Do priests *inherently* possess the power to forgive sins?


#1

It is my understanding that the power to forgive sins flows from the bishop. So if a priest who has not been given this faculty by his bishop attempts to hear a confession, are the sins of the penitent forgiven?

Why does a priest inherently possess the power (through the Holy Spirit, mind you) to consecrate the Eucharist, but the same does not apply to the sacrament of Penance?


#2

A priest receives faculties from his bishop (or major superior), but the bishop can do this only because he is in communion with the Successor to Peter—, the local bishop gives faculties as a representative of the pope, not because he is a bishop as such.

The reason why this is different from consecrating the Eucharist is because absolution (note: not forgiveness, but absolution) is a juridic act of the Church. The priest is acting as a minister of the Church (as well as a minister of Christ, surely). Absolution reconciles the sinner to the Church in a juridic (ie legal) way. It’s a legal act. Just as a judge in a civil court setting can issue a search warrant—it’s a juridic act. Absolution can be compared to a pardon from a civil authority. When the governor of a state issues a pardon, it’s a legal act which “restores” the status of the convicted person. Absolution does the same for the sinner: it reconciles the sinner to God and the Church.

Because absolution is a legal act, only one who has the authority to legally represent the Church can grant absolution. In the same way that I cannot issue a pardon on behalf of the state of Franklin because I’m not the governor of Franklin, only one who has the legal authority to represent the Church can issue the Church’s pardon, which is absolution.

An attempt at absolution from one who is not a priest with the faculties to absolve would be like a “governor’s pardon” from someone who is not the governor. It would be meaningless.

Eucharist, on the other hand, is not a juridic act of the Church. That’s why, strictly for validity, faculties are not needed to consecrate. Only valid ordination is necessary for a valid consecration.


#3

PS

Note that absolution and forgiveness are not the same thing. You asked about “forgiveness” but note that I answered about “absolution.”

Do a thread search for the difference.

One of these days I’m going to type it out and save it as a document so that I can cut-and-paste because this comes up regularly on CAF. :slight_smile:


#4

Bishops act as representatives of Christ, not the pope. Otherwise, how is it that the Orthodox can absolve people of sins? Vatican II calls all bishops vicars of Christ.

If I’m wrong, can you provide a source concerning “the bishop can do this only because he is in communion with the Successor to Peter—, the local bishop gives faculties as a representative of the pope, not because he is a bishop as such.” ?

Thank you. :slight_smile:


#5

I think I will have to agree with the previous poster. The power to absolve sins is part of the priest’s faculties through his ordination. We accept that the Orthodox and other Christian churches have valid sacraments. Wouldn’t a priest doing this without a bishop’s permission be illicit but valid?


#6

Asked and answered. As the lawyers like to say.

If I’m wrong, can you provide a source concerning “the bishop can do this only because he is in communion with the Successor to Peter—, the local bishop gives faculties as a representative of the pope, not because he is a bishop as such.” ?

Thank you. :slight_smile:

Yes. I can.

There’s the Catechism
1559 “One is constituted a member of the episcopal body in virtue of the sacramental consecration and by the hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college.”…

and Canon Law
Can. 336 The college of bishops, whose head is the Supreme Pontiff and whose members are bishops by virtue of sacramental consecration and hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college and in which the apostolic body continues, together with its head and never without this head, is also the subject of supreme and full power offer the universal Church.

Both of these refer back to the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium # 22
Here’s the link vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html

The first thing I need to say is that this thread is about Confession. It’s important for me to emphasize that I’m writing about Confession in this thread; not Confirmation or Eucharist or any other function or office or ministry of a bishop. Let’s keep this in context. The thread is about the priest’s power to forgive (ie absolve) which is the Power of the Keys. That’s what I’m emphasizing here. If the topic were a different one, then a discussion about the bishop’s authority would likewise be different.

Here’s a section from *Lumen Gentium *22 (I removed the footnotes and added emphasis)
The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head. This power can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman Pontiff. For our Lord placed Simon alone as the rock and the bearer of the keys of the Church, and made him shepherd of the whole flock; it is evident, however, that the power of binding and loosing, which was given to Peter, was granted also to the college of apostles, joined with their head…

Note that a bishop can only exercise the Power of the Keys (absolve) “with the consent of the Roman Pontiff.” In other words, absent that consent, a bishop has no ability to absolve. As a practical example, if someone is ordained a bishop validly, but illicitly (without a mandate from the Roman Pontiff), he has the fullness of episcopal ordination without any doubt or hesitation; however he lacks any ministry. He can consecrate the Eucharist, and even ordain, but he cannot absolve: because he is not in communion with the pope.

*I’d like to write more about that, but am pressed for time. *

I see where you’re going with the issue of the Orthodox. Yes, we know that Orthodox bishops and priests can absolve. The best explanation I’ve heard of this (which is a rather common one, not just some obscure idea of one person) is that before the schism the Orthodox had the power to absolve. After the schism, no pope ever actively withdrew the power of absolution from the Orthodox bishops; therefore they retain it. I’ll leave it at that for the moment.

I have a rather full schedule today, and I’ll be away from the office. I’m going to leave it at that for the moment. I hope to continue the dialogue, but for the moment, I’m leaving a lot unsaid. I would like to clarify some points later when I have more time.


#7

It isn’t. See canon law for a definitive explanation.

We accept that the Orthodox and other Christian churches have valid sacraments. Wouldn’t a priest doing this without a bishop’s permission be illicit but valid?

The power to absolve does not come from ordination alone. It comes from both ordination and faculties. I’ll quote the canon at the bottom.

If a priest attempts to absolve, but does not have the faculties to absolve, it is both illicit and invalid. Note that in danger-of-death, a priest can absolve but only because the Church gives him the necessary faculties for that particular moment.

Can. 965 A priest alone is the minister of the sacrament of penance.

Can. 966 §1. The valid absolution of sins requires that the minister have, in addition to the power of orders, the faculty of exercising it for the faithful to whom he imparts absolution.

§2. A priest can be given this faculty either by the law itself or by a grant made by the competent authority according to the norm of ⇒ can. 969.


#8

In short, no. As Fr. David explained, absolution is not merely the forgiveness of sins, but a juridical or legal act of the Church. A priest has to be authorized to perform such an act by his bishop or religious superior.

From the Catechism:

1462 Forgiveness of sins brings reconciliation with God, but also with the Church. Since ancient times the bishop, visible head of a particular Church, has thus rightfully been considered to be the one who principally has the power and ministry of reconciliation: he is the moderator of the penitential discipline.66 Priests, his collaborators, **exercise it to the extent that they have received the commission either from their bishop (or religious superior) or the Pope, **according to the law of the Church.

Ack! I see I cross-posted with Fr. David. Not that he really needs myhelp. :shrug:


#9

No it isn’t. Lack of faculties means the absolution is INVALID, not merely illicit.

In the case of the Orthodox, they do have faculties because Orthodox bishops are real Ordinaries, i.e. they have a territory and faithful over which they have jurisdiction. While we can argue that the exercise of their faculties are technically illicit since they’re not in communion with Rome, those faculties were never withdrawn and the Catholic Church currently recognizes not only their Orders, but also their jurisdiction over their faithful.

But note that they have no jurisdiction over us. That means we cannot be validly absolved by an Orthodox priest either, except in danger of death.

And at the risk of opening another can of worms, this is also why absolution by SSPX priests are also invalid.


#10

Actually, it’s different, but this is very subtle.

The Orthodox do not have faculties “because” they have flocks (or because they are Ordinaries). That’s not the standard. If we were to say that, then any excommunicated bishop would likewise have faculties so long as he had a following of people.

Orthodox absolutions are both valid and licit. The Catholic Church does not ever say that they’re illicit. And yes, (as you say) we do recognize Orthodox jurisdictions, and indeed their canon laws (the one exception being Orthodox approach to divorce & remarriage). Orthodox Churches are true Churches (I mean that as Church sui iuris, not just local parish churches).

The difference here is the word “because.” They can absolve because no Successor to Peter has ever withdrawn their ability to absolve—not because they are true Churches (by itself).

Took a quick look at this thread. Gone for the rest of the day.


#11

Father:
As another poster noted earlier in this thread, we know that each bishop is a true vicar of Christ and not a mere vicar or deputy of the Pope. As such, the bishop receives his apostolic authority directly from Christ Himself. That being said, the Catechism (and Vatican II) is clear that the exercise of episcopal authority is still ultimately regulated by the Supreme Authority of the Church. The Supreme Authority of the Church is often reduced to the papacy, but we know this isn’t quite the full story. The Supreme Authority of the Church is exercised both by the Pope and by the College of Bishops in communion with the Pope. So rather than saying the Pope personally grants faculties to absolve to each bishop, would it be more accurate to say that the Supreme Authority of the Church, the Pope with the bishops as a collective body, grants this authority? Certainly in recent centuries the Pope may personal promulgate canons regulating these matters, but prior to the Great Schism no Pope would have ever actively granted faculties to the Eastern bishops…such a notion would never have occurred to the Pope or to the Eastern bishops. The College of Bishops, with and under the Pope, however, recognized the authority of each bishop to run his diocese and to grant faculties to his priests. This understanding, this tacit recognition of authority, was in place before the Schism and never withdrawn after the schism. We don’t want to give the impression that the Pope was actively approving episcopal mandates for Eastern bishops prior to the Schism…that is not only historically incorrect but greatly strain ties with our Orthodox brothers.


#12

Father:
Your explanation, and my above interpretation, makes sense to me in regards to the **Eastern **Orthodox Churches; that is, the Byzantine Churches in communion with Constantinople. It does not, however, satisfy me as to why the Church recognizes the validity of the mystery of penance in the Oriental (non-Chalcedonian) Orthodox Churches or in the Assyrian Church of the East. The schisms with the Orientals and the Assyrians were the result of their rejection of Ecumenical Councils recognized by the Catholic Church, after which they were, as far as I know, formally condemned as heretics. We no longer condemn them as heretics and we have signed common declarations of faith with both the Orientals and the Assyrians…but I still find it hard to believe that “faculties” were never withdrawn in these two scenarios.


#13

That particular phrase “Supreme Authority of the Church” actually does mean the pope himself (whoever he happens to be at the moment, that’s why it’s not capitalized).
For that reason, when we see that phrase in something like the Catechism or the Code of Canon Law, it does mean the pope.

Now, we can say that “supreme authority…” (no caps) does refer to the bishops collectively. I do think that’s what you mean, and I agree–at least I think I do, if I correctly understand you.

More on this in a moment…

The Supreme Authority of the Church is exercised both by the Pope and by the College of Bishops in communion with the Pope. So rather than saying the Pope personally grants faculties to absolve to each bishop, would it be more accurate to say that the Supreme Authority of the Church, the Pope with the bishops as a collective body, grants this authority?

No, it wouldn’t. Remember that I’m limiting myself to the topic of the Power of the Keys.

I’m not quite saying that the pope personally grants faculties to every bishop. For very subtle reasons, I would not phrase it that way. What I would say is that when we look at the grand scheme of things, speaking in the broadest terms: the Power of the Keys was given specifically to Peter. By extension, to Peter’s successors. Bishops can absolve because (1) their Apostolic Succession, with everything that entails and (2) by their communion (or ecclesial unity) with the Successor to Peter. Both 1 and 2. That’s not quite the same as saying that the pope personally grants them faculties because that comes too close to comparing a priest receiving faculties from his bishop to the bishop receiving faculties from the pope. That’s the pyramid model—and that model is both inaccurate and incomplete. It seems to me that you’re trying to avoid this model and I would agree.

Certainly in recent centuries the Pope may personal promulgate canons regulating these matters, but prior to the Great Schism no Pope would have ever actively granted faculties to the Eastern bishops…such a notion would never have occurred to the Pope or to the Eastern bishops.

Not in a juridic sense of a legislative or executive act. No. In that I completely agree.

However, whether it was a matter of canon law or not (and it was not), it still holds true that the Power of the Keys was given in a special and singular way to Peter (Matthew 16). That holds true, no matter what century, and no matter what any canons might say.

In other words, the lack of any canon law with regard to faculties to absolve does not change the fact that Peter’s successors had that divinely established authority. Likewise, the fact that such an authority was never exercised does not mean that it has not existed from the beginning.

The College of Bishops, with and under the Pope, however, recognized the authority of each bishop to run his diocese and to grant faculties to his priests. This understanding, this tacit recognition of authority, was in place before the Schism and never withdrawn after the schism. We don’t want to give the impression that the Pope was actively approving episcopal mandates for Eastern bishops prior to the Schism…that is not only historically incorrect but greatly strain ties with our Orthodox brothers.

Yes, this can be a sensitive subject. And frankly that’s why I don’t like to bring it up on CAF unless I think it’s necessary (usually because someone else brings up the topic).

Remember that it took until the 1870s to define Papal Infallibility. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t always there. It just means that the moment to express this dogma did not arise until that time.

I’ll leave it at that for the moment to give the dialogue a chance to catch-up. And I haven’t yet read your later post.


#14

I think the answer is rather simple. In fact, it ties in well with the end of your earlier post.

At the time, the legal mechanism of withdrawing faculties did not yet exist.

I would say, without any hesitation whatever, that the spiritual authority of the Successor to Peter did exist at the time. What I’m saying is that any of those early popes could have withdrawn the faculties to absolve from the non-Calcedonians. We know from history that none did so. Neither has any pope done so since.


#15

Side note:

In my earlier post, I made reference to Papal Infallibility. That was a poor choice for an example. I was not trying to make any connection between the authority of the pope to infallibly define dogma and the Power of the Keys. Yes, the two topics are related, but I should not have used that example, given the context.

The point of my example was to say that defining the spiritual authority of an office in the Church at a moment in history (in that case, 1870) does not mean that such authority did not exist before it was articulated.

The mention of Infallibility was intended merely as an example. With regard to what we’re discussing here, it does not relate to the topic of faculties to absolve sinners.


#16

I don’t want to start any misunderstandings or hard feelings between the east and west, but isn’t saying that a bishop is in schism mean that they are no longer a part of the one holy catholic church? And if that is the case, then wouldn’t that be withdrawing from them any and all power to act in the name of the church?

Is there another alternative way of explaining the reason for their power to absolve?

May God’s face shine on you.


#17

If we’re speaking about the present day, then yes.

However, when we discuss the Orthodox, we’re talking about a situation that happened long before the 1917 or 1983 Codes of Canon Law made the situation as clear as it is today.

When a bishop goes into schism today, he loses his faculties to absolve. No ambiguity.

On the other hand, when we look at the history of the Orthodox Churches, there was no clear break. Even the unfortunate events of 1054, which is widely regarded as the “moment” of separation by historians, was not seen as formal schism by the people who actually lived those events. It would not be until centuries later that the East and West looked to each other and realized that they were no longer in Communion, and only then looked back at the history to try to determine what caused the break.

To illustrate the point, in the infamous events of 1054, Pope Leo’s legate, Cardinal Humbert excommunicated Patriarch Michael and 2 others. In response, the Patriarch excommunicated the Cardinal and his retinue. Only individuals were excommunicated (all the sentences were committed to oblivion in 1965). What we now call the Schism would not actually be a Schism until later. The events simply do not fall into neat, definable categories. There was no moment in history when East and West separated. It happened gradually over the centuries.

Is there another alternative way of explaining the reason for their power to absolve?

May God’s face shine on you.

I am not sure I understand the question.

To summarize: the Eastern Churches have had the power of jurisdiction (from this comes faculties to absolve) from Apostolic times. No Successor to Peter ever actively withdrew their use of the Keys. Therefore, they still have, the Power of the Keys, and they absolve both validly and licitly within their own competence.

Why would an alternative explanation be needed?

From the Catholic perspective, Orthodox confessions are both valid and licit (when a priest absolves within the limits of his own competence). Quite obviously, the Orthodox understand their absolutions to be both valid and licit. That’s why I don’t see a problem, nor do I see a need for an alternate explanation.

I’m not denying that there might be an alternate explanation, even though I’ve never heard one.

Even if we say that the explanation is not very sensitive to the Orthodox feelings (and I admit that quite readily), we can still summarize the situation by saying simply “The Orthodox bishops and priests never lost their ability to absolve sinners.” Personally, I would prefer to be able to leave it at that. I only post these comments here on CAF if someone explicitly asks.

I, for one, would be happy to simply say “the Orthodox bishops/priests have had the ability to absolve sinners from the very foundation of the Church, and have never lost it, therefore they validly and licitly absolve sinners, within their own competence.” I rather think that even the Orthodox would find nothing in that sentence with which to disagree.


#18

Thank you for your answer. I do appreciate it.

This issue of the power to absolve I always thought went with the priesthood just as the power over the body and blood of Jesus. So it is a new way of thinking about it for me which I never heard before.

Thanks again and I will remember you in my prayers.


#19

You’re right. It does, and always has “went with the priesthood” as you wrote.

The difference is that in order to exercise this power of absolving (the Power of the Keys) a priest must legitimately represent the Church—meaning that he must have jurisdiction over the penitent (in modern vocabulary, we say “faculties” because a priest can have faculties without jurisdiction per se).

So yes, every validly ordained priest has that power from the very moment of his ordination. But he can only exercise it within certain limits. In practical terms, we call those limits “faculties.”


#20

So a priest may have faculties in one diocese but not in another. And if he heard confessions in another diocese without receiving faculties, then the sins of the penitents would not be forgiven even tho the priest absolved them?


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