In a recent com box discussion to this post, Peregrinus usefully did an overview for us of the ways in which Catholic ecclesiastical statements have used the word “crimen” – a technical term usually translated simply as “crime” in English.
He gave us this list:
So, to sum up, “crime” can refer to
– something forbidden by civil law (the “civil sense”)
– something forbidden by canon law (the “canonical sense”)
– something gravely wrong (the “moral sense”)
And of course these senses can overlap.
Note also that not necessarily everything forbidden by canon law is a “crime”. I’ll spare you a detailed analysis of the Code of Canon Law; suffice it to say that the “crime” and “criminal” occur surprising rarely, and with no very clear meaning.
Well, the word is appearing a little more commonly these days, and at least some of the acts to which the word is applied has been recently clarified in this curial document: “Norms concerning the most serious crimes”. There are a couple of follow up documents, including this one from Cardinal Levada “A brief introduction to the modifications made in the Normae de gravioribus delictis, reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”, and this one from the press officer, Fr Lombardi “The significance of the publication of the new “Norms concerning the most serious crimes”” (nb. The Catholic Culture website has usefully collected all the official documents relating to this on one page here. (Nb. In fact, the word most commonly used in the document itself is not “crime” but “delict” – although this has been lost in the resulting media storm.)
Today Barney Zwartz has published an article in The Age criticising the Holy See for what he calls “spectacular incompetence”:
With its usual unerring instinct, the Vatican has turned a sound deed – tightening up procedures against abusive priests – into a public relations disaster by unnecessarily linking unrelated concerns.
As one Catholic told me, ”they excommunicate women before they excommunicate abusers”. …
This is further unwanted confirmation of how out of touch the hierarchy is, as it engages in that peculiar Vatican dance: one step forward, two to the side, then five steps backwards.
He is referring, of course, to the widely publicised media story that the Vatican has “declared” (as if they just invented this idea) the ordination of women to be “a crime”. This has sparked a lot of discussion – even over the staff lunch table the other day – which shows that the particular nuances that Perry listed above are not at all appreciated by the wider audience.
This is just another illustration of the point I was making in my Dialogue and Proclamation post the other day: that in this age of electronic communication, anything said in a particular context to a particular audience for a particular purpose will inevitably be misunderstood when it inevitably finds its way into the universal media.
One can argue, against Barney, that he hasn’t helped his readers to understand the context and meaning of the new Vatican norms and the particular language that these norms use. For him, the new norms were all about “abusive priests” and thus all the other issues addressed by the new norms are “unrelated concerns”. These other “concerns” may be unrelated in his mind, but are NOT unrelated in so far as the Church’s canon law goes. The document on the new norms is a document of canon law, not a newspaper column or a public relations announcement. The Church’s canon law addresses many issues that to Barney might seem “unrelated” but which – in canon law – are not.
The new norms are a revision of a document issued in 2001, and as such cover a lot of things other than Barney’s (or the media’s in general) particular and immediate concerns. The document is specifically intended to clarify which “delicts” (which is in fact the word used in the Latin title for the document – Normae de Gravioribus Delictis – not “crimen”) are to be “reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”. That was the specific intent of the document, and hence the various “delicts” that it lists are NOT “unrelated”.
What is, of course, causing all the fuss is that that one of these “delicts” concerns what the document calls “the attempted sacred ordination of a woman”. It is important to note that the document does not actually use the word “crime” in this context, but rather it is called “a grave delict”. I am no lawyer, let alone a canon lawyer, yet that source of all knowledge called Wikipedia describes a “delict” as “an intentional or negligent act which gives rise to a legal obligation between parties”. That would seem to be the case in this context: the one who commits any of these acts either intentionally or negligantly has breached Canon Law and thus has a “legal obligation” to answer for their actions before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Thus, “the attempted sacred ordination of a woman” by a Catholic bishop would be regarded as a situation for which said bishop would need to answer to the Congregation. That is what the document says, and that is all that the document says in this regard. Nor is this something new, although it has been introduced in this revision of the 2001 document. As the outline of the exact changes to the 2001 document makes clear, this was established as a “delict” already in 2007:
13. The attempted ordination of a woman has also been introduced as a delict in the new text, as established by the decree of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 19 December 2007 (art. 5);
The document is certainly not issuing a new broadside against those ecclesial communities who do ordain women as ministers in their churches. Since they are separated from the Catholic Church they therefore do not come under the norms of her Code of Canon Law.
Nevertheless, all this has been lost in the media debate. It is par for the course. The Holy See cannot be accused of incompetance simply because a public legal document has been taken out of its context and criticised by those who have not bothered to seek out the original source of a media story.