Recently I have read about the so-called “missionaries of mercy” (specially delegated priests throughout the world who, during the Jubilee Year of Mercy, are granted special faculties to absolve sins ordinarily reserved to the Holy See/Vatican to absolve). If God is mercy itself and He desires to grant this gift to the contrite of heart, why would the Church make it so difficult to obtain forgiveness for certain sins? Which are the serious sins that fall into this special category? Also, scripture says there is only one unforgivable sin: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29, Matt. 12:32, Luke 12:10). Say something about that. (Paraphrase of a recent parishioner inquiry)
Let me take the last part first. Many Protestant Christian theologians have taken a stab at guessing what this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit entails. However, the Catholic Church has already given a definitive answer. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph #1864, we read, “‘Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of eternal sin’ [here quoting the above mentioned Bible verse]. There are no limits to the mercy of God but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss.” In other words, it is the Holy Spirit that inspires us to repent and turn back to God and the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit is to resist that inspiration all the way to the end of our lives. God never forces himself on us against our will and he can’t forgive us if we don’t want to receive that forgiveness. This is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Put another way, the only limit on God’s mercy is our openness to receive it. God is both capable and willing to forgive all. No sin which we can ever commit is too big for God’s forgiveness. That being said, the Church, according to her proper authority to bind and loose sin in God’s name has previously reserved some sins to the Holy See/Vatican for absolution to perhaps highlight their seriousness. Most of these are extraordinarily serious sins committed by clergy but a few potentially involve the laity as well. Canons 1364-1399 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law discuss all sins reserved to the Apostolic See. Some examples include “one who throws away the consecrated species [The Eucharist] or, for a sacrilegious purpose, takes them away or keeps them”; “a person who uses physical force against the Roman Pontiff”; “both the bishop who, without a pontifical mandate, consecrates a person a bishop, and the one who receives the consecration from him”[i.e. all participants in an invalid or unsanctioned ordination]; “a confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal”; and a confessor who absolves “an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue [i.e. any priest involved with another sexually who then attempts to absolve that same person of the sinful act]. During the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis granted temporary faculties to a number of designated priests to absolve even these sins locally as missionaries of mercy. In our archdiocese, two such priests have been designated. These missionaries, throughout the world are also granted faculties to absolve sins reserved to the local ordinary (bishop) previously under Canon 1356. This list of sins includes abortion and formal, public apostasy. Here I need to make a strong clarification for parishioners though. In the United States and much of Western Europe, bishops long ago extended faculties to all of their local clergy to absolve the sin of abortion and other sins previously reserved to him alone because of its widespread frequency. Unfortunately, the way that news providers reported this decision was confusing to many and brought widespread distress to many who had previously had an abortion and later sought God’s forgiveness in confession. Were they actually absolved of their sin or not? The answer is a very clear “YES”. If you or someone you know has been involved in procuring an abortion and later sought God’s forgiveness in confession here in the Unites States, your sin is absolved. The pope’s decree was really meant for those countries that have not taken such steps where absolution has continued to be reserved to the local bishop alone. Put another way, in those areas, the pope has gone over those local bishops’ heads and granted faculties to his own delegates. This is not an issue in the United States. Going forward, will the Church still choose to maintain a special list of more serious sins which it reserves to a more limited list of authorities to absolve? Time will tell but the Pope’s actions seem to suggest there is a possibility that a more permanent change is coming in order that the Church can more effectively reflect the merciful face of God. For now, however, this special decree applies to the Jubilee Year alone.