Catholic Church. Poenitentiaria Apostolica

Variant names
Active 1585
Active 1909
French, Latin, Italian,

Biographical notes:

The Apostolic Penitentiary has jurisdiction for the sacramental and nonsacramental internal forum (i.e., matters affecting the private spiritual good of individuals); issues decisions on questions of conscience; grants absolutions, dispensations, commutations, sanations and condonations; and has charge of nondoctrinal matters pertaining to indulgences.

It is one of the three tribunals of the Holy See. Some find traces of it, or at least the idea for it, in the works of the presbyteri poenitentium instituted in the time of Pope Cornelius (251-253) for the absolution of the lapsi (those Christians who during the imperial persecutions had renounced the faith in order to escape torture and then later repented and sought to be reunited to the ecclesiastical community).

Some authorities, however, trace its history back to the seventh century during the brief pontificate of Benedict II (684-685). At that time cardinal penitentiaries were charged with representing the pope before all the faithful who were invited to Rome by their individual bishops for the resolution and absolution from the gravest questions of conscience. The most ancient record of a cardinal functioning in this way is found in a document of 1193 where Johannes de Sancto Paulo is mentioned as the first cardinal who heard confessions in the name of the pope. A penitentiary (a cardinal whose duty it was to absolve from sin and censures) was first designated by Honorius III (1216-1227).

The first mention of the term penitentiary occurs in a rescript of November 24, 1256, with which Cardinal Ugo da San Caro, the famous exegete and Dominican theologian, is mentioned as the first to bear the title poenitentiarius summus or sedis apostolicae poenitentiarius generalis. From the beginning of the fourteenth century, this function was fulfilled by one of the cardinals under the title poenitentiarium maior.

Toward the end of the twelfth century a special group was formed to handle cases of conscience. This group became a permanent institution in the first half of the thirteenth century as is evident in the records of Innocent IV in 1248 and in those of his successor, Alexander IV (1254-1261).

Little is known of the Penitentiary during the thirteenth century; it is only at the beginning of the following century that there are any authentic records. Clement V, with his constitution Dignum est (Sept. 2, 1311), entrusted to his penitentiary, Cardinal Berengario Fredol, the task of reorganizing the tribunal. It was also Clement V who, in a council held at Vienne, France (1311-1312), established that the faculties for the forum of conscience of the Penitentiary would continue during a vacancy of the Holy See.

The constitution of Benedict XII (In agro dominico, Apr. 8, 1338) is the first document to define precisely the structure and function of this tribunal. He also established that the cardinal penitentiary would be assisted by a canonist and specified details governing personnel. He decreed that the Penitentiary would not be limited to the internal forum but would provide also for numerous favors relative to the external forum (i.e., matters affecting the public welfare of the church and its members).

By the end of the fourteenth century a reform of the tribunal had become imperative. The Council of Constance (1414-1418) moved to reorganize the functions and personnel of the tribunal, but its actions had little effect. As a result, Martin V, in 1415, had to intervene and, shortly after, Eugene IV did likewise with his constitution In apostolicae dignitatis (Oct. 14, 1438).

Since the popes, over a period of time, had conceded new faculties to the tribunal, the Penitentiary had acquired extended jurisdiction for handling cases in the external forum. These were recognized and confirmed by Sixtus IV (constitution Quoniam nonnulli, May 9, 1484) although he strove to control the extension.

In the sixteenth century Paul III instituted a commission to review the situation, but there was such strong opposition from the Penitentiary itself that it was not until the time of Julius III that the dispute could finally be settled (constitution Rationi congruit, Feb. 22, 1550). The first effort to limit what was perceived to be excessive power of this tribunal was exerted by Pius IV when he reorganized the various Roman tribunals (constitution In sublimi, May 4, 1562) and greatly reduced the cardinal penitentiaries' powers in the external forum. Their authority to continue in office during the sede vacante was revoked, and severe penalties were set for violations.

The reform of the Penitentiary, initiated by Pius IV, was successively carried on by Pius V, who attempted to reform the entire Roman Curia. With a series of three constitutions, In omnibus rebus, Ut bonus, and In earum rerum, all bearing the date of May 18, 1569, Pius V totally transformed the Penitentiary. He had decreed the temporary suppression of the tribunal (Apr. 23, 1569), but then reestablished it (May 18, 1569) radically reformed. He reduced to an absolute minimum the faculties of the cardinal penitentiary in the external forum and created the offices of theologian and canonist. He also gave the Penitentiary a new task: to settle controversies and questions of conscience "authentice."

In spite of the restrictive dispositions of Pius V, the Penitentiary began to reacquire from time to time many of its lost faculties, obtained by the penitentiaries in great part vivae vocis oraculo, through which they obtained some faculties of other offices. With time, therefore, another revision of their faculties became necessary.

Urban VIII made a first attempt to restore the discipline imposed by Pius V with his brief of September 17, 1634; Innocent XII soon after, with the constitution Romanus Pontifex (Sept. 3, 1692), tried again to categorize the functions proper to the Apostolic Penitentiary. A further reorganization of faculties and procedures took place under Benedict XIV. With his constitution Pastor bonus (Apr. 13, 1744) Benedict, a former canonist of the Penitentiary, described clearly the complexity of the functions belonging to this tribunal.

In spite of the complete reorganization of the Penitentiary effected by Benedict XIV in 1744, the tribunal continued to lack a true and proper office of secretary. This office was not established until the beginning of the following century through the work of Cardinal Leonardo Antonelli who attempted to discipline the work of the Penitentiary with appropriate norms, issued on September 21, 1805, substituted soon after by the new Regolamento made public on April 1, 1818, by Antonelli's successor, Cardinal Michele Di Pietro.

Between the time of Benedict XIV and Pius X the tribunal began to acquire, especially during the period of the French Revolution, some lost faculties of the external forum. These were again withdrawn by Pius X who transferred them (constitution Sapienti consilio, 29 Jun 1908) to the newly instituted Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments (ID VATV010-A). This restricted the jurisdiction of the Penitentiary once again to the internal forum. A further change by Benedict XV (motu proprio Alloquentes, 25 Mar 1917) separated the Office of Indulgences from the Congregation of the Holy Office (ID VATV001-A) and placed it under the Penitentiary.

Pius XI's constitution Quae divinitus Nobis (Mar. 25, 1935) defined the functions again and clarified the authority of the tribunal. Paul VI's constitution Regimini Ecclesiae universae (Aug. 15, 1967) confirmed the functions of the tribunal noting the "all that concerns the granting of indulgences is entrusted to the Penitentiary, leaving intact the rights of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to see to those things that relate to dogmatic doctrine on indulgences."

A decree of the Penitentiary (20 Mar 1935) noted that in the future only the Penitentiary can directly grant faculties to bless articles of devotion and to annex to them the Apostolic indulgences, to give the papal benediction at the close of sermons, or to grant the indulgence of a personal privileged altar.

Paul VI's motu proprio Pastorale munus (30 Nov 1963) extended to all bishops the following privileges: to bless articles of devotion with the sign of the cross only, to annex all the indulgences usually conceded by the Holy See, and to bless crucifixes for the purpose of enabling persons impeded from making the Way of the Cross to gain the indulgences annexed to it.

To see a general agency history for the Curia Romana, enter "FIN ID VATV214-A"

From the description of Agency history record. (University of Michigan). WorldCat record id: 145567125

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