Confession and Ordinary Jurisdiction


I am trying to understand one of the canons of Trent (c.7, Sess. XIV):

because the nature and character of a judgment requires that sentence be pronounced only on those who are subjects, the Church of God has always held, and this Council affirms it to be most true, that the absolution which a priest pronounces upon one over whom he has not either ordinary or delegated jurisdiction, is of no effect.

Catholic Encyclopedia so comments this canon:

Ordinary jurisdiction is that which one has by reason of his office as involving the care of souls; the pope has it over the whole Church, the bishop within his diocese, the pastor within his parish.

I need to understand exactly what is the ordinary jurisdiction of a parish priest.

Does this mean that he can only validly absolve within the territory of his parish?

Or does it mean that he cannot validly absolve members of other parishes who have recourse to him rather than to their own pastor?

And how is parish membership defined - by geographical territory, by registration at the parish, by regular attendance of the parish?

Does the priest receive explicit permission (ex. in written) to confess from his Ordinary? If so, does such permission mention where he can exercise this authority?

This may be a fairly confusing set of questions. I hope that whatever answer is provided can be joined with verifiable sources of the Magisterium as opposed to fallible opinions. Thanks!


**Does this mean that he can only validly absolve within the territory of his parish? **
That’s what it sounds like but it’s fairly easy to get permission from the bishop to hear confessions outside the territory of the parish, elsewhere in the diocese. Permission is regularly given within our deanery for priests from outside our parish to assist with penance services during Advent and Lent when we have as many as 5 extra priests. Also permission may be given to priests from outside the diocese who are visiting the area to give absolution, as in the case of priests giving retreats.

**Or does it mean that he cannot validly absolve members of other parishes who have recourse to him rather than to their own pastor? **
Absolutely not. Anyone can approach any priest and you are not limited to confession in your own parish. You don’t have to show a “parish ID” to be admitted to a particular confessional. If this limitation were set up we would often not be able to receive the Eucharist while traveling.

Does the priest receive explicit permission (ex. in written) to confess from his Ordinary? If so, does such permission mention where he can exercise this authority?
I’m going to have to guess here but probably yes, and yes.

Regarding how membership to a parish is determined, that may vary by diocese. In mine it used to be strictly territorial but that rule is now less strictly enforced than it was and you can now register as a member wherever you want.


A parish can be territorial or personal.


Can. 100 A person is said to be: an incola, in the place where he or she has a domicile; an advena, in the place of quasi-domicile; a peregrinus, if away from the domicile or quasi-domicile which is still retained; a vagus, if the person has nowhere a domicile or quasi-domicile.

Can. 107 §1 Both through domicile and through quasi-domicile everyone acquires his or her own parish priest and Ordinary.

§2 The proper parish priest or Ordinary of a vagus is the parish priest or Ordinary of the place where the vagus is actually residing.

§3 The proper parish priest of one who has only a diocesan domicile or quasi-domicile is the parish priest of the place where that person is actually residing.

Can. 991 All Christ’s faithful are free to confess their sins to lawfully approved confessors of their own choice, even to one of another rite.

Can 967 §2. Those who possess the faculty of hearing confessions habitually whether by virtue of office or by virtue of the grant of an ordinary of the place of incardination or of the place in which they have a domicile can exercise that faculty everywhere unless the local ordinary has denied it in a particular case, without prejudice to the prescripts of ⇒ can. 974, §§2 and 3.
Can. 968 §1. In virtue of office, a local ordinary, canon penitentiary, a pastor, and those who take the place of a pastor possess the faculty of hearing confessions, each within his jurisdiction.

Can. 974 §1. The local ordinary and the competent superior are not to revoke the faculty to hear confessions habitually except for a grave cause.

§2. When the faculty to hear confessions has been revoked by the local ordinary who granted it as mentioned in ⇒ can. 967, §2, a presbyter loses the faculty everywhere. If some other local ordinary has revoked the faculty, the presbyter loses it only in the territory of the one who revokes it.

§3. Any local ordinary who has revoked the faculty of some presbyter to hear confessions is to inform the proper ordinary of incardination of the presbyter or, if he is a member of a religious institute, his competent superior.

§4. If the proper major superior of a presbyter has revoked the faculty to hear confessions, the presbyter loses the faulty to hear the confessions of members of the institute everywhere. If some other competent superior has revoked the faculty, however, the presbyter loses it only with regard to the subjects in the jurisdiction of that superior.

Can. 526 §1 A parish priest is to have the parochial care of one parish only. However, because of a shortage of priests or other circumstances, the care of a number of neighboring parishes can be entrusted to the one parish priest.

§2 In any one parish there is to be only one parish priest, or one moderator in accordance with can. 517 §1; any contrary custom is reprobated and any contrary privilege revoked.


In order to understand this, we must first realize that while what Trent said was absolutely true, we must look at the current (1983) Code of Canon law to answer your questions in the present day.

Yes, the ordinary jurisdiction of a pastor (not “parish priest” but pastor) is his parish territory. Parishes are defined by territory. Attendance and/or registration or anything else have nothing to do with parish membership. The rare exceptions to these are what we call “personal parishes” meaning that the parish is defined by “persons” rather than territory. Example of these are special ethnic parishes or the Anglican Ordinariate parishes.

In canon law, a pastor automatically has jurisdiction to hear confessions in his parish territory. This is expressed 2 ways:

  1. “By the law itself” because it’s directly stated in the law
  2. “By virtue of office” because the office of shepherd requires that the shepherd be able to absolve sinners (but this is still only true because it’s also “in the law.”)

The important points here:

  1. What Trent said was true and accurate.
  2. The 1983 Code of Canon law provides the method whereby priests receive that jurisdiction to absolve penitents, which Trent says is necessary.

Let’s look at the words of Trent. A priest needs either ordinary or delegated jurisdiction. Either one suffices.

In the current Code of Canon Law the following have that ordinary jurisdiction:
Pastors (this includes the pope as pastor of the whole Church, diocesan bishops as pastors of their diocese, and pastors of local parishes) and religious superiors (who are priests or bishops).

Some others have automatic faculties because of office:
Cardinals, canons penitentiary, all bishops (this includes auxiliary and retired).

Some have faculties because they have been granted them by some authority in the Church who has the power to grant them. These are priests who do not already fall into one of the above categories. Examples: vicars parochial, retired priests, priests in non-parish settings like college professors, etc.

A word on the vocabulary here. Jurisdiction means that the priest holds some office of shepherd in the Church, while faculties means (in this context) that he has a mandate from the Church to absolve. Jurisdiction always brings with it the faculties to absolve. But sometimes a bishop/priest has faculties without actually having any jurisdiction. In this second context, “faculties without actual jurisdiction” is what Trent means by “delegated jurisdiction.” That might need more explaining, so feel free to ask.

The bottom line is this:

The Council of Trent teaches that a priest needs faculties. The 1983 Code defines how a priest gets/has those faculties.

For a list, see Canon 965 and following

This can sometimes get complicated. But in the end, all one really needs to know (if not a priest or a canonist) is this:

A priest who has permanent faculties either by office or by mandate of his ordinary has those faculties everywhere in the world to absolve sinners. Canon 967.

That’s how the requirement stated by Trent is fulfilled. Yes, a priest needs faculties. Current canon law defines the method.

Now, in purely practical terms, most priests, unless they are either newly-ordained (and the bishop just hasn’t gotten around to it yet) or unless they have done something improper have faculties to absolve any Catholic anywhere in the world. This is not automatic, it’s merely a statistical reality. Most priest have these faculties.


It can be complicated since the faculty is by office or by grant, everywhere or limited to a specific occasion, and sometimes may be denied. Also for eastern Catholics, there are reserved sins which concept is not used in the Latin Catholic law anymore.


Wow, thank you for such exhaustive answers!

So, for instance, if a priest is in a pilgrimage or a visit abroad and he is temporary residing in a parish, and he happens to be the only one around when a Catholic asks for confession, would he be able to validly absolve the penitent even though he’s in another country so long as he has permission to confess in his home parish?


Yes. He has the faculties everywhere in the world.

So long as at least 1 of 2 conditions are met (sometimes both apply):

  1. He has faculties by virtue of his office (eg pastor)
  2. He has habitual faculties from his ordinary (eg, parochial vicar, hospital chaplain or retired priest)

The only times this would not apply would be very, very rare circumstances. In unusual circumstances, a bishop might limit a priest’s faculties. These are so rare that it’s safe to say that they just don’t apply to the question the way you’ve asked it.


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