The logic of Vatican’s linking sex abuse, women’s ordination

Share Button

The Washington Post

17 July 2010

by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

As usual, the Vatican’s most recent announcement generated as much confusion and controversy as it did clarity.

This week the Vatican (we’ll use “Vatican” as shorthand) announced changes made last May to procedures for dealing with what it terms “exceptionally serious crimes,” in Latin graviora delicta. Since 2001 the Vatican has tried cases involving acts of pedophilia committed by a cleric (priest, deacon or bishop), as one of these “exceptionally serious crimes”.

Among the changes to the legal procedures the Church will now follow to remove a pedophile from the priesthood is the extension of the statute of limitations from 10 years after the victim’s 18th birthday to 20 years. This extension makes it easier for the church tribunal within the Vatican’s “doctrinal department,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (hereafter CDF), to remove priests even when the victim did not come forward before reaching the age of 28.

Other significant changes include canonical/legal procedures for dismissing priests guilty of using child pornography or of sexually abusing adults vulnerable because of mental challenges.

Yet, many Vatican observers and critics were surprised to find in the list of “exceptionally serious crimes,” alongside procedures concerning sexual abuse, also the attempted ordination of women to the priesthood. In taking this step, the Vatican indicated that the latter is, like priestly pedophilia, a serious crime against faith and morals.

Admittedly, the variety of crimes covered might suggest to some, on the one hand, that this is the Vatican’s version of an “omnibus bill:” It deals with many urgent issues without necessarily connecting them.

On the other hand, some charge that the Vatican does connect the crimes and, even worse, equates their gravity.

They are both right and both wrong.

This new revision of that original 2001 document, called “The Safeguarding of the Sanctity of the Sacraments,” brings together various crimes/sins that were historically handled by the CDF.

In 1988 Pope John Paul II stated that the purpose of the CDF was “to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals in the whole Catholic world.” More specifically, the Pope gave to the CDF the power to deal with what he called “the more serious crimes (graviora delicta) against morals and the celebration of sacraments.”

In the 2001 document Pope John Paul II determined which crimes committed by clerics would be tried by the CDF’s tribunal. Many of these crimes involved sins committed during the performance of one of the Church’s sacraments. They included profaning the Eucharist and, in the case of priests, breaking the Seal of Confession or soliciting sex from a person during confession. To this list, the Pope added pedophile acts. The 2001 document was revised in 2003 to add other crimes, such as the recording of a confession by anyone.

To be clear, from 2001 onward the CDF has been responsible for the Church’s prosecution of priests accused of pedophilia. That 2001 document, revised in 2003, was updated in May 2010. The changes were published this week.

Pope Benedict XVI directed the CDF to add to the list of the “more serious crimes against morals and the celebration of sacraments.” The revised list of more serious crimes against morality now includes the use of child pornography by clerics and the abuse of vulnerable adults. The revised list of more serious crimes concerning celebration of sacraments now includes the attempt to ordain a woman to the priesthood.

Since the attempt to ordain a woman involves the serious abuse of a sacrament, Holy Orders, it was logical to place those cases before CDF’s tribunal. There was a clear need for an adequate church tribunal for prosecuting those involved in this action, which occurs sporadically in certain fringes of the Church.

The Vatican clarified during a press conference that, in revising the list of more serious crimes, it did not intend to equate the attempted ordination of women to the priesthood to pedophilia.

Like many modern states, and like other Christian churches and denominations, the Catholic Church has a variety of tribunals or courts for dealing with all sorts of cases and persons. A court can simultaneously deal with crimes involving different degrees of moral wrongdoing. Courts in the United States hear cases about crimes ranging from peddling without a license to murder. The fact that a court deals with various crimes does not imply that every crime they handle is equally grave, shocking, or scandalous.

Similarly, no one in the Vatican is saying that the attempted ordination of women does the same kind of damage as the horrific harm sexual abuse inflicts on a minor or a person who is vulnerable.

Fr. Zuhlsdorf is a columnist for weekly Catholic newspaper The Wanderer and has a popular blog at, which offers frank commentary on a range of issues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *