Rorate Caeli

On the ongoing revision of the penal law of the Church

Bishop Arrieta, February 11, 2012, at Wigratzbad. Source. 

All emphases are Rorate's - Augustinus.

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta has a special briefcase he uses exclusively to carry documentation for a project that would completely revise an entire section of the Catholic Church's basic law.

The black case contains a 40-page draft text for a new "Book VI: Sanctions in the Church" section of the Code of Canon Law, as well as the 800-page synthesis of recommended amendments and objections to the proposed changes.

Bishop Arrieta, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, delves into the briefcase at work in his office overlooking St. Peter's Square and at home in the evening.

Like any society, the Catholic Church has laws, Bishop Arrieta said, and while the tenets of its faith do not change, its laws do need to be adapted to the changing situations in which its members try to live out their faith.

While the pontifical council is looking at small adjustments to several sections of the Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983, and ways to speed up the process for evaluating the validity of marriages, the section concerning offenses and penalties was judged to be in need of more than a touch up.

The current code was drafted in the 1970s, Bishop Arrieta said, "a period that was a bit naive" in regard to the need for a detailed description of offenses, procedures for investigating them and penalties to impose on the guilty. It reflected a feeling that "we are all good," he said, and that "penalties should be applied rarely."

"The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when Pope Benedict was prefect, was obliged to act as a consequence of the fact that the (church's) penal law was not working," he said.

The naivete of the law became clear with the sexual abuse crisis, Bishop Arrieta said. In addition, the sanctions section of the 1983 code was written with such an emphasis on the role of the individual bishop in his local diocese that each bishop bore the full weight of deciding when and how to intervene and what sort of sanction or punishment to impose on the guilty.

The law ended up being too vague, and church sanctions were being applied so haphazardly, that the church appeared to be divided, he said.

The project to revise the section began in 2008. The draft was completed in 2011 and sent to bishops' conferences and pontifical faculties of canon law, which had a year to respond. The suggestions were organized and synthesized, and now council officials and consultants -- mostly professors of canon law -- meet for an afternoon every two weeks to go through them, line by line.

Bishop Arrieta said it will be at least two years before a new draft is ready to present to Pope Francis. As the church's chief legislator, it is the pope who decides whether or not to promulgate it and order that it replace the current law.

The proposed draft incorporates the Vatican's 2010 updated definition of "delicta graviora" -- Latin for "graver offenses," including clerical sexual abuse of minors, the "attempted ordination of women" and acts committed by priests against the sanctity of the Eucharist and against the sacrament of penance.

The two chief concerns in the new section, as in all church law, he said, are "to safeguard the truth and protect the dignity of persons."

At the same time, the rules are more stringent -- "if someone does this, he must be punished," the bishop said. While it withdraws the discretionary power of the bishop in certain cases, he said, "it is for the good of the bishop."

Another set of modifications to the Code of Canon Law are already on Pope Francis' desk, awaiting his judgment. They deal with areas in which the code for the Latin-rite Catholic majority differs from the Code of Canons of the Eastern Catholic Churches.

Bishop Arrieta said that in most cases they are rules for situations that the Latin-rite code never envisioned, but that the Eastern code, published in 1990, did. With the large number of Eastern Christians -- Catholic and Orthodox -- who have migrated to predominantly Latin territories in the last 25 years, Latin-rite pastors need guidance, he said.

For example, Eastern Catholics who do not have access to a priest or parish of their rite are free to receive the sacraments in a Latin-rite parish, including baptism and matrimony. The proposed revisions for the code specify that in such situations the parish's sacramental register must include a notation that the people involved belonged to an Eastern Catholic church, he said. In addition, Latin-rite pastors must know that while a Latin-rite marriage is valid in the presence of a deacon, in the Eastern-rite churches a priest must preside.

Many Catholics think canon law is something they need to be concerned about only if their marriage breaks down and they want an annulment.

The annulment process is another area currently under study and scrutiny by the pontifical council, the bishop said. The church's law must uphold church teaching, but do so responding to the concrete situations of the faithful.

"Church law follows the theological reality of things," he said. "It isn't canon law that forbids divorce, the faith does. Canon law then transforms that into juridical language."

So while the council is not trying to find ways to facilitate annulments, "we are trying to identify the bottlenecks that delay" judgments in the annulment process and identify improved procedures, he said.



  1. The most interesting thing I heard on Canon Law was from a very liberal priest I knew who went through Mundelein in the 70's. At the time everyone was lamenting such a need for a "law" class in the seminary. The canon law professor said, "gentlemen, when your bishop hates you, canon law is your best friend!"

  2. I hope the new Canon will include stronger requirements on the Bishops for uniformly enforcing crimes against the Body and Blood of our Lord - the SACRILEGE of receiving Holy Communion while in the state of obstinate mortal sin, and SCANDAL which causes the loss of Souls.

    For some reason many US Bishops ignore these serious Mortal Sins, regarding Canon 915 and Canon 1399.
    By ignoring these sins, it gives the impression that they do not believe in the Real Presence, or care about relativism - where there is no real right or wrong.
    (SCANDAL is covered in the CCC.)

  3. Until and if the Pope promulgates any new changes, we must all adhere to the current Code of Canon Law (1983).

    This includes penalties against heretical and schismatic organizations and individuals advertising themselves as "Catholic" without the permission of the home based Diocese Bishop.

    Includes politicians (and other publically scandalous persons) who call themselves Catholic who obstinately support abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, cloning, contraception, etc.
    (Canon 915 & Canon 1399)

    Code of Canon Law (1983) -

    Includes: “Finally, the canonical laws by their very nature must be observed.'’

    Mt 16:18-19.

  4. CCC: "2285 Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized.
    It prompted our Lord to utter this curse: "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea." Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others.
    Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep's clothing."

    CCC: " 2286 Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion.
    Therefore, they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice,
    or to "social conditions that, intentionally or not, make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult and practically impossible."
    This is also true of business leaders who make rules encouraging fraud, teachers who provoke their children to anger,
    or manipulators of public opinion who turn it away from moral values."

  5. Catholic Canon 750 makes it clear that in order to be Catholic, one must be in communion with Christ's One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

  6. Nancy, do we need a canon to tell us that?

    Perhaps this revision will also have some more intuitive rules. For instance, until the early 1990s a Catholic could satisfy his Sunday obligation at an Eastern Orthodox Church because their priests are validly ordained and use a Catholic rite. This loophole was closed, but the spirit of it remains. The older code was strict about Masses being in publicly accessible Churches and oratories. Obviously this is only once instance. I would much rather see the Holy See do something about pro-abortion (they aren't pro-choice, the kid never got to decide his/her life) politicians in this newer version of the Codex.

  7. Pope Benedict lifted the excommunications on SSPX Bishops....

    so the SSPX are catholic....

    Just saying....!!!

  8. Anonymous5:37 PM

    Crouchback, your point isn't a small one.

    People seem to think you can somehow be outside the Church while not excommunicated. That's just not possible. You're either in the boat or out, and Benedict assured the bishops of the SSPX are in by lifting the excommunications.

    This says nothing about their sacraments. But they are indeed inside the Church.

  9. Of course no Catholic marriage is valid unless Caesar approves, i.e. a "marriage license". So we have to insure Caesar, Obama, Nero, Diocletian, Marcus Aurelius, or whomever is running Government defines marriage according to Canon Law.

    Meanwhile, - I think it was Cardinal Dearden which said the USCCB should be more like GM (I don't think he meant bankrupt, in need of a bailout, produces defective products, hates its laborers and customers). As far as annulments, it does seem to be a factory.

    Does ANYONE have statistics on how many annulments are NOT granted of the total applied for? (for those who go through the whole process).

  10. Anonymous8:17 PM

    I had no idea that this reform was underway, or that Bishop Arrieta was involved. Thank you for this post.

  11. Adfero, As regards sacraments celebrated by the SSPX: Canon Law requires jurisdiction or delegation to validly administer the sacraments of Matrimony and Reconciliation. As the SSPX has neither requirement, they cannot validly preside at marriage nor give absolution.

  12. Anonymous9:09 PM

    I was only talks about whether they are in the Church or not, and they are certainly in.

    In terms of the sacraments, that's not clear to me. I can read the law, I hear their side on necessity. What I can't get past is that, if their marriages and confessions were invalid, wouldn't Rome have the duty and obligation to tell the faithful this? Would popes literally let people die in mortal sin, live in sin, etc., by not warning them?

    If I must believe, out of charity, that Rome would warm them clearly and often, and they haven't, then wouldn't that lead me to believe they are valid?

  13. Anonymous7:50 AM

    Many Catholics think canon law is something they need to be concerned about only if their marriage breaks down and they want an annulment.

    This is gravely problematic. The separation of a husband and wife in a valid marriage is no grounds for an annulment. Marriage is indissoluble. If the married pair separate, they are still married forever and any relations outside of that one valid marriage are adultery and fornication, hence a mortal sin.
    An annulment is a declaration that no marriage ever existed. Grounds for an annulment include consent to the appearance of marriage under force [and so no marriage at all] and 'perpetual and antecedent impotence'. There are others.

    The idea that the parties separating has any bearing, any bearing whatever, on the nullity of a supposed 'marriage' is wildly wrong and extremely problematic as it confounds an annulment - no marriage ever existed - with the heretical idea of divorce, that a marriage can be annulled.

  14. Re: SSPX sacraments: The 1983 Code of Canon Law is very liberal as far as where Catholics may receive the sacraments.

    Canon 844 par. 2

    "Whenever necessity requires or genuine spiritual advantage suggests, and provided that the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, it is lawful for the faithful for whom is is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister, to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and annointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose churches these sacraments are valid."

    A fortiori, the faithful may validly receive the sacrament of penance, etc. from the SSPX.


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