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Can a Catholic child commit ‘blasphemy’?

August 30, 2012

Charging an impoverished 11 year-old Down’s Syndrome girl with any crime—let alone with the crime of blasphemy for perhaps having made a cooking fire out of trash that might have included some pages of the Koran—is not an act of reason, so there is no point in showing how un-reasonable such a scenario is. But this episode might occasion two questions for Catholics: is blasphemy a crime under canon law, and can children be charged with committing it? Let’s deal with the second first.

1. An 11 year-old child cannot be charged with any canonical crime whatsoever (1983 CIC 1323, 1º). A host of other reasonable objections to charging (let alone convicting) this girl for anything (e.g., c. 1323, 2º on ignorance, or c. 1323, 6º on lack of reason) are not needed.

2. As for whether the gravely evil deed of blasphemy (CCC 2148) is a crime under canon law, some careful reading is required per 1983 CIC 18 and Reg. Iur. 49 in VIº, In poenis benignior est interpretatio facienda.

No canon directly criminalizes “blasphemy” and indeed only one canon even mentions it, Canon 1369, which criminalizes, among other things, the dissemination of blasphemy especially through social media. Canon law seems, then, to regard blasphemy as assertions (that is, as utterances, not actions) against God, including “language against Christ’s Church, the saints, and sacred things” (CCC 2148). Moreover, canon law regards blasphemy as primarily a moral issue, except, as noted above, where blasphemy is carried out by means intended to impact society. Now, this girl is reported to have made no utterances against God, etc., and certainly made none via the public media, so the very elements of a crime of blasphemy are not even alleged here.

As for whether a Catholic who deliberately burns the Scriptures might have committed a canonical crime thereby (say, profanation of a sacred object per 1983 CIC 1376), we can talk about that if, Deus vetat, it ever happens.

But we would not be talking about blasphemy.

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