due to


 Pope Hildebrand excommunicates Henry IV

1. Incurring the Excommunication;  2. Absolution from the Excommunication; 2.1. Delegated Faculties; 2.2. Vademecum for Confessors (1997)

WE have already studied in detail the development of Catholic doctrine and discipline that led to the present imposition of a lætæ sententiæ (that is, “automatic”) excommunication on any “person who procures a completed abortion”: Canon 1398 — Qui abortum procurat, effectu secuto, in excommunicationem lætæ sententiæ incurrit.  Those who “procure” the abortion (and thus incur the excommunication) include not only the woman herself, but also those who arrange and/or perform the abortion.

WHAT is often not well-understood by the Catholic faithful is how, even though the excommunication is defined as automatic or laetae sententiae, it may not necessarily be incurred by everyone who has, in fact, procured an abortion. Also important to understand are the circumstances under which this penalty may be lifted or absolved.  






























(Cann. 1321 - 1330)






Can. 1321 §1. No one is punished unless the external violation of a law or precept, committed by the person, is gravely imputable by reason of malice or negligence.

Can. 1321 — § 1. Nemo punitur, nisi externa legis vel praecepti violatio, ab eo commissa, sit graviter imputabilis ex dolo vel ex culpa.

§2. A penalty established by a law or precept binds the person who has deliberately violated the law or precept; however, a person who violated a law or precept by omitting necessary diligence is not punished unless the law or precept provides otherwise.

§ 2. Poena lege vel praecepto statuta is tenetur, qui legem vel praeceptum deliberate violavit; qui vero id egit ex omissione debitae diligentiae, non punitur, nisi lex vel praeceptum aliter caveat.

§3. When an external violation has occurred, imputability is presumed unless it is otherwise apparent.

§ 3. Posita externa violatione, imputabilitas praesumitur, nisi aliud appareat.

Can. 1322 Those who habitually lack the use of reason are considered to be incapable of a delict, even if they violated a law or precept while seemingly sane.

Can. 1322 — Qui habitualiter rationis usu carent, etsi legem vel praeceptum violaverint dum sani videbantur, delicti in incapaces habentur.



Can. 1323 The following are not subject to a penalty when they have violated a law or precept:

Can. 1323 — Nulli poenae est obnoxius qui, cum legem vel praeceptum violavit:

  1. a person who has not yet completed the sixteenth year of age;

1° sextum decimum aetatis annum nondum explevit;

  2. a person who without negligence was ignorant that he or she violated a law or precept; inadvertence and error are equivalent to ignorance;

2° sine culpa ignoravit se legem vel praeceptum violare; ignorantiae autem inadvertentia et error aequiparantur

  3. a person who acted due to physical force or a chance occurrence which the person could not foresee or, if foreseen, avoid;

3° egit ex vi physica vel ex casu fortuito, quem praevidere vel cui praeviso occurrere non potuit;

  4. a person who acted coerced by grave fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity or grave inconvenience unless the act is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls;

4° metu gravi, quamvis relative tantum, coactus egit, aut ex necessitate vel gravi incommodo, nisi tamen actus sit intrinsece malus aut vergat in animarum damnum;

  5. a person who acted with due moderation against an unjust aggressor for the sake of legitimate self defense or defense of another;

5° legitimae tutelae causa contra iniustum sui vel alterius aggressorem egit, debitum servans moderamen;

  6. a person who lacked the use of reason, without prejudice to the prescripts of cann. 1324, §1, n. 2 and 1325;

6° rationis usu carebat, firmis praescriptis cann. 1324, § 1, n. 2 et 1325;

  7. a person who without negligence thought that one of the circumstances mentioned in nn. 4 or 5 was present.

7° sine culpa putavit aliquam adesse ex circumstantiis, de quibus in nn. 4 vel 5.



Can. 1324 §1. The perpetrator of a violation is not exempt from a penalty, but the penalty established by law or precept must be tempered or a penance employed in its place if the delict was committed:

Can. 1324 — § 1. Violationis auctor non eximitur a poena, sed poena lege vel praecepto statuta temperari debet vel in eius locum paenitentia adhiberi,si delictum patratum sit:

  1. by a person who had only the imperfect use of reason;

1° ab eo, qui rationis usum imperfectum tantum habuerit;

  2. by a person who lacked the use of reason because of drunkenness or another similar culpable disturbance of mind;

2° ab eo qui rationis usu carebat propter ebrietatem aliamve similem mentis perturbationem, quae culpabilis fuerit;

  3. from grave heat of passion which did not precede and hinder all deliberation of mind and consent of will and provided that the passion itself had not been stimulated or fostered voluntarily;

3° ex gravi passionis aestu, qui non omnem tamen mentis deliberationem et voluntatis consensum praecesserit et impedierit, et dummodo passio ipsa ne fuerit voluntarie excitata vel nutrita;

  4. by a minor who has completed the age of sixteen years;

4° a minore, qui aetatem sedecim annorum explevit;

  5. by a person who was coerced by grave fear, even if only relatively grave, or due to necessity or grave inconvenience if the delict is intrinsically evil or tends to the harm of souls;

5° ab eo, qui metu gravi, quamvis relative tantum, coactus est, aut ex necessitate vel gravi incommodo, si delictum sit intrinsece malum vel in animarum damnum vergat;

  6. by a person who acted without due moderation against an unjust aggressor for the sake of legitimate self defense or defense of another;

6° ab eo, qui legitimae tutelae causa contra iniustum sui vel alterius aggressorem egit, nec tamen debitum servavit moderamen;

  7. against someone who gravely and unjustly provokes the person;

7° adversus aliquem graviter et iniuste provocantem;

  8. by a person who thought in culpable error that one of the circumstances mentioned in can. 1323, nn. 4 or 5 was present;

8° ab eo, qui per errorem, ex sua tamen culpa, putavit aliquam adesse ex circumstantiis, de quibus in can. 1323, nn. 4 vel 5;

  9. by a person who without negligence did not know that a penalty was attached to a law or precept;

9° ab eo, qui sine culpa ignoravit poenam legi vel praecepto esse adnexam;

 10. by a person who acted without full imputability provided that the imputability was grave.

10° ab eo, qui egit sine plena imputabilitate, dummodo haec gravis permanserit.

§2. A judge can act in the same manner if another circumstance is present which diminishes the gravity of a delict.

§ 2. Idem potest iudex facere, si qua alia adsit circumstantia, quae delicti gravitatem deminuat.

§3. In the circumstances mentioned in §1, the accused is not bound by a latae sententiae penalty.

§ 3. In circumstantiis, de quibus in § 1, reus poena latae sententiae non tenetur.



Can. 1325 Crass, supine, or affected ignorance can never be considered in applying the prescripts of cann. 1323 and 1324; likewise drunkenness or other disturbances of mind cannot be considered if they are sought deliberately in order to commit or excuse a delict, nor can passion which is voluntarily stimulated or fostered.

Can. 1325 — Ignorantia crassa vel supina vel affectata numquam considerari potest in applicandis praescriptis cann. 1323 et 1324; item ebrietas aliaeve mentis perturbationes, si sint de industria ad delictum patrandum vel excusandum quaesitae, et passio, quae voluntarie excitata vel nutrita sit.








(Cann. 1354 - 1363)








Can. 1357    §1. Without prejudice to the prescripts of cann. 508 and 976, a confessor can remit in the internal sacramental forum an undeclared latae sententiae censure of excommunication or interdict if it is burdensome for the penitent to remain in the state of grave sin during the time necessary for the competent superior to make provision.

Can. 1357 - § 1.  Firmis praescriptis cann. 508 et 976, censuram latae sententiae excommunicationis vel interdicti non declaratam confessarius remittere potest in foro interno sacramentali, si paenitenti durum sit in statu gravis peccati permanere per tempus necessarium ut Superior competens provideat.

   §2. In granting the remission, the confessor is to impose on the penitent, under the penalty of reincidence, the obligation of making recourse within a month to the competent superior or to a priest endowed with the faculty and the obligation of obeying his mandates; in the meantime he is to impose a suitable penance and, insofar as it is demanded, reparation of any scandal and damage; however, recourse can also be made through the confessor, without mention of the name.

§ 2.  In remissione concedenda confessarius paenitenti onus iniungat recurrendi intra mensem sub poena reincidentiae ad Superiorem competentem vel ad sacerdotem facultate praeditum, et standi huius mandatis; interim imponat congruam paenitentiam et, quatenus urgeat, scandali et damni reparationem; recursus autem fieri potest etiam per confessarium, sine nominis mentione. 

   §3. After they have recovered, those for whom an imposed or declared censure or one reserved to the Apostolic See has been remitted according to the norm of can. 976 are also obliged to make recourse.

§ 3.  Eodem onere recurrendi tenentur,  postquam convaluerint, ii quibus ad normam can. 976 remissa est censura irrogata vel declarata vel Sedi Apostolicae reservata














from the

 Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal






2.1.  Delegated faculties



   2.1.1. EXAMPLE 1  (extract from a list of priestly faculties)



6.2. Remission of Censures: You may remit in the internal forum any automatic (latae sententiae) penalty of excommunication established by law provided that (a) it has not been formally declared in the external forum, and (b) it is not a particular penalty reserved to the Apostolic See. In exercising this faculty within the sacrament, it is not necessary to add anything to the formula of absolution. It suffices that the confessor intend to remit the censure along with the sins (see Rite of Penance, Appendix I, n. 1). Outside of the sacrament, the formula for remission of an excommunication is found in number 2 of the same Appendix.

a. Unlike the extension of your authorization to hear confessions anywhere in the world, the provision of canon 967 §2 does not extend your authorization to remit censures throughout the world. Even so, this faculty may be exercised anywhere in the world on behalf of the members of the diocese or on behalf of those who incurred the penalty in this diocese. It also may be exercised within the diocese on behalf of anyone present here (canon 1355, §2).

b. If the automatic excommunication was officially declared in a canonical process, its remission is reserved to the bishop or one of the auxiliary bishops (canon 1355, §1).

c. The following excommunications are reserved to the Apostolic See and hence may not be remitted:

i) desecration of the Sacred Species (canon 1367);

ii) violence against the Roman Pontiff (canon 1370, §1);

iii) knowingly attempting to absolve an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment, except in danger of death (canon 1378, § 1);

iv) a bishop who consecrates someone a bishop without a pontifical mandate, as well as the person receiving such unauthorized consecration (canon 1382);

v) direct violation of the seal of confession (canon 1388).

d. Note well that by this faculty you may remit the excommunication attached to the procurement of abortion (canon 1398).

e. By this faculty you may remit the excommunication attached to apostasy, heresy or schism (canon 1364). For a penitent returning to the Catholic faith, you should admonish the person to begin practicing the faith in some public way, such as by registering in a parish, so that there is some external forum evidence of the person’s reconciliation with the Church. Under no circumstances may the confessor himself use knowledge of sin, gained only from the sacrament, in the external forum (canons 984, 1388 §1). If the penitent actually left the Church by a formal act, making his or her intention known to his or her pastor or local ordinary (canon 1117), then the person needs to inform the parish of baptism to reverse the notice of formal defection in the baptismal register.

f. Note well that canon 977 renders invalid, except in danger of death, the absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment, and the confessor who knowingly attempts to do so incurs an automatic excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.


   2.1.2. EXAMPLE 2 (extract from another list of priestly faculties - from another diocese)



The faculty is granted to priests to remit in the internal or external forum a latae sententiae penalty established by the law but not yet declared, provided the remission is not reserved to the Apostolic See. This faculty may be exercised only within the confines of the diocese, and on behalf of any person regardless of the person's residence or the place where the penalty was incurred.

Note: In view of this faculty, priests have the power to absolve a person who has incurred the censure for effectively procuring an abortion.





Vademecum for Confessors Concerning
Some Aspects
of the
of Conjugal Life
Pontifical Council for the Family, Feb. 12, 1997

Lippi, 1545


[3.]18. In order to render the moral directives concerning responsible procreation concretely applicable, it is necessary that the precious work of confessors be completed by catechesis.[52] Accurate illumination of consciences with regard to the sin of abortion certainly forms an integral part of this task.

[3.]19. Regarding absolution for the sin of abortion, the obligation always exists to have regard for the canonical norms. If repentance is sincere and it is difficult to send the penitent to the competent authority to whom the absolution of the censure is reserved, every confessor can absolve according to can. 1357, suggesting an adequate penitential act, and indicating the necessity to have recourse, possibly offering to draft and forward it himself.[53]  [...]

Alfonso Card. López Trujillo
President of the Pontifical Council
for the Family

+ Francisco Gil Hellín


[52] “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2271; see Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion, November 18, 1974).

“The moral gravity of procured abortion is apparent in all its truth if we recognize that we are dealing with murder and, in particular when we consider the specific elements involved. The one eliminated is a human being at the very beginning of life. No one more absolutely innocent could be imagined” (John Paul II, Enc. Evangelium Vitae, March 25, 1995, n. 58).

[53] It is to be kept in mind that the faculty to absolve in the internal forum in this matter belongs “ipso iure”, as for all censures not reserved to the Holy See and not declared, to any bishop, even if only titular, and to the diocesan or collegiate Penitentiary (can. 508), as well as to chaplains of hospitals, of prisons and of voyagers (can. 566 § 2). Confessors belonging to a mendicant Order or to certain modern religious Congregations enjoy, by privilege, the faculty to absolve only for the censure regarding abortion.

[54] Cf. John Paul II, Enc. Dives in Misericordia, Nov. 30, 1980, n. 14.


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