Vatican Norms: Cherchez la femme

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The new set of canon law norms issued by the Vatican yesterday was intended to win some PR points on the sexual abuse front, but its substantive goal is to ensure that no Roman Catholic bishop starts ordaining women. Far from being a maladroit add-on to the list of “graver crimes” (graviora delicta) subject to the juridical control of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the ordination issue is the document’s main business. That’s my conclusion.

Talk to a canon lawyer and you will learn that there’s nothing much new in the other stuff. Under the norms issued in 2001 by Pope John Paul II, the Congregation Formerly Known as the Inquisition already had been given jurisdiction over graviora delicta involving sexual abuse and the sacraments. If the statute of limitations needed to be extended in a given case, getting a dispensation was a routine matter. OK, child porn has become a serious “delict.” But it’s the formal acquisition of jurisdiction over “attempted women’s ordination” that’s the significant innovation. Although the CDF issued its own decree on the subject in 2007, now the pope has given the congregation formal procedural control over such cases.

There’s more. In the 2007 decree, the CDF simply announced automatic excommunication for both the cleric doing the ordaining and woman receiving it. The new norm goes further and declares that the ordainer “may be punished by dismissal or deposition”–i.e. formally removed from the priesthood: laicized.

In her report in today’s NYT, Rachel Donadio takes note of this addition, writing:

The revision codifies a 2007 ruling that made attempting to ordain women
an offense punishable with excommunication. The new document said that a
priest who tried to ordain a woman could now be defrocked.

What’s important to bear in mind is that while the odd priest has participated in ceremonies to ordain women, proper ordination in the Catholic Church is the responsibility of bishops. Suppose a bishop–a Lefebve of the Left–were to start ordaining women, and not only as priests but also in due course as bishops. Then there’s apostolic succession and a full-fledged gender-equal schismatic sect–call it the Society of St. John XXIII. That’s the nightmare scenario the CDF has been equipped to foreclose. 

If the Vatican had wanted to make clear that it didn’t regard attempted women’s ordination as being as serious a crime as raping children, it could have kept the 2007 decree as is. Yes, CDF spokesman Monsignor Charles Scicluna could have said, they’re both graviora delicta, but the punishments are not of equal severity: A clerical offender can’t be laicized for the former, only the latter. That’s not the way it is. Try to ordain a woman, Archbishop Lefty, and we get to kick you all the way downstairs.