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A Penitent’s Guide to “Reserved Sins”
Everything you need to know about Pope Francis’ announcement that he is granting authority to priests to pardon sins normally reserved to the Holy See

By Jenna M. Cooper
December 16, 2015

In the document Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis announced that during the Year of Mercy he would send out “Missionaries of Mercy.” The Holy Father indicated that these Missionaries of Mercy would be “a sign of the Church’s maternal solicitude for the people of God,” or more concretely, “priests to whom I will grant the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See.”

But what does this mean?

What is a “reserved sin”?

A reserved sin is a sin that cannot be absolved by an ordinary priest in usual circumstances surrounding the sacrament of reconciliation but where reconciliation is reserved to a higher authority.

We should keep in mind that Misericordiae Vultus was intended as a primarily pastoral document rather than a strictly legal one. Because of this, in Misericodiae Vultus Pope Francis addresses the Catholic faithful in general using popular and easily understood terms. Yet if we were to approach the issue from a very technical perspective, we would note the current 1983 Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law does not speak of reserved sins per se (although the previous 1917 Code of Canon Law and the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches do mention reserved sins). Rather, the Code of Canon Law discusses reserved penalties.

What is a reserved penalty?

To answer this question, we first need to recognize that the Church regards some offenses as being more than simply sins but also crimes according to canon law. Consequently, a penalty is punishment for a canonical crime.

Some canonical penalties are “expiatory,” which means they are intended as a way to repair the damages caused by scandal and to restore justice in the life of the Church. But a more common type of penalty would be a medicinal penalty, called a “censure.” A censure is meant as a sort of “wake-up call” to prompt an individual to take his or her need for repentance and reconciliation with the Church more seriously.

One such medicinal penalty is excommunication, which means a Catholic is prevented from fully participating in the life of the Church. Specifically, an excommunicated person is not permitted to hold any official position (or office) within the Church and is unable to receive the sacraments. Excommunication is envisioned as something that would ordinarily be actively imposed by a legitimate Church authority, although some offenses carry the penalty of an automatic (called “latae sententiae”) excommunication.

Because one of the effects of excommunication is the inability to receive the sacraments, a Catholic who is excommunicated cannot receive absolution during the sacrament of penance. Therefore, an excommunicated penitent would first need the penalty for his canonical crime lifted in order for the sacramental absolution of his sin to be effective.

Normally, the bishop of the local diocese (i.e., the “Ordinary”) or his delegate is able to lift a censure such as excommunication. Some penalties, however, are “reserved to the Apostolic See,” which means they can only be lifted with special permission from the pope, generally by way of a special tribunal in Rome called the “Apostolic Penitentiary.” Offenses with this kind of reserved penalty include desecration of the blessed sacrament; physical violence against the Holy Father; a priest’s direct violation of the secrecy of the confessional; a priest’s attempt to grant sacramental absolution to his partner in sexual sin and a bishop’s ordaining another bishop without an express mandate from the Holy Father.

What will the Missionaries of Mercy do?

We can reasonably presume that with the formal beginning of their special ministry on Ash Wednesday of 2016, the Missionaries of Mercy will be given the faculty of lifting censures reserved to the Apostolic See. This, in turn, will allow them to grant immediate forgiveness of the above-mentioned sins in the usual course of the sacrament of reconciliation.

Beyond this, Pope Francis is also commissioning the Missionaries of Mercy to engage in other pastoral activities, such as preaching retreats and parish missions in local dioceses throughout the Year of Mercy.

Are any other special permissions granted during the Year of Mercy?

Yes! During the Year of Mercy, all priests in every part of the world will be granted the faculty to lift the penalty associated with the crime of abortion (although it is worth recalling that most bishops in the United States had already granted this faculty to the priests in their dioceses even prior to the start of the Year of Mercy).

Additionally, for the good of the faithful and for the sake of the extending the scope of Church’s mission of mercy, for the duration of the Jubilee Year Pope Francis is granting the priests of the Society of St. Pius X — who ordinarily lack faculties for hearing confessions apart from situations involving danger of death — the ability to validly absolve sins in the sacrament of penance.

Why are the Missionaries of Mercy important?

Since the vast majority of Catholics are (thankfully!) unlikely to be guilty of crimes such as physical violence against the Holy Father or consecrating a bishop without a pontifical mandate, it might seem that the Missionaries of Mercy are not especially useful.

However, beyond simply facilitating the pardon of some particularly extreme sins, the Missionaries of Mercy are intended “above all” as “living signs of the Father’s readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon.” That is, they are a powerful reminder to the whole Church of Christ’s readiness to “seek out and save what was lost” (Luke 19:10) and of God’s limitless desire to offer his mercy to even the worst of sinners.

Jenna M. Cooper is a consecrated virgin of the Archdiocese of New York. She completed a licentiate in canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in 2014.