Yesterday, the Vatican issued new directives concerning the manner in which “grave crimes” in the life of the church are addressed. The bulk of the statement has to do with the issue of sex abuse by priests. The Pope now has the ability to deal personally, directly, and rapidly with particularly egregious offenses, bypassing the somewhat cumbersome process of an ecclesiastical trial. Furthermore, the Vatican clarfied that the possession of any kind of child pornography by a priest will conduce immediately to that priest’s dismissal from the clerical state. Finally, the statute of limitation for clergy sex crimes has been extended from ten years to twenty—and even further if the case is sufficiently serious. With all of this, I’m quite sure, people of good will are in agreement.
But the statement addressed other matters that it characterized as “grave delicts” (Vaticanese for “serious crimes”), and these include the desecration of the Blessed Sacrament, the violation of the seal of confession and the attempted ordination of a woman. This last specification has set off a firestorm of protest. How could the Vatican possibly construe the ordination of a woman as an offense as serious as the sexual abuse of a child? Isn’t this, at the very least, dispropotionate, and doesn’t it prove that the church continues to be clueless in regard to issues of concern to women?
Without defending for a moment the Vatican’s public relations acumen (which seems sorely lacking much of the time), I would like to offer perhaps a context for understanding this juxtaposition. The statement deals with a series of offenses against the integrity of the mystical body of Christ, that is to say, against that network of relationships that makes up the organism of the church. The sexual abuse of children by those who are ordained to guide and shepherd them is a massively serious violation of that integrity. But so, in the eyes of the Vatican, is the breaking of the seal of confession, which undermines the trust that must obtain between a sinner and his confessor, and so is an attack on the Blessed Sacrament, which amounts to an attack on Christ himself.
By the same token, the attempt by a bishop to ordain a woman to the priesthood (a move that has been ruled out of court by the Vatican) would sever that bishop’s relationship with the Pope and hence with his brother bishops. It would place him outside the communion of the church, and since he is the sign and instrument of his people’s unity, it would compromise their relationship with the universal church as well. If you have any doubt as to the division that can be caused in a church through the unilateral action of a group of bishops, take a good, hard look at the Anglican communion today.
Therefore, today’s statement isn’t anti-woman in any sense; it is an expression of concern over the number of ways that the church’s organic unity can be unravelled.
This article was featured on the Chicago Tribune's Seeker Blog.
Father Robert Barron is the Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
Also, today is the feast day of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Be sure to read Father Steve's insightful homily here.