By Father Edward McNamara, LC
ROME, 06 January 2015 (ZENIT) - Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I hear that some of the religious orders are given the faculty to absolve from censures. Is it true? Which are the religious orders or congregations that have this privilege? — T.M., Shillong, India
A: This is true, but it is practically impossible to give a list, since we are in the area of privileges that are often granted by particular decrees from the Holy See and which are not made public. The scope and extension of such privileges can also vary from place to place.
One such longstanding privilege is that of the Jesuits and the mendicant orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans and Servites to lift the censure attached to abortion. Since this is a papal privilege, the members of these religious orders, providing they have regular faculties to hear confession, retain it at all times and places, even in those cases where the local bishop has reserved lifting the censure to himself or limited the number of times that priests can raise the censure before renewing the permission.
I remember a discussion regarding this privilege about 25 years ago in my last year before ordination, in a forum held in the Apostolic Penitentiary, the office that deals with matters of conscience. A priest from a mendicant order said that a bishop tried to deny them this privilege. The cardinal in charge answered that since this privilege was universally known in ecclesiastical circles, the onus fell upon the bishop to prove that the privilege did not exist and not upon the order to prove that it held it.
Sometimes other privileges are granted to the superiors general of religious congregations so that they may subdelegate the same privilege to a certain number of other members of the congregation. In these cases the scope and limits of the privilege are clearly set forth in the decree granting the privilege. Such privileges may be permanent but are more often for a set period of time, usually five years, which may be renewed indefinitely. Although the bishop's permission is not required to exercise the privilege, he should at least be informed as to its existence and scope.
This class of privilege usually grants to the priests who have received it the faculty to absolve penitents from all censures (excommunications, suspensions and interdicts) that have not been publically declared. It does not cover publically declared censures nor does it cover censures that are reserved to the Holy See, such as sacrilegious profanation of the Eucharist, violating the sacramental seal, absolving the accomplice in an act against the Sixth Commandment, ordaining or accepting ordination as bishop without the pontifical mandate, and physical violence against the person of the Holy Father.
Another privilege sometimes granted is that of dispensing from private vows or commuting it to some other virtuous act. Such vows are those made privately by a member of the faithful to do some good act — for example, a vow to abstain from alcohol permanently or for a period of time. If for some good reason (say, for medical purposes) keeping this vow becomes burdensome, the priest can dispense or commute it. It does not apply to vows made in a public manner, such as the profession of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.
In short, the religious priest who obtains this privilege obtains faculties similar to those that bishops generally grant to certain priests of the diocese, such as the penitential canons of the cathedral chapter or those who attend certain shrines where confessions are frequent or the faithful go seeking spiritual guidance.
The superior general who subdelegates such faculties that the Holy See may grant to him would probably take into account similar pastoral situations as would a bishop and grant those faculties to priests who would most likely have need to use them.