Crimes and Misdemeanours?

July 25, 2010 at 10:07 pm 1 comment

This weekend I found myself having to set out a reaction from a nonconformist church perspective to the revised rules issued earlier this month by the Vatican, which have been widely reported as ranking the ordination of women alongside clergy abuse of children as among the “most serious crimes”. So, I’m coming late to the party, but here goes.

I do regard the use of the term “crime” in relation to ordination of women as deeply problematic and inflammatory. Nevertheless our position as ecumenical partners and critical friends requires that our response be made within a framework of interpretive charity – in preference to the hermeneutic of suspicion that is the default position of many commentators and news media. For this reason, reacting to what’s been reported in the press will not suffice: it’s necessary to do some careful reading of the primary text.

The document itself (“Normae de gravioribus delictis“) is an extremely technical one, designed to amend and streamline Catholic Canon Law (in effect, RC church disciplinary law). It seems to me that the aim is principally to be able to ‘fast-track’ particular disciplinary matters which the Vatican regards as requiring a firm hand for one reason or another.

It’s not seeking to second-guess or supplant secular criminal law:

the penal code of canon law… is complete in itself and entirely distinct from the law of States… in the practice suggested by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith it is necessary to comply with the requirements of law in the various countries, and to do so in good time, not during or subsequent to the canonical trial.
(from the explanatory notes)

The widespread reporting of the measure ‘criminalising’ ordination of women as a new one, is not accurate: this is merely an integration within the overall canon law code of a special measure introduced in December 2007. Whilst that earlier measure didn’t expressly classify it as “a crime” in the eyes of RC church law, that was surely implicit as it carries the penalty of excommunication.

The provisions regarding ordination of women and regarding abuse of minors appear in separate, albeit consecutive, articles of this document (Articles 5 and 6); Vatican commentators are seeking to distinguish them, and to deny that they are being treated as morally equivalent. Only the latter (i.e. abuse) are categorised as “grave delicts against morals“. Indeed the term “crime” is not used at all within the Article on ordination of women (although in supporting documentation this is included within examples of “the most serious crimes”).

However, commenting on the document’s terminology is not straightforward. The principal document, and its supporting documents, will have been written in Latin – commentators here are working from (Vatican-authorised) English translations. Where these translations have crime, this is translating the Latin delictus which can equally legitimately be rendered wrong, transgression, sin, breach etc. Indeed the document translates most key occurrences using the technical term delict – technical, and certainly capable of including the notion of crime, but a wider and less emotive term. So it could be claimed in mitigation that crime is an unfortunate and misleading translation – but equally, it could be claimed that crime is exactly what is meant in every instance!

Again, the context within which the terminology of delict/crime is being employed is breaches of RC Canon Law, distinct from secular criminal law. In the case of clergy child abuse, the accompanying guidelines specifically recognise the necessity of secular criminal jurisdiction and process.

Clearly, the ordination of women constitutes a major doctrinal difference between ourselves and the Roman Catholic Church (this is, of course, within a context in which the RC hierarchy does not regard any protestant ordinations as valid). The recent document has done nothing to help, indeed it has been criticised by many as a further hindrance. But taken on its own terms as a technical canon law document, I’m not convinced that it represents the kind of ethical or ecumenical retrenchment of which its critics are accusing the Vatican.


Entry filed under: church, current affairs. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

The community of the incompatible O Come, O Come

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Pam  |  July 25, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    “An extremely technical document designed to amend and streamline Catholic canon law”. Hmmm. I realise that your purpose in reading the document was to clarify.
    There are laws in my country (Australia) as well as I’m sure in yours to protect us if we are discriminated against because of gender, sexuality, marital status. Those laws are there to allow us to follow our chosen careers on the basis of our competence.
    Could I suggest you read, if you can obtain a copy, the book “Peter Kennedy – The Man Who Threatened Rome” by Flanagan, Gierck, Collins, one day hill publishers. No documents in latin, no technical canon law, just real people impacted in their daily lives.


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