There has been a fair amount of news coverage over recent days of the Vatican document, Normae de Gravioribus Delictis, which was actually completed by Pope Benedict on May 21 of this year but has only just been published. Before commenting on the substance, it may be worthwhile pointing out what this document is. It is in essence a series of regulations (or ‘norms’) which list the most serious ‘crimes’ identified by the church. To get a sense of how the Vatican sees the context, one might consider a ‘summary’ of what it’s about issued by Vatican press secretary Fr Federico Lombardi and attached to the document. The key passage in that summary goes like this:
‘The serious crimes to which the regulations referred concerned vital aspects of Church life: the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance, but also sexual abuse committed by a priest against a minor under the age of eighteen. The vast public echo this latter kind of crime has had over recent years has attracted great attention and generated intense debate on the norms and procedures applied by the Church to judge and punish such acts. It is right, then, that there should be complete clarity concerning the regulations currently in force in this field, and that these regulations be presented organically so as to facilitate the work of the people who deal with these matters.’
The rest of the summary then focuses almost entirely on clerical sex abuse, indicating that this is where the Pope’s mind was when finalising the document. And that of course is well and good, except that the ‘norms’ cover all sorts of other stuff also. So for example, article 3(1)(4) refers to ‘concelebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice .. with ministers of ecclesial communities which do not have apostolic succession and do not acknowledge the sacramental dignity of priestly ordination’ as a ‘grave delict’ – meaning that joint celebrations with non-Roman clergy are highly sinful. Actually the terminology used there is perhaps more ambivalent than the Vatican itself may have intended, in that, for example, Anglicans would regard themselves as having ‘apostolic succession’ and recognise the ‘sacramental dignity of priestly ordination’. But that’s by the way; the intention was to brand non-Roman sacramental actions as gravely sinful. In an age where all religion is subjected to a fair amount of scepticism this approach might be considered a tad counter-intuitive, but there you go.
Article 5 has a go at the ‘attempted sacred ordination of a woman’, which it says is a particularly ‘grave delict’.
Article 6 then deals with clerical sex abuse.
The publication of the document was followed by a fair amount of outcry over the perceived status of women’s ordination and concelebration with non-Roman Catholic clergy as being similar in seriousness to clerical sex abuse. The church and its supporters have pointed out that this is not implied at all, but that this is simply a list of things that are grave moral delicts, set out in separate articles. But in the end that justification doesn’t work: it’s all still in the same list, and is decreed as having the same sinful status. And because of that, it presents the church as an organisation that appears to be incapable of understanding the ethical perspective regarding the issues into which it has strayed. Even if it wants to hold on to its opposition to women’s ordination – a position which increasingly its own members don’t accept, and which is bound to become harder and harder to explain to them – listing it in a series of delicts that also includes sex abuse shows at best a naivety which is astounding.
The Roman Catholic Church has adopted a position that holds that the revelations and enlightenments of this (or any) age don’t count, and that its own internal culture needs to be enclosed in normative judgements that were set in a very different age. For it, departing from that culture is gravely sinful, and that sinfulness is no less outrageous than sinfulness associated with crime and abuse.
I actually have a broad sympathy for the church, and a desire for it to prosper; I am myself a catholic Anglican. But the Roman Catholic church won’t do that until it learns to accept that our understanding of the nature of humanity must always evolve as we learn new things, and that this is not incompatible with divine purpose. There is nothing too astounding about this, as the church itself has abandoned all sorts of Old Testament prescriptions, and indeed has quietly abandoned more recent ones when it suited it to do so.
It is time – urgent time – for reform.