The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Catholic Scandal and Canon Law

In 1997, a group of Roman Catholic bishops in Ireland drafted a study document, outlining ways to deal with the sexual child abuse crisis which was becoming endemic in the Church. Under the new rules these bishops maintained that there would be mandatory reporting of offending priests and instant removal of the positions of those behind the abuse. The Vatican shut these bishops' reforms downThe letter the Vatican sent in response (linked to in orange) read, "In particular, the situation of 'mandatory reporting' gives rise to serious reservations of... a canonical nature."[1] To make it more clear, the letter raised "particular" concern about mandatory reporting because of issues with canon law.

According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, canon law is "the body of laws made or adopted by [the Roman Catholic Church] for the government of... its members."[2] Also, "The ultimate source of canon law is God". This law is a codified version of their Tradition, which the official Catechism of the Catholic Church states “must be accepted and honored with equal devotion and reverence" alongside the Bible.[3] In the same way that Persian kings could not go back on their decrees -even bad ones- canon law can only be reinterpreted or added to, but the Roman Church can never repeal its own canonical decrees. This means that in situations such as the known sexual molestation of children by priests, the Church is bound by its own law even if that law protects predators and places thousands of innocent children in real danger.

In Jesus' time, there was a Jewish denomination known as Pharisaism which believed pretty much the same thing about Tradition as the Roman church believes today: besides Scripture, there was also a code of equally authoritative traditions handed down from Moses and his 70 elders through an unbroken chain of leaders up until their own day. (This set of traditions is referred to as the oral law; see The Jewish Encyclopedia for more information.)[4] Jesus thought these laws were ridiculous and offensive. In Mark 7.1-13 HCSB He blasted their great Tradition as mere "commandments of men" (Mark 7.7-8) and said "you revoke God's word by your tradition that you have handed down" (Mark 7.13). In Protestant terms, Jesus was arguing for sola scriptura - the idea that the Bible alone had divine authority over God's people. Any other traditions or laws, no matter how old they were, did not have that kind of authority in Jesus' view.

In The Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus once warned that "whoever causes [children] to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depths of the sea" (Matthew 18.6 NASB). Jesus of Nazareth -God become flesh- was very protective of children. And yet, the Roman Church has gone out of its way not to cast out those who cause children to stumble, and has instead protected priests instead of their victims - for reasons of canon law, by their own admission: "In particular, the situation of 'mandatory reporting' gives rise to serious reservations of... a canonical nature." Whatever the particular law was which stood behind this letter from Rome to the bishops of Ireland, it (1) protected child abusers from being reported to the authorities, despite Jesus' words about causing children harm; (2) it protected priests against removal from their positions, despite the fact that the Bible demands that Christian leaders be "above reproach" and "self-controlled" (1 Timothy 3).[5] On both counts, this letter is proof that canon law sometimes goes against the Bible, and that the Roman Church has been guilty of revoking God's word by their tradition that they have handed down.

As reports of Roman Catholic abuse continue to pour in from all corners of the world, including this instance reported in Canada's The National Post just this past week, we need to continue to pray for the victims of abuse and for those parents who have lost their children's innocence to the cumulative failures of the Church of Rome's tradition, which have all culminated in an undeniably widespread sexual abuse scandal within that denomination. At the same time, let's re-affirm our commitment to sola scriptura, to the authority of Bible alone. Our interpretations of Scripture and our understanding of what's best should never be so inflexible that we find ourselves with our own version of canon law, where we have become unable or unwilling to change when new circumstances or information demand that we do.

To sum up: (1) Jesus taught that God's people should follow the Bible alone, and verbally blasted the oral law/traditions of the Pharisees; (2) the Church of Rome's view of tradition  is similar to that of the Pharisees; (3) The Roman Church's traditions were -by their own admission- the source of their failure to discipline abusive priests and report them to the local authorities; (4) the Church of Rome's tradition does not always work with the Bible; (5) Protestants are different from Roman Catholics partly because they hold to the Bible alone, and do not hold any other tradition to be equal with the Bible.

Viva la reformacion,
-Sean Rice


[1] A follow-up article in The New York Times reported that "Jeffrey S. Lena, a lawyer for the Vatican, said in a statement... 'In stark contrast to news reports, the letter nowhere instructed Irish bishops to disregard civil law reporting requirements'" (The New York Times, "Vatican Letter Warned Bishops on Abuse Policy", published 18/01/2011, accessed 28/12/2012). Since the letter specifically objected to, "in particular, the situation of 'mandatory reporting'", Mr. Lena's objections should probably not be taken at face value. (That said, on the face of it, it still appears that he's either lying or just not a particularly careful reader; though I don't know which is worse: representing a church and lying about covering up child abuse, or being a lawyer and not being able to read.)

[2] There should be an extra ellipsis between "the body of laws" and "made". The words that fill in the gap, as can be seen by clicking on the link provided, are "and regulations".

[3] As explained within the pages of the official Catechism of the Catholic Church, p1/s1/c2/a2/#2, (accessed Dec. 28th, 2012).

[4] This is similar to the Roman Catholic Church, which -showing how history repeats itself by following in the footsteps of the Pharisees- believes that various traditions have been handed down from the original apostles through an unbroken chain of bishops, up to their own day. Some of this Tradition has been written down and formalized as canon law, just as some of the Jewish oral law has been written down and formalized as the Mishnah, etc.

[5] Rome's insistence on celibacy for priests also counts as a tradition which has replaced God's word. 1 Timothy 3 comments that an overseer must be "the husband of one wife", meaning that marriage is at least an option for leaders. By removing the option for priests to have wives, the priesthood has become disproportionately filled with men whose repressed and unacknowledged sexuality eventually boils over suddenly in unhealthy and damaging ways, thus adding fuel to the raging fire of clerical abuse.

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