Postcard from the Vatican

The sex scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church for these long months have generated an intense and altogether understandable global reaction. Outrage at the extent of the criminality. Outrage at the apparent lack of clerical concern or oversight. Outrage that the Vatican has not been doing more, or saying more, about it. Still more recently, there has been some admission by the Church’s most vocal critics that they are no longer sure what “doing enough” in the face of this massive structural calamity would even look like.

Well now we know what the Catholic Church intends to do, or least we have been privileged to a much clearer picture of Benedict XVI’s own view of the matter.

Summer is normally a slower time in the Mediterranean Church’s calendar. In fact, Pope Benedict’s Sunday homily of July 18th—delivered not from Saint Peter’s Basilica, but rather from the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo—was a plea, based on Jesus ‘s visit to Mary and Martha as reported by Luke’s Gospel, for the Christian faithful to take the time to slow down and to attend to life’s properly spiritual priorities.

But there was nothing slow, or especially spiritual, about the July 21st edition of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official weekly newspaper, most of which was dedicated to the very weighty (and altogether earthly) matter of legal reforms that were approved by the Pope in late May, as a response to the current crisis.

I have commented before on the curious way in which the Vatican is also a state, and as an independent state, is composed of many bureaucracies working sometimes in surreal parallel. Vatican City has its own Museum, its own Libraries, its own ATM machines (with prompts in ecclesiastical Latin), its own postal service; it even has its own gasoline station, set prettily next to an ornate Renaissance foundation.

The Vatican also presides over its own courts and its own laws. Such “canon law,” as it is called, forms the very heart of Roman Catholic ethics, as it also informs the administrative handling of cases such as those initiated by these recent revelations of widespread priestly misconduct.

It was Pope John Paul II who significantly reorganized the administrative structure for the Roman Church’s review of what, from its perspective, constituted the most extreme cases of priestly misconduct. He did so in an important papal pronouncement (called a Motu Proprio), “Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela,” in 2001. The administrative impact of that Motu Proprio was significant: it established the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” as the main tribunal for investigating and then hearing such cases; then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the Prefect, or Director, of that “Congregation,” and thus the man directly responsible for the timely and judicious handling of cases of this kind. So he may well seem to have been administratively implicated in this unfolding scandal for quite some time.

John Paul II’s Motu Proprio also offered a clearer enunciation of the kinds of priestly infelicities that the Pope had in mind, in a supplement entitled Normae de gravioribus delictis. What, then, from, the perspective of Catholic canon law, are deemed to be the most serious sorts of priestly misconduct worthy of review by this august tribunal? Not surprisingly, the list focused on sacramental theology and ritual practices for the most part.

Article Two of the “Norms” addressed the promulgation of “heresy, apostasy and schism,” and outlined the procedures that would result in the excommunication, deposition or dismissal of any ordained clergy implicated in such things. So, no heresy or apostasy allowed.

Article Three turned to the Sacrament of the Eucharist and identified a variety of intentional violations of said sacrament, such as the discarding of the “consecrated species,” or celebrating the sacrament with a suspect (non-Catholic) officiant: namely, a Christian representative of a tradition (like most Protestant denominations) that does not recognize the apostolic succession (implying that Peter was the first bishop of Rome, and that this Pope is his appointed successor), or the sacramental dignity of priestly ordination (meaning that it takes more to become a true minister of the gospel, and to remain one, than certain Texas-based websites suggest). So, no ecumenical Eucharistic celebrations, either.

Article Four turned to the Sacrament of Penance, and identified a frightening array of violations of the priestly office of confessor: such as the absolution of a violation of the Sixth Commandment (the commandment against adultery) for reasons of personal interest or the priest’s own implication in the crime; the hearing of a prohibited confession; sexual solicitation within the confines of the confessional; and the violation of the sacred seal of confidentiality. So, no priestly hanky-panky was to be swept under the table at the confessional.

Some important amendments to this list of especially grievous priestly crimes had already been suggested not long after their publication in 2001. The secret recording and dissemination of speech from the confessional was one crime that Benedict XVI agreed to include in his revised list of “Norms” in May of this year.

But now things get more interesting, and also a bit more ethically challenging. Article Five now explicitly adds “the attempted sacred ordination of a woman” to this list of the most grievous acts of priestly misconduct. Both the woman seeking such ordination and the man offering it are liable to excommunication.

Article Six explicitly turns to the sexual misbehavior and sexual abuse by priests. The solicitation of what is still quaintly referred to as “a violation of the Sixth Commandment” (since priests are technically married to the Church, they are sworn to earthly celibacy) with minors under the age of eighteen is an independent article on the list of prescribed “Norms” now, and the solicitation of a mentally impaired person is now equated with the similar solicitation of a minor. The possession of pornographic images of a minor under the age of fourteen is sanctioned as well, but without further explanation of the age limits proscribed.

Finally, Article Seven extends the statute of limitation for initiating a complaint from ten years to twenty, dated from the maturity of the accuser (age eighteen, again).

In addition to this expanded list of crimes, designed to address the increasing global outrage over the revelation of widespread priestly abuse of power to secure sexual gratification, Benedict XVI has approved some procedural changes as well. Certain accusations that are deemed to warrant investigation by the Congregation may be expedited now; the aim of all such procedural changes is to create the appearance of greater transparency inside the Church.

To that end, once a hearing has been agreed to, the Prefect of the Congregation is responsible for appointing a bank of judges, a prosecutor, and a notary, all of whom were formerly required to be priests with doctorate degrees in canon law. Article Fifteen of the new Norms indicates that the Congregation “may dispense from th[os]e requirements.”

On the plus side, it sounds as if members of the local (and duly outraged) community may now serve as participants in such a Congregational hearing. On the negative side, the Pope has suggested that the Prefect of the Congregation may do so, not that he ever actually will. After all, Benedict XVI has also strenuously reiterated the need for secrecy in all such proceedings, to protect the confidentiality rights of all participants at such a tribunal. It is hard to see how the Congregation could ever rely on, or ever enforce, the confidence of someone outside its jurisdiction.

Not surprisingly, the reactions from the Catholic hierarchy in various aggrieved countries—from Germany and Belgium, to England and Wales (but not Ireland), to the US and Australia—has been positive. Greater clarity in the relevant Norms and greater transparency in the evaluative procedures are thought to be the first and most important steps toward establishing a more meaningful sense that this Papacy understands the gravity of the crimes over which it stands in judgment. And the need to mend some badly damaged fences.

But there are nagging questions raised by this document, over and beyond the practical question of what real procedural difference any of this will make.

On the one hand, the Church’s decision to include sexual misconduct on its list of the most serious offenses in Christendom has rarely led to actions with which many Liberals can sympathize. In 1922, “sexual solicitation” and “child abuse” were listed together with “clerical homosexuality” and “bestiality”; that moral equation was reiterated by Pope John XXIII as late as 1962, and not called into serious question until after the Second Vatican Council.

We know that both Pope John Paul II and the man who served as his Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Benedict XVI, have worked tirelessly against many of the reforms initiated by Vatican II and its “new openness” to the modern world.

Looking more closely at this significant amendment of John Paul II’s Motu Proprio, we can catch a trace of this same legacy of papal anti-modernism.

The church’s primary focus is and has always been on delicta contra fidem, or crimes against the faith. The decision to add delicta contra mores, crimes against morality, cuts more than one way, and certainly not necessarily in the direction desired by the Church’s most vocal critics. There is a logic to the new items on the list of Norms, since each of the matters discussed, from the Vatican’s perspective, amounts to an abuse of priestly prerogative and the corruption of the sanctity of the sacred office.

But the inclusion of heresy, apostasy, the sexual coercion of minors and the ordination of women on the same list of proscribed activities may strike many modern persons as rather odd.

Note that the attempted ordination of women is really the transitional “crime” that essentially takes us from crimes against the faith to crimes against morality. Benedict’s decree moves seamlessly from the worry over women’s ordination to the sexual abuse of minors and the mentally disabled, and then on to the most peculiar crime of possessing pornographic images of children under fourteen.

What is the worldview implicit in such a list of crimes, and listed in this order? Is it the Church’s earnest attempt to meet the world on its own terms? Or is an attempt by a Pope who is suspicious of any such accommodation to the world’s standards to turn the current public outcry to his own anti-modern purposes by strengthening the punitive internal administrative structure of the Church, all in the name of some very un-modern ideas?

To these significant worries I would add a final one. Does the political left perhaps play into the anti-modernist’s hands when it makes sex the front page story? As I have argued before, this scandal is a scandal because of the abuse of power it involves, not the sex. And that abuse is rendered more shocking still in the face of the virtual absence of transparent oversight structures within the Vatican hierarchy.

That is what this document wishes to address. Whether what it proposes is enough to do so effectively is an open and debatable question.

But so long as we make this story a story about sex, primarily if not exclusively, then we cannot help but be drawn into the inevitable and tiresome debates over what constitutes sexual minority, what constitutes mental disability, and why priests possessing pornographic images of a fourteen- year-old should be subject to less severe sanction than those possessing images of someone just one year younger.

There are deeper concerns to be expressed here, questions involving theology and the history of the Church since the Second World War. But we need to read the Church’s own newspapers, and its own choice of language, in order to be able to bring them into focus and thus to throw a light on some of the darker corners in that great walled hierarchy.

Such light shone on the darker recesses of Vatican administrative procedures may yet prove to be much harsher than the gentle summer sunlight lionized in the Pope’s holiday homily.