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The Scottish controversy

November 19, 2013

Figuring out from secular reports what is actually happening in matters of ecclesiastical controversy is frightfully difficult, but it appears that a diocesan priest self-published a book alleging homosexual pressures in Scottish clerical circles. For that action, it seems, the priest has been accused of a canonical crime and is to be tried in a judicial process, pending which process he has been removed from ministry.

A priest’s removal from ministry could be effected under Canon 1722, a norm that authorizes such action against persons under certain circumstances (who knows whether those circumstances were satisfied in this case), and there is canonical provision, even preference, that ecclesiastical penalties be imposed or declared in a judicial (instead of administrative) penal process per Canons 1314 and 1341-1342.

The question is: what canonical crime could have been committed (not was committed, but could have been committed) by publishing the kind of book described above? Remember—against the backdrop of Canon 212 and its protection of the qualified right of Catholics to publish their opinions on matters impacting the welfare of the Church—that a canonical crime is being alleged here, not just the canonical equivalent of a tort (Canons 128 and 1491); that is, the priest is being treated as suspected of having violated a canonical provision to which a sanction is attached. That’s a very serious matter.

Most canonical crimes are listed in Canons 1364-1399, and most of these canons have nothing whatever to do with the fact patterns suggested in this case. But five penal canons could be relevant in this matter.

Canon 1369, for perhaps the priest’s book gravely injured good morals [nb: not morale], expressed insults, or excited hatred or contempt against religion or the Church.

Canon 1373, for perhaps the priest’s book excited animosity or hatred against ecclesiastical authority on account of its governance acts [or lack thereof?] or provoked the faithful to disobey ecclesiastical authority.

Canon 1375, for perhaps the priest’s book greatly intimidated one who exercises ecclesiastical authority.

Canon 1390, for perhaps the priest’s book injured the good reputation of one or more persons who had a right to them.

Canon 1399, for perhaps the priest’s book otherwise gravely violated divine or canon law and demands punishment in order to prevent or repair scandal [correctly understood].

Frankly, Canons 1375 and 1399 are not likely to be applicable to these facts; so only Canons 1369, 1373, and/or 1390 seem plausible here, all of which norms must be applied, of course, in accord with law which—to make a long story short—strongly favors the accused in canonical trials, not the accuser. But only a better knowledge of the facts of this case move the discussion forward. Perhaps time will tell.

I might mention, though, one other penal canon possibly relevant in this matter. Canon 1389 threatens with sanctions those who abuse office in the Church. Invoking, on frivolous grounds, a formal penal process against a priest might qualify as abuse of ecclesiastical office. + + +

With a same day update, above.


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