Ordination of Women "a crime"?

In a recent com box discussion to this post, Peregrinus usefully did an overview for us of the ways in which Catholic ecclesiastical statements have used the word “crimen” – a technical term usually translated simply as “crime” in English.

He gave us this list:

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.

Well, the word is appearing a little more commonly these days, and at least some of the acts to which the word is applied has been recently clarified in this curial document: “Norms concerning the most serious crimes”. There are a couple of follow up documents, including this one from Cardinal Levada “A brief introduction to the modifications made in the Normae de gravioribus delictis, reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”, and this one from the press officer, Fr Lombardi “The significance of the publication of the new “Norms concerning the most serious crimes”” (nb. The Catholic Culture website has usefully collected all the official documents relating to this on one page here. (Nb. In fact, the word most commonly used in the document itself is not “crime” but “delict” – although this has been lost in the resulting media storm.)

Today Barney Zwartz has published an article in The Age criticising the Holy See for what he calls “spectacular incompetence”:

With its usual unerring instinct, the Vatican has turned a sound deed – tightening up procedures against abusive priests – into a public relations disaster by unnecessarily linking unrelated concerns.

As one Catholic told me, ”they excommunicate women before they excommunicate abusers”. …

This is further unwanted confirmation of how out of touch the hierarchy is, as it engages in that peculiar Vatican dance: one step forward, two to the side, then five steps backwards.

He is referring, of course, to the widely publicised media story that the Vatican has “declared” (as if they just invented this idea) the ordination of women to be “a crime”. This has sparked a lot of discussion – even over the staff lunch table the other day – which shows that the particular nuances that Perry listed above are not at all appreciated by the wider audience.

This is just another illustration of the point I was making in my Dialogue and Proclamation post the other day: that in this age of electronic communication, anything said in a particular context to a particular audience for a particular purpose will inevitably be misunderstood when it inevitably finds its way into the universal media.

One can argue, against Barney, that he hasn’t helped his readers to understand the context and meaning of the new Vatican norms and the particular language that these norms use. For him, the new norms were all about “abusive priests” and thus all the other issues addressed by the new norms are “unrelated concerns”. These other “concerns” may be unrelated in his mind, but are NOT unrelated in so far as the Church’s canon law goes. The document on the new norms is a document of canon law, not a newspaper column or a public relations announcement. The Church’s canon law addresses many issues that to Barney might seem “unrelated” but which – in canon law – are not.

The new norms are a revision of a document issued in 2001, and as such cover a lot of things other than Barney’s (or the media’s in general) particular and immediate concerns. The document is specifically intended to clarify which “delicts” (which is in fact the word used in the Latin title for the document – Normae de Gravioribus Delictis – not “crimen”) are to be “reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”. That was the specific intent of the document, and hence the various “delicts” that it lists are NOT “unrelated”.

What is, of course, causing all the fuss is that that one of these “delicts” concerns what the document calls “the attempted sacred ordination of a woman”. It is important to note that the document does not actually use the word “crime” in this context, but rather it is called “a grave delict”. I am no lawyer, let alone a canon lawyer, yet that source of all knowledge called Wikipedia describes a “delict” as “an intentional or negligent act which gives rise to a legal obligation between parties”. That would seem to be the case in this context: the one who commits any of these acts either intentionally or negligantly has breached Canon Law and thus has a “legal obligation” to answer for their actions before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Thus, “the attempted sacred ordination of a woman” by a Catholic bishop would be regarded as a situation for which said bishop would need to answer to the Congregation. That is what the document says, and that is all that the document says in this regard. Nor is this something new, although it has been introduced in this revision of the 2001 document. As the outline of the exact changes to the 2001 document makes clear, this was established as a “delict” already in 2007:

13. The attempted ordination of a woman has also been introduced as a delict in the new text, as established by the decree of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 19 December 2007 (art. 5);

The document is certainly not issuing a new broadside against those ecclesial communities who do ordain women as ministers in their churches. Since they are separated from the Catholic Church they therefore do not come under the norms of her Code of Canon Law.

Nevertheless, all this has been lost in the media debate. It is par for the course. The Holy See cannot be accused of incompetance simply because a public legal document has been taken out of its context and criticised by those who have not bothered to seek out the original source of a media story.

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30 Responses to Ordination of Women "a crime"?

  1. Paul G says:

    Its probably true, as Mr Zwartz says, that the Vatican’s PR shows “great incompetence’. Personally, that doesn’t concern me, I would be more worried if they were skilled at PR (like the PR charade that is going on in politics at the moment).
    For what it is worth, I think where competence is needed is, in order of implemementation:

    1) follow the secular law related to accusations of child abuse

    2) do whatever it takes to protect the children who are in the care of the Church.

    3) prevent or at least punish abusive behaviour

    4) create a Church where there are no abusers

    5) after that, if you really must, worry about PR, but if 1 – 4 have been done, no PR will be needed.

  2. Tony says:

    The Holy See cannot be accused of incompetance simply because a public legal document has been taken out of its context and criticised by those who have not bothered to seek out the original source of a media story.

    Sounds fine in theory David, but it seems to be predicated on this presumption:

    The document on the new norms is a document of canon law, not a newspaper column or a public relations announcement.

    Anything released by the Vatican on such on an issue of such notoriety as abuse is, like it or not, a ‘public relations’ announcement.

    Wishing it were not so, doesn’t make it so.

    I think Elizabeth Scalia expresses the incredulity of this latest ‘How not to do PR 101’:

    Honestly, do I have to go to Rome and storm the press office of the Holy See, and sit the curia down and pull their hats off to smack them upside the head? Must I bang on their desks and say:

    Stupido! Stupido! PR IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE! On the rare occasion where you’ve done something that will bring you a cautious measure of good will, or at least less-hostile reportage, you don’t tie it in with a controversial issue and allow nonsense equivalences to be drawn by people who do not move beyond headlines and soundbites!

    You create a two-part report and you release the primo, the most important story on its own! You follow up with the second half of the document and discuss the rest of it — the Eucharistic, Reconciliatory and Sacramental stuff — next week or the next week, or the week after!

    Stupido! Where did you study communications? You don’t make it easy to be attacked! You don’t hand the culture fodder for a thousand cheap jokes and unending distortion! You don’t take norms addressing and correcting the biggest, most egregious failure of the church, and allow the world to portray you as wholly equating it with women becoming non-Catholic priests while drifting down the river on boats!

    Trying to counter the narratives that develop from boneheaded decisions like this — trying to explain the fullness of the norms or the degrees of seriousness addressed here — against the tide of negative publicity and cynical assumptions is like spitting into the wind! FAIL, Curia! This is a FAIL! EPIC fail!

    • Schütz says:

      I sympathise with the frustration, but the fact is that the document WAS a revision of an existing legal document. That is what it was. It wasn’t a media release. It wasn’t PR. The Code of Canon law is what it is, just like Australian civil law is what it is.

      • Tony says:

        The Code of Canon law is what it is, just like Australian civil law is what it is.

        Come on, David! That’s like saying the proposal to change the ‘civil law’ with regards to the taxation of mining super profits is ‘just a law’. Where there is a public interest, there is an imperitive to communicate effectively; to think about how your ‘stakeholders’ will react to this information.

        As Scalia says, this is not rocket science and it doesn’t mean you have to ‘sugar coat’ or ‘distort’ or be ‘economic’ with the truth.

        It just means you think about how a message is going to be perceived, especially on an issue that has cause so much grief for the church and anxiety among its supporters.

        And even if you find speaking about ‘PR’ distasteful in relation to the church, plain common sense mixed with basic human sensitivity would surely have had someone in the offices of the church seeing red flags?

        I’m not sure if it was incompetance or insensitivity or both that lead to this stuff up; either way it makes the church look like a bunch of bungling, arrogant amateurs on an issue that has done untold damage.

        It’s like they (whoever ‘they’ are) don’t give a toss about how their messages will be received.

  3. William Tighe says:

    “It’s like they (whoever ‘they’ are) don’t give a toss about how their messages will be received.”

    Nor should they; the truth is the truth, period.

    • Peregrinus says:

      1. I’m not convinced that canon law counts as the truth.

      2. Leavin that aside, I think it would be a bit jesuitical to say that Jesus told us to teach all nations, but never told us to teach them effectively. The truth doesn’t proclaim itself, you know. It’s up to us to proclaim it, and we have some responsiblity not to stuff it up by not caring about how well we proclaim it.

      So, yes, we should be intimately concerned with how the message is received. If we aren’t, we ought not to bother proclaiming it.

      • Tom says:


        there is a problem though – the article by Tracey Rowland that Schutz commented on, emphasises this (1 blog up). The quote was:

        “Therefore, to understand Ratzinger one
        must first understand that he thinks that
        Christianity is about a personal relationship
        with the Trinity and that all the dogmatic
        propositions and all the moral precepts,
        though important in themselves, make no
        sense outside of this relationship.”

        In terms of communicating canon law (which I agree with you, is not ‘true’ in the same sense as we might say that God is Truth, or God is Good – that is, the strict intelligibility of the statement contains the analytic statement given) – but still it would fall under a ‘dogmatic proposition’ or ‘moral precept.’ In this sense the difficulty is, it does not matter how such a statement is communicated. Unless the statement is not released to those who, at their heart, hold onto a personal relationship with The Trinity, then these statements will make no sense.

        As the article that Tony quoted above suggested – perhaps this document could have been broken down into 2 documents, and released successively. Maybe it would have worked – but then again, maybe it would have made absolutely no difference. There are commentators who watch the Vatican and watch its documents and might have made the connection and chose to attack the Church anyway.

        The point of this is – if we want non-Catholics to love the Church, then we need to catechise them. It will hardly do to simply expect that effective PR might bring them to a state of ambivalence. In the end it makes very little difference to the world how the Vatican releases its documents, if the world hates the Church enough, the Vatican could send out hallmark cards and it would be a problem.

        I’m not saying they should or shouldn’t manage how they communicate (PR); I’m just saying that ultimately its a waste of time – communicate and be done. The most important task is convincing people of the necessity of a personal relationship with the trinity. Once they have this, then everything else falls into its place as well. I can read that document and see a Church trying to heal this wound – why do others read this document and read such depravity?

        • Tony says:

          I’m not saying they should or shouldn’t manage how they communicate (PR); I’m just saying that ultimately its a waste of time – communicate and be done.

          Why engage in something that’s a waste of time, Tom?

          The most important task is convincing people of the necessity of a personal relationship with the trinity.

          And surely part of ‘convincing people’ is to think about how your communications come across?

          • Tom says:

            I’ll give you that Tony – implicit in my response is the opinion that I don’t think the Vatican should engage a PR department.

            Part of ‘convincing people’ is not our work. The miracle of conversion is the work of God. It doesn’t matter how flashy or how ‘effective’ our communication is; if God is present then the gift of the catechesis is enough. The Holy Spirit is the one who brings people into the relationship with the Holy Trinity. This is done through people; the Vatican in this sense does not give Catechesis, it must always be a person who announces the love of Christ – it is a witness to the victory of Christ over death in our flesh. This is why websites and other forms of electronic catechesis will never work. The catechesis demands that we present ourselves, poor as we are, to give our life so that others may have life. It has nothing to do with PR, and never will; it is a work of God that underlies conversion, not a human effort.

      • Schütz says:

        In this one paragraph, Perry, you have spoken of “teaching” and “proclamation”. Kerygma and didache are two modes of communication. As we have been relfecting, Dialogue is another.

        The point is that this latest document was none of these. It was a legal document.

    • Tony says:

      “WASHINGTON (CNS) — The Vatican’s decision to declare the attempted ordination of women a major church crime reflects “the seriousness with which it holds offenses against the sacrament of holy orders” and is not a sign of disrespect toward women, Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl of Washington said July 15.” (source)

      Why did he bother, William? Why do any church spokespeople bother to explain or, lately, defend what comes out of Rome? The ‘truth is the truth’, right?

      The problem with these kinds of ‘PR own goals’ is not the ‘usual suspects’ who look for the slightest excuse to attack the church — like Maureen Dowd in the NYT — it’s that even the more moderate commentators are collectively scratching their heads.

      But maybe I’m not cynical enough? Maybe this level of controversy is a deliberate ploy from Vatican PR masters? Maybe all this fuss deflects from the fact that these ‘developments’ in the norms relating to abuse are, at best, baby steps in an issue that requires big strides.

      Na … couldn’t be.

      When faced with a choice between incompetance and conspiracy, choose incompetance.

  4. Gareth says:

    And what would you know – our beloved cathnews. the so-called ‘Australia’s catholic website’ take the misrepresented news and spin it for all its worth.

    Liberal Catholics are better spinners than Shane Warne

    • Tony says:

      You’ve got me stumped now, Gareth. I’ve searched up and down this comment to find any reference to CathNews and yours is the first and only.

      Then I searched the CathNews site to see where it claims to be ‘Australia’s catholic website’ — assuming that your use of quotation marks meant that it was a literal claim — and there was no such claim.

      Sorta puts your comment about ‘spin’ in perspective, I think.

      • Gareth says:


        Please respect my previously expressed views on not having any respect for you whatsoever and would deeply appreciate if you didn’t enter into conversation with me

        • Peregrinus says:

          Probably best, then, Gareth, not to post yoru comments to a forum in which participation by others is invited and welcomed.

          Tony doesn’t post a lot to Cathnews these days. You could try there.

        • Tony says:


          I participate in this blog with the host’s permission. If you make a point that I think needs clarification, it’s perfectly reasonably for me to ask as long as I do so in the spirit of this blog’s ‘rules of engagement’ as articulated, from time to time, by David.

          • Schütz says:

            Hey, guys. Be nice. Remember that you are sitting at my table and drinking my port. If you two have a spat, go and sort it out outside and then come back. Gareth, if you can’t abide Tony (as the rest of us manage to do) you might need to avoid posting comments that get him started! I don’t, and so I get responses from Tony all the time with which I violently disagree. Tony (indeed all our commentators) is free to respond to any comment or post posted on this blog. We can all exercise self control about whether and to what degree we want to rise to Tony’s baiting!

            • Gareth says:


              With all respect, as a background to this – I have been posting on a number of relevant Catholic website’s/discussion boards/blogs for a number of years now in which Tony (and Peregrinus) also post and have had this same conversation on a number of times (e.g. in order to have a conversation let’s start by working on what on we have in common, please attempt to come ‘half way’ in your viewpoints, please don’t continuously pointlessly argue with my posts, please share what we have in common as Catholics, lets agree to disagree and end the conversation etc etc).

              On all of these points, I can’t genuinely see any attempts being made. There is simply a continuous argument, there is no attempt to find common ground and my own posts simply receive pointless responses that do not serve any useful purpose besides pointless arguments.

              All this convinced me that it is pointless continuing any conversation in any way of from and I have respectfully and politely on a number of occasions asked my posts to be stopped to be replied to – I am not sure what is so hard about this to understand??

              I am sorry that this is taking place in your own private blog in which I am a guest, but I can’t make the above any clearer that after a certain period of time, one simply wishes to follow the direction of ‘if one doesn’t listen to you, shake the dust of one’s shoes and move on’.

              I ask relevant parties to respect that.

            • Tony says:


              Beyond disputing this version of ‘background’ and keeping in mind your flattering assessment of my contributions here, I will bite my virtual tongue.

            • Schütz says:

              let’s start by working on what on we have in common, please attempt to come ‘half way’ in your viewpoints, please don’t continuously pointlessly argue with my posts, please share what we have in common as Catholics, lets agree to disagree and end the conversation etc etc

              Sounds good to me, Gareth. With standards like that, I will have to watch out that you don’t steal my job! :-)

              All this convinced me that it is pointless continuing any conversation in any way of from and I have respectfully and politely on a number of occasions asked my posts to be stopped to be replied to – I am not sure what is so hard about this to understand??

              The only real way to end a conversation on a blog is to stop posting replies. Of course, for that, you have to put up with the fact that your “dialogue partner” gets the last say, which may be galling, but just has to be accepted.

              May I perhaps suggest that if anyone commenting on this blog has made what they would like to be their last contribution on the matter, they could simply say something like “It’s been fun, guys, but I’m bowing out of this conversation now.” And once you have said this, resist the temptation to come back to any come back anyone else might post.

          • Gareth says:

            Tony, this is not about David blogs.

            Its about the ongoing conversation between you and me that has occured over seven years – which on a number of occasions acrosss a number of boards I have asked you that I think it would be for the best to completly stop.

            My list of issues or so-called ‘standards’ as David calls it goes back to a conversation with Maggie from the USA on the Cathnews discussion board six whole years ago.

            People can’t make it any more clearer than to say that any ongoing conversation is pointless, we have nothing in common and agree to ‘move on’ for the benefit of the fellow community.


            • Tony says:


              We’ve been asked to desist. So, again, while I totally dispute your version of history, that’s what I will do.

              If anyone says things on this blog that I think are worth discussing, I (with the permission of the host and according to the rules of his ‘table’) will.

            • Gareth says:


              I am talking about Gareth’s port table now- I do not want to enter into further conversation and would appreciate if you don’t reply to my posts.

              End of story

  5. Schütz says:

    I’ve just read two articles by John L. Allen Jnr that seem to shed some light on the problem we are discussing.

    This one BEFORE the release: Vatican set to issue changes in sex abuse rules

    And this one AFTER the release: Vatican revises church law on sex abuse

    Allen gives the background accurately, but it is important to note the expectation that was abroad in the media BEFORE the release. As Allen puts it in his first article:

    In the latest chapter of the Vatican’s attempt to come to grips with the sexual abuse crisis, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is expected to release a set of changes to the church’s rules for meting out ecclesiastical discipline against abuser priests sometime in the next few days.

    This – and indeed the title of the piece – shows what people were expecting: a document on the way the Church would deal with abusive priests.

    They didn’t read the fine print – although it is there in Allen’s piece. Here it is with my emphasis:

    Vatican sources caution, however, that the revisions are largely a matter of consolidating existing practice, rather than a dramatic new approach to how sex abuse cases are handled.

    Sources also stress that the revisions affect only the internal ecclesiastical status of an accused priest. In a separate set of guidelines published in April, the Vatican said that civil law regarding reporting crimes of sexual abuse of a minor to the police and other authorities should always be followed.

    The church’s current law in sex abuse cases was laid out in a 2001 document, known as a motu proprio, meaning under the pope’s personal authority, from Pope John Paul II, titled Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela. Sources say the new revisions will codify exceptions to that motu proprio secured by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, in February 2003.

    So the point is that what was always going to be released was a revision of Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela. That document was about many more things than just sexual abuse by priests. The rumoured “changes in sex abuse rules” that everyone in the media was expect was ALL ALONG going to be a revision of the specific motu proprio of John Paul II. This was not appreciated by the media, because they were focused on one issue alone, while what the CDF was doing was house cleaning and tidying up a specific legal document which dealt with many more issues than JUST abusive priests.

    In his second piece, Allen gets it right again (as usual – here it is with my [interventions]):

    Unrelated to the sexual abuse crisis [but included in the revisions because this was a revision of a specific canon law document that dealt with all matters of grave delicts to be referred to the CDF], the revisions also add several other offenses to the list of “grave crimes” subject to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (and thus to the expedited penalties the congregation can hand out). They include crimes against the faith, such as heresy, apostasy and schism; recording or broadcast of the sacrament of confession; and the attempted ordination of women.

    The last point ratifies a December 2007 decree from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which stipulated that anyone attempting to ordain a woman, as well as women who claim ordination, are subject to excommunication. That decree appeared in the wake of several events around the world in which organizers claimed to ordain women priests in defiance of church authorities.

    At a Vatican briefing this morning, Maltese Monsignor Charles Scicluna, an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, denied that the Vatican equates women’s ordination with the sexual abuse of children. An illicit ordination, Scicluna said, is a “”sacramental” crime, while abuse is a “moral” crime.

    In another more recent piece by Allen, Allen clarifies the error made by the media (and most others listening in):

    One point which raised eyebrows around the world is that in addition to tweaking the rules on sex abuse, the Vatican also added several offenses against the sacraments to the church’s list of “grave crimes,” including the attempted ordination of women.

    Critics charged that the Vatican was thereby equating women’s ordination with pedophilia. For the record, however, the logic seemed mostly bureaucratic.

    As it happens, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is responsible both for the canonical dimension of the sexual abuse crisis and for serious offenses against the sacraments, including Holy Orders. Since the congregation was revising its rules on sex abuse, it used the occasion to bring the law up to date on matters pertaining to the sacraments as well … not only women’s ordination, but also crimes such as taping and/or broadcasting the sacrament of penance. For the most part, this was housecleaning which didn’t introduce anything new; the bit on women’s ordination, for example, codifies a decree the congregation issued back in 2007, warning that anyone who tries to ordain a woman, or any woman who proclaims herself ordained, is automatically excommunicated

    He has a quote from an American bishop along these lines:

    On that front, this week’s prize for taking lemons and making lemonade probably should go to Cupich. Pressed on what the Vatican was saying by putting these two matters together, Cupich went for the two-point reversal: The important point, he suggested, is not that women’s ordination is being taken as seriously as sex abuse, but rather that sex abuse is being taken as seriously as women’s ordination and other crimes against the sacraments.

  6. Tony says:

    For the record, however, the logic seemed mostly bureaucratic.

    There in lies the rub. I don’t think the more moderate critics have missed this at all, but, like me, dispute that matters of such importance don’t have an importance in terms of how they are received.

    Bureaucratically speaking it would have been trivial to make two announcements. As Tom says ‘maybe it would have made absolutely no difference’ — that’s certainly true of some of the commentariat — but where things are under control, you manage them.

    • Tony says:

      Ah yes, this was one guy I had in mind when I said that even ‘moderate’ commentators were frustrated by the ‘norms’ release.

      Perhaps ‘moderate’ doesn’t do the guy justice — a little too soft for Thompson I think — but he does seem to bend over backwards to defend the church and attack its attackers.

      When your ‘friends’ call it an ‘own goal’, it probably is.

    • Schütz says:

      I agree that the issue is one of communication. The procedure behind this story however has a clear and understandable explanation. Again, we get back to what kind of discourse is taking place: dialogue, proclamation, teaching, public relations etc.

    • Colin Patterson says:

      Sorry for the belated entry to this discussion but it seems to me that something more can be said about the question.
      My concern is about the power of PR interests to corrupt the immediate relationship which is the background for the Vatican’s release of its document. Surely its first interest must be in communicating truthfully and clearly that which needs to be said about the various crimes to be referred to the CDF. It does this well to the extent that it knows itself in the presence of the Lord.
      If – in the hypothetical circumstance – a Vatican public communication were to create problems for the “person in the street” such as would create scandal (and I can’t think of such a situation), then it would need to accommodate such a likelihood. However, this is a far cry from attempting to take into account malicious interpretations that increasingly appear these days. Certainly one can deal with any fall-out once such misinterpretations appear in public and are likely to have the effect of disturbing ordinary people, but to manage one’s public message so as to take such irresponsible interpretations into account seems to me to be simply more of the same attitude that a number of bishops took in relation to incidences of child sexual abuse among their clergy. That is, they failed to deal properly with their primary responsibility, i.e. the complaint of the abused, because they had their eyes not on the Lord but on the public image of the Church (as if they were entirely responsible for all the ramifications of their actions).
      In sum, we in the Church need to be very wary of calls for lessons in PR 101 even from those who otherwise might identify with the Church’s message. The liberal philosophical mentality is incredibly insidious and not always helpful to the gospel.

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