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Approbation is an act by which a bishop or other legitimate superior grants to an ecclesiastic the actual exercise of his ministry. The plenitude of ecclesiastical power given by Christ to His Apostles resides solely in the bishops. From the bishop, as the centre of the Christian community, depend the government and care of souls, namely, the dispensing of doctrine and of the sacraments. The helpers with whose aid the bishop exercises his pastoral ministry are the parish priests, their vicars and co-workers. These possess the power by virtue of the episcopal delegation, transmitted by means of many acts differing one from the other. The permanent capability and the appointment to the service of the Church in general are transmitted by means of Holy orders. The actual appointment to the exercise of ministry in a determined sphere springs from the conferring of an ecclesiastical office which, in accord with the spirit of the Church, is recognized as a permanent charge, and hence should not be given except after a special proof of fitness by him who is invested therewith. Even when a priest, by Holy orders and appointment to a charge, is made capable of the pastoral ministry and is assigned to it, the exercise of the transmitted power still depends upon the will and faithfulness of the mandatory; and at the same time other extensive variable circumstances, v. g. the actual situation of the Church or the spirit of the times, may determine now an extension, now a restriction, and at times suspension or revocation of the delegated power. From this it follows that, besides orders and the appointment to a charge, a special act of delegation is necessary for the actual exercise of the pastoral ministry. Hence the word approbation is appropriate to keep the co-workers of the bishop alert, to remind them of their dependence, to give the bishop greater facility to exercise his right of watchfulness, and to keep each one within the proper limits of his jurisdiction. The absolute necessity of approbation, especially for administering the Sacrament of Penance, was expressly decreed by the Council of Trent (Sess. XXIII, XV, De ref.), so that, except in the case of imminent death, the absolution by a priest not approved would be invalid. This approbation for the Sacrament of Penance is the judicial declaration of the legitimate superior that a certain priest is fit to hear, and has the faculties to hear, the confession of his subjects. The Council of Trent, quoted above, decrees: "Although priests receive in their ordination the power of absolving from sins, nevertheless the Holy Synod ordains that no one, even though he be a regular, is able to hear the confessions of seculars, not even of priests, and that he is not to be reputed fit thereunto, unless he either holds a parochial benefice or is, by the bishops, after an examination if they shall think it necessary, or in some other way, judged fit and has obtained their approbation, which shall be granted gratuitously — any privileges and custom whatsoever, though immemorial, to the contrary notwithstanding." This is the basis of the actual discipline everywhere. Francisco Suárez (De Pœn., disp. xxviii, sect. 3, tract. xxi) says that before the Council of Trent a parish priest by law could validly and lawfully give jurisdiction to any priest who had the proper qualifications of the natural and divine law to hear confessions, without approbation or jurisdiction from the bishop. The Council of Trent withdrew this by its requirement of the approbation of the bishop. A parish priest has from his "parochial benefice" the implied approbation of the bishop and ordinary power to hear the confessions of his own parishioners, even outside his parish or diocese.

By bishop is meant also his vicar-general, or the vicar-capitular or administrator during the vacancy of a see, also any regular prelate having ordinary jurisdiction over a certain territory. This approbation may be given orally or in writing, and may be given indirectly, as when, for instance, priests receive power to choose in their own diocese an approved priest of another diocese for their confessor. The bishop may wrongfully but validly refuse his approbation, without which no priest may hear confessions. Approbation ceases at the time fixed, by revocation of the bishop, if attached to a benefice; by the loss of the benefice; also by censure, if inflicted publicly; if the censure is inflicted privately, the exercise of jurisdiction is unlawful but valid. The pope may grant this jurisdiction to those who have the essential requirements in any part of the world, and to whomsoever he thinks fit. A bishop may grant it likewise in his own diocese, and superiors of regulars to their subjects. By custom an approved priest absolves validly in any part of the diocese in which he is approved. An approved confessor may hear the confessions of those coming from another diocese who come in good faith, and not fraudulently to escape the reservations of their own diocese. An approved confessor may absolve from the cases "reserved" in another diocese, but not from those reserved in his own diocese. A confessor's jurisdiction may be restricted to various classes of persons, e.g. to children, or to men, without the right to hear women. A special approbation is required to hear nuns or women of religious communities, and this extends with modifications to all communities of recognized sisterhoods. A confessor approved for one convent is not presumed to be approved for all. A confessor having temporary jurisdiction for "reserved cases" may continue to exercise it in any case begun before the lapse of the appointed time. The priest travelling on the high seas, if he be approved by his own ordinary, may validly hear the confessions of any of his companions during the whole journey, even if from time to time the vessel put into a port or ports outside the jurisdiction of said ordinary (S. C. Inq., 4 April, 1900).

Approbation given in a general way does not cease at the death of the giver. Approbation may be made revocable, and restricted to a place, time, and persons, according to the judgment of a bishop. By the decree quoted of the Council of Trent, regulars must obtain the approbation of the bishops to hear the confessions of seculars, even of priests. This special clause was inserted to put an end to controversies that had arisen from privileges granted to the regulars. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council had decreed that all the faithful of either sex who had reached the use of reason should confess to their own (parish) priest at least once a year. If any should wish to confess to another priest, permission should be obtained from their own priest; otherwise, the absolution should be void. Shortly after this council the popes granted many privileges to the members of the Franciscan and Dominican Orders of friars lately established, and exhorted the bishops to allow them to preach in public squares or churches and to hear confessions in their dioceses. Dissensions between the friars and the secular clergy brought from Boniface VIII, in 1299, an edict requiring a request to the bishop that certain selected friars should receive permission to hear confessions. If the bishops refused, he by his plenary power authorized the friars to hear confessions to the same extent as the parish priests. Benedict XI, in 1304, increased this privilege, but Clement V, in 1311, restricted the privileges to those granted by Boniface VIII. At times the dissensions and disputes in the various countries of Europe between the bishops and secular priests and the friars became very heated. An interesting account of the extent of these controversies in England and Ireland occurs in the "Catholic University Bulletin" (April, 1905, 195 sqq.), which gives the details of the arraignment of the mendicant friars by the celebrated Fitz-Ralph, Archbishop of Armagh, in 1357, before Innocent VI at Avignon. The Council of Trent undertook to remedy these troubles by restricting the privileges of the regulars, mainly in those things connected with the care of souls and the administration of the sacraments, which it sought to replace directly under the control of the bishops. The privileges of the mendicant friars had been extended to other orders; in particular, to the Society of Jesus.

During the period of Queen Elizabeth's persecution of Catholics an archpriest was appointed by Rome with episcopal authority to govern the secular priests who remained in England. By decree of Urban VIII, 6 May, 1631, regulars, especially Jesuits, were exempted from his jurisdiction; they derived through their own superiors authority from the Pope to hear confessions and to administer the other sacraments. Yet for elsewhere Urban VIII insisted upon the legislation of the Council of Trent, as is shown by his Bull of 12 Sept., 1628: "We recall, annul from all colleges, chapters, religious societies, even the Society of Jesus, all indults to hear confessions without examination by the ordinary." In England the claim was made that the archpriest was not the ordinary in a canonical sense. This continued even after the Holy See, in 1623, had appointed as vicar Apostolic a bishop who should have the authority of an ordinary. Finally, in 1688, four vicars Apostolic were appointed. By decree of Innocent XII (Constit. 80, 6 October, 1696) "all regulars, even Jesuits and Benedictines, were to be subject to the vicar in whose district they were, for approbation with regard to hearing confessions, for the cure of souls and for all parochial offices." Some doubts arose how far vicars Apostolic should be entitled to the rights given to bishops by the Council of Trent. Benedict XIV, by his Bull "Apostolicum Ministerium" drawn up for the Church in England (30 May, 1753), sought to put an end to these controversies by declaring that "the religious in accord with the regulations of the Council of Trent must submit themselves to the examination and receive the permission of the ordinary to hear confessions of the laity — all missionaries both secular and religious in the administration of the Sacraments and parochial duty to be subject to the jurisdiction, visitation, and correction of their respective vicars Apostolic".

Not a few theologians of note still claim that confessors belonging to the regular orders have jurisdiction from the pope over the faithful generally in the tribunal of penance, the approbation of the bishop having been obtained. These seem to hold that the approbation is mainly the declaration of the bishop that a priest is fit to hear confessions. However, it is well to note the definition and explanation of approbation given by Benedict XIV in this Bull: "Approbation embraces two acts of which the first is of the intellect and the second of the will. It belongs to the intellect to determine that the examined priest is, because of the proper and necessary knowledge, fitted for the office of hearing confessions. It, however, belongs only to the will to give the free and full faculty to hear confessions and to pass judgment upon him who is submitted to the approver. The first is done by the examiner on whose fidelity and honesty he relies who gives the faculty to hear confessions within the district assigned to him. The second immediately proceeds from the superior himself to whom it belongs to grant the faculty" (§ 8). Regulars certainly derive their jurisdiction over those of their own communities and permanent households through their own superiors, independently of the bishop. This privilege granted by the Holy See is probably founded on the principle that the superiors of regulars, having an office or charge with the care of souls annexed, should have ordinary jurisdiction over their subjects. (See RELIGIOUS ORDERS.)


Benedicti XIV Bullar. (Prato, 1857); also his De Synodo diæcesanâ, IX, xvi, 7-9; D'AVINO, Enciclopedia dell' Ecclesiastico (Turin, 1878); FLEURY, Hist. Eccles., V, Bks. XXIX-XXXI; SANTI, Prælect. jur. can. in Decret. Greg., IX, lib. III, tit. xxxvii; SCAVINI, Theol. Mor. III, tract. x, disp. i; CRAISSON, Man. jur. can., II, Bk. I, Sect. 2, p. 2; FLANAGAN, Hist. Church in England (London, 1857), I, xxi; DODD, Hist. Church in England (London, 1839); LAURENTIUS, Inst. jur. eccl. (Freiburg, 1903), 412-415; TAUNTON, The Law of the Church (London, 1906), 44-46.

About this page

APA citation. Burtsell, R. (1907). Approbation. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Burtsell, Richard. "Approbation." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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