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Meditation 738
Papal Absolution

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There was an interesting article in the newspaper today.

Apparently there is an 800 year old Vatican Tribunal called the Vatican Penitentiary which advises the Pope on sins which he only can absolve. These are sins so grave that they mean automatic excommunication, a state only the Pope can alleviate by rendering absolution.

What are these heinous sins? There are apparently only five.

  1. Defiling the Eucharist, either by spitting it out or using it in a Satanic ritual
  2. Attempting to assassinate the Pope
  3. As a priest, breaking the seal of confession by revealing details about a repentant sinner
  4. As a priest, offering absolution to one's own sexual partner
  5. Participating in an abortion, even paying for the procedure, and later seeking to become a priest.

And I shake my head in dismay. These are the most heinous sins there are? So evil that the Pope personally has to get involved? Where's the genocide? The mass murder? The serial killing? The use of mass rape as an instrument of terror? The child abuse by priests?

No, these are all minor and can be handled locally. It's only the really really bad sins that get referred to the Pope.

Let's take a closer look.

Defiling the Eucharist:

I find the Satanic ritual part reasonable in Catholic theology. But as far as spitting out the wafer is concerned, it's pretty easy to see relatively innocent scenarios. For example, as the priest puts to the wafer in your mouth, you see a streak of brown on his finger. Highly allergic to peanuts (or seeing the brown as something other than peanut butter), the gag reflex kicks in and you automatically and without a moment's thought spit it out. For that, you are automatically treated worse than a mass murderer until the Pope rules on it? If he chooses to.

Sure, once consecrated, the wafer is supposedly the flesh of Jesus, but if Jesus is anything like the Jesus the Catholic Church teaches, he would not make such a big deal out of it.

Attempting to assassinate the Pope:

I'm not sure what this implies about succeeding in assassinating the Pope. Is that absolutely unforgivable (unlike every other type of murder)? Or can actually murdering the Pope be handled by the local parish priest. And is it not a conflict of interest for the Pope? He is required as a Christian to forgive an attempt upon his life; can he forgive and not absolve?

And it's not like Popes are irreplaceable. One dies, another one comes along.

Breaking the seal of confession:

Internal church business I suppose. Not worth arguing over.

Offering absolution to one's own sexual partner:

Give that a good number of Popes in the past had sexual partners, I wonder if a Pope can absolve himself. I wonder how many of the many priests who abused children in more recent times were also confessors to those children, and whether any Pope bothered taking notice of it.

It's interesting that the heinous sin here is not the breach of a supposedly holy vow of chastity, but hearing the confession of the one you broke the vow for.

Participating in an abortion and then wanting to be a priest:

You can smother a newborn two minutes out of the womb, and your absolution from the local priest stands if you subsequently repent and decide to seek ordination. You can organize a genocide, and your absolution from the local priest stands if you subsequently repent and decide to seek ordination. You can knowingly infect a hundred of your sexual partners with AIDS and your absolution from the local priest stands if you subsequently repent and decide to seek ordination. But help your little sister get an abortion after a rape... sorry, but only the Pope can make a decision there.

I know that the Catholic Church considers abortion a sin, but how is the unknown potential represented by a fetus that much more important than living people?

As usual, I find the Catholic hierarchy has its priorities wrong. Obviously the Catholic Church can operate however it wants and it can classify sins in whatever order of gravity it finds necessary. If Catholic theology leads Catholic theologians (and the current Pope was a leading theologian prior to his elevation) to think that these five sins are the most heinous possible, then it is their decision on how to handle these particular sins.

But to an outsider, this classification of sins highlights how theology results in entirely ridiculous conclusions. The problem is not the sins, it is the underlying theology.