To the outside world, the Vatican has lumped together child abuse and the ordination of women

After what seems like a long wait, the Vatican has today released the revised norms of canon law for dealing with paedophile priests.

There is a great deal of good in the document: the new norms allow for faster action on abusive priests, extend the Church’s statute of limitations from 10 years after a victim’s 18th birthday to 20 years, specifically include abuse of the mentally disabled and also introduce a clause for dealing with the possession of child pornography.

And yet, the document will have even the most Ultramontane Catholics (excluding canon lawyers, perhaps) battering their heads against desks: “Was it really so hard to get this one right?”

Because the document also deals with guidelines for dealing with the attempted ordination of women as well as heresy, apostasy and schism, and abuse of the confessional, all of which fall under “gravioribus delictis” or “more serious crimes”. The inclusion of the other “most serious crimes” has already prompted headlines like these: “Crime against Faith”; and from the US Catholic: “Sex abuse and women’s ordination?” . It will no doubt – deservedly – give rise to more outcry over the next couple of days. To the outside eye and to punters in the pews this looks like the Vatican is equating the abuse of children by priests with the attempted ordination of women.

Over at the Guardian, Andrew Brown writes about the revised norms under the headline of A Vatican PR catastrophe:

One can see how this happened. The serious offences here being classified are divided into moral and sacramental ones; roughly speaking those which anyone might commit, and those which only a priest can, by virtue of his office. So the moral offences include child abuse, the use of child pornography, and so forth. The sacramental offences are things like violating the seal of the confessional, desecrating the Eucharistic Host – and taking part in a ceremony where a woman is ordained. The sacramental offences are only of concern to the Catholic hierarchy, whereas the moral ones are almost certain to be crimes under the civil law as well. But the important thing from the point of a Vatican lawyer is that the most serious of all these cases, of whatever sort, are dealt with in Rome.

Obviously, if what you are trying to do is to maintain a functioning priesthood, then ritual or sacramental crimes are just as capable of destroying it as moral ones. So from that perspective it makes perfect sense to have a list which combines the two, and I don’t think (though I may be wrong) that any official Catholic would maintain that assisting at the ordination service of a woman is morally comparable to child abuse. It’s just that both are absolutely incompatible with the Catholic priesthood.

Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, tells us that there has been an organic development since the norms for the “most serious crimes” were first brought out by Pope John Paul II in 2001. This includes new faculties attributed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during that period, which had yet to become part of the existing norms. In other words, the new norms updated the existing norms with the problems that have been identified and developments that have arisen in the last nine years. Fr Lombardi explains that the codification of these has now come about “within the context of a systematic revision of those norms”.

The newly released document, therefore, also codifies other “crimes” that have been listed, including the ordination of women, which was treated as a crime by a 2007 CDF decree which shored up Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in which he argued that he did not have the authority to ordain women to the priesthood.

From a canon law perspective (speaking as a non-canonist, of course), this inclusion seems to make sense.

But standing here on the ground: why, oh, why couldn’t they have just issued two different documents? Issuing first one document dealing with the gravity and horror of the abuse of children, and later issuing another dealing with everything else.


Ambrose Little was pointing out on Twitter that the much of the criticism was pre-emptive and coming from the Catholic side. To a certain extent, Mr Little was making a fair point. Most of the headlines this afternoon read “Vatican tightens abuse rules” or something to that effect. The point of women’s ordination and “most serious crime” was usually made in the third or fourth paragraph.

Enter the New York Times. The second paragraph of its article on the subject reads:

But in a move that infuriated victims’ groups and put United States bishops on the defensive, it also codified “the attempted ordination of women” to the priesthood as one of the church’s most grave crimes, along with heresy, schism and pedophilia.