Laity for Moral Reform in the Catholic Church

The Abuse Crisis and Antinomianism

Posted: 2021-07-25

On May 23 of this year, Pope Francis released the Apostolic Constitution Pascite gregem Dei, which formally changed Book VI of the Code of Canon Law as it relates to sanctions in the Church. Notably, the changes to Book VI strengthen Church discipline regarding clerical abuse and other crimes, requiring that bishops initiate penal proceedings in instances where the previous law did not.

Rather than going over each canonical change, I refer the reader to an analysis of the new canons published in The Pillar. What I would like to specifically address instead is the Holy Father's message in Pascite gregem Dei. Pope Francis writes:

In the past, great damage was done by a failure to appreciate the close relationship existing in the Church between the exercise of charity and recourse — where circumstances and justice so require — to disciplinary sanctions. This manner of thinking — as we have learned from experience — risks leading to tolerating immoral conduct, for which mere exhortations or suggestions are insufficient remedies. This situation often brings with it the danger that over time such conduct may become entrenched, making correction more difficult and in many cases creating scandal and confusion among the faithful.

In this passage the Pope condemns a type of antinomianism grounded in false charity, charity that is divorced from discipline. Antinomianism, generally defined, is the belief that Christians are not required to follow the law, moral, civil or ecclesial. A peculiarly modern form of antinomianism does not simply reject law but practically inverts it by condemning, not immorality, but opposition to immorality. This is what the Venerable Fulton Sheen called "false compassion."

The pernicious idea that wicked acts should not be judged, much less punished, by earthly authority has certainly been present in the clergy sex abuse crisis. In some instances, priests who committed horrific sexual crimes were sent by their bishops, not to prison, but to psychiatric institutions, and then only temporarily. Rather than demanding penance, bishops prescribed therapy. Bishops who disgraced themselves by refusing to punish predator priests may have believed that by rejecting discipline they were embracing charity. They were wrong. Most of those bishops have since died and have presumably discovered, to their detriment, that God is not an antinomian.

As Pope Francis reminds us, charity exists in close relationship with discipline. Tolerating evil is not charity. Charity to the victims and potential victims of deviant priests requires that they be punished. And charity to the perpetrators themselves can only be served by discipline, not toleration. Pope Francis declares that the "observance of penal law…is to be carried out as a concrete and essential requirement of charity, not only towards the Church, the Christian community and potential injured parties, but also towards those who commit crimes and are themselves in need of the Church's mercy and correction." Allowing wicked men to go unpunished, free to continue their crimes, is to harm them as well as their victims. A charity that eschews punishment is no charity at all.

The St. Peter Damian Society is grateful for the Pope's new Apostolic Constitution and the revisions to canon law that accompany it. We hope that all bishops will take the Pope's message to heart and not shy away from the just imposition of penal sanctions against deviant and abusive clergy. Where bishops fail to do so, we will remind them of their duties and call for accountability and penance.