Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Moral problems at the Vatican

Moral problems at the Vatican


Monday July 19, 2010

The widespread astonishment, contempt, and anger that has greeted the Vatican's decision to include the "attempted ordination of women" among the "graver crimes" falling under the juridical purview of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has forced apologists for the new norms to issue explanations for how it's really not the case that (as I put it back on July 9) "Ordaining Women = Raping Children." The explanations boil down to distinguishing between violations of the sacraments and moral derelictions.

As Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, the Vatican's abuse prosecutor, put it, "Sexual abuse and pornography are more grave delicts, they are an egregious violation of moral law...Attempted ordination of women is grave, but on another level, it is a wound that is an attempt against the Catholic faith on the sacramental orders." In other words, a rotten apple is not the same as a rotten orange, even though they both need to be thrown out. I could be fired for sleeping with an undergraduate, plagiarizing an article, or murdering my next-door neighbor, but that doesn't mean that those acts are equivalent.

Enough said? Not quite. That neat distinction between the moral and sacramental levels is, I'm afraid, bogus. Consider how the CDF came to be involved in sexual abuse cases in the first place.

Along with the new norms the Vatican issued a fascinating "Historical Introduction" explaining the evolution of this latest exercise in canon law, going back to the 1922 letter (reissued in 1962) that occasioned some heated back and forth after the NYT published its long article July 1 on Pope Benedict's time as head of the CDF. This account does not quite correspond with the analysis canonist and Vatican critic Fr. Thomas Doyle did a couple of years ago, but never mind. If your Latin is good enough, you can confirm from the original document ("Crimen Solicitationis") that the involvement of the CDF in abuse cases stems from the need to discipline priests who use the confessional for sexual purposes. [Update: English version here.] The fifth section of "Crimen" simply extends that concern ("mutatis...mutandis") to "very bad" sex crimes engaged in by clergy outside the confessional.

The point is that the original jurisdictional issue had to do with a crime that was both "moral" and "sacramental"--a moral violation of the sacrament, if you will. But is that even a meaningful thing to say, in canon law terms? Does the Vatican claim that it's not immoral to ordain a woman? Not that I've heard.

The crux of the matter is that the Pope and Curia have deemed it more important to give the CDF the power to try bishops for ordaining women than for covering up sexual abuse by priests. By their lights, the former is a more serious problem than the latter. By mine, that's a moral problem.


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