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Alison’s claim binds no one

September 30, 2019

I had never heard of James Alison until I saw claims about his possessing “the power of the keys” (in virtue of a phone call he allegedly received from Pope Francis) in news feeds and, though I know nothing about his canonical situation beyond what I read in a wiki page dedicated to him (a page insufficient for reliable analysis of his situation), I can offer a few words on his claim in regard to its implications for the celebration of Confession.

Assuming Alison’s ordination was valid (Alison seems to dispute that point and Rome has not ruled on it), and assuming Alison has no ecclesiastical office to which faculties for confession are attached (1983 CIC 967-968), the only way Alison could have faculties for confession (unless a penitent is in danger of death per Canon 976) would be if he was granted them by Francis.

Now a pope could grant ‘universal faculties’ for confession to an (ex-)priest over the phone (1983 CIC 331), however disruptive such an act might be to the needs of good governance in the Church, if he found the priest “suitable” for service as a confessor (1983 CIC 970), however such a conclusion might strike others as imprudent. But I question whether any bishop or religious superior is bound to recognize any priest’s claim to have such faculties. My argument runs as follows.

Alison’s claim of faculties amounts to a claim that Francis basically undertook “an administrative act … in which a provision is made for a particular case” (1983 CIC 48), here, that Francis gave Alison faculties for confession. But such an act, effectively a ‘singular administrative decree’, is “to be issued in writing” (1983 CIC 51) and “to be enforced … must be made known by a legitimate document” (1983 CIC 54 § 2). A written document whereby faculties for confession were allegedly conferred on him (as envisioned by Canon 973) is not claimed by Alison. Moreover, even in cases where “a very grave reason prevents the handing over of the written text of a decree, the decree is considered to have been made known if it is read to the person to whom it is destined in the presence of a notary or two witnesses” (1983 CIC 55, emphasis added). Again, Alison makes no claim that such communication was done.

It is a staple of sound law and good governance that the burden is on the one making the claim (1983 CIC 1526 § 1), here, Alison’s claiming that he has been given “the power of keys” by the pope, specifically, faculties for confession. But based on the above, it seems that Alison has not satisfied, and has not claimed to satisfy, either of the mechanisms established by canon law for demonstrating that he has faculties for confession at all, let alone faculties on par with those accorded cardinals of the Roman Church (1983 CIC 967) and therefore I hold no Catholic official bound to credit his claim. To be clear, I neither deny nor concede that Francis actually made the call attributed to him, I question whether the claim by Alison would be binding on anyone.

If Francis indeed wishes Alison to have faculties for confession and to be able to exercise those faculties over the reasonable objections of local authorities, he could: (1) issue the faculties in writing; (2) issue the faculties orally but in the presence of an ecclesiastical notary or two witnesses; or (3) derogate from Canons 51, 54, 55, 973, a/o 1526.

Any of these measures would suffice; but absent all of them, well, Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur.

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