‘Tend the Flock of God’: Vatican Official Explains the Revised Norms on Church Sanctions

Msgr. Markus Graulich, under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, discusses how the revisions aim to bring greater justice in the context of other offenses and grave delicts as well as those involving clerical sexual abuse.

Archbishop Filippo Iannone, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, speaking during a Vatican press conference June 1, 2021.
Archbishop Filippo Iannone, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, speaking during a Vatican press conference June 1, 2021. (photo: Edward Pentin)

VATICAN CITY — After thirteen years of consultation, reviews, and deliberations the Vatican today published Pascite gregem Dei (Tend the Flock of God), Pope Francis’ new apostolic constitution containing revisions to the section of the Code of Canon Law dealing with crimes and penalties, including those related to clerical sexual abuse. 

Signed on the Solemnity of Pentecost, the Holy Father said he hoped the 21 pages of revised norms would “prove to be an instrument for the good of souls” and that pastors would apply them “with justice and mercy, in the knowledge that it belongs to their ministry, as a duty of justice — an eminent cardinal virtue — to impose penalties when the good of the faithful demands it.” 

The new document, the fruit of extensive consultation “in a spirit of collegiality and cooperation,” introduces modifications to the law and sanctions for some new criminal offences as well as technical improvements, the Pope said. 

Noting how “in the past much damage has been caused by the Church’s failure to perceive the intimate relationship between the exercise of charity and recourse — when circumstances and justice require it — to the discipline of punishment,” Francis stressed the importance of the “correct application” of these revised norms. 

“Charity,” he added, “requires that pastors have recourse to the penal system as often as necessary” in order to restore justice, amend the offender, and offer reparation for scandals.

Archbishop Filippo Iannone, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts — the Vatican dicastery responsible for drafting the revisions — said this reform was “necessary and long overdue,” and “aims to make universal penal norms ever more suitable for the protection of the common good and of the individual faithful, more congruent with the demands of justice and more effective and adequate in today's ecclesial context, which is evidently different from that of the 1970s, the time when the canons of Book VI, now abrogated, were drawn up.”

In this Register interview with Msgr. Markus Graulich, under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts explains more about the document, why it came about, and why it is hoped the revisions will bring greater justice in the context of other offenses and grave delicts as well as those involving clerical sexual abuse.

The new revisions will come into force on Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

What is the main purpose of the new Libri VI Codicis Iuris Canonici [Book VI of the Code of Canon Law] and why is it being published now? Was the original Code too weak, or did it perhaps need to change with the times?

Both of your assumptions are right. The original penal law of the Code of 1983 was quite weak and often not forceful enough. You could often find phrases like “could be punished” and the whole implementation of the text contained in Book VI did not encourage applying the penalties. Many things were left to the discretion of bishops and other superiors in the Church, and they were not always able (and sometimes perhaps not willing) to put the penal law into practice. You must keep in mind that the whole revision of the Code of Canon Law took place after the Second Vatican Council when many theologians and pastors questioned whether there had to be at all a law in the Church, let alone a penal law. In recent years, especially in the last two decades, things have changed. There is a new awareness that the Church needs not only a law but a good one. The crisis around the abuse of minors has also led to a new evaluation of penal law in the Church. There has been a new emphasis regarding penalties for those who abused minors and John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have already issued special laws in this field. As these laws were not part of the universal Code, one of the purposes of the reform has been to integrate this new legislation into it. Times have changed and the law had to be updated.


What to you are the main areas of interest and novelty which will be of benefit to pastors and the faithful?

As I see it, the whole reform of the penal law will be a benefit for pastors and [the] faithful. One of the advantages of the revised Book VI of the Code is that the delicts have been reordered so that their presentation is more organic. Now we are dealing with offenses or delicts against the faith and the unity of the Church, against Church authorities and the exercise of duties, against the sacraments, against reputation and the offense of falsehood, against special obligations and human life, dignity, and liberty.

There is now also a rather long canon, no. 1336, with a list of possible penalties. Before, for bishops and superiors, it was not always easy to say what a “just penalty” would be. Now they have a variety of examples at hand which comprise 14 orders, prohibitions, and deprivations including dismissal from the clerical state. Also included are penalties that the Code did not consider, for example, the order to pay a fine or a sum of money for the Church’s purposes or the deprivation of ecclesiastical remuneration. For both of those penalties, though, the Bishops conferences have to establish guidelines.


Can you give more details on how the wording of the previous version of Book VI of the Code led to problems with the application of various canons?

The wording of the code often did not encourage the application of penal law. This has often caused – as Pope Francis points out in his Apostolic Constitution for the promulgation of the Code – greater damage and led to situations where certain deviant behaviors became manifest and so not easy to correct. I’ll give some examples, trying not to become too technical: The first canon of Book VI, can. 1311, got a new second paragraph which sets the tone of what follows. This paragraph states that it is part of pastoral leadership in the Church to lead the community also “through the imposition or declaration of penalties, in accordance with the provisions of the law, which are always to be applied with canonical equity and having in mind the restoration of justice, the reform of the offender, and the repair of scandal.” Here we also find the objective of the penal sanctions in the Church: restoration of justice, reform of the offender, and reparation of scandal. That’s also emphasized by Pope Francis in his Apostolic Constitution.

Then, can. 1341 in the old version determined: “An ordinary is to take care to initiate a judicial or administrative process to impose or declare penalties only after he has ascertained that fraternal correction or rebuke or other means of pastoral solicitude cannot sufficiently repair the scandal, restore justice, reform the offender.” The revised canon states: “The Ordinary must start a judicial or an administrative procedure for the imposition or the declaration of penalties when he perceives that neither by the methods of pastoral care, especially fraternal correction, nor by a warning or correction, can justice be sufficiently restored, the offender reformed, and the scandal repaired.” This may not seem a big change, but it is nevertheless important, for the perspective changes and hopefully so does the practice.

In several canons of the present Book VI, we find that for certain delicts a person “can be punished.” This insertion is now gone. If someone is committing an offense or a delict enumerated in the penal law, he or she has to be punished. This takes away some discernment from the Bishops and Superiors, for they can no longer decide whether or not to apply a penalty, but it makes sure that the law will be applied.


How much does this document increase the accountability of Church leaders, especially regarding crimes of sexual abuse? 

Accountability for sexual abuse has always been enforced, especially in the last decade. The revised Book VI has some changes that make this enforcement hopefully clearer. On the one hand, the delicts which concern the sexual abuse of minors have been moved from the title dealing with “offenses against special obligations” to the title “offenses against human life, dignity and liberty”. To many readers, this may not seem a big deal, but it is very important as it changes the perspective. It is one thing to say that somebody has committed a delict against “special obligations” and quite another thing to say, his deed was a delict against human dignity. We will have to see if this alteration will also have consequences for jurisprudence and the processes.

Regarding accountability, there is also to consider the new §6 of canon 1371: “A person who neglects to report an offense, when required to do so by a canonical law, is to be punished according to the provision of can. 1336 §§ 2-4, with the addition of other penalties according to the gravity of the offense.” This is very much in line with the norms published by Pope Francis, for example in Vos estis lux mundi.

In the same direction, there was already the provision of can. 1389: “A person who abuses an ecclesiastical power or function is to be punished according to the gravity of the act or omission, not excluding privation of office, unless a law or precept has already established the penalty for this abuse.” This text has been altered and is now can. 1378 §1: “A person who, apart from the cases already foreseen by the law, abuses ecclesiastical power, office, or function, is to be punished according to the gravity of the act or the omission, not excluding by deprivation of the power or office, without prejudice to the obligation of repairing the harm.”

Some new norms, contained in the revised can. 1376 (formerly can. 1377) and can. 1393 §2, refer also to the accountability in administrating the good of the Church.


How could these revisions help to bring wayward bishops, such as those in Germany and elsewhere, into line?

That’s a very good question, but it is not easy to answer. The effect will be determined by the application of the new penal law. If it is applied correctly on the universal as well as on the local level, there surely will be improvements.


You mention how important it is that these revised canons are applied. Does it therefore matter if this section of canon law is stricter if the will, especially of bishops, isn’t there to apply them?

That’s absolutely right.


A possible weakness of the revisions is that they address areas that the world and the Church consider important, such as the crime of sexual abuse, but pay less attention to other areas exclusive and crucial for the Church and for souls, namely crimes specifically against religion or the spiritual realm, i.e., heresy, apostasy, or Catholics who persist in grave public sin receiving Holy Communion. Was an opportunity missed in this regard?

I don’t think so. Heresy and apostasy are mentioned, as they were mentioned in the Code of 1983. What we have to bear in mind, though, is the fact that not every disobedience is already a heresy and an apostasy presumes “the total repudiation of the Christian faith” (can. 751). So, one has to be careful in that realm.

Furthermore, I would say that the renewal of the penal law had the questions of faith and the sacraments very much in mind. Beyond this, during the reform process, there has been special attention regarding the sacraments. All offenses against the sacraments have been regrouped in a new title and there have been some important additions. Not only is the attempted ordination of women a delict, but also punished by excommunication latae sententiae. And you can also find the new norm that “a person who deliberately administers a sacrament to those who are prohibited from receiving it is to be punished with suspension, to which other penalties mentioned in can. 1336 §§ 2-4 may be added” (can. 1379 §4).

In the Church, “the salvation of souls … must always be the supreme law (can. 1752). In this sense, the penal law serves the salvation of souls. That’s very clear in the so-called medicinal penalties (excommunication, suspension and inderdict). They all serve as an invitation to recede from deviant behavior. The other penalties are called expiatory penalties for they try to restore justice and reform the offender. But – I am repeating myself here – this aim can only be reached if the penal law is correctly applied and if the doctrinal fundaments are clear. Plus, there has to be the consciousness of the importance of the sacrament of confession for every offense is also a sin.


Is the Holy Father fully behind this new document?

I can assure you that he is! After he came into the office, he was informed about the project of the revision of Book VI and has been kept up to date regarding the different steps of this work. He also underlined the importance of the reform in the speech he gave to our plenary session last year and in the Apostolic Constitution with which he promulgates the new Book VI.


Work on the revisions began in 2008 — why did the process take so long? 

The idea was first mentioned during an audience that Pope Benedict XVI granted to the president and the secretary of our dicastery in September 2007. In 2008, the first preparatory steps were taken and on March 24, 2009, the first (of more than sixty) meetings of the expert commission which prepared the drafts of the reform was held. After the first draft, there was a worldwide consultation of the Conferences of Bishops, the dicasteries of the Roman Curia, religious superiors, experts in canon and penal law, the faculties of canon law, etc. The remarks they made were collated and studied. This work resulted in a new draft which was again sent out for a more restricted consultation and so on. The last stage of the reform began with our plenary session in February 2020 when the members of our dicastery expressed their opinion. This meeting led to final amendments before the text could be presented to the Holy Father for final approval. All this takes time.