Down yonder, a reader writes:
I was listening to the program, and I have a further question in
response to your answer to this question "Can priests in the Society of
St. Pius X validly celebrate the sacrament of penance? How about those
in the Charismatic Episcopal Church?"
Considering, as you said, the fact that the SSPX priests would not
have faculties to absolve sins from the Bishop, wouldn’t "Ecclisia
Supplet" (spelling?) kick in, so long as they were unaware of the
The limits of the principle of ecclesia supplet ("the Church supplies") are spelled out in the Code of Canon Law as follows:
§1. In factual or legal common error and in positive and probable doubt of law or of fact, the Church supplies executive power of governance for both the external and internal forum.
§2. The same norm is applied to the faculties mentioned in cann. 882, 883, 966, and 1111, §1.
The immediately relevant part of this canon to the situation of confessions is §2, which applies the principles of §1 to the faculties for hearing confessions mentioned in Canon 966. In order for those faculties to be supplied, the conditions mentioned in §1 must be satisfied (mutatis mutandis for the fact we are talking about sacramental faculties rather than the power of governance).
Per §1 (via §2), one of two situations must exist for the Church to supply the missing faculties in a particular case. Either:
- There is a factual or legal common error regarding whether the faculties exist, or
- There is a positive and probable doubt of law or of fact regarding whether the faculties exist.
In the case of whether an SSPX priest has faculties, there is no question of law but only a question of fact: Does the priest have faculties from the competent authority to hear the confessions of the faithful in the local area?
The only authority comptent to grant the faculty of hearing the confessions of the faithful in the local area is a local ordinary:
§1. The local ordinary alone is competent to confer
upon any presbyters whatsoever the faculty to hear the confessions of
any of the faithful.
The diocesan bishop is one such ordinary, though a given diocese may have additional ordinaries capable of granting faculties.
This focuses the question as follows: Is there (a) a common error or (b) a positive and probable doubt as to whether a local ordinary of the diocese has granted an SSPX priest the faculty of hearing the confessions of the faithful?
A common error is a term of art referring to an error affecting a certain community whereby a reasonable and prudent person would give his assent to the error (see the green CLSA commentary on Can. 144 for further elaboration on this point). Even though the people attending an SSPX chapel form a community capable of having a common error, it does not appear that a common error exists on this point since it is implausible on its face that a local ordinary in communion with the pope would grant faculties to an SSPX priest. This means that a reasonable and prudent person would not give his assent to the idea that the local ordinary has done so, and thus there does not appear to be a common error.
Is there a positive and probably doubt as to this question? It does not appear so. A doubt is a situation in which a person cannot make a decision between contradictory conclusions. In this case the doubt would involve a person being unable to make a decision about whether the local ordinary has granted the priest faculties. For the faculties to be supplied via ecclesia supplet, the doubt would have to be positive and probable.
A positive doubt is one in which there are arguments both for and againt the idea in question. It does not appear, apart from very bizarre circumstances, that there would be any arguments supporting the idea that the local ordinary has supplied faculties to an SSPX priest, meaning that any such doubt on the part of the faithful would not be positive.
Given the massive improbability of the local ordinary doing so, it does not appear that it would be a probable doubt, either.
Thus in the absence of a doubt that is both positive and probable, and in the absence of a common error, the principle of ecclesia supplet would not be engaged and the Church would not supply the faculties to an SSPX priest.
There is also a further problem with the idea that the Church might supply faculties: namely, that the Church supplies missing faculties to its own ministers and not to priests in a state of schism. Thus it does not supply faculties to Eastern Orthodox priests. Those priests, never having been baptized or received into the Latin Church, are not subject to the Latin Church’s canon law (Can. 11) and thus not required to have faculties per Can. 966. SSPX priests, however, typically have been baptized or received into the Latin Church and thus are required to have faculties per Can. 966.
They ain’t got ‘em.
Thus it is going to be hard to build a case for ecclesia supplet validating the confessions heard by SSPX priests.
The reader also asks:
Futher, if it did kick in, they would be absolved because the
"Church provides the grace", but it would not be considered a valid
sacrament anyway right? even though it had the sacramental effect?
If (contrary to what we have said above) ecclesia supplet did kick in, the people would be validly absolved–not because the Church supplies grace directly but because it supplies faculties for the celebration of a sacrament–and the sacrament would be valid. What it would not be is licit (lawful). In cases where ecclesia supplet allows a (non-schismatic) priest who does not have faculties from the local ordinary to hear confessions, it is a valid but illicit (unlawful) celebration of the sacrament.