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Of Crime and Punishment

June 8, 2012

I’m sure we’ve all been reading with some sense of horror the news about the publication of private letters and documents allegedly stolen by the Holy Father’s butler.  Leaving aside the details, it is interesting to note that the Holy See has a whole process of criminal law. The butler has been charged, and was held in custody at the behest of the Vatican City State’s Promoter of Justice (not to be confused with the Promoters of Justice of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and the Apostolic Signatura).  Thankfully, we don’t hear about it often; however, as an independent entity, the Vatican functions just like any other country with police, courts, judges and all.

In a similar, but distinct, vein, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a notification last week regarding a book on sexuality by Sr. Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M.  The Congregation warned the faithful that Sr. Farley’s book, Just Love. A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, “is not in conformity with the teaching of the Church.”  It is a brilliantly nuanced document which deserves careful reading.  What is interesting, from a canonical perspective, is that Sr. Farley does not seem to be disciplined in any way.  Her book, “affirms positions that are in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality,” and consequently, “cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching.”  But she, as a result of publishing her views and refusing to clarify them to the satisfaction of the Church, has not been penalised publicly.

Canon 751 defines heresy as, “the obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and catholic faith.”  So, then, what is a truth which must be believed by divine and catholic faith?  Canon 750 gives us the answer (my emphasis):

Those things are to be believed by divine and catholic faith which are contained in the word of God as it has been written or handed down by tradition, that is, in the single deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and which are at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal magisterium, which is manifested by the common adherence of Christ’s faithful under the guidance of the sacred magisterium. All are therefore bound to shun any contrary doctrines.

The question becomes, do any of the propositions held by Sr. Farley constitute an act of heresy?  And if they do, is she punishable by canon 1364 which states that a heretic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication?  The reason I pose the question is because it is sometimes heard, “why doesn’t the Church excommunicate dissenters and heretics?”  The answer is: she does! Just not in the manner in which some would like.  There are no grand processions of the Inquisitor, with candles turned upside down to the cries of anathema sit!

The notification points out that some of Sr. Farley’s opinions contradict the Magisterium of the Church (the authentic one, not the Magisterium of Nuns – of Fr. Z fame).  Her opinion on masturbation contradicts the Magisterium’s “course of a constant tradition;” her opinions, on homosexual acts being justifiable, contradict tradition, based on Sacred Scripture, which teaches that such acts are intrinsically disordered.

Now this is really a question for a theologian; but, could we say that these Church teachings which Sr. Farley’s opinions contradict, are to be believed by divine and catholic faith?   Remember not only must the teaching be handed down by tradition but it must also be proposed as divinely revealed. To answer that is the competence of a theologian.  If the teachings on masturbation and homosexual acts are considered to be divinely revealed, then Sr. Farley, in holding contrary opinions which she has refused to abjure, is guilty of the sin of heresy.  Here we must distinguish.  Has she committed only the sin of heresy? Or also the delict of heresy?  Every delict is a sin, but not every sin is a delict.  If she has committed the sin of heresy (in other words, in her mind and will she refuses to believe with divine and catholic faith the Church’s teaching on masturbation and homosexual acts) and has coupled that with manifesting the sin outwardly (by publishing her opinions in a book), then she has committed the delict of heresy (all things being equal).  In virtue of canon 1364, she would be excommunicated.  The Church doesn’t need to declare it publicly; although, the Church could.  The excommunication happens automatically.

Why the Church has chosen not to publicly declare an excommunication, which it threatened to do in the case of Father Tissa Balasuriya, OMI, is not mine to answer.  Perhaps it is connected to whether or not these teachings of the Church are divinely revealed or not.  Perhaps it is a prudential decision of the Church. But the point is that the Church does deal with dissenters.  It has now warned the faithful that her book is not an expression of Catholic teaching.  If she is guilty of heresy, then she is excommunicated.  She has been dealt with.

Just as criminal law (even in the Vatican) is complicated, so, too, is canon law in these matters.  The Church doesn’t throw around her power, she is a mother – firm when she needs to be, prudent in her judgment, but always seeking the truth for the good of her children.  And let’s thank God that there are competent people handling all these difficult situations.  And don’t forget to pray for them, too.  Suddenly, the cranky parishioner who wants to know why the flowers aren’t arranged differently in the sanctuary seems so much easier to handle!


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  1. I was calmly reading what you wrote and reflecting on the points you were making… but you lost me when you mentioned Fr. Z’s blog.

    • You have to follow the link and read Fr. Z’s post. It refers to theologians who teach things contrary to the faith but who try to maintain that they are teaching Catholic theology simply because they are academics.

  2. Peter Kwasniewski permalink

    Thank you, Father, for another excellent post.

    It would be very difficult to maintain that the teachings on sexual ethics from which Sr. Farley are not part of the deposit of faith. If one takes simply the teaching on the objective disorder of homosexual acts, this is rooted in a clear, unbroken tradition of reading Scripture to be saying what it appears to be saying at face value, namely, that such acts are gravely sinful. The constant repetition of teaching, without any exceptions, on the various points Sr. Farley contradicts would be enough to show that she is intentionally teaching outside of and contrary to the Magisterium, which constitutes formal heresy.

  3. Charlie permalink

    I am of the opinion that ‘automatic excommunication’ ought to be dropped. It is seldom clear if and when it takes effect and it would be much more important to publicly declare a person has removed himself from the church.I would also think that it should be done with upside down candles (I never heard of this; how would it work?) and a longish procession with bells tolling and “Dies Irae” full throttle.That would get everyone’s attention and make it widely known what the excommunication is about.No?

    • You are not alone in your thinking. Latae sententiae excommunications, of course, depend, for their effectiveness, on the conscience of the person who has committed the crime. Of course, if they are capable of committing the crime, then perhaps their conscience is not going to care that they are, in fact, excommunicated. the image of upside down candles is from a movie, Beckett, i think it was. A rather famous scene that is fun to watch. I believe you can look it up on youtube.

      • Charlie permalink

        Thanks. Will look that up..sounds like a hoot.By the way you moving? Go that impression.

  4. Thank you, Father, for another excellent post. I do think in instances such as this the Church should formally pronounce that someone is excommunicated, if in fact they are. Otherwise the faithful could be easily confused and led astray. In the case of her views concerning homosexuality, I would hold that she has not incurred a latae sententiae excommunication. Though she is clearly teaching in contradiction to what has been consistently handed on in the tradition of the Church, I am not so sure that the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is divinely revealed. That homosexuality is a disorder and wrong to act upon is clear by reason alone. Now the issue of masturbation is not so clear. In addition to it clearly being part of the deposit of faith, it may also be divinely revealed. Because this issue is not clear the excommunication, if she has incurred it, should have been formally pronounced.

    • Peter Kwasniewski permalink

      I’m confused as to how the teaching on homosexual acts would not be divinely revealed, when there are multiple Scripture passages in both Testaments that unquestionably identify this activity as sinful and contrary to God’s law. By this line of argument, one could end up saying that the objective immorality of adultery and fornication are also not divinely revealed.

  5. In the case of Sr. Farley, the confusion about her work is taken care of by the declaration that it doesn’t represent Catholic teaching. Yet speaking as a faithful, I wish excommunications were declared. An awful lot has been allowed to slide for an awfully long time — a state of affairs that affords comfort to the Church’s enemies, and discouragement to the faithful. I think that justice has not only to be vindicated, but also to be seen to be vindicated.

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