VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis published the most comprehensive revision of Catholic canon law in four decades on Tuesday, insisting that bishops take action against clergy who abuse minors and vulnerable adults, commit fraud, or attempt to ordain women.
The revision, in progress since 2009, affects the entire sixth section of the Church’s canonical code, a seven-book code of law with approximately 1,750 articles.
It replaces the code adopted by Pope John Paul II in 1983 and comes into force on December 8th.
The revised section with around 90 articles on crime and punishment contains many existing changes to the canon law of Francis and his predecessor Benedict XVI.
It introduces new categories and clearer, more specific language to give bishops less leeway.
In a separate accompanying document, the Pope reminded the bishops that they were responsible for observing the text of the law.
One goal of the revisions, Francis said, is “to reduce the number of cases where the imposition of a penalty has been left to the discretion of the authorities”.
Archbishop Filippo Iannone, head of the Vatican department overseeing the project, said there had been “a climate of undue negligence in interpreting criminal law” with some bishops sometimes bringing mercy to justice.
Sexual abuse of minors has been placed in a new section entitled “Offenses against human life, dignity and freedom”, compared to the previously vague “Crimes against special duties”.
The new section has been expanded to include offenses such as “caring for” minors or vulnerable adults for sexual abuse and possession of child pornography.
This includes the possible dismissal of clergymen who use “threats or abuse of authority” to force someone into sexual relations.
Last year, an internal report found that former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had abused his authority to force seminarians to sleep with him. He was released in 2019 for sexually abusing minors and adults.
Under the new code, lay people in positions of responsibility in the Church who have been found guilty of the sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults can be punished by both the Church and civil authorities.
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While the Church has forbidden the ordination of women in the past and the ban has been reaffirmed by the Popes, only in another section of the 1983 code says that ordination was reserved for “a baptized man”.
The revised code warns that both the person attempting to ordain a woman and the woman herself will be automatically excommunicated and that the cleric is at risk of being dismissed.
Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Order Conference, said in a statement that while the position was not surprising, its wording in the new code “is a painful reminder of the Vatican’s patriarchal machinery and its far-reaching attempts to subordinate women. “
Following the string of financial scandals that have plagued the Church over the past few decades, other new entries in the Code include several on white-collar crimes, such as misappropriation of church funds or property or serious negligence in its administration.