Interview with the Regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary

Author: L'Osservatore Romano

Interview with the Regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary

Nicole Gori

On indulgences, new forms of social sin

Genetic manipulation, environmental pollution, social inequality, social injustice: these are new forms of sin looming on humanity's horizon, almost a corollary of the inexorable process of globalization. They also constitute a new challenge for the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Dicastery which is increasingly challenged to reaffirm its own role in the age when the perception of sin is vanishing. Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, O.F.M. Conv., Regent of the Penitentiary, spoke about this in an interview with L'Osservatore Romano Italian edition, the day after a course for confessors concluded on Friday, 7 March [2008].

L'Osservatore Romano: To public opinion, but also to a large number of the faithful, the Apostolic Penitentiary seems a mysterious entity.

Bishop Girotti: What you have said is unfortunately confirmed by reality. Although it is actually the oldest body of the Roman Curia — after the suppression of the Apostolic Dataria in 1967 and the Apostolic Chancery in 1973 — it is little known even by a large part of the clergy. Perhaps the reason for this should be sought in the fact that its activity escapes the visibility more closely associated with the tasks of the other Dicasteries. Among the Offices of the Roman Curia, the Apostolic Penitentiary is the Dicastery that carries out a truly spiritual activity, the Dicastery most consonant with the Church's fundamental mission that consists in the salus animarum.

It is the Pontiff's exclusive and universal body for the internal forum. Recourse to the internal forum is not only for sins, censure and irregularities, but in general for confidential situations such as, for example, dispensation; verification and the validation of invalid acts originating in secret circumstances. It also examines and resolves cases of conscience that are presented to it and resolves moral or legal doubts when it is a question of secret circumstances or of individual, practical matters.

What value do your answers have?

It is a question of an authoritative value — according to the case, obligatory or redeeming — solely for the actual, unique circumstances that are proposed and not for other cases; but these answers can be extended to other cases as a prudential criterion. In other words, the doctrinal and disciplinary guidelines included in the actual solutions can be applied by analogy in a broader context and with caution by the priest who has appealed to the Penitentiary. Nevertheless, in no case is he permitted to divulge the answers.

Since it seems to create ecumenical problems, is a body like the Penitentiary still relevant?

I find it difficult to grasp the objective reasons and motives of this presumed embarrassment that the Penitentiary is said to create at the ecumenical level. If there is an intention to refer to the historiographical error concerning forgiveness, which at the end of the Renaissance certainly did nothing to facilitate a correct ecumenical discussion, it would suffice to make a comparison with the recent, full documentation of unexpected scholars who with great honesty bring to the fore the role of this Dicastery, considered the true "source of grace", free from any partiality.

Does attention to sin stem from sensitivity to the needs of modern society or is it motivated by references from the past?

The reference is always a violation of the Covenant with God and with the brethren, and the social repercussions of sin. If in the past sin had a somewhat individualistic dimension, today it has an importance, a resonance, that is not only individual but above all social because of the great phenomenon of globalization. In fact, attention to sin is more urgent today than it was yesterday, precisely because of its repercussions that are more extensive and more destructive.

Does the Penitentiary still serve a purpose?

Undoubtedly. In an age marked by images and advertising in which everything is public, I believe that in its most delicate and least visible dimensions a Dicastery such as the Apostolic Penitentiary which is attentive to the interior world is a very valuable instrument in the well-articulated framework of the Church's life.

What matters most attract your attention?

They are the offences for which, because of their gravity, the Holy See reserves absolution: absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment (can. 1378); the sacrilegious profanation of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist (can. 1367); the direct violation of the seal of confession (can. 1388, § 1); the dispensation from irregularities ad recipiendos Ordines, contracted by procured abortion (can. 1041, § 4); the dispensation from irregularities ad exercendos Ordines (can. 1044 § 1).

How should one interpret the shock manifested by public opinion in the face of so many scandalous and sinful situations in the Church?

It is impossible to underestimate the objective gravity of a series of phenomena that have recently been reported and that bring with them implications of the Church's human and institutional frailty. Yet in this regard, it is impossible not to note that the Church, concerned about the serious harm done to her, has reacted and continues to react with strong interventions and initiatives to safeguard the Church's own image and the good of the People of God. Nevertheless, it is also necessary to report the emphases given to these scandals by the communications media, which in the secular framework discredits the Church.

Sometimes people do not understand the Church's forbearance or Christian forgiveness. How do you account for this?

Today, it seems that penance is perceived as the openness of the self to the other in the solution of problems that call for attention in the social sphere of activity within which a person lives his life, making his own contribution to enlighten and sustain those in difficulty. Thus, penance today is seen mainly in a social dimension since social relations have been both weakened and complicated by globalization.

In your opinion what are the new sins?

Various areas exist today within which we note sinful attitudes regarding individual and social rights.

First of all, the area of bioethics, within which we cannot fail to denounce certain violations of fundamental human rights through experimentation and genetic manipulation whose outcome it is difficult to foresee and to control.

Another, truly social area is that of drugs, which weaken the mind and cloud the intellect, leaving many young people outside the ecclesial circuit.

Further, there are the areas of social and economic inequality, in which the poorest become ever poorer and the rich ever richer, fostering unbearable social injustice; and of ecology, which attracts considerable interest today.

Does not frequent recourse to indulgences encourage a superstitious mentality with regard to sin and punishment?

In order not to fall into such a dangerous and falsified viewpoint, I consider that it is absolutely essential above all to know and understand the correct doctrine of the practice of indulgences, intended by the Church as a meaningful expression of God's mercy which assists his children, helping them to satisfy the punishment due to their sins, "but also and above all to impel them to greater and more fervent charity".

The Church is motivated in the first place by the desire to educate rather than to repeat formulas and practices, in the spirit of prayer and penance and in the practice of the theological virtues. The reform the Servant of God Paul VI began with the Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina of 1 January 1967, has eliminated all that could incline the faithful to a superstitious mentality. This doctrine, drawn from the solidarity that exists among human beings in Adam and in Christ, from the Communion of Saints, from the treasure of the Church that consists in the expiation and merits of Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints that are made available to the faithful, clearly explains the theological presuppositions of indulgences. Indulgences, in fact — as emphasized —, cannot be acquired without sincere conversion and without union with God, in addition to the exercise of the prescribed acts.

Does it not seem to you that the conditions for obtaining an indulgence are easy?

If, together with the usual conditions imposed — sacramental confession no more than 15 or 20 days beforehand or afterwards, Eucharistic Communion and prayers for the Pontiff's intentions — one realizes that the acquisition of an indulgence demands a degree of eminent purity and signs of ardent charity that are difficult to accomplish due to our frailty, then you will realize that what has been established is not to be minimized.

Are there any sins that you cannot absolve?

The Penitentiary is the longa manus of the Pope in the exercise of the potestas clavium. Therefore, in order to carry out the functions it has been assigned in the internal forum it possesses all the necessary faculties with the sole exception of those that the Pope has expressly declared to the Cardinal Penitentiary that he wishes to reserve for himself. It can therefore carry out in the context of the internal forum all acts for which the other Dicasteries of the Roman Curia are competent.

Concerning abortion, there is a widespread feeling that the Church fails to take into consideration the difficult plight of women.

It seems to me that such a concern does not take into any account the attitude which, on the contrary, the Church constantly manifests precisely in safeguarding and protecting the dignity and rights of women. Indeed, Catholic bodies and ecclesial movements do not cease to promote with courageous and intelligent commitment many initiatives to counter today's cultural and social tendencies against women, effectively helping unmarried mothers by doing the utmost to educate their children, born through thoughtlessness, and even facilitates adoption.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
19 March 2008, page 9

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069