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Alex Anonymous wrote:

Ladies and gentlemen,

My name is Alex. I am twenty years old and from Germany. I have a pair of questions for you.
I would be very grateful if you could answer them or help me find some answers.

  • If a person mentions in Confession that he uses contraception, does canon law set a certain coercive punishment (e.g. interdict) to make him give up this practice?
    • If it does, who is authorized to assess the punishment, only a bishop, or inferior clerics as well?
    • If it does not, what actions is the respective Confessor allowed to take to make the penitent give up contraception?
These questions do not touch my own private life, as I am not married yet. I ask them for research I am doing, therefore, it would be especially kind of you if you could tell me your sources.

Thank you very much in advance and God bless you.

Yours respectfully,

Alex

  { If a person mentions in Confession that he uses contraception, does canon law set a punishment? }

Eric replied:

Hi Alex,

Thanks for your question.

You said:
I am twenty years old and from Germany. I have a pair of questions for you.
I would be very grateful if you could answer them or help me find some answers.

  • If a person mentions in Confession that he uses contraception, does canon law set a certain coercive punishment (e.g. interdict) to make him give up this practice?
    • If it does, who is authorized to assess the punishment, only a bishop, or inferior clerics as well?
    • If it does not, what actions is the respective Confessor allowed to take to make the penitent give up contraception?

While we are not canon lawyers, I can almost guarantee you that there is no canon that permits an interdict for those who contracept. Moreover, a priest cannot impose an interdict, only a bishop can. That being said, technically, if someone maintained that contraception was morally licit, they would technically be automatically excommunicated for heresy, but:

  • first of all, practically speaking, it would have to be a public matter, not a private one;
  • second of all, it would have to be contumacious, meaning willfully and obstinately disobedient.

A Confessor cannot make a penitent give up contraception, pure and simple.

  • He can inform the penitent that it is wrong and what the consequences are
  • he can attempt to persuade the penitent
  • he can say that disbelief in the Church's teaching incurs automatic excommunication

    • but he can't force him to give it up.

You said:
These questions do not touch my own private life, as I am not married yet. I ask them for research I am doing, therefore, it would be especially kind of you if you could tell me your sources.

Producing sources is difficult. The only way to prove that there is no canon, that permits an interdict for those who contracept, is to read all of canon law or at least enough of it to be fairly certain it isn't in there. You are welcome to start here.

I suggest searching for interdict or variants thereof from the Code of Canon Law on the Vatican web site here:

The part about heresy can be found in Canons 751 and 1363. What a Confessor can and cannot do, again, is somewhat proving a negative, and somewhat based on information that isn't public or is a matter of oral tradition or best practices.

Hope this helps,

Eric

Alex replied:

Dear Mr. Ewanco,

Thank you very much, especially for the very fast answer. If there is nothing about it in Canon law, then I do not need any sources. I appreciate your help.

If I can ask one more little question, it would be appreciated:

A female Catholic neighbor of my grandmother's, whether it was in Confession or outside of Confession, stated that she and her husband practiced contraception and that they would go on with it. The priest of her congregation then excluded her from receiving Holy Communion.

This is the reason why I did research on this topic in the first place.

  • If I understand your previous answer, you would say that this priest had no legitimate reason for his course of action. <Correct?>

Thank you in advance (again).

God bless you.

Alex

Eric replied:

Hi Alex,

You said:
If I can ask one more little question, it would be appreciated:

A female Catholic neighbor of my grandmother's, whether it was in Confession or outside of Confession, stated that she and her husband practiced contraception and that they would go on with it. The priest of her congregation then excluded her from receiving Holy Communion.

This is the reason why I did research on this topic in the first place.

  • If I understand your previous answer, you would say that this priest had no legitimate reason for his course of action. <Correct?>

Well, I suppose I neglected to address the big picture.

Contraception, per se, cannot be punished by formal interdict or excommunication however you can deny someone Communion for it under Canon 915:

"Those who are excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion."

So if someone is openly and obstinately contracepting, they are not to be admitted to Communion, but this is not the same as an interdict or excommunication, so the priest was within his rights in what he did.

Nevertheless, he had better be sure the sin is manifest and obstinate.

You said:
Thank you in advance (again).

No problem. Come back if you have any other questions.

Eric

Mary Ann and John supplied a team reply:

We just wanted to add to our colleague Eric's answer.

Eric said:
A Confessor cannot make a penitent give up contraception, pure and simple.

  • He can inform the penitent that it is wrong and what the consequences are
  • he can attempt to persuade the penitent
  • he can say that disbelief in the Church's teaching incurs automatic excommunication

    • but he can't force him to give it up.

Confession implies firm purpose of amendment. The Confessor, as a judge, must ascertain that firm purpose of amendment on the part of the penitent. If the penitent has no intention of ceasing to contracept, and makes that clear to the Confessor, then the Confessor must withhold absolution, or at least advise the penitent that forgiveness is contingent upon the desire to change, however, if the penitent is struggling with the issue, the Confessor may absolve and advise the penitent to keep trying and to seek light and strength in prayer.

So Alex's question doesn't really revolve around Canon Law but rather sacramental theology.

Mary Ann and John

Mary Ann followed-up later:

Alex,

I just wanted to add one more comment to my team comment with John.

A person in a state of serious sin may not receive Communion. That may be why the priest withheld Communion, however, not being able to go to Communion is not the same as being excommunicated.

Your neighbor's priest has a special case — she not only confessed contraception, she said that she intended to keep contracepting. Even if he knows that she is practicing contraception, he still must give her Communion if she presents herself for Communion, because he does not know if she has repented [and/or] gone to another Confessor.

That said, since she has told him that she has no intention of ceasing to contracept, he must ask her not to present herself for Communion until she converts. If she presents herself for Communion, he is not obligated to withhold Communion if withholding the Eucharist would give grave scandal to others or telegraph to others the state of her soul. He must also publicly catechize his congregation on the issue.

If she has made it public knowledge that she is contracepting and had no intention to cease, that is when he should deny her Communion.

It's probably worth re-directing our readers to the Guidelines for the Reception of Holy Communion for the sake of catechesis.

In Alex's original question, he is not asking whether they can approach Holy Communion, the question is whether a minister can deny them Holy Communion.

Mary Ann

Fr. Jonathan who has a background in Canon law replied:

Hi, Alex —

The answer the team has given you is well done should give you a good understanding of the issue. There is one paragraph that is not strong enough:

Mary Ann said:
That said, since she has told him that she has no intention of ceasing to contracept, he must ask her not to present herself for Communion until she converts. If she presents herself for Communion, he is not obligated to withhold Communion if withholding the Eucharist would give grave scandal to others or telegraph to others the state of her soul. He must also publicly catechize his congregation on the issue.

The priest outside of the Confessional has no idea what the person told him inside of the Confessional.

Say for example the priest during the Confession counseled the woman not to present herself for Holy Communion. Then 10 minutes later the woman wanted a clarification with the priest in the sacristy before Mass. The priest not only cannot clarify, he cannot even indicate that he knows what she is talking about. If she came to Holy Communion he not only would give the Eucharist to her, but he should not even question it publicly.

The Confessional is completely separate from what she does later on. In fact, I the next Confession, she would have to repeat the old conversation rather than her just assuming he remembers. Confession cannot be compared to Spiritual direction or counseling.

I don't think this absolute chasm between the Confessional and what happens after the Confessional is expressed in the paragraph I referred to in Mary Ann's final reply.

Hope this helps,

Fr. Jonathan

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