To Our Venerable Brothers, Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, and Archbishops and Bishops of France.
Greetings and Apostolic Blessing.
From all the regions of the Christian world to which our pastoral care extends, many things have made us concerned for the state of each and every church. But We have been especially troubled by the controversies and dissensions afflicting the flourishing Catholic nation of France some years ago. We did not cease, during the whole time of your disturbance, to ask the God of peace to restore a true and solid tranquillity to your disturbed church. Often too by Apostolic letters We sought the help of Louis, the Christian King of France, for the protection and defense of ecclesiastical peace. We have declared Ourselves ready to sacrifice the remainder of Our life for the peace of the French church, which We embrace with a sincere and constant love. We have also supported proposals for redress that were apt and suitable to cure the malady, if they were likely to succeed and if they seemed to approach the intended end.
Support from France
2. The letters which the French Assembly sent Us on October 31 of last year relieved some of Our concern. Indeed, reading them, We learned of your unanimous constancy in preserving true and salutary doctrine, and in retaining your age-old veneration of the Apostolic See of Blessed Peter, the center of Catholic unity. Nor did we find any dissension among you regarding canonical rules and principles; the only differences concern the choice of means for applying the common principles in practice. Although this is a most undesirable state of affairs, it should not be a cause of wonder for those who know that dissension in serious matters has arisen among other bishops renowned for their learning and holiness. We have been further consoled by the exceptional piety of the king, a piety joined with his hereditary submission to this Apostolic See. This is clear not only from his recent letter dated December 19 of last year (which included the aforementioned letter of the clergy), but also in all his other writings. We have always understood the French king, whose thinking greatly becomes an orthodox Prince endowed with true reverence for God and the Roman See. We firmly approve his desire to restore and preserve peace in his kingdom.
Denial of Viaticum
3. The authority of the apostolic constitution which begins with the word Unigenitus is certainly so great and lays claim everywhere to such sincere veneration and obedience that no one can withdraw the submission due it or oppose it without risking the loss of eternal salvation. Now, a controversy has risen concerning whether viaticum must be denied to those who oppose the constitution. The answer must be given without any hesitation that as long as they are opposed publicly and notoriously, viaticum must be denied them; this follows for the universal law which prohibits a known public sinner to be admitted to Eucharistic communion, whether he asks for it in public or in private.
4. Now public and notorious objectors in the matter under discussion are those who have been so declared by the sentence of a competent judge (because they have contumaciously refused the reverence and obedience due the constitution Unigenitus) and who have admitted their guilt in court. There are others, also objectors, who, although they have not been condemned by a judge and have not admitted the crime in court, nevertheless, at the time when they are about to receive the sacred viaticum, voluntarily confess their stubborn resistance to the constitution. Still others are known to have done something manifestly opposed to the veneration and obedience due to this constitution, and to have continued in that state; this is so commonly known that the public scandal arising from it has not yet subsided. In these latter cases, We are as confident of Our judgment as when a sentence has been passed in court.
Two Kinds of Notoriety
5. In this matter, however, a difference must be maintained between the notoriety in which a certain fact is apprehended and guilt consists in the external action itself, such as the notoriety of the usurer or of the person living in concubinage, and another kind of notoriety in which the external fact is noted but the guilt depends very much on the disposition of the mind. It is this latter kind of notoriety which We shall discuss. The former must certainly be established with grave proofs; the latter must be proven with more certain and more serious evidence.
6. The required certainty is not present when the crime is supported by mere conjecture, presumption, and rumor, which generally originate in hostility, prejudice, or partisan interest. When we lend credence to these things, experience shows how many ways men can err and be led into hostility.
7. But some pastors and ministers, renowned for piety and zeal, are influenced by such conjectures and presumptions; they are perplexed when called to administer viaticum to certain men and fear that it may not be possible for them to ad minister the sacrament without danger to their own conscience. We append a certain rule of action which they may follow.
Rule of Action on Viaticum
8. They ought first to consider whether the person who is asking for viaticum has been to holy communion previously, especially during the Easter season, and has received holy communion from the pastor of the place where he was living; if indeed it was not denied him in life, this will be an argument that the man is free of all blame, or at least that he was not considered a truly public sinner. From this it will follow that it is not possible to deny him when he publicly asks for viaticum at the end of his life, unless perhaps in the meantime he has done something to incur the stigma of a public and notorious sinner with reference to the aforesaid issue.
9. Sometimes, however, no certain conclusions can be reached, but from other sources valid presumptions and grave indications against the sick man are present, so that these zealous pastors cannot rid themselves of the scruple that has arisen. In these circumstances they should, delaying any decisions, address the sick person with all gentleness and mildness, not like one who disputes and is anxious to convince. They should show him the reasons why the conduct of his life is suspect and implore him to come to his senses. Then they should convince him that although they are prepared to administer the Body of Christ, and actually may even administer it, this will not itself make him safe before the tribunal of Christ. If indeed he had not repented, it will make him guilty of a new and horrible crime, eating and drinking judgment on himself. In addition they will administer the sacrament of the Body of Christ to him for no other reason than to obey the Church, which strives to avoid public scandal, and to prevent infamy for the sick person himself. Although she considers him to be a sinner in the sight of God, she does not recognize him as a public and notorious sinner in her tribunal.
10. You must now propose this norm of judging and acting which We approve to all who legitimately administer the sacraments. Indeed, this decision is supported by ecclesiastical regulations, by the decrees of councils held in France, and by the opinions of serious theologians in your own country. Following the example of your predecessors, you sent Us your controversies and the doubts that they occasioned and asked Us for guidance in reestablishing and preserving peace for your churches. Now it is your duty to enforce this rule wherever it pertains. We expect that you will do so, since We feel that We have omitted no diligence or study either in weighing and discussing the articles which the bishops proposed in assembly (though not unanimously); or in taking into account their differences of opinion to better understand the whole matter and to reach a right judgment; or in reading and weighing the written opinions of the Cardinals, whose advice We had requested on this matter; or in carrying out all other things to merit the aid of the divine illumination for which We have prayed
11. Nor do We doubt that your illustrious king, who approved your council and wrote to Us concerning the matter, will in his piety for God and the Church, offer his strong aid to your Fraternity. Accordingly both you and the lower ministers of the Church may be free to regulate the administration of the sacred mysteries according to the norm described above. Because of this confidence, We did not consider it necessary to address your other articles concerning episcopal regulation over participation in the same sacraments and the various controversies that have arisen concerning these matters. Rather We decided to communicate with the king so that he may protect the sacred rights of the episcopate by his own magnanimity and virtue. And We are confident that he will do this according to his own custom and that of his ancestors, so that the noble churches of France may rejoice to have retained their former glory and may soon regain the tranquillity which was disturbed for a time. As an auspice of this desired event, We lovingly give to your Fraternity and the people entrusted to your care the Apostolic Benediction.
Given in Rome at St. Mary Major, October 16, 1756, in the seventeenth year of Our Pontificate.