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Mercy and correction in the Church

The reform of the Code of Canon Law, which aims to provide the Catholic Church with a system of sanctions appropriate to the current situation, and at the same time effective to punish the various behaviors that constitute a crime, was presented on Tuesday, June 1.

Ricardo Bazan-June 2, 2021-Reading time: 4 minutes
canon law code reform

Photo: ©2021 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The reform of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, on penal sanctions in the Church, has finally seen the light of day. On Tuesday, June 1, a press conference was held for the presentation of the Apostolic Constitution. Pascite gregem Dei, which aims to provide the Catholic Church with a system of sanctions appropriate to the current situation, while at the same time being effective in punishing the various behaviors that constitute a crime.

This is a reform that has been desired for several decades, since, as experience has shown, when the Code of Canon Law came into force in 1983, the book that regulates offenses in the Church did not seem to be an adequate instrument, since a more pastoral than juridical reading had prevailed. This is why Pope Francis, in the introduction to the norm, clarifies: "The Pastor is called to exercise his task 'with his advice, his exhortations, his example, but also with his authority and his sacred power' (Lumen gentium, n. 27), since charity and mercy demand that a Father also dedicate himself to straightening out what may have gone askew".

This has been sadly proven with the crimes of sexual abuse of minors committed within the Church, since the norms of the code were insufficient to deal with the denunciations that were already occurring since the 80's and were made public worldwide in 2002. Hence, the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Card. Joseph Ratzinger took the issue very seriously.

As Pope Benedict XVI entrusted the difficult task of reforming Book VI to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts (PCTL) in 2009. It is a collegial work that has lasted almost 12 years, between meetings of the study group created within the aforementioned discaterium to review the code, as well as consultations with other dicasteries, bishops, faculties of canon law, among others, until reaching the final text that will enter into force on December 8, 2021. Thus, the new Book VI, on the sanctions of the Church, which consists of 89 canons, is as follows: 63 canons have been modified (71%), 9 have been moved (10%), and 17 have remained the same (19%).

Filippo Iannone, President of the PCTL, the new Book VI has three aims: to restore the demands of justice, the amendment of the accused and the reparation of scandals. We can appreciate a process of maturing in the way of understanding criminal law as an instrument for restoring justice, proper to the Church as the People of God, in which there is an exchange of relationships among the faithful, which must be regulated according to justice, based on charity, so that the rights of the faithful can be respected and their protection guaranteed.

On many occasions Pope Francis has sought to explain that mercy is not contrary to justice, hence it is a duty of justice, but at the same time, of charity, to correct those who err (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate).

Undoubtedly we are facing a norm that has been made with great competence, as is evident from the text, which contains a better determination of the penal norms that did not exist before when the code was promulgated. It reduces the scope of discretion of the bishop, the natural judge of the diocese. Likewise, the offenses have been better specified, as well as a list of sanctions (cf. can. 1336) and some parameters of reference to guide the evaluation of who should judge the concrete circumstances. With a view to protecting the ecclesial community and repairing the scandal and making reparation for the damage, the new text provides for the imposition of penal precepts, or the initiation of a punitive procedure whenever the authority considers it necessary, or has ascertained that by other means it is not possible to obtain sufficient restoration of justice, the amendment of the offender and reparation for the scandal.

Finally, the bishops are offered the necessary means to prevent the crime and thus be able to intervene in the correction of situations that could later be more serious, while safeguarding the principle of the presumption of innocence (cf. can. 1321 § 1).

In addition, crimes that have been recently typified through special laws have been incorporated into the code, such as the attempted ordination of women, the recording of confessions, and the consecration of Eucharistic species for sacrilegious purposes. At the same time, some crimes that were present in the 1917 Code and were not included in 1983 have been incorporated, for example, corruption in acts of office, the administration of sacraments to persons prohibited from administering them, concealing from the legitimate authority eventual irregularities or censures in the reception of holy orders.

New offenses have been added, such as the violation of pontifical secrecy, the omission of the obligation to execute a sentence or penal decree, the omission of the obligation to give notice of the commission of a crime, and the illegitimate abandonment of the ministry. Lastly, the following crimes of a patrimonial nature, which have been in the news in recent years, have been added to the list. 

This reform of the Church's penal system puts in the hands of the bishops an "agile and useful instrument, simpler and clearer norms, to encourage recourse to the penal law when necessary, so that, while respecting the demands of justice, faith and charity can grow in the people of God". However, this cannot happen automatically, a previous reflection is necessary, to understand that one is not more pastoral because one does not apply a penalty to those who have committed a crime, but that justice and charity demand it, there is a duty of justice that corresponds to the pastors to carry out.

Not surprisingly, many of the victims of sexual abuse by clerics, rather than seeing the offender in jail, seek canonical sanction, which generally consists of suspension from the clerical state and being removed from any pastoral office, where he can cause more damage. We must not forget that time and judicial practice will be of great use, hence the Pascite gregem Dei I need time to deploy the effect that Pope Francis seeks, to be an instrument for the good of souls.

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