Pope reforms penal sanctions in the Church: Mercy requires correction

With the Apostolic Constitution “Pascite Gregem Dei,” Pope Francis reforms Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, continuing a revision begun by Benedict XVI and applying penal sanctions to more criminal offenses. The new text is a more agile tool for correction, which is to be applied promptly to “avoid more serious evils and to soothe the wounds caused by human weakness.”

By Vatican News

“Tend the flock of God, guarding it not by constraint but willingly, as it pleases God” (cf. 1 Pet 5:2). The Apostolic Constitution “Pascite Gregem Dei”, with which Pope Francis reforms Book VI of the Code of Canon Law on penal sanctions in the Church, begins with these words of the Apostle Peter. The new text, presented on Tuesday in the Holy See Press Office, enters into force on 8 December.

“In order to respond adequately to the needs of the Church throughout the world,” explains Pope Francis, “it appeared evident that the penal discipline promulgated by St. John Paul II on January 25, 1983 in the Code of Canon Law needed to be revised, and that it required modification in such a way as to allow Pastors to employ it as a more agile salvific and corrective tool, to be applied promptly and with pastoral charity to avoid more serious evils and to soothe the wounds caused by human weakness.”

The Pope recalls that Benedict XVI launched this revision in 2007, a process which engaged, “in a spirit of collegiality and cooperation,” with Canon Law experts from around the world, as well as with Bishops’ Conferences, major superiors of religious institutes, and Dicasteries of the Roman Curia. The resulting intense and complex text was submitted to the Pope in February 2020.

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In his Apostolic Constitution, Pope Francis notes that the Church throughout the centuries has given itself rules of conduct “which unite the People of God and for whose observance the Bishops are responsible.” He also stresses that “charity and mercy require a Father to commit himself also to straightening what at times becomes crooked.”

It is a task, he explains, “which must be carried out as a concrete and inalienable requirement of charity not only towards the Church, the Christian community and possible victims, but also towards those who have committed a crime, who require both mercy and correction from the Church. In the past, much damage has been caused by a lack of perception of the intimate relationship which exists in the Church between the exercise of charity and recourse—when circumstances and justice require it—to penal sanctions.” He says this trend represented a way of thinking which made correction more difficult, “often giving rise to scandal and confusion among the faithful.”

Therefore, adds the Pope, “the negligence of a Pastor in resorting to the penal system demonstrates that he is not fulfilling his function correctly and faithfully.”

In fact, “charity requires that Pastors have recourse to the penal system as often as necessary, keeping in mind the three aims which make it necessary in the ecclesial community, namely, the restoration of the demands of justice, the amendment of the offender, and the reparation of scandals.”

“The new text,” says the Pope, “introduces various changes to the law currently in force and imposes sanctions on some new offenses.”

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He notes that Book VI has also been improved “from a technical point of view, especially with regard to fundamental aspects of criminal law, such as the right of defense, the statute of limitations for criminal action, and a more precise determination of penalties”, offering “objective criteria in identifying the most appropriate sanction to be applied in a concrete case” and reducing an authority’s discretion, in order to favor ecclesial unity in the application of penalties, “especially for offenses that cause greater damage and scandal in the community.”

The Apostolic Constitution “Pascite Gregem Dei” is dated 23 May 2021, the Solemnity of Pentecost, and enters into force on 8 December 2021.

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