Once in a while I post something on canon law, usually to correct some major error I see. It is odd now to write a post to correct a rather major error from the Holy See on Canon Law, and even from the Pope himself.
So what is the mistake. A bit back, Pope Francis announced an extraordinary jubilee to begin this year. He has called this a Year of Mercy. As is typical, he has issued a Bull of Indiction, Misericordiae Vultus (the Face of Mercy), listing the spiritual benefits to accrue to the faithful in this Jubilee Year. In that document he makes the following statement in paragraph 18:
During Lent of this Holy Year, I intend to send out Missionaries of Mercy. They will be a sign of the Church’s maternal solicitude for the People of God, enabling them to enter the profound richness of this mystery so fundamental to the faith. There will be priests to whom I will grant the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See, so that the breadth of their mandate as confessors will be even clearer.
A bit of background here. Most Catholics are under the impression that any priest may hear a confession at any time. This is not true. While the sacrament of Order (i.e., just being a priest) gives the priest sacramental power. that is not sufficient for him to absolve sins during confession. He also needs something called jurisdictional power, or the executive power of governance. The Code usually calls this faculties. Basically, he needs to be given permission by his local Bishop to hear confessions. (Although pastors of parishes and some others have the power by the law itself.) Without that granting of authority, he has no power to absolve sins.
The point in question here is about the "authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See". That refers to sins that the Pope has reserved to himself (or one of the Apostolic Penitentiaries) alone to absolve -- no other priest or bishop would have the power to absolve those sins.
So what's the problem? In the Latin Church, the law has eliminated all of these reserved sins since 1983 -- more than 30 years. In other words, there are no sins reserved to the Holy See in the Latin Church. So, it's not clear at all what these "Missionaries of Mercy" will be doing.
The law does reserve the removal of certain penalties to the Holy See. There are certain penalties that priests can lift in the confessional. For example, in the Latin Church, a Catholic who procures an abortion automatically (latae sententiae) receives an undeclared penalty of excommunication. Under certain circumstances (see can. 1357), a priest can lift that penalty of excommunication. But there are penalties for certain offense (the canonical word is "delicts") that only the Holy See can lift. These include penalties for, e.g., using physical force on the Pope, violating the seal of confession, attempting to ordain a woman, desecrating the eucharist, and clerical sexual abuse. Perhaps the Pope means to assign these "Missionaries of Mercy" to these reserved penalties. If so, it does not seem to me that there are all that many of these, or why the usual process through the Holy See would not suffice.
I should note that this is not true of the Eastern Catholic Churches (e.g., Byzantine Catholics, Maronite Catholics, etc.). There are "reserved sins" in those Churches. So, I suppose this could mean that these "Missionaries of Mercy" will only be sent to the Eastern Churches. Although, if that were the case, you'd think it would be specified that way.
Either way, it shows that even the Pope can get canon law wrong, and why he always needs some good canonists to give him counsel.
4/29/15 UPDATE: I added a sentence to clarify a canonical term.
12/6/15 UPDATE: The Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, who have the duty to authentically interpret the law, have weighed in on the issue. You can see the letter (in Italian) from the President of the Council here. The letter references a Sept. 1st letter from Pope Francis to the President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization to grant during the Jubilee Year to all priests (tutti i sacerdoti) the faculty to absolve from the sin of abortion (assolvere dal peccato di aborto). Since all priests with the faculty to hear confession generally already have this faculty, some explanation was needed. The letter indicates that without doubt (indubbio, non c'è alcun dubbio), despite the words used, what was intended was to grant the faculty to lift the censure of a non declared latae sententiae excommunication for those who have procured an abortion. This seems to be limited only to the latae sententiae penalty for procuring abortion. Therefore, the Missionaries of Mercy will still have a broader faculty, as it seems they will have the authority to lift any undeclared latae sententiae excommunication.
11/21/16 UPDATE: The Pope today issued an Apostolic Letter coinciding with the closing of the Jubilee year of mercy. The letter purports to "grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion." In other words, the letter continues the same error that was contained in Misericordiae Vultus from last year. However, given the intervening authoritative interpretation in November 2015, we can say that we know what the Pope means to do, even if the words do not precisely correspond. It is important to stress that there is no sin that a priest may not forgive (so long as he has the faculty to hear confessions), at least in the Latin Church. I do worry that there are people who will not go to confession because they (falsely) believe they 'have one of those sins that the priest can't forgive' or that there are people who doubt that a confessed sin was truly absolved because it was not absolved by a bishop. I also note that the Holy Father also extended to priests of the Society of St. Pius X the continued faculty of absolving sins.
11/22/16 UPDATE: I corrected a few typos and tightened up some language. Looking it over, perhaps I should stress that there is a difference between the sin of abortion and the crime or delict of abortion, even though they arise from the same act. The confessional is about the forgiveness of the sin, about putting us back into right relationship with God after we have strayed by our actions. The crime is a function of the Church's governance. The Church has always maintained the distinction between the crime of excommunication as sin. They may be related, but there are important differences. Some people believe that excommunication is about making a determination as to whether someone can "get to heaven". That is not true. Excommunication is about protecting the community of the Church from harm by the scandal or behavior of others. It's perfectly possible for a person to be under the penalty of excommunication and yet still have sanctifying grace.