Most words are not crimes

Those who think that ‘harsh language’ against the pope is a canonical crime that makes one liable to excommunication are mistaken

I am not sure what Archbishop Rino Fisichella meant when he said that “we need to understand well ‘physical violence’ [against the pope] because sometimes words, too, are rocks and stones, and therefore I believe some of these sins, too, are far more widespread than we might think.” Yes, we do need to understand the terms of law well but, as the prelate was speaking in the context of faculties to absolve from automatic excommunications, and as there is an automatic excommunication against those who employ physical force against the pope (1983 CIC 1370 § 1), I am guessing that Fisichella might be thinking that ‘harsh language’ against the pope is a canonical crime that makes one liable to excommunication. If so, he is mistaken.

Besides Canon 17 that requires canons to be understood in accord with the proper meaning of their words, and Canon 18 that requires penal canons to be read strictly (i.e., as narrowly as reasonably possible), and Canon 221 § 3 that protects the faithful against canonical penalties not authorized by law, the whole of Book Six of the 1983 Code is redolent with an emphasis (some might say, to an exaggerated degree) on benignity in the application of penalties in the Church.

Now, Canon 1370 criminalizes “vim physicam” against the pope, not “verba aspera” or variants thereon, and I know of no canonical commentary that includes “words” as a species of “physical force” in this context. Indeed, the CLSA New Commentary, the Exegetical Commentary, the Ancora Commentary, and the Urbaniana Commentary—at which point I stopped looking—expressly exclude ‘verbal violence’ from the range of actions penalized under Canon 1370.

To be sure, hateful speech directed against any one is objectively sinful, and if directed against a man of God, let alone a pope, it is especially wrong. Occasionally, speech might rise to level of crime (see e.g., Canon 1369 on expressing insults against the Church or Canon 1373 on inciting animosity against the Apostolic See) but the penalties in such cases are not automatic and do not extend to excommunication. Usually, verbal hate is just a sin (if I may put it that way) not a crime.

Priests may be assured, then, that if penitents confess uttering hateful words against the Holy Father, they may reconcile such sinners in the normal course of the sacrament and need invoke no special faculties or powers to absolve of sin or (non-existent) crime.

(This essay originally appeared on the In the Light of the Law blog and is reprinted here by kind permission of Dr. Edward Peters.)

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.