Capital punishment no longer an option as Pope Francis changes the Catechism

o-DEATH-PENALTY-facebookSister Helen Prejean, renowned American anti-death penalty advocate, called it “the last remaining loophole in Catholic teaching on the death penalty”: the paragraph in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which allowed the death penalty, if only when it was “the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor”. Par. 2267 continued by stating that, if there are other and bloodless means of defence against an aggressor, these should always be used instead of the death penalty.

Yesterday Pope Francis changed this paragraph, and it now states that the death penalty is inadmissable in all circumstances.

The full text of the new paragraph 2267 is as follows:

catechism-of-the-catholic-church2628lg“Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”,[1] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

[1] Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.

With the press release came a letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addressed to the world’s bishops. He explains how the changes to the Catechism are rooted in past teachings of the Magisterium, especially Pope St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitæ, and teachings from Pope Benedict XVI and Francis himself. The cardinal therefore concludes:

“All of this shows that the new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium. These teachings, in fact, can be explained in the light of the primary responsibility of the public authority to protect the common good in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently, and had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime.”

In his blog, canon lawyer Bishop Jan Hendriks explains why past teachings, which did allow for the death penalty to be implemented, do no invalidate this new text:

“The reason lies in a greater awareness of human dignity and the various developments in society which make it no long necessary to implement the death penalty to protect citizens. That was also the reason why Pope John Paul II could hardly imagine the death penalty to be necessary, as the Catechism has stated since 1995: the state has such good means that the cases in which the death penalty is necessary to neutralise the aggressor are very rare, if they even occur. The new text takes a further step and unequivocally states that it is no longer necessary to implement the death penalty, and that a greater awareness of human dignity makes this even more inadmissable.”

Is this change as major as some media would have us believe? Yes and no.

Yes, because it is evidence that the Church has the luxury to say that capital punishment is no longer a necessity, no matter how rare. Past reasons for a state to kill a person are no longer valid, as there are other ways in which society can be protected from dangerous people.

And no, because it is a logical consequence of the pro-life position of the Church. Every person is created and willed by God and as such has an innate dignity which we must respect. Among other things that means that we have no right to take a life. This is a position that the Church has always held, even when it allowed for certain situations in which capital punishment was the only resort. The death penalty as such is always sinful. But, being also practical, the Church knows that sometimes there are no ideal solutions.

But that no longer flies. As Catholics we are pro-life, even if that life belongs to a murderer or other criminal.

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Cardinal no more – McCarrick goes back to purple

A historic development today in the fight against sexual abuse in the Church: a cardinal, albeit a retired one, resigned his title and red hat, and was ordered to cease all his public duties and lead a live of prayer and penance in a yet to be announced location.

_CNS-NY-TIMES-MCCARRICK-SEMINARIANS.jpgCardinal – now just Archbishop – Theodore McCarrick faces two allegations of sexual abuse of minors and several further claims of harassment of and misconduct with adults. The steps taken today come before his case is heard and judged in a canonical trial according to ecclesiastical law, and any legal developments which may take place  in an American court of law, as the law allows (the major obstacle in such cases, which – as here – often took place many years ago, remains the statute of limitations).

The case of McCarrick brings back strong memories of that of the late Scottish Cardinal O’Brien. He too saw all his cardinal rights and duties removed on his own request, but he was allowed to remain a cardinal. Former Cardinal McCarrick is punished more severely, although it is, in some ways, a passive punishment, as it was McCarrick himself who requested it in a  letter to the Pope.

The full resignation of a cardinal is a rare event, and this is the first time it has happened since 1927. In 2015, I wrote a blog post about the history of cardinal resignations, in which I gave an overview of past resignations of cardinals (although in it I erroneously claimed that the last such resignation took place in 1911 instead of 1927).

It remains to be seen if there will be a canonical trial for McCarrick, as today’s press release suggests, and if so, what its result will be. Perhaps there will be further penalties for Archbishop McCarrick. On Twitter,  Dr Kurt Martens, Professor of Canon Law at the Catholic University of America, offers a detailed analysis of the possible penalties that can be levied against McCarrick according to the laws of the Church. He suggests that dismissal from the clerical state is one of the few options remaining, as McCarrick is already retired and so no longer holds any office. Martens mentions two recent examples of prelates having been laicised after allegations of abuse: Raymond Lahey, former bishop of Antigonish in Canada in 2012, and Józef Wesolowski, former Apostolic Nuncio to the Dominican Republic (and thus automatically an archbishop)  in 2014.

Beyond McCarrick, there is a chance that there will be consequences for other bishops in the United States and Rome, as the question of who knew what and when about McCarrick’s abuse remains unanswered.

Theodore Edgar McCarrick was a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, and became auxiliary bishop of that archdiocese in 1977. In 1981, he was appointed as bishop of Metuchen in New Jersey, and then as archbishop of Newark in 1986. From 2011 to 2006 he served as archbishop of Washington. He was created a cardinal in the giant consistory of 21 February 2001 (making him a cardinal class mate of Pope Francis). He held the title of Santi Nereo ed Achilleo. The two allegations of sexual abuse of a minor, which were deemed credible and substantiated by the Archdiocese of New York in June, took place in the early 1970s and involved a then 16-year-old boy. McCarrick was then serving as a priest in New York, and today claims to have no memory of the alleged abuse. At the same time last month, the chanceries of the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Metuchen, where McCarrick served as bishop, announced that they had received three further allegations of misconduct involving adults, and that two of these allegations had resulted in settlements.

Photo credit: CNS photo/Bob Roller

Four years later, the case against the bishop does not look as clear-cut

Bishop GijsenFour years ago, the commission charged with investigating accusations of sexual abuse against members of the clergy, decided that two such charges against the late Bishop Joannes Gijsen, ordinary of Roermond from 1972 to 1993, and of Reykjavik from 1996 to 2007, were plausible. As the bishop had died the year before, no legal action was possible against him. And that was for the better, it now turns out.

The local court of Gelderland judged this week that the commission had acted carelessly and broken basic legal regulations int he cases against Bishop Gijsen. The judge decided that the commission acted contrary to its own regulations, did not investigate the facts to a satisfactory extent and did not hear the defence. The court reproached the commission for accepting limited evidence: one charge against the bishop was deemed plausible simply because of the existence of a second unproven complaint.

The St. John foundation had charged the commission for unnecessary damaging the good name of clergy and other Church workers. Bishop Gijsen was one of the people they represented. The foundation considers the entire procedure followed by the commission in investigating charges of sexual abuse to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court thought otherwise and deemed this charge and others inadmissable, and thus offered no judgement on the guilt or innocence of Bishop Gijsen. But it did offer some stern words against the commission and their decisions, and so threw the conclusions of the last years into renewed doubt.


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Is the Pope’s fight against sexual abuse in the Church slipping away from him?

There has been an in-flight wedding, a preview on next year’s Synod of Bishops assembly on the Amazon and encounters with the peripheries of Church and society, but Pope Francis’ ongoing visit to Chile and Peru has been marred by an apparent slacking off in the fight against sexual abuse in the Church. Some have even claimed that we are back at square one.

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At the end of a meeting with survivors of sexual abuse in Iquique on 18 January, the Holy Father was asked about the case of Bishop Juan Barros. The bishop of Osorno, appointed by Pope Francis in 2015, continues to be accused of having been aware of  the abuse perpetrated by Fr. Fernando Karadima in the 1980s. Survivor groups, as well as lay faithful in the Diocese of Osorno and other Chilean dioceses, have consistently called for Bishop Barros not to be appointed (or, now that he has been, to be removed). During the papal visit, protesters continued to make their voices heard. Following the private meeting with abuse survivors, in which the pope talked, prayed and wept with them, he commented on the Barros case, “The day I’m presented with proof against Bishop Barros, I will see. There’s not a single proof against him, it’s all a calumny. Is that clear?”

This harsh comment has been almost universally condemned, not least by some of the pope’s closest collaborators in the fight against sexual abuse. Marie Collins, former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, tweeted on 20 January ,referring to Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean survivor of sexual abuse:

“In labelling [Juan Carlos Cruz] and his fellow Chilean survivors as guilty of slander the Pope has alligned himself with Cardinals Ezzati and Errazuriz, who, in an exchange of derogatory e-mails in 2015, conspired to block [Juan Carlos Cruz from] consideration for membership of the [Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors].”

42212019_401By claiming all accusations against Bishop Barros as slander or calumny, Pope Francis has indeed taking a major step back in how the Church relates to victims. Rather than listening to what they have to say, they are being silenced and ignored. Of course, this is what the Church has until recently been guilty of doing for decades, and what many parts of society still do to this day, when confronted with accusations of abuse. While it seems as yet unclear what role Bishop Barros may have played, the claims against Fr. Karadima at least are reliable. Karadima’s case was dismissed by the courts because the statute of limitations had expired, but the allegations were deemed nonetheless credible. The Vatican sentenced Fr. Karadima to a live of penance and prayer in 2011.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is headed by Cardinal Séan O’Malley. The archbishop of Boston also released comments about what the pope had said, saying:

“It is understandable that Pope Francis’ statements yesterday in Santiago, Chile were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator. Words that convey the message “if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed” abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile.”

Cardinal_OMalley1Very strong words condemning what Pope Francis said. The cardinal then continues his comments by underlining the Holy Father’s commitment to fighting clerical sexual abuse:

“Accompanying the Holy Father at numerous meetings with survivors I have witnessed his pain of knowing the depth and breadth of the wounds inflicted on those who were abused and that the process of recovery can take a lifetime. The Pope’s statements that there is no place in the life of the Church for those who would abuse children and that we must adhere to zero tolerance for these crimes are genuine and they are his commitment.”

There is an odd contrast here, between the pope’s apparent commitment to fighting abuse and the comment he made. That contrast is strengthened further by the continuing silence surrounding the new mandates of the members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. These were up for renewal over the course of last year (some in March, others in December), but no word has yet come out. In essence, the Commission now exists in a sort of limbo.

With the creation of the Commission, Pope Francis was off to a good start in this matter. For the first time, survivors had a say in how the Church should respond. Of course, that has since changed. New members were added, but two survivors chose to leave the Commission. In March it’ll be four years since its establishment, and that is too soon for the Commission to be forgotten, ignored or otherwise becoming irrelevant. Its work is too important.

Hopefully, these two developments, the pope’s accusation of calumny and the silence surrounding the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors are simply hiccups, and the commitment of the Catholic Church to combat sexual abuse of minors under her responsibility will continue to grow.

Photo credit: [1] Reuters, [2] Reuters / A. Bianchi, [3] Flickr/George Martell-Pilot New Media

Against Limburg bishop, Catholic conservatives aim, shoot and completely miss the mark

csm_Portrait-Bischof-Baetzing-im-Bischofsgarten_int_20f2d8ef34Flyers, an online petition, a banner in front of his residence, security measures at Mass… What has Bishop Georg Bätzing done to warrant such an outpouring of protest? Well, according to reports by Katholisch.de he has done nothing more than correct a mistake made by a local parish community.

In November, the community of Hochtaunus in the Diocese of Limburg  was revealed to feature a PDF-file of contact addresses for ‘people in need’ on their website. Among these was a Lutheran charity which assists people in the first bureaucratic steps towards procuring an abortion.

Following this revelation, the diocese had the address removed immediately from the list, as abortion is, of course, completely incompatible with the Catholic faith. Nonetheless, Bishop Bätzing is now being accused of directly promoting the murder of children in the womb. Diocesan spokesman Stephan Schnelle rightly condemns this accusation as “nonsense” and “perfidious”. The diocese is now taking legal action against web portal Katholische.info, which has set up the online petition against the bishop* and continues making the accusations against him, as well as to others who can be held accountable for the aforementioned protests (it is, for example, as yet unclear who actually erected the banner in front of Msgr. Bätzing’s home).

Obviously, katholisches.info was right in pointing out that the charity on the Hochtaunus list provided services which are incompatible with Catholic teachings regarding the dignity of life. While one can wonder how it ever ended up on that list, the diocese acted appropriately in removing it immediately. Asked for a comment, spokesman Schnelle stated back in November, “The protection of life is of the highest priority for the bishop and the diocese”.

The actions against Bishop Bätzing and the Diocese of Limburg are grossly disproportionate. In fact, it does more harm than good to the goal of defending human life, not just to the persons undertaking these actions, but to all who think that killing unborn children is no solution to anything.

*The petition calls for legal action against bishop and diocese. According to German law, the dissemination of advertisements for abortions “for financial benefit or in a grossly offensive manner” is punishable with imprisonment for up to two years or a fine.

Breaking the seal of confession?

E03a-photo-e1480059351589A Belgian priest of the Diocese of Bruges is being sued for not acting on information shared with him in a confession. The case has the potential of becoming a precedent on how society and law deals with the seal of confession, as well as the professional secrecy as it exists in medical professions, and also highlights once more what confession actually is.

The case: a man confided in a confession over the telephone (which, under certain circumstances, such as immediate duress, can count as a confession) that he had suicidal thoughts. He later acted on those thoughts and ended his own life. The wife of the man now sues the priest for never having informed anyone of what he learned in the confession. The problem is that the priest couldn’t. The seal of confession is absolute. He could have urged the penitent to seek professional help, even offered forms of help himself, be it the help he could offer himself or relaying the help of others. But that is just about the end of it.

The paradox in this case is that suicide in itself, sad and disturbing as it is, is not a crime under Belgian law, so not acting on the suicidal thoughts of a person can not be considered cooperation in a crime, and the priest can’t be accused of negligence in that regard.

There is some uncertainty, however, if the confession in which the priest learned about the suicidal thoughts of the penitent actually was a confession. A confession, by definition, involves a sin which can be be forgiven. Suicidal thoughts are not in themselves a sin, especially since they are most often caused by factors, mental or otherwise, outside of a person’s control. All the same, the man could have been convinced that his thoughts were sinful, and this would be enough for a valid confession. But if that was not the case, the priest would have been free to offer his help or inform others, with the man’s consent, of the situation and the help needed.

Also, if the suicidal thoughts were shared in a confession of other sins, the seal of confession would obviously also apply: it affects the entirety of the confession, not just the sins, but also whatever pastoral advice or personal thoughts are being relayed. The priest in that case simply lacks the freedom to divulge what he learns. This protects the integrity and freedom of the sacrament and the penitent.

Confession is not just a pastoral conversation or personal meeting with a priest. According the Catholic teaching it is the intensely personal presentation of one’s wins to God, and asking His forgiveness. The priest who hears the conversations is not really a party in this: he is a tool to hear the confession and relay advice or penitence according to his own formation, inspiration and understanding, but these ultimately derive from God. Everyone must be free to stand before God and open themselves up to Him, which is why they must first be aware of the freedom to ask for and receive the sacrament of confession. In many cases this involves the certainty that what they share is shared in complete confidence, just like when one would share medical problems with their doctor. It is so intensely personal, and, quite frankly, completely a matter between man and God.

If the case outlined above included a true confession, the priest could do nothing else but keep the information to himself and do his best to convince the man to seek and accept help. He had no freedom to ask others for that help on the man’s behalf, as this would involve breaking the seal of confession. But, as publicist Mark Van de Voorde writes here, “in cases of great evil which fall under criminal law, such as sexual abuse and murder, the penitence also includes that the perpetrator must report himself to the police. Every confessor is obliged to point this out to the penitent, stating that forgiveness of sins is not possible otherwise.” A priest is not completely powerless before a penitent unwilling to seek help.

It will be interesting to see what the judge rules in this case. If the priest is convicted it will set a precedent for any future case involving the sacrament of confession as well as doctor-patient confidentiality and information shared confidentially shared with one’s lawyer. All are protected under Belgian law (as they are in many other European countries).

Pope appoints Dutch bishop as member of Church’s highest court

jan_hendriksYesterday Pope Francis appointed five new members of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest court of law of the Catholic Church. In addition to three cardinals and an archbishop, one of the new members is Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam. He is also the only new member who does not reside in Rome or has been a member of the Signatura before. He will exercise his new duties in addition to his current ones.

Bishop Hendriks is a canon lawyer, having various legal functions in a number of dioceses, and he is also a consultor of the Congregation for the Clergy.

In his blog he descibes the duties of the Apostolic Signatura:

“The Apostolic Signatura is the ‘supreme court’ of the Catholic Church and judges, among other things, certain forms of appeal against judgements of the Roman Rota and appeals against certain decisions of policy (administrative disputes). […] The Signatura generally judges if the decisionmaking process has been correct.”

The other members appointed along with Bishop Hendriks are Cardinals Agostino Vallini (Vicar General emeritus of Rome and Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal from 2004 to 2008), Edoardo Menichelli (Archbishop emeritus of Acona-Osimo and former secretary of the Prefect), Raymond Burke (Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal from 2008 to 2014) and Archbishop Frans Daneels (Secretary emerotis of the Supreme Tribunal).