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Canon Law for Today

By Rev. Frank Morrisey


Rev. Frank MorriseyWhat are some of the crimes in church law for which Catholics can be punished?

In addition to giving general principles relating to the imposition and lifting of penalties, the Code of Canon Law also has a section where some 40 canonical crimes (called delicts of “offences” in the code) are listed and appropriate penalties prescribed.

In some cases, the penalty is automatic because the person is presumed to have been aware of the law and the consequences for non-observance. In others, it is up to the ecclesiastical judge to determine which penalty is appropriate, keeping in mind the parameters established in the law.

After the code was issued, St. John Paul II introduced a number of changes in 2001. He outlined what he considered to be the more serious canonical crimes, and decided that, in every case, the diocesan bishop or the religious superior would have to submit the situation to the Holy See, for final judgment. Although this provision seriously restricted a bishop’s right to impose penalties, it sought to bring about some uniformity in current church practice.

Among the reserved cases, it is probably the one relating to sexual abuse of minors by clerics that attracted the most attention. There is not a canonical penalty if the person abusing the minor is not a cleric, although, of course, there can be criminal proceedings against the perpetrator before the secular courts.

In fact, most of the reserved cases refer to clerics (bishops, priests, deacons). They include, among others, breaking the seal of confession, absolution of one’s accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment, pretending to celebrate mass without consecrating both the bread and the wine.

Another delict that was introduced, and not found in the 1983 legislation, concerns a woman who attempts to receive priestly ordination. In such an instance, there is an automatic excommunication imposed on her and on the person who attempts to perform the ordination.

The various crimes and penalties are divided into sections. The first part concerns offences against religious and the unity of the church. Among these we find reference to apostasy (denial of the divinity of Christ), heresy (denial of one or more truths of the faith), and schism (breaking ecclesial communion to join or found another church or ecclesial community). In these three instances, there is an automatic excommunication because the person no longer wishes to be a member of the church.

Another offence mentioned in this section concerns a person who, for a sacrilegious purposes, desecrates the Sacred Species (for instance in pretending to celebrate a Black Mass). Such a person is also excommunicated; absolution from this offence is reserved to the Holy See. There are also offences against the faith or the church itself, such as using the media to excite hatred of or even contempt for the faith.

A second category concerns offences against church authorities and the freedom of the church. These include laying violent hands on the person of the Holy Father or on a bishop or cleric. In the first case, involving an attempted assassination of the pope, absolution is again reserved to the Holy See.

Unfortunately, in recent years, we have seen such attempts against Bl. Paul VI and St. John Paul II. Then also, persons who obstinately speak out against church doctrine are also to be warned and, if they persist, are to be punished. The same would apply to those who provoke persons to disobedience against church authorities.

A third category refers to those who usurp ecclesiastical offices, such as pretending to celebrate mass or to give sacramental absolution when the person is not a priest. There are also those who illegally hold on to an ecclesiastical office: for instance, a parish priest who has been removed or transferred, but who refuses to vacate the parish.

Other canons refer to crimes of falsehood (such as issuing false certificates), and offences against special obligations (such as celibacy for clerics, sexual abuse).

A final general category refers to offences against human life and liberty, such as abduction, imprisonment, mutilation. There is also a separate canon on abortion; because of the importance of this issue today, we will speak more at length of it in the next column.

A final canon in Book VI of the code allows for punishment against those who, in various ways, cause scandal in the community because of their non-observance of divine or ecclesiastical law. This is a very general canon, and, in the eyes of some, it could be open to abuse, even though one of its clauses says the norm can be applied “only when the special gravity of the violation requires it.”

The list is now much shorter than it was in the 1917 code, thus reflecting the church’s desire not to be identified with punishment, and hoping that all its members will live up to their obligations as committed Christians.

Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 41st article in a series.