Friday, 18 October 2013

Laicizing priests: both/and not either/or please!

I linked, a day or two back, to a piece over at New Matilda on the Reynolds case of a priest laicized for what appears to be a combination of heresy, disobedience and facilitation of sacrilege.  I gather the story is likely to get another run in the Fairfax papers this weekend too, so I thought I might say a little more by way of context.

The story over at New Matilda attempted to contrast the swift action against Reynolds with the alleged slowness of the Vatican to act on abuser priests.

But here is the thing.  What we need is tough action on both fronts, both against those priests who abuse the sacraments and those who abuse others sexually, for they are both manifestations of the same problem, a fundamental rejection of God.

Secularist incomprehension

Part of the problem of course, is that the secular media, and indeed many Catholics, don't understand that the Eucharist is literally the very body and blood of Christ.

The early Church was plagued by accusations that it practised cannibalism because of the fervour of this belief; these days all too many see it as something purely symbolic.

But the Church itself has never wavered from its teaching on transubstantiation and the importance of reverence for the Eucharist.  That is why celebration of the Mass by a priest who is suspended from his office is such a serious crime, as are liturgical abuses such as the 'help yourself to the chalice which I'll leave on the altar' style of Mass.

Such crimes are, moreover, in effect punishable only by the Church, for the last state instigated prosecution for blasphemy in this country was a century ago.  Unsurprising then that the Church should act swiftly on such matters, particularly when they become a public scandal.

Abuser priests

By contrast, sexual abuse of minors is a crime in both ecclesiastical law and the laws of the State.  Laicization and other appropriate ecclesiastical punishments should certainly be pursued vigorously by the Church, but the State has a role too.

It is hardly fair to blame the Church alone for a failure to act when, on the face of it, they were, at the very least aided and abetted in covering things up, at worst, as the recent NSW revelations make clear, positively encouraged to do so by the police, courts and others.

And in fact, the Church does, albeit somewhat belatedly seem to be getting its act together on this front, at least as far as the actual perpetrators are concerned: evidence given to the Victorian Inquiry makes it clear that action in long neglected cases has finally been taken, and one assumes that in preparation for the Royal Commission, that is happening everywhere else as well.

More action required

That said, there are still clear areas of inaction on the part of the Church that need to be addressed.

First there is the festering sore of priests who may not be guilty of any crime in civil law, but who certainly have and are committing sexual sins, albeit with adults.

Secondly there are those lurking heretics and liturgical abusers who aren't quite so blatant as Reynolds was about making their views public, but who nonetheless continue to subvert the Church's teachings in word and action.

And thirdly, and most seriously of all in my view, is the situation of those bishops and senior clerics who facilitated the cover up of sexual abuse.

Priests are required to set an example to us, for they are the public face of the Church, and act as another Christ to us, a channel of grace.  When they fail to teach and act in the mind of the Church, they imperil souls, and not just their own.

The cover up

In Australia, some of the evidence of outright malfeasance on the part of bishops and others has already come to the surface.  Much more is likely to hit over the next months and years as the Royal Commission rolls on.  If the Church is ever to recover its credibility on this issue, it needs to get in front of the game, and act now.

Many have claimed that they were simply acting on instructions from the Vatican, reflected in the 1962 document Crimen Sollicitationis.  I'm not convinced that claim holds up.

A reader kindly sent me a useful analysis of that document by canonist John Beal, published in Studia Canonica in 2007.

Professor Beal is no apologist for either the document itself, which he acknowledges is less than pastoral in its tone, or for the secrecy surrounding it.

But he makes a couple of important points.

First, far from preventing laicization, it in fact attempted to make action against offending priests easier by softening the traditional rules of evidence and abridging due process.

And secondly, there is little evidence that it actually influenced the behaviour of diocesan officials, simply because most were unaware of it!

Beal's conclusion is that the problem was one of organisational psychology; of ignorance and disdain for canon law, not a problem caused by the state of the law itself.

Certainly the persistence of a culture of reluctance to act and failure to truly confront the situation even since the reforms made by Pope Benedict XVI lend support to that view.

Unfortunately, too many of those implicated in the cover up in Australia are still in positions of power.  Until that changes, don't expect the way the Church deals with these issues to.


Fr Mick Mac Andrew West Wyalong NSW said...

The crime (civil) of sacrilege and/or blasphemy has not been repealed in most Australian states, but received almost a mortal blow in Victoria in the late 1990's when the then Archbishop of Melbourne, Archbishop Pell sought to have the Piss Christ art exhibit declared blasphemous.
The charge was not accepted by a magistrate? but thankfully one of our very brave Sri Lankan Catholic migrants took the hammer to the exhibit and ended Christ's humiliation.
As present media reports are warning the war against Christians (and Christianity) is escalating (John Allen's book on the subject and toady's Vatican Information Service report) and so here i Australia we should be approaching our good Catholic jurists to be proactive in preserving the validity of the crime of sacrilege and blasphemy as we will need such measures sooner rather than later.
The communion host with breakfast spread advert earlier this year is a point in question.

Kate Edwards said...

Thanks for that correction Father, I'll amend the post. I have to admit that I was assuming the situation in the ACT (where blasphemy laws have long since been repealed) was the general situation, but in fact it seems only the ACT, WA and Qld have repealed such laws and while some other states have no actual laws on their books, a common law offence may still exist.

Seems that such laws have been pretty much a dead letter for over a century however.