The difference between Moral and Judicial Crimes

Just doing a bit of research on Cardinal Ouellet (can a reader help with how to pronounce his name?), I came across this article concerning something the French cardinal said about abortion:

Ouellet…called abortion a “moral crime” as serious as murder and said it is never justified — even in cases of rape.

“There is a spin, saying the cardinal would like to re-criminalize [abortion], and this is not what he said,” said Jasmin Lemieux-Lefebvre [a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Quebec City]. “He’s not calling for re-criminalization. He was talking [about] a moral thing. This is a moral issue. He was not bringing this to the judicial level.”

He said Ouellet wasn’t condemning women and believes they need better care before and after abortions. He also said that when Ouellet discusses abortion as a political issue, he is merely urging Canada to offer some form of protection for the unborn.

The distinction that interests me is between “moral” crimes and “judicial” crimes, and the appropriate and just way of resonding to each. Discuss.

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16 Responses to The difference between Moral and Judicial Crimes

  1. William Tighe says:

    AC wrote:

    There are some differences between Canadian French and French French pronunciation, but it would seem to be “oo-el-lay”. My wife is French (Parisian and Norman roots), and gives me this pronunciation. The ancestors of most French Canadians emigrated from the Vendée and Normandy areas, and their accent is French (langue d’oil) of the 18th century.

    Update: I have just heard the Cardinal on the video pronounce his name. The final “t” isn’t pronounced in France, but obviously is in Canada.

    Michaël de Verteuil says:

    The pre-revolutionary Norman dialect in which French-Canadian proper names are generally written has fewer occluded consonants than contemporary standard French, so the “t” in names like “Ouellet” or “Ouimet” is indeed pronounced. Ouellet is a masculinization of the old French word “ouellette” meaning “ewe.”

  2. Susan Peterson says:

    What about what that Quebec spokesman said?
    Of course abortion should be recriminalized. Isn’t that what Right to Life is fighting for? And Catholic politicians are supposed to support laws which protect life. Such as laws which make killing babies in the womb illegal.
    Not all morality needs to be expressed in criminal law. But the first purpose of the state is protection of the lives of the weak against the strong.

    • Louise says:


    • Son of Trypho says:

      His spokesperson probably clarified the matter to avoid his Eminence being charged with incitement to hatred on religious grounds or humans rights infringements or something similar in Canada.

      Look what happened to Mark Steyn in Canada a while back if you are interested.

  3. Peregrinus says:

    I’m glad you raised the point, David, and I’m even gladder for the link you give, because the term “moral crime” that Ouellet was reported as using (without giving any context, in the reports I saw) struck me as interesting, and worthy of some thought and some exploration.

    In Christian moral and ethical discourse, I don’t think the term “crime” comes up that much. “Sin”, “wrong”, “failing”, “weakness”, “fault” – all the time, but “crime”, not so much. (And I think the same would be true of non-Christian moral discourse.) “Crime” seems to be to be proper only to the relatively narrow subset of moral discourse which considers the duty of the state/the ruler when it comes to the exercise of civil power.

    It occurs to me – again, without having seem the context in which he used it – that the use of the term “crime” by Ouellet could, whether that was his intention or not, contribute to an impression that he saw abortion as something which should be punished and/or forcibly prevented.

    And it seems that it did have that effect, at least in the minds of some, if his spokesman has had to issue a clarification, saying that he was not calling for criminalisation, or for judicial intervention.

    (It will be interesting to see how this affects his perception and treatment by the brand of Catholic which considers demanding legal restrictions on abortion an indispensable feature of authentic Catholicity.)

    I must go back and try to see what context he used it in. We know now what he didn’t mean, but I will be interested to find out what he did mean. Was it simply that abortion is always a particularly grave sin?

  4. Louise says:

    Abortion ought to be illegal with the strongest sanctions – predominantly against the abortionists who actually do the killing.

    • William Tighe says:

      Exactly — and how foolish or diabolical to think otherwise.

    • Tom says:

      It depends on how systematic the reliance on abortion is within a culture…if you attempt to impose virtue rather than encourage and foster it, you end up destroying the moral culture. If abortion is so entrenched in society, and then you outright ban it, you create a systematic disobedience for the law which in the long run is far more damaging. For the law to be a true moral teacher, there can never be too great a disparity between what the law expects, and the reality of the people living under that law. Otherwise law itself begins to break down. If our society was (like Russia under the soviets, and to some extent today) radically corrupt, and the government passed extremely strong anti-corruption laws, you would find that, due simply to the vicious nature (read vicious as non-virtuous, as distinct from cruel) of the people, that corruption would not be affected but rather what respect there might have been for the law in the first place would be eroded.

      I’m not saying I agree with abortion – I’m just saying that in our culture, we might be about to reach the point where anti-abortion legislation would be less helpful than other options like abortion counseling, and adoption services being readily available. The law itself cannot impose morality, merely encourage it. In that sense, such changes to the law require massive cultural change to precede them, otherwise such changes become entirely counter-productive.

      This whole idea does require an interpretation of politics as ethics, rather than politics as the distribution/management of power structures, which is entirely unwelcome today, but, this is the world in which we live…

      • Alexander says:

        Tom is exactly right. The Catholic Church fights abortion, gay marriage, contraception, divorce, and (less loudly) fornication all as different sides of the same coin (pperhaps a dice is closer with this number of sides), because they are. One can’t be significantly further without jeopardising the whole thing. And this is why we need to spread our view of sex and marriage, instead of dealing with the different conclusions of the secular premises.

      • Schütz says:

        In other words, Tom,

        1) we let the people KNOW (as Cardinal Ouellet did) that abortion is a “moral crime”, and
        2) educate them to understand WHY it is such a “moral crime”, and
        3) by means of this education and additional acts of mercy and charity we do whatever we can to lessen the likelihood that people will WANT to COMMIT this “moral crime”.

        Our GOAL is to reach a situation where abortion is a “judicial crime” BECAUSE our society has learned to recognise abortion (and failing to help people who might be pressured into SEEKING an abortion) is firstly a “moral crime”.

        This indeed is how we work with educating our society about all “crimes”. We have to convince people that x, y, or z, is wrong because the effect of committing it is detrimental to our society. At this point it is this task of education which is foremost on our list here in Australia.

  5. Elise B. says:

    Our courageous Cardinal has been the subject of the grossest insults because of this. He certainly knew what his statement would bring him and he accepted it in advance. He is a great gift to the Church.
    As for his name, try pronouncing it as “Wellet”, with “let” as in “outlet”. According to “Votre nom et son histoire”, the origin of the name is “houel”, a hoe; a “houellet” would have been a small hoe. The “h” was eventually dropped in family names.

  6. joyfulpapist says:

    This has been fascinating. Thanks, folks. Tom, Peregrinus, I’ve copied your comments in my blog (with due attribution). I hope that’s okay with you.

    My ten cents worth is that – given the longterm ill effects of abortion (up to four times the suicide rate in the next 8 years, for example) – there is an argument for making it illegal except for very rare medical circumstances, and dealing with the necessary education afterwards.

    It’s not going to happen, though. Political minefields.

    • Tom says:

      Virtually everything said comes from Aquinas treatise on Law (Summa Theologica, IaIIae, q’s 90-108, principally q94), and Budziszewski’s account of the Treatise in his book ‘What We Can’t Not Know’. Just so you know – it’s not my work.

  7. Peregrinus says:

    To come back to the original question:

    The distinction that interests me is between “moral” crimes and “judicial” crimes, and the appropriate and just way of resonding to each.

    I did a (very) little bit of reading over the weekend; mostly the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law (the latter because I thought the concept of “crime” might have more relevance to a legal code). No clear picture emerges.

    In the Catechism, we have:

    – Para 2272 and 2322: Abortion as “crime against human life”. This occurs in an explanation of why the “canonical penalty of excommunication” is attached, so “crime” here could be a reference to the fact that abortion is a canonical offence, as well as a sin.

    – Para 2314: Acts of war “directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or their inhabitants” are said to be “a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation”. (This is a quotation from Gaudium et Spes. There’s no reference to canon law here. Nor is there any reference to civil law; the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for instance, was not a crime under US law, but it is clearly the kind of wrong contemplated here.

    – Para 2490: Violation by a confessor of the seal of confession is “a crime”. This is clearly a reference to canonical crime, if only because the passage in the Catechism is a direct quote from the Code of Canon Law.

    – Para 2267: A reference to “preventing crime” in the discussion of the death penalty. This is obviously a reference to things which are crimes under civil law. No particular crime is identified.

    – Para 2148: In a discussion of blasphemy, we find the statement that “ the misuse of God’s name to commit a crime can provoke others to repudiate religion”. I think this is a reference to something which is criminal under civil law and/or in the general view of society.

    – Para 598: In a quote taken from the old Roman Catechism, we find that “since our sins made the Lord Christ suffer the torment of the cross, those who plunge themselves into disorders and crimes crucify the Son of God anew in their hearts”. Here “disorders and crimes” seems to be a synonym for “sin”.

    So, to sum up, “crime” can refer to
    – something forbidden by civil law (the “civil sense”)
    – something forbidden by canon law (the “canonical sense”)
    – something gravely wrong (the “moral sense”)

    And of course these senses can overlap.

    Note also that not necessarily everything forbidden by canon law is a “crime”. I’ll spare you a detailed analysis of the Code of Canon Law; suffice it to say that the “crime” and “criminal” occur surprising rarely, and with no very clear meaning.

    There’s not much guidance to be found either in the Catechism or in the Code as to what gravely wrong actions amount to crimes in the moral sense, beyond the fact that the category includes at least abortion and indiscriminate military tactics. Nor are we told what the significance of being a “moral crime” is. Is it just a rhetorical flourish to emphasis the gravity of the wrongness of a particular act, or does it have a more specific significance?

    I turn to what Cardinal Ouellet is reported as having said. To be honest, the meaning he attaches to “moral crime” isn’t entirely clear either, but this may have something to do with poor journalism.

    David quotes above the CBC report in which a diocesan spokesman says that Ouellet was not calling for criminalisation, and that he “leaves it to the politicians to explore a balanced solution from among the basket of options that exist elsewhere”. There is no report of the spokesman having been later corrected, so I’m going to assume until we have evidence to the contrary that he does indeed speak with the authority of his boss, Ouellet.

    On the other hand, we have this report ( in the Christian Telegraph quoting Ouellet as saying that “the Church is asking the states to penalize the practice of abortion”. I might be cautious in placing much reliance on a report from a site which also invites me to discuss the question “Is the second coming of Jesus etched in the night sky?” Still, I doubt that they are simply making the quote up.

    What this suggests to me is that Ouellet’s view about how the state should respond to abortion is either (a) unclear, so that he says one thing in one forum and another thing in another, or (b) carefully nuanced, in a way which the news reports are simply not conveying to us, whether through editorial bias or simple ineptitude.

    It seems clear, though, that Ouellet feels that the state does have a role here, if not necessarily the role of making abortion a crime.

    Taking a step back, and thinking about the ordinary meaning of “crime”, it refers to a legal wrong which is not just the business of the individual wronged, but of society as a whole. If I fail to perform my contract with you, or injure you through a careless accident, or don’t return property that you lent to me, this is a matter between us. You can take it to court if you like, but it is not something the police will interest themselves in, not something the state will prosecute, not something that I could be fined or imprisoned for. It is not, in short, a crime. Whereas if I commit a crime against you, it’s no longer just between us. You in fact may forgive me, or want to let the matter drop, but the state can still prosecute and punish me.

    Bringing this concept into the moral sphere, I suggest “moral crimes” might be the category of moral wrongs which demand more from the community at large than simply an acknowledgment or condemnation of wrongness. A moral crime calls for concerted action to remedy it, or to avert its occurrence in the first place.

    This action may or may not take the form of criminalisation. Sometimes this is a matter of prudential judgment; Tom’s post above suggests why criminalising abortion might not be appropriate. Sometimes it may be a matter of relevance; we could feel that communal action to prevent the possession or use of strategic nuclear weapons is a moral imperative, without feeling that any change to the criminal law can achieve what is needed. And sometimes it could be a matter of principle; I suggest that adultery, for example, or apostasy, calls for a response which definitely should not include criminalisation.

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