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The deeper malice of sexual misconduct by clergy and religious

At least two factors augment the moral malice of sexual misconduct by clergy and religious, namely, sacrilege and homosexual character.

Recent remarks by Pope Francis regarding the ‘lightness’ of “sins below the belt” are receiving various responses, but his comments, not wrong as far as they went, nevertheless prompt, I think, especially against the background of the clergy and religious sexual misconduct crisis, some observations as to how sins ‘below the belt’, even if they are generally reckoned among the lighter of the still-serious sins, become markedly more grievous when committed by clergy and religious. Appreciating how the status of a sinner can worsen the evil of a sin is important, I think, for addressing the Church’s sexual misconduct crisis to the degree it urgently needs.

At least two factors augment the moral malice of sexual misconduct by clergy and religious, namely, sacrilege and homosexual character. I will outline these two factors here, but would alert readers to other important information regarding the incorporation of moral theology materials into canon law that I offered in Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions 2009: 133-138.

Sacrilege itself, though gravely evil (CCC 2120), is not a crime under either the Johanno-Pauline Code of Canon Law or the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. Sacrilege is a qualifying element of desecration of the Eucharist (1983 CIC 1367, 1990 CCEO 1442) and it undergirds criminalizing, for example, the profanation of sacred objects (1983 CIC 1376, 1990 CCEO 1441) and some physical attacks on clergy (1983 CIC 1370, 1990 CCEO 1445), but in other respects sacrilege per se is not directly actionable under current canon law.

The Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law, in contrast, not only recognized sacrilege as a qualifying element in several canonical crimes (Jone, Commentarium III: 509; Ayrinhac/Lydon, Penal Legislation 181) but, per 1917 CIC 2325*, it made sacrilege itself a crime punishable “according to the gravity of the fault”. However seldom that norm seems to have been applied in its day, the failure to carry Canon 2325 into the 1983 Code leaves bishops bereft of a direct remedy against the offense of sacrilege itself (and, by the way, of a canonical response to superstitious practices, another ill that spreads rapidly among the faithful in evil times such as these).

The manual moralists writing before Vatican II identified three kinds of sacrilege, namely, “personal” (involving persons set aside for God, such as clergy), “local” (involving sacred places such as churches), or “real” (involving blessed objects such as chalices). Jone-Adelman,Moral Theology 108-111; Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology II: 33-36; Prümmer, Handbook 204-206. All three forms of sacrilege identified by the moralists were criminalized by Canon 2325 of the 1917 Code. Dom Augustine, Commentary VIII: 314-315; Beste, Introductio 1051. Here, that form of personal sacrilege committed by sexually-active clergy or religious, described by some commentators as ‘carnal sacrilege’, interests us.

Setting aside whether specific instances of clergy sexual misconduct might have also been crimes under civil law (e.g., rape) or were punishable as a distinct offenses under canon law (e.g., offenses against minors), a sense of the deep depravity involved in every act of ‘carnal sacrilege’ is seen in Bernard Häring’s 1963 treatment of “Sacrilegious impurity” wherein he wrote: “All sins of impurity between persons who have pledged themselves to unmarried chastity for the kingdom of heaven either by a vow of chastity or by entering the state of celibacy are sins of sacrilege. The same is true if only one of the persons is consecrated by vow or the special state of chastity. … Indeed all sins of impurity committed by those especially consecrated to God (whether alone or with others) are sacrilege.” Häring, Law of Christ III: 301. Häring, in common with other moralists, recognized all sins by the baptized as ‘sacrilege’ in a broad sense, of course, but he singled out those in Holy Orders or religious life for special attention in virtue of their “sacral” consecration. Häring, Law of Christ II: 210-211; Naz, ed., Traité IV: 717. In brief, the higher the state of life to which one is admitted the more serious are offenses against the dignity and duties of that state. Indeed, Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology I: 60 uses the sexual sin of one under a vow of chastity as an example of how the status of sinner can increase the malice of a sin. Thus to think of clergy sexual misconduct as just another form of ‘sins below the belt’ would be to disserve the truth that sexual sins, when committed by clergy and religious, are more vicious than when committed by others.

A second factor aggravates the malice of ‘sins below the belt’ when committed by clergy (and often religious); it arises from the fact that the overwhelming majority of clergy sexual misconduct (against minors or otherwise) is homosexual in nature.

Turning again to the manual moralists, they identified various forms of sin (see Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology I: 34-63; Roberti, ed.,Dictionary of Moral Theology, s.v. Sin, species of, at 1135-1136), including sexual sin, and found in them gradations of evil, ranging from light to grievously wrong.

Looking only at the sexual act (and setting aside several factors not here relevant), moralists identified three main types of sexual intercourse that were morally illicit, namely, fornication (male-female), sodomy (male-male), and bestiality (human-animal). Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology, II: 237-238, 246-247; Jone-Adelman, Moral Theology 159-160. All three acts were deemed gravely sinful, but the evil of illicit sexual intercourse present in non-conjugal male-female relations was worse in male-male acts and worse still in human-animal situations. Indeed, homosexual acts (and bestiality) were described as “the worst sin” in the famous instruction from the Holy Office, Crimen sollicitationis (1962) nn. 71-74. To the extent, then, that clergy sexual misconduct is overwhelmingly perpetrated against males (by other males, of course), these acts of ‘carnal sacrilege’, besides whatever harms they inflict upon victims, are again more grievous in themselves than a simple description of such acts as being ‘sins below the belt’ might suggest.

I have many times lamented the generally weakened (but not eviscerated) state of penal canon law in the Church but have nevertheless pointed to plausible theories of canonical prosecution against sexually offending clergy and religious under the Code as it is. Besides the enforcement of canons already applicable against certain offenders, Canon 1399 is also available for consideration, but a blog is not the place to work out the mechanics of such cases nor to review the canonical defenses that, in justice, those accused of sexual offenses may raise.

Instead, in light of the augmentation of the moral malice of sin that one’s status and dignity as a cleric or religious produces in cases of sexual misconduct, I conclude these thoughts by simply recalling, with emphasis added, Canon 1326 § 1 of the 1983 Code which states “A judge can punish the following more gravely than the law … has established: … 2° a person who has been established in some dignity or who has abused a position of authority or office …”.

* 1917 CIC 2325. Whoever excites superstition or perpetrates a sacrilege is to be punished by the Ordinary according to the gravity of the fault, with due regard for the penalties established by law against such superstitious or sacrilegious acts.

(This post originally appeared on the “In the Light of the Law” site and appears here by kind permission of Dr. Peters.)

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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.


  1. Thanks DR. Peters for the lesson on “sacrilege”. I believe that most Catholics must have first heard that word back in elementary school or in First Communion class. That’s when the teaching Sisters repeatedly called it a sacrilege if we received Holy Communion without first being absolved of serious (mortal) sin through Confession. Since the priest celebrant is the first to receive at Mass,combined with the reality of Cleric active homosexuality, we can only sadly imagine states of sacrilege to the saturation point. BTW, I think it was Graham Greene who depicted sacrilege with a character in one of his novels,either “A Burnt Out Case” or “The Heart of the Matter”

  2. Dr Peters gives a needed lesson which many Liberals even misinformed Conservatives lack. That there is indeed a descending into deeper evil even regards mortal sin in sexual acts. The bedrock rationale is that our sexual activity is ordained by God with the primary purpose of the transmission of life. The pleasure inherent to the act is intended to promote that transmission and to enhance the loving relationship between a man and woman. That is secondary to Natural Law. The primary natural law premise is monogamy. Revelation confirms that specifically by Christ in his teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and the mortal sin of Adultery. Deviation from the ordained natural intercourse between a man and woman is more than serious transgression but an abomination that disfigures the act and gives affront to God who created Man in his own image. That is why homosexuality within the Catholic Church of all places is an intolerable affront to the divinity and why our Bishops must contend with the players assigned by the Pontiff and finally the Pontiff for even suggesting that homosexuality practiced by clerics including Hierarchy is somehow irrelevant, and that he has appointed some to high position warrants objection and holy confrontation. This is the core of the crisis at the Feb Synod and the moment of truth for our Bishops. And for the welfare of the Church.

  3. Being a simple man of no great importance, two questions come to mind. The first, I’m sure, has an answer from one more knowledgeable about such matters than myself. Has cannon law brought a Bishop or Cardinal to justice in the last 50 years? The second; i wonder if Jesus has the same sentiments toward cannon law as He did toward the more than 600 laws our Jewish predecessors used for guidance? And while I’m thinking about it, a third question comes to mind. Does anyone believe that a Cardinal such as maybe, Cupich, could possibly see a need to listen to orthodox laity by way of cannon law? May God shed His Merciful light on the entirety of His beloved Church He so generously shed His blood for!!!

    • What I find difficult to understand is, in this type of discussion, no mention is made of the Canon law pertaining to the Papal Secret originating in the instruction of Crimen Sollicitationis of 1922. It goes a long way towards explaining the consistent pattern of the response of leadership to Clerical Abuse of Children, that of silence, not reporting, and no legal consequences for the offending clergy.

      Mr Kieran Taspell wrote in his introduction to his book ‘Potifer’s Wife’ the following regarding the Pontifical Secret:

      “The ‘cover-up’ of child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church has been occurring under the pontificate of six popes since 1922. For 1500 years, the Catholic Church accepted that clergy who sexually abused children deserved to be stripped of their status as priests and then imprisoned. A series of papal and Council decrees from the twelfth century required such priests to be dismissed from the priesthood, and then handed over to the civil authorities for further punishment. That all changed in 1922 when Pope Pius XI issued his decree Crimen Sollicitationis that created a de facto ‘privilege of clergy’ by imposing the ‘secret of the Holy Office’ on all information obtained through the Church’s canonical investigations. If the State did not know about these crimes, then there would be no State trials, and the matter could be treated as a purely canonical crime to be dealt with in secret in the Church courts. Pope Pius XII continued the decree. Pope John XXIII reissued it in 1962. Pope Paul VI in 1974 extended the reach of ‘pontifical secrecy’ to the allegation itself.
      Pope John Paul II confirmed the application of pontifical secrecy in 2001, and in 2010, Benedict XVI even extended it to allegations about priests sexually abusing intellectually disabled adults. In 2010, Pope Benedict gave a dispensation to pontifical secrecy to allow reporting to the police where the local civil law required it, that is, just enough to keep bishops out of jail. Most countries in the world do not have any such reporting laws for the vast majority of complaints about the sexual abuse of children. Pontifical secrecy, was the cornerstone of the cover up. The effect on the lives of children by the imposition of the Church’s Top Secret classification on clergy sex abuse allegations may not have been so bad if canon law had a decent disciplinary system to dismiss these priests. The 1983 Code of Canon Law imposed a five year limitation period which virtually ensured there would be no canonical trials. It required bishops to try to reform these priests before putting them on trial.”

      Pope Francis put an end to the Pontifical Secret in Dec 2019.

      Here is a link to Mr Taspell’s submission titled; “Cannon Law A Systematic Factor in Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church”

  4. My faith is in God Father, Jesus and Holy Spirit not in men nor women. I say this because of the turbulent times we are facing as people of faith, of communion, if we know Jesus in Spirit and in Truth we will prevail, we will learn from mistakes made and we will become the people our God calls us to be.
    An article from The Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand:
    The Law of Secrecy in the Latin Church:

    At the heart of the message of Jesus is the reality that we as chosen by him put away all secrecy, no longer to hide away our sin, for fear and shame of rejection for the power of his love and forgiveness will change our hearts and his death on the cross will mean we no longer have to hide. Please Bishops and Priests, no longer hide, Please Opus Dei, no more secrets.

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