Church law changes

Fr. Michael Sedor

By Father Michael Sedor

Director for Canonical Services

You may have seen in the news that Pope Francis recently issued a new book for the Code of Canon Law.

The new canons of Book VI reform the Church’s penal law, replacing the previous Book VI of the Code that was issued in 1983. It creates new categories and clearer, more specific language.  This has given rise to questions from Catholics who are curious about what exactly the Pope did, and what effect it will have in the Church.

It might strike some as odd that canon law would define crimes and punishments in a legal sense – that is something that we more often associate with civil government.  Nonetheless, the Church has a long history of defining certain actions as crimes that call for punishment.  Ever hear of excommunication? That is an example of a specific type of penalty that can be applied for various crimes against the Church’s laws.  Obviously, the Church’s criminal law isn’t nearly as expansive as the government’s, but there are particular actions, when committed by a member of the faithful, which require some sort of punishment by the Church.

The overall scope of the changes can be seen in the new second paragraph added to canon 1311: “The one who is at the head of a Church must safeguard and promote the good of the community itself and of each of Christ’s faithful, through pastoral charity, example of life, advice and exhortation and, if necessary, also through the imposition or declaration of penalties… which are always to be applied with canonical equity and having in mind the restoration of justice, the reform of the offender, and the repair of scandal.” 

This canon points out that there are always three purposes to keep in mind when thinking about the Church’s criminal law. First, the need to restore justice to those who have been harmed by the wrongful action. Second, to help the offender reform and bring him or herself back into right relation with others. And third, to repair the wider hurt that criminal actions cause in the overall community of the Church.  But here the canon is also reminding us that imposing penalties should not just be seen as a cold act of justice. Rather, penalties are always grounded in the pastoral charity that safeguards and promotes the good of the entire community.

The new changes also bring into one place many of the Church’s penal laws that have already been in place for many years, but either were not very clear on their own, or were not yet part of the Code of Canon Law itself.  For example, in our day and age, most of us are familiar with the idea of mandated reporters – that some people, like priests and schoolteachers, are required to report certain crimes dealing with children to the proper authorities whenever they learn of them.  With the new canons, the Church’s law also makes it a crime to neglect to report an offense when you are required to do so.  This is only one of many changes that the new canons implement in our ongoing effort to protect children and other vulnerable individuals.

All in all, the changes introduced by Pope Francis bring more clarity to the Church’s penal law, help to more clearly define what is considered a crime and how it should be punished, and urge those in authority within the Church to take more seriously their duty of rendering justice for the faithful.  In short, the new Book VI gives the Church’s penal law a bit more “teeth.”