June 01, 2021
Pope Francis has issued an apostolic constitution, Pascite Gregem Dei, reforming the section of canon law that deals with individual crimes.
The June 1 document substantially revises Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, and requires bishops and religious superiors to take action when crimes are committed—rather than giving them the option of taking disciplinary action.
Among the crimes listed in the revised Book VI are the sexual abuse of vulnerable adults and the “grooming” of minors. These crimes are explicitly defined, in an obvious effort to eliminate uncertainties about when the Church’s criminal law should be invoked.
The new law also allows for a bishops to be removed from office if he is guilty of “culpable negligence” in his handling of abuse complaints.
Explaining the need for these new provisions, Pope Francis writes that they aim to “reduce the number of cases in which the imposition of a penalty was left to the discretion of authorities.” The failure of bishops to take decisive action—even when the existing provisions of canon law gave them authority to discipline guilty clerics—compounded the severity of the sex-abuse crisis.
Driving home that point, Pope Francis writes that “the negligence of a pastor in resorting to the penal system demonstrates that he is not fulfilling his function correctly and faithfully.” He stresses that “charity requires that pastors have recourse to the penal system as often as necessary, keeping in mind the three aims which make it necessary in the ecclesial community, namely, the restoration of the demands of justice, the amendment of the offender, and the reparation of scandals.”
At a Vatican press conference introducing the new criminal section of the Code of Canon Law, Archbishop Filippo Iannone, the president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said that the revision was needed to counteract “a climate of laxity” that had arisen because of a misunderstanding of the true nature of mercy.
Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, the secretary of the same council (which is the Vatican’s top body for the interpretation of canon law), made a considerable understatement when he remarked that “bishops reacted differently to similar situations.” The Vatican has been under heavy pressure for years to ensure that bishops respond effectively to abuse complaints.
However, while media coverage of the document has concentrated on the handling of sex-abuse crimes, the revised Book VI also covers crimes of other sorts. For example, the section deals with financial misconduct such as embezzlement of church goods, which should be prosecuted as an offense against canon law.
There are also offenses against the sacraments and against Church doctrine that qualify as canonical crimes. The code provides for punishment of those who violate the pontifical secret, who engage in sacrilege against the Eucharist, or who participate in a ceremony attempting the ordination of women as priests.
The revised provisions of the Code of Canon Law take effect on December 8.