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Bestiality debate in Germany

November 28, 2012

I was taken aback by reports that Germany is now debating whether bestiality should be a crime; imagine my surprise when I learned that the debate is actually about re-criminalizing sex with animals—I had naively assumed that such conduct was, all this time, illegal (even if such laws were infrequently enforced.) Silly me. And the reason offered for reintroducing criminal consequences? That such practices are harmful to animals! I would have thought that the destruction wrought on human dignity by such acts and the de-moralizing effects that such practices have on society would be reason enough to criminalize the deed. Guess not. Still, I suppose that any right reason for doing the right thing works, so good luck to the reformers.

Anyway, all this set me to thinking about canonical angles to this story.

When discussing what sorts of evil actions are, or are not, criminalized in canon law, it is sometimes observed that evils deeds already criminalized by the State (e.g., arson or drug-trafficking ) are not usually additionally criminalized by canon law (the Church cannot be the world’s policeman), but that some evil actions in which the State has no interest, or at least no competence—such as the illicit consecration of bishops (c. 1382) or the simulation of the sacraments (c. 1379)—might be criminalized by the Church for the sake of protecting her good order.

Dueling, for example, was expressly criminalized under Pio-Benedictine law (1917 CIC 2351) because many States did not criminalize the conduct or at least did not enforce laws against it. But society now no longer tolerates duels, and so the 1983 Code no longer scores dueling by name in the law (c. 1397). Abortion, on the other hand—which always posed forensic problems to States trying to outlaw the practice—remains expressly criminalized under canon law largely because so many States have abandoned pre-born children to the abortionists’ fury. Occasionally, too, a crime might be punishable under both legal systems as when, say, the profanation of a sacred object (c. 1376) is also an act of vandalism under civil law, or when an abuse of ecclesiastical power (c. 1389) might also be the civil crime of embezzlement. Even here, though, canon law generally defers to State’s greater ability to punish crimes (c. 1344, 2º).

As a rule, codified canon law does not criminalize the sexual offenses of Catholics unless the canonical crime is “qualified” according to, usually, who committed it—especially a cleric, per c. 1395. Canon law does not criminalize, say, contraception or fornication among lay persons, though both acts are grievously sinful. Even bestiality, recognized by standard moralists as a particularly perverse sexual offense (see e.g. Davis, Grisez, Merkelbach, Prummer, Sabetti), was only criminalized under Pio-Benedictine law when the deed was done by a cleric (1917 CIC 2359). Even today, such conduct by a cleric would still be punishable under Canon 1395, of course, even though it is not expressly named in the canon. But bestiality is not a canonical crime for lay persons—any more than pimping or producing pornography is.

Should bestiality be formally criminalized under canon law? Well, given the affront that such conduct is to human dignity and to social integrity, and given that in at least some nations it appears that the Church cannot assume that the State is watching out for the best interests of their people in this regard, perhaps so. Seems worth thinking through, at least as an issue for particular law (per cc. 1315-1317), if not under universal law. Sadly, it wouldn’t be the first time the Church had to step in to uphold important values cast aside by the State.

Meanwhile, let’s see what happens in Germany next month.


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