Q. I’m curious about the fact that to mark the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis will allow all priests to absolve the sin of abortion. Why isn’t that true already? If I had committed such a sin, then went to confession and found that the priest couldn’t forgive me, that would turn me off from the Catholic faith. (Quincy, Massachusetts)
Q. I just read about Pope Francis permitting priests to absolve the sin of abortion, “a power usually reserved for bishops.” First, are there other sins that are reserved to a bishop to forgive, and what are some examples? And second, before the pope extended this new authority, what was the procedure a priest was supposed to follow when someone confessed an abortion? (Fayetteville, Georgia)
A. Pope Francis’ announcement did prompt some questions — mainly because in the United States, it doesn’t change the present practice at all.
For at least the past 30 years, bishops in the United States have granted to their priests the power to lift the automatic penalty of excommunication attached to procuring an abortion.
A key point — lost in some of the reporting — is that Catholic priests anywhere in the world already have the power to forgive the sin of abortion. The penitent walks out of the confessional forgiven and reunited to God’s grace.
The issue here is not the sin itself, but the excommunication, and who can lift it. In the Code of Canon Law that power is reserved to a bishop — unless, as in the United States, he has chosen to extend this authority to his priests.
In parts of the world where that power had not been granted, the priest would have forgiven the repentant sinner immediately and then have asked the penitent to return at a later time; during that interval the confessor would have secured his bishop’s permission to lift the canonical penalty. (Anonymity, of course, would have been honored, with the identity of the penitent never disclosed.)
In order to incur the excommunication, the penitent must have known prior to the offense that such a canonical penalty was attached to the sin — which would seem to be true only in a minority of cases.
You asked whether there are other sins for which lifting the canonical sanction is reserved to the bishop, and there are. Among such grave offenses are desecrating the sacred species of the Eucharist, absolving an accomplice in a sexual sin, or violating the seal of confession.
Finally, the pope’s announcement was not intended in any way to minimize the gravity of abortion, which takes a human life, but to highlight the wideness of God’s mercy and his willingness to forgive anyone who is genuinely sorry.
Q. I had been absent from Mass (but not from prayer) for a number of years. I began attending again last year and noticed that the words of the consecration had changed.
The word “cup” is now “chalice.” I thought this odd, since the drinking vessel at the Last Supper was more likely an earthenware cup. I asked a deacon the reason for the change, and he said it was so that the service would sound more “high church.” That upset me, because Jesus came from humble origins and lived that way throughout his life. Would the Church be happier if he had drunk from a golden goblet? (Harrisonburg, Virginia)
A. Since I have no access into the minds of those who translated the new Roman Missal into English, I can only speculate on their reasons. (And I agree, by the way, that “cup” gives a more realistic picture of the Last Supper.)
One of the guiding principles was to produce a more formal and literal translation of the Latin texts, in the hope that this would bring added reverence to the celebration of the Eucharist.
When St. Jerome, around the year 400, produced the Latin Vulgate, his narration of the Last Supper used the word “calix;” while that word could have signified a ceremonial drinking goblet, more often in the secular Latin of the day it meant an ordinary drinking cup. (And Jerome knew that the Greek word in the original Gospel text also meant a “cup” used at normal daily meals.)
We are not sure of the exact composition of the cup used by Jesus; in the first-century Middle East, it might have been made from stoneware or an early form of glass.
The decision to change from the 1969 missal’s use of “cup” to the 2011 missal’s “chalice,” as well as adhering more closely to the Latin, was perhaps designed to remind us that the vessel took on a new and sacred character since it contained the precious blood of Christ.