A heretical priest has renounced his errors. That’s fine. But he also paid for two abortions; has he expressed penitence for THAT? The CDF isn’t saying

Cardinal Levada, outgoing prefect of the CDF, looks over his correspondence (CNS)

In what looks like an encouraging story for those of us who think, or at least hope, that the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II” (rather than the reality of what the Council Fathers actually taught) is – despite the appearances in some countries – now in retreat, the EWTN Newslink site has a piece headlined “Spanish Priest Retracts Opposition To Church Teaching”. This turns out to be the apparent happy ending of a story that has been unfolding for many years, and is clearly the result of long patient handling of the delinquent priest in question (and he has been very delinquent indeed) by the CDF.

This is how the story has been reported. In response to questions by the CDF, the Spanish priest Fr Manuel Pousa I Engronat has retracted the contents of a book, entitled Fr Manuel: Closer to Earth than to Heaven, published in February of 2011. Fr Pousa said he had “blessed” homosexual unions among prison inmates and that he supported “voluntary” celibacy and women’s ordination. He also said he had paid for someone’s abortion (this turns out to have been two abortions).

The priest’s retraction was published in the May edition of the Archdiocese of Barcelona’s newspaper. In it he states that he believes that “the Magisterium of the Church does not err, and specifically on the questions of abortion, contraception and homosexuality.” In response to his book, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent a series of questions to Fr Pousa in January of this year. His answers were returned on February 5, and on April 20 the congregation ordered that they be published in their entirety.

In his statement Fr Pousa explained that his desire to “live the universal brotherhood proclaimed by the Lord Jesus” has occasionally led him to make “erroneous or inaccurate statements, such as that priests are not necessary to celebrate the Eucharist, or that women could be priests, or that many things in the Church could be changed”. He wished, he said, to live in “hierarchical communion”. He ended by asking that “what he has always publicly and privately manifested be accepted: that I have lived and wish to live my faith in this God manifested in Jesus Christ and in his Church, through the gift that Jesus and the Church gave me to be able to live it in my priestly ministry, exercised with humility and gratitude, aided by the grace of God and the intercession of the Virgin Mary.”

Well, that all sounds fine, and I’m sure that if the CDF says so this is the happy ending it looks like: penitent priest wants to live in “hierarchical communion” with the Church and renounces all his doctrinal errors. But what’s that bit about the Church accepting “what he has always publicly and privately manifested” all about? I thought the whole point was that what he had publicly manifested was just what his superiors were worried about.

The public story of Fr Pousa, of course, started long before he told it in print in the book he has now retracted. It includes, it seems, paying for two abortions not one; this is much more serious than expressing support for women priests and voluntary clerical celibacy, views he has now renounced. But has he, even now, expressed his repentance for the mortal sin of collaboration in procuring an abortion? We are not told; perhaps we should assume it: but this is the real scandal, not the book, and we should surely have been told. In the absence of clarification, questions are already being asked about whether this particular sin shouldn’t have incurred automatic excommunication. That’s certainly what Pope John Paul affirms in Evangelium Vitae (§62):

The 1917 Code of Canon Law punished abortion with excommunication… The excommunication affects all those who commit this crime with knowledge of the penalty attached, and thus includes those accomplices without whose help the crime would not have been committed… Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offence. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life.

This is reasserted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§2272): “Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offence… A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae”. The process, that is to say, is automatic, and there are no exceptions.

It does not appear, however, that Fr Pousa was excommunicated at any stage, or that an automatic excommunication was declared or assumed and, after appropriate penitential procedures by the appropriate authority, lifted. Why is that, I wonder? He paid for two abortions. Was some mitigating factor discerned by his bishop and by the CDF? Fr Pousa, it seems, pleaded a good intention behind this act: he did it, he claims because if he hadn’t, the two girls involved would have gone to a backstreet abortionists, and this was safer. What he did was done to avoid an even greater evil. But that surely couldn’t have washed with the CDF? “There are acts,” says Humanae Vitae (§14) “which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.” So intending to avoid a greater evil wouldn’t excuse Fr Pousa of formally collaborating with the evil that was in fact committed. And the excommunication, says Pope John Paul, “affects all those who commit this crime … And thus includes those accomplices without whose help the crime would not have been committed”.

Look, I don’t want to dismiss as unimportant the fact that a heretical priest has renounced his heresies and wishes now to live his priestly life in “hierarchical communion” with his bishop. Article 2272 does after all go on to say that “The Church does not [by decreeing excommunication for collaborating in abortion] intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.”

But since Fr Pousa’s new disposition and intentions have been made public by order of the CDF, do we not need to know just a little more, to avoid scandalising the faithful anew, about what he actually did (not just what he wrote about it), about how this was assessed by the authorities, and whether he has truly expressed his sorrow for the grave sins he committed? I can’t quite reconcile his apparent metanoia and expressed penitental humility with that little flourish at the end of his statement of retraction: he ended, you will recall, by asking that “what [he has always] publicly and privately manifested ] be accepted: That I have lived [my emphasis] and wish to live my faith in this God manifested in Jesus Christ and in his Church….”

Is something missing in translation maybe? Is that, in fact, a real retraction at all? If the CDF says it’s kosher, I’m sure they’re right. But please, could we just have some clarification? I’m not the only one who is a little confused by all this.