon Law states: “As a general rule, a parish is to be territorial, that is, one which includes all the Christian faithful of a certain territory. When it is expedient, however, personal parishes are to be established determined by reason of the rite, language, or nationality of the Christian faithful of some territory, or even for some other reason” (Canon 518).
You should belong to the parish closest to your home. That will enable the pastor to visit you easily in an emergency and perhaps come to your home from time to time to bless your house.
Nevertheless, the faithful are not prohibited from joining any parish they wish, but I feel sorry for the pastor who is boycotted because he can’t carry a tune nor deliver a homily. Poor guy. He’s probably doing the best he can.
May Orthodox priests hear confessions?
Q. Pope Francis gave the priests of the SSPX (Society of St. Pius X) permission to hear confessions. Will he do the same for priests of the Orthodox Church? Just what is the status of Orthodox sacraments? May I go to an Orthodox priest for confession if I can’t find a Catholic priest?
Margaret, Chicago, Ill.
A. Be sure to read my response to an earlier question about the SSPX and confession. But the simple answer to your question is yes, you may go to confession to a priest of the Orthodox Church, and that has been the case since the current Code of Canon Law was published in 1983. But you may only go if you cannot find a Catholic priest to hear your confession. I doubt that would apply anywhere in the United States, but it might apply if you were living in Greece.
The status of the seven Orthodox sacraments is the same as the status of the seven Catholic sacraments: they are valid. And they are valid because the Orthodox Churches have apostolic continuity.
“Whenever necessity requires it or true spiritual advantage suggests it, and provided that danger of error or of indifferentism is avoided, the Christian faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister are permitted to receive the Sacraments of Penance, Eucharist, and the Anointing of the Sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid” (Canon 844.2).
What is a proper Sign of Peace?
Q. I belong to one of those parishes where the whole Mass stops for what feels like an hour during the sign of peace. What does the General Instruction of the Roman Missal say is the proper way to conduct the sign of peace? Do you have to shake hands, or is a polite nod acceptable? And was there talk a few years ago about changing when we do it during the Mass? It seems really disruptive where it is.
Name withheld by request, via e-mail
A. My second-grade teacher, Sister James Denise, O.P., taught us this rhyme: “Patience is a virtue. Possess it if you can. Seldom found in a woman. Never found in a man!” So, my first piece of advice to you is “patience,” because I doubt that the Mass stops for an hour — maybe four or five minutes, but even that would be excessive.
So, here’s what the GIRM states on the matter:
“As for the actual sign of peace to be given, the manner is to be established by the Conferences of Bishops in accordance with the culture and customs of the peoples. However, it is appropriate that each person, in a sober manner, offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest” (No. 82).
“The Priest may give the Sign of Peace to the ministers but always remains within the sanctuary, so that the celebration is not disrupted. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, for a good reason, on special occasions (for example, in the case of a funeral, a wedding, or when civic leaders are present), the Priest may offer the Sign of Peace to a small number of the faithful near the sanctuary. According to what is decided by the Conference of Bishops, all express to one another peace, communion, and charity. While the sign of peace is being given, it is permissible to say, The peace of the Lord be with you always, to which the reply is Amen” (No. 154).
From these passages I think you can conclude that no one is obliged to shake hands with another person, and a polite nod of the head should be sufficient and even praiseworthy in the event that you might have a cold. Also, there had been significant discussion prior to the new version of the Roman Missal to move the rite of peace to the beginning of Mass, but that never happened.
Finally, I agree that it can be disruptive for some people. For that reason, the celebrant has the discretion to invite the congregants to exchange a sign of peace or not (see GIRM, No. 154). The wise and prudent pastor who is close to his people will have the proper intuition about when and when not to invite the faithful to exchange a gesture of peace and good will to those nearby.
Rev. Francis Hoffman, J.C.D., Executive Director of Relevant Radio. Follow him on his Facebook page “Father Rocky.”