Lest one go into sixes and sevens over this title; it was occasioned by a recent headline in the Times of India that read “New Vatican Law criminalizes sexual abuse by priests, laity”. It was referring to Decalogue Six, the sixth commandment, “You shall not commit adultery” (Ex 20:14, Deut 5:18). It was also referring to Book Six of Canon Law promulgated by Pope John Paul II on 25/1/1983, titled “Sanctions in the Church”. By the Apostolic Constitution “Pascite gregem Dei” (it means – shepherd the flock of God), Pope Francis, on 1/6/2021, revised this book that is now titled “Penal Sanctions in the Church”.
Lay readers in particular would be interested to know that a plethora of church laws were first codified as late as 1917! Was it a free for all before that? Thankfully we live in an era where there is some semblance of church law, largely inspired by the teachings of Vatican II.
While promulgating the New Code of Canon Law in 1983 Pope John Paul II had this to say: “The Code therefore demonstrates the spirit of this Council ... This new Code can be viewed as a great effort to translate the conciliar ecclesiological teaching into canonical terms ... The Code is regarded as a complement to the authentic teaching proposed by the Second Vatican Council and particularly to its Dogmatic and Pastoral Constitutions (LG & GS)”. If the Code of Canon Law, old, new or revised, is not seen in the light of Vatican II ecclesiology then it could be misinterpreted or distorted. With this caveat I dare to study the revised Book Six in comparison to the New Code of 1983. For clarity I shall suffix the numbers of the Revised Code with R and the “new” one of 1983 with N. My second caveat is that I am a layman with no theological training, so I may please be pardoned if I arrive at some wrong conclusions.
Let us first quote some of the revised texts and then try and draw some lessons from them. The first line to strike me was “Any person is considered innocent until the contrary is proven” (1321R). This is natural jurisprudence, but it could be used by powerful persons to not relinquish office or accept punishment.
However, the provisions of 1321R, though largely the same as 1326N, add a new clause for graver punishment in the case of “a person who committed an offence in a state of drunkenness or other mental disturbance, if these were deliberately sought so as to commit the offence or to excuse it, or through passion which was deliberately stimulated or nourished” (1326:4R). This is a positive development that would prevent criminals from claiming temporary insanity. Nevertheless, it would have been better if it had specifically mentioned drugs and other psycho tropic substances along with “drunkenness”.
Another positive addition is in 1335:1R that provides for the competent authority to “impose penalties it considers necessary to restore justice or repair scandal”. So other than punishment there is now also a provision for restitution. Accordingly a thief, rapist or paedophile, in addition to facing punishment, would also have to make restitution or compensation. This is again expressed in 1361:4R.
As a student I have a problem with Canons 1365R-1398R where the serial numbers have been changed. This could lead to much confusion later. There does not seem to be much merit in changing these numbers.
A new provision is found in 1371:3R that provides for punishment for perjury (false statement under oath). This is a deep rooted malaise in the Indian judicial system, as the laws of perjury are not enforced, and filing false affidavits is common. In contrast, in England, Jeffery Archer, famous novelist and Member of Parliament, was jailed for several years for making a perjurous statement.
Corruption and financial misappropriation are addressed in 1376 & 1377R. Punishment is to be meted out to persons who “steal ecclesiastical goods” (1376:1R). Alienation of such goods was already covered under 1377N. Abuse of ecclesiastical power, office or function, even by acts of omission, are covered by 1378:1R. Culpable negligence is addressed in 1378:2R. So bishops are also brought to account. Canon 1393:2R has a similar provision.
A new provision that sets the cat among the pigeons is this; “Both a person who attempts to confer a sacred order on a woman, and the woman who attempts to receive the sacred order, incur latae sententiae ex-communication (automatic, without an opportunity to be heard) reserved to the Holy See” (1379:3).This is an insult to half the members of the church. It is an uncalled for retrograde provision.
We have heard umpteen arguments (based on ecclesiastical discipline, not on faith) against women’s ordination. I will here point out one of the most absurd ones, based on the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas, considered the father of systemic theology. I quote from the “Declaration on the question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood” by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 3.2.1977.
“The Christian priesthood is of a sacramental nature ... The whole sacramental economy is in fact based upon natural signs, on symbols imprinted upon the human psychology. Sacramental signs, says St Thomas, represent what they signify by natural resemblance. The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things ... there would not be this natural resemblance which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man; in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man” (No 5).
This “natural resemblance” argument raises more questions that in answers. By this token priests should have long hair and beards, do rigorous manual work (like carpenters) begin and end their ministry riding on a donkey, not having a residence of their own (cf Mat 8:20) and not even a place to be buried in. How many popes, cardinals, bishops or priests bear a natural resemblance to Jesus, a circumcised Jew? As for symbols imprinted on the human psyche, were there symbols of women frontline warriors, fighter pilots or CEOs of MNCs earlier? Times change, circumstances change, the Church too must change with time, to stay relevant. I therefore find the insertion of Canon 1379:3R an insult to womanhood, an insult to Eve, an insult to Mother Mary and an unwarranted retrograde step by a male dominated church. Disappointing.
Canon 1380R condemns the practice of Simony; that of trading spiritual favours for money. This is named after Simon the magician who attracted followers with his wizardry in Samaria. “When Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money” (Acts 8:18). Peter, the other Simon’s rebuke is classic. “May your silver be lost forever, and you with it, for thinking that money could buy what God has given for nothing” (Acts 8:20). This begs the question. What about those popes who sold indulgences in the middle ages, something that was a bone of contention with Martin Luther, resulting in the Reformation and the establishment of Protestant churches? If we don’t learn the lessons of history we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
Canon 1392R provides for penal provisions for those who “unlawfully abandon the sacred ministry for six months continuously”. This is in consonance with the act of a malingerer in civil/ secular service, and to be welcomed.
A contentious issue that has been retained is, “A Person who actually procures an abortion, incurs a latae sententiae excommunication” (1397:2R, 1398N). This provision certainly required revision. The penal provision is disproportionate to the offence; that could have several mitigating circumstances like rape, or the danger to the life of the mother. There was the case of the 9 year old girl who had been impregnated by her step father in Brazil, and had an abortion. The local archbishop excommunicated her. When then Pope Benedict XVI was asked about the rapist he replied that the sin of the rapist was not as grave so as to invite excommunication! In the case of Savita the Indian dentist in Ireland in 2012, she had septicaemia, but was denied an abortion in “Catholic Ireland.” Both she and the foetus died, inviting much negative publicity for the “holier than though” Catholic Church.
I cannot digest the church’s double standards when it comes to the taking of human life. On the one hand it condemns abortion outright for that very reason. However, when it comes to taking lives in war (men are the prime movers), then there is another set of rules.
When the “Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World” talks of war it, inter alia, has this to say: “Governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defence once every means of peaceful settlement have been exhausted... Armed forces should regard themselves as agents of security and freedom.... as long as they fulfil this role properly, they are making a genuine contribution to the establishment of peace” (GS 79).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church goes a step further, again based on the logic of St Thomas Aquinas. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect, the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. The one is intended, the other is not” (CCC 2263). “Those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility” (CCC 2265). Earlier even the death penalty was considered ok in some circumstances (CCC 2267) until Pope Francis declared it inadvisable on 2/8/18.
Writing in La Croix International on 4/6/21 Loup Besmond de Senneville says that when Abp Fillipo Iannone, President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts since 2018 was questioned about some of these anomalies, specifically pertaining to dismissal of priests for sexual abuse he said: “An automatic sentence would not make sense. It is a principle of justice”! Obviously then, the Catholic Church has one set of principles for women procuring an abortion, and another for the violent or heinous acts of men. I don’t buy this duality.
The next Canon, 1398, redeems the church’s image to some extent. This is what drew maximum media attention. Unfortunately it retains the archaic term, the sixth commandment of the Decalogue. It could have more specifically referred to sexual acts or relationships. It calls for punishment and deprivation from office for such acts against a minor or one who “habitually has an imperfect use of reason” (1398:1R). It also penalizes those who induce or stimulate such persons to expose themselves pornographically (1398:2R). Retention or use of such pornographic content is also punishable (1398:3R)
Senneville states that the revision of Canon Law began in 2007 under Pope Benedict XVI. For a 14 year effort, the minor changes that this revision has affected are indeed pathetic. Had the Vatican functioned a little more efficiently, like a corporate, these changes could have been affected in a month. While the norms regarding paedophilia and accountability are to be welcomed, the one on women’s ordination was totally uncalled for, and the retention of the law on abortion definitely needed to be revisited.
Unfortunately, the revision of Book Six of Canon Law, and the ambiguous references to the Sixth commandment of the Decalogue cannot be called a Sixer in cricketing parlance. It seems more a case of hit wicket. It remains to be seen what impact this will have in cleaning up the many acts of corruption, scandal and licentiousness in the church, particularly in India that is reeling with multiple cases against bishops.
*The writer has further developed some of these thoughts in his latest book THE JERUSALEM CODE.