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Overhauling Punishment at the Vatican

Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, which deals with how the Church punishes offenses, has been replaced

Jimmy Akin

On Tuesday, the Holy See announced a major revision to the Code of Canon Law. The entirety of Book VI of the Code, which deals with how the Church punishes offenses against canon law, has been replaced.

This marks the culmination of a project that has been underway for fourteen years. The revision was commissioned by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, and Pope Francis announced that it will go into effect on December 8.

After it initially appeared in the 1983 Code, the original Book VI came to be seen as ineffective. The revision is meant to tighten Church discipline, including how the Church handles cases of sexual abuse.

The revision was needed because the canons dealing with how offenses are punished—the Church’s penal law—had been drafted in the 1970s, when the uncertainty that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was at its peak.

Both within the Church and in broader society, there was a shift away from historical sensibilities regarding the punishment of crimes, with new, looser standards being applied. Some even questioned whether the Church should retain a system of punishments in canon law.

While the Code did contain a section on penal law, punishment generally was viewed as a last resort—something bishops should employ only with great reluctance. Instead, they should deal with erring members of their flock with “the medicine of mercy.”

It has always been difficult to strike the right balance between justice and mercy. In the 1970s, the lever had been pushed far toward mercy. The new revision of Book VI seeks to restore the balance between the two concepts.

Despite the fact that justice is a cardinal virtue, many churchmen came to see their role exclusively as ministers of mercy. They therefore lost sight of the need to maintain proper order in the Church.

In his new apostolic constitution, Pascite Gregem Dei (“To Feed the Flock of God”), Pope Francis writes:

In the past, the lack of perception of the intimate relationship existing in the Church between the exercise of charity and the recourse . . . to sanctioning discipline has caused much damage. This way of thinking—experience teaches us—runs the risk of leading to behaviors contrary to the discipline of morals, for whose remedy only exhortations or suggestions are not enough.

This situation often carries with it the danger that, with the passage of time, such behaviors become consolidated to the point of making it more difficult to correct and in many cases creating scandal and confusion among the faithful. This is why the application of penalties becomes necessary on the part of pastors and superiors.

In other words, if you don’t apply penalties in a timely manner, it will make the problem worse. True charity involves correcting problems before they become crises.

In light of recent history, it is only too easy to imagine how different things would be if bishops had taken early and effective steps to deal with problems like predatory sexual behavior by priests, liturgical abuses, and the advocacy of abortion and other violations of Church teaching.

Because of the environment in which it was written, the original Book VI phrased many things vaguely and left a great deal up to the discretion of bishops.

This could be seen as a show of support for bishops—an expression of confidence that they would do the right thing in concrete circumstances—but the practical result was that it left them without needed guidance.

At various points, the original Book VI indicated that a bishop could punish an offense, but it did not require him to do so. Human nature being what it is, that led many not to act against an offender, lest they be perceived as harsh and uncharitable.

Similarly, many provisions simply said that an offender was to be punished with “a just penalty,” but it didn’t provide bishops with much concrete guidance as to what such a penalty might be.

The new revision addresses both of these problems. At various points, it indicates that a bishop must act when a particular offense has been committed, and it contains a new and expanded list of potential penalties that a bishop may impose (can. 1336). The list includes new penalties, such as paying monetary fines and having pay suspended.

The revision also contains a new provision, right at the beginning of the book, to orient bishops on the attitude they need to take:

The one who is at the head of a church must safeguard and promote the good of the community itself . . . if necessary, also through the imposition or declaration of penalties, in accordance with the provisions of the law, which are always to be applied with canonical equity and having in mind the restoration of justice, the reform of the offender, and the repair of scandal (can. 1311 §2).

The new law also consolidates provisions dating back as far as the reign of John Paul II that had not previously been part of the Code. These include laws against attempting to ordain women and recording confessions.

It includes new penalties, such as suspending from office those who deliberately administer the sacraments to those prohibited from receiving them (can. 1379 §4)—a provision that could have direct bearing on the situation in Germany, where some priests have publicly stated that they will not enforce the Church’s law regarding when Protestants are allowed to receive Holy Communion.

The revision also reorganizes many of the existing penalties, placing them into more appropriate categories.

A key example is the provision dealing with clerics who commit sexual offenses with minors. Previously, this was part of the section dealing with offenses “against special obligations.” Now it is part of the section dealing with offenses “against human life, dignity, and liberty”—making clear that sexual abuse is an offense against the dignity of the victim, not simply a violation of the priest’s obligations.

The parts of the revision that have received the most attention in the secular press are its provisions dealing with sexual abuse.

Although sexual misconduct on the part of priests is dealt with in several canons, the part dealing with the abuse of minors is in canon 1398, and it has been dramatically expanded.

Previously, the provision applied only to sexual offenses committed with a minor under the age of 16. Now it applies to all minors. In addition, it applies to an offense committed with a person “who habitually has an imperfect use of reason,” such as those who have serious mental handicaps or illnesses, even if they are adults.

Before the release of the revision, many wondered if it would also include vulnerable persons—a term often used in protective services literature. However, the meaning of this term is still being worked out. It would seem to apply in situations where a bishop takes advantage of the seminarians under his care (who depend on him for ordination) or when a pastor takes advantage of a parish employee (who depends on him for a living). But other situations are not as clear, and there are degrees of vulnerability.

As a result, the new law doesn’t use the term vulnerable person. Instead, it refers to those “to whom the law recognizes equal protection” as minors and those habitually lacking the use of reason. This allows the law to adapt as the legal concept of vulnerable person is worked out. In the future, given classes of people (e.g., seminarians, parish employees) can be declared to have equal protection.

Canon 1398 deals with more than the commission of sexual acts. It includes provisions against grooming protected people; inducing them to expose themselves pornographically; and acquiring, retaining, or exhibiting pornographic images of protected persons.

Finally, the canon does not treat this as simply a problem committed by priests. It now applies the same principles to members of religious orders and lay faithful who have any official function in the Church.

The new law thus goes a long way in codifying the policies that have been developed and the lessons on sexual abuse that have been learned with so much difficulty in the last two decades.


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